The city-sponsored meeting at the History Center Monday afternoon was almost impromptu--some of the panelists, a dozen honchos from public, private, and nonprofit sectors, didn't know it was in the works until last week. The subject of the two-hour meeting was allegedly blight, but discussion, predictably, roamed from parking to education. It's not clear the meeting, chaired by city redevelopment director Bob Whetsel, resulted in any marching orders, but it was at least interesting to see all these folks in the room at the same time. Among the 100-odd attendees were other developers and students of urban planning, enough for three or four more expert panels.
The visiting blight experts came from the national Center for Community Progress: Kim Graziani and Alan Mallach. The latter, a scruffy fellow with a graying beard, is a nationally known author on urban planning, a Fellow of the National Housing Institute and the Brookings Institute.
Mallach seemed awed by one particular part of Knoxville. "I think Market Square is wonderful," he said. "People from other cities go to France and Italy and come back raving about the public squares," wishing their own cities could sustain such amenities. "You have something equivalent right here!"
Though it's not quite visible from the windows of the big room, Market Square was the star of the show, touted even when the subject was development 20 miles away. Budd Cullom, a developer of Northshore Town Center, in West Knox near the lake. "We want it to look like Market Square on the water," he said.
Market Square developer John Craig emphasized the importance of guidelines, including historic overlays, in fostering ideal development. Cullom amiably offered a quick footnote, that he preferred "guidelines" to laws.
The Knoxville Chamber's Doug Lawyer talked about the priorities of relocating corporations in 2012, emphasizing environmental sustainability and an educated work force.
Kim Trent of Knox Heritage emphasized the urgency of further action soon to capitalize on downtown's momentum and previously unusual public-private cooperation, likening it to a window that may soon close.
Mallach was less impressed with how downtown's vivacity drops away so precipitously at its fringes. He suggested that UT should play a bigger role in community development than it has so far. "Knoxville has to get to the next place. And the next place is a really difficult place to get to," he said.
Downtown developer/architect Mark Heinz, of Dewhirst properties, emphasized that downtown's not nearly done, that even Gay Street still has several large, vacant or underused buildings, "from the old KUB Building to the Century Building." The former is the odd-looking glazed-green building at the corner of Church; the latter is the tall late-19th century building across the gap from Mast. Both are more or less empty.
In answer to one of the visitors' questions, came some off-the-cuff discussion of demographics, the people who are making the center of town work. And there were several theories, emphasizing those who have moved here as residents in the last few years: Young professionals. Students, but mostly grad students. Empty nesters from other regions, who moved to Knoxville just for its downtown, were one answer that would have been very surprising a couple of decades ago. London native Jeffrey Nash came up with the most surprising one: Europeans--English, but also French, Germans, and Poles--who crowd his Crown and Goose to watch soccer matches on the telly.
City development czar Bill Lyons acknowledged that our regional preoccupation with property rights makes Knoxville development "complicated."
Mallach responded, "The problem is that property rights cuts in a lot of directions." He remarked that a property owner who allows his property to decline to blight, sitting on their assumptions of "property rights," he says, is affecting the value of other property owners in their neighborhoods, and are therefore "interfering with their neighbor's property rights--just as much as if they'd been dumping garbage on their neighbors' front porches."