The Daily Pulse:

Downtown Summit Draws a Crowd; City Will Keep Doing What It's Doing

The East Tennessee History Center was packed last night for the City of Knoxville's Downtown Summit. After about 200 people took their seats (or stood at the back), Bill Lyons, deputy to the mayor and chief policy officer, welcomed everyone by saying "It's great to go from ideas to implementation, and that's what we're going to talk about tonight." The presentations given rehashed the last decade of development projects downtown, why they worked, and how the city would continue to do what it's doing.


After Mayor Madeline Rogero gave a short welcome speech, Lyons gave a presentation on the "evolving vision" for downtown. "We're not saying this is the only vision," he said. But he pointed out that the city's vision to start with a strong core (Market Square) and develop outward has been a success, thanks to strategic investment in public infrastructure, fostering private development, and the use of incentive programs like TIF and PILOT.


But Lyons also emphasized that he (and the mayor) "have a bias toward finding solutions...to collaboration" in order to make decisions that make financial sense. He praised the virtues of the "organic process" that takes into account "the wisdom of groups like this," and the value of keeping information about the process transparent. "Everything is online," he said.


Lyons also pointed out that with the help of TIFs the Holston Building is now worth more than $17 million after being appraised at $911,000 before it was developed. The JFG Lofts, which were developed with the help of a TIF, were originally appraised at $74,000 and are now valued at $3,974,000. In fact, Lyons said that just 17 buildings that were developed with TIFs in the last eight years have increased their collective value by $98 million. PILOT projects like the Sterchi Lofts and the Emporium Building (and several Market Square buildings) have increased their value by $40 million.


Lyons said the challenges that now face the city are maintaining momentum, design concerns, parking strategies (especially for office space), and keeping the emphasis on mixed-use spaces in buildings.


A panel of downtown development players followed Lyons' presentation. Joe Petre, the president of Conversion Properties (a development company), former Downtown Design Review Board member (and Jackson Avenue resident) Kim Henry, Hatcher Hill Properties developer Tim Hill, and architect Mark Heinz, who works with developer David Dewhirst, all answered some questions about the state of downtown and where it's going. A hot topic was office space. Hill said the market for office space had stabilized, and that the city should expect slower growth there than in residential and retail real estate. Heinz said there was more financing available for residential space, and that TIF and PILOT programs were essential to redeveloping old buildings (which is "complicated work," he said).


Henry spoke a bit about the importance of keeping the downtown design guidelines in mind as more buildings downtown are demolished and new buildings take their place. Petre added it's important to continue to enforce the guidelines to keep downtown looking consistent, and to encourage preservation.


City Downtown Coordinator Rick Emmett was up next to talk about "day-to-day life downtown." He addressed the elephant in the room (parking) first, saying he wants to educate people on the parking available, especially by the Civic Coliseum, which is only a five-minute walk to Gay Street, and has a trolley stop in front of it. The parking enforcement on Gay Street is working, he said. "We've written fewer tickets as we've gone," and more spaces are available. He added that the Public Building Authority officers in uniform who monitor cars parked on Gay Street add to the safety and security of downtown.


On the subject of beautification, Emmett said the trees on Market Square need to be spruced up, and that the city would be looking into building a public restroom downtown. "It's not a sexy thing to talk about, but we need one," Emmett said, since people come downtown for special events, and retail stores and restaurants end up with a bunch of people coming in to use the facilities. "It's a human decency thing," he said.


Emmett briefly mentioned the broadband situation downtown. "We found it's not as big a problem as we thought," he said, save for a handful of buildings. The main way the city will contribute to facilitating greater access is to coordinate with internet companies to get more conduit in the ground when the city has to tear up the road. And speaking of projects that require road and sidewalk closures, Emmett said the city was always trying to be better about notifying people, and coordinating the projects so that they don't interfere too much with traffic.


During the public Q&A session that followed, Jackson Avenue was a popular subject. Emmett said they'd be going forward with the streetscape by next year, and that a handful of buildings in the area were set for development, including the Southern Railways building, which could soon be home to a winery. The city's Director of Redevelopment Bob Whetsel said the first priority for the McClung Warehouses is to stop the water intrusion. There will be a public input process on what to do with the buildings, and an RFP will be issues, but Whetsel would only be as precise as "next year" on the timing of that project.


As Lyons pointed out earlier in the evening, the vision for downtown has remained purposefully consistent, even amid administration changes, and there's no sign that it's changing radically in the near future.


You can check out the city's presentation online, and take a look at some of the TIF and PILOT projects' before/after values.

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