City eyes properties with potential for downtown development

As the core of downtown Knoxville continues to thrive, city officials want to make sure some key property on the periphery is not left on the outside looking in.

The plan?

Bring in the Urban Land Institute, a non-profit Washington, D.C.-based research center on land use, to provide input about four prime areas: World's Fair Park, the Civic Auditorium and Coliseum, the Supreme Court site, and the area where the McClung warehouse buildings once stood.

"We think it's very important that we get a fresh set of eyes to look at where we've come in the last decade and what steps we need to be taking over the next several years to enhance that development," said Bob Whetsel, Director of the Office of Redevelopment for the city. "As we've said for years, downtown Knoxville is everybody's neighborhood, and everybody comes here from all around.

"When people come in for Boomsday, they're going to come into downtown," he added. "When people come in for UT football games, they're going to come in for downtown. People all around the area book the Convention Center for uses, so we think all this works together."

The City Council is expected to sign off on a $125,000 contract with the ULI next week. If approved, the organization will send an advisory panel of national consultants to Knoxville from Oct. 5-10.

The panel will investigate the sites and conduct a series of interviews with more than 100 stakeholders, including business owners, nearby residents, developers and groups with key interests in the downtown area like Knox Heritage.

On Oct. 10, the panel will also deliver a community report about its findings, and then a few months later give the city a more detailed written report.

The focus, city officials said, will be on how to continue growing the downtown.

"How can we grow strategically in such a way that we don't negatively impact what is happening in the core and really create connectivity both between these sites, but also into downtown," said Anne Wallace, project manager for the city's Office of Redevelopment.

In 1998, ULI consultants conducted a study on the Convention Center that eventually led officials to move the facility from its proposed location on the south lawn of World's Fair Park to the Henley Street side.

"They also made the recommendation that we needed to move forth with downtown redevelopment and don't look for silver bullets (but rather) try to work with who's there and try to develop what's there," Whetsel said. "We had really good success and decided to ask them back."

Here's a look at the four sites:

Civic Auditorium and Coliseum and its garage: The facilities, located on the corners of Howard Baker Jr Avenue and Hall of Fame Drive, have featured thousands of world-class acts since opening in 1961. It's hosted circuses, theatrical productions, musicals, comedians, and major concerts, including the Rolling Stones and Stevie Wonder. The facility includes an exhibition hall, a ballroom, a 2,500-seat auditorium, and an arena that maxes out at 7,100 seats. The limited size of the outdated structure has caused some entertainers to steer clear of Knoxville.

Former McClung warehouse buildings site: The city last year purchased the site, located along the 500 block of West Jackson Avenue, for $1.45 million to settle an outstanding lawsuit and buy the land out of bankruptcy. In February, a fire led to the destruction and eventual demolition of the two remaining warehouse buildings. A 2007 fire claimed the other three. (The buildings were constructed between 1893 and 1927.) City officials have talked about eventually selling the property to a developer.

World's Fair Park: The 10-acre park, located at 1060 World's Fair Park Drive near the University of Tennessee campus and the downtown, features a festival lawn, a performance lawn, the Tennessee Amphitheater and the Court of Flags Fountain, an interactive water park that includes a number of fountains. The site of the 1982 World's Fair, it's also home to the Knoxville Convention Center and the Sunsphere.

Supreme Court site: City officials haven't had much luck in recent years with this site. Located on Henley Street, across from the Knoxville Convention Center, the site is prime for development. However, two major proposal haven fallen through in recent years. This past spring, Gateway Knoxville LLC, which had planned to build apartments, student housing, a hotel and restaurant, pulled out after it could not reach a deal with the city to secure tax increment finance, or TIF, incentive. In 2011, developer Nick Cazana announced that he would forgo plans to develop Metropolitan Plaza, an almost $80-million mixed-use project that included condos and offices.


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