This week, I've had a lot of conversations about the impending University Commons project, the $65 million brownfield redevelopment over by the University of Tennessee and Alcoa Highway--namely, is a giant, fancy strip mall really the best use of that space? These debates have been purely hypothetical, of course, since the project is basically a done deal. (On Tuesday night City Council approved a $1.5 million grant from the city for the complex, and all the developers need is to secure another $1.5 million before they can close on the land.)
But as some people have pointed out, big box developments do not last forever. Walmart and Publix have signed 20-year leases, but what happens in 2034, when those 20 years are up? The big box model up until this point in our history has been that it is more profitable for stores to build new stores instead of renovating the old, out-of-date ones. The giant corporations running the store don't care about the holes they leave in the shopping centers, and the developers don't care because they're busy building new shopping centers. It's the cities that are stuck with the empty boxes laying fallow on their property tax rolls--almost 13 percent of the available space in Knoxville and Knox County strip malls is currently vacant. And as more and more traditional suburban big box retailers move into the cores of urban centers, the problem is likely to take on a whole new face--those ugly empty strip malls on Chapman Highway are one thing, but what happens when the empty box is right next to an otherwise thriving downtown?
This is a problem Chattanooga's been dealing with for a few years, ever since its downtown movie theater, which opened to great fanfare in the late 1990s, decided its space was too old. Yes, less than 15 years after it opened, the giant building that had been built specifically for it on prime real estate near the Tennessee Aquarium was longer enough.
So Carmike picked a surface parking lot a block or two over and built a whole new shiny movie theater in 2009, leaving a big box empty. And sure, the new movie theater is nicer, but was it really needed? Debatable.
Anyway, the issue is that since 2009 there's just been this huge empty building right in the heart of the riverfront tourist district in downtown. The giant parking deck was still in use, and eventually the convention and vistor's bureau moved a gift shop or something into what had been the movie theater lobby, but it still looked kind of sad. But then today, Chattanooga's River City Company announced a new, grand plan to totally remake the building--while still keeping the much needed parking deck AND making it more aesthetically appealing.
That's right, they're turning the front of the building into a climbing wall!
According to the Chattanoogan, the former movie theater space will be transformed into retail, with a new indoor/outdoor climbing gym, a new location of the outdoor outfitters Rock/Creek, and space for additional stores. It's not really the retail that's exciting--although, like Knoxville, downtown Chattanooga is hurting for actual retail. (A lot of shops have sprung up across the river in North Chattanooga, but a lot of tourists never make it that far.) What I think is fabulous about this project is that it's such a creative approach to the problem. Not only will the city fill in an empty big box, but it will also get an attractive screen over a hideously ugly parking deck, and one that actually serves a function to boot.
Now I'm not saying that Knoxville should follow suit and turn its parking decks into climbing walls or some such nonsense, but I certainly don't see why the new TVA parking deck can't do something similarly creative. One of downtown Knoxville's advantages over Chattanooga is the number of historic buildings that have been preserved--that's one thing city this city has gotten right. But one thing sometimes lacking is a sense of architectural innovation. Good design is often equated with money, but the Chattanooga project is only costing $4 million. Knoxville's about to spend $6.1 million just to add another deck to the State Street garage--wouldn't slightly more money be worth it if it made that block useable for something other than parking? Or hell, if it just made the deck not so goddamn unattractive?
Since Knoxville's downtown movie theater opened a full decade after Chattanooga's, we've probably got a few years before Regal decides its space is no longer swank enough and needs to build somewhere else. I hope when that time comes the city finds something as inventive to do with the building as Chattanooga has.