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Pryor Brown experience points out weaknesses in historic-preservation options

In the last several days, the Pryor Brown Garage demolition controversy has caused an online firestorm among erstwhile friends in city government and the preservationist community. Meanwhile, the property owner is on the sidelines, out of the fray, keeping his cards close to his vest.

Contrary to many assumptions in and out of government, Royal Properties, Mike Conley's real-estate business, didn't file a new demolition application last week. What was approved last Thursday is the the same demolition permit he applied for last June 20, according to Kaye Graybeal, historic-preservation planner for the Metropolitan Planning Commission. She'd been out of town for several days and returned Monday to discover the demolition request had been approved last week, apparently only as a delayed reaction to the mayor and City Council's choice to weaken the stated authorities of the Downtown Design Review Board, citing local opinions about state constitutional restrictions. Last year, the DDRB had moved to deny the demolition.

Last week's demolition-permit approval doesn't seem to imply anything urgent or different about the owner's intentions. As of this week, the building is still being used daily as a public parking garage, and it still hosts one business, a dry-cleaning and shoe-repair company that as of today doesn't seem to be packing up. Reports suggest the owner has, recently at least, considered selling it to preservationist developers.

Royal Properties is known to be interested in the prospect of renovation, or at least was recently. In a March, 2013, letter to the Central Business Improvement District signed by Royal Vice President Shay Lowe, Royal requested a $300,000 facade grant, to help with the $1 million rehab of the building, which was built in 1925-29. That letter touted the building's unique history as "one of the last remaining historic sites which has contributed so much to the city," and calling the extra upper-floor parking spaces it provides "critical...the Pryor Brown Garage is a must to be able to offer sufficient spaces to the area."

After that request was declined, Conley requested a permit to demolish the building, and permission to use the resulting space as surface parking, during an interim period while he contemplates building an office tower there and in the much-larger adjacent surface parking lot, a project first announced in the mid-1990s.

The MPC, in a decision affirmed by City Council, declined Royal's use-on-review request to use the property, post-demolition, for surface parking. (If approved, it would be a sort of paradox, a demolition for a parking lot that would result in a reduction of available parking spaces.) MPC and Council's rationale was that barring a profitable reward for clearing the land would make demolition less appealing. Royal did challenge that, and it may be headed for the courts.

But in recent months, at least four preservationist developers have expressed interest in purchasing the building; one was reportedly in talks with Conley earlier this month. Reached at Royal's office this week, Shay Lowe politely declined comment, and deferred a request to speak to Conley to their attorney, Louis Howard.

The dispute played an unexpected role in undermining some presumed defenses for historic buildings. A year ago, the city seemed to have several tools for discouraging demolition of a public structure when a demolition seemed likely to cause damage to the city, especially the downtown, where preservation has driven most recent economic development. One was the Downtown Design Review Board, which in 2011 successfully stalled demolitions on Walnut Street for two years, even in the face of vigorous legal opposition, without the board's constitutional authorities being questioned.

It was during a DDRB hearing about the Pryor Brown Garage last fall that an attorney from the city administration's law department surprised the room with an opinion that the board did not have demolition-prevention authority, after all. The board was finally stripped of that power by City Council in November, on Rogero's recommendation.

Later, the administration's law office has also clarified the role of MPC's historic-preservation planner, the office currently held by Kaye Graybeal and previously by Ann Bennett. For years, that office had the de-facto ability to delay demolitions, usually to gather more information or allow preservationists to organize initiatives that might cause a landowner to reconsider, and occasionally used that delay without constitutional challenge. Graybeal has been told that lacking the legal authority, she no longer has that privilege, though she'll be alerted when demolition-permit applications are filed.

"They're trying to be preemptive of a challenge in court," Graybeal says of the city law department's intent, adding she would rather try the process, and see how the courts actually ruled. So far, the Rogero administration has favored a strictly non-confrontational approach to preservation.

When dealing with an owner who wants to demolish a historic building that's not among the tiny percentage of historic properties already included in a historic zone, which is usually imposed with the cooperation of property owners, all that's left is what preservationists have held back as the nuclear option, an involuntary imposition of an H-1 historic overlay. It does provide protection from demolition, at least temporarily. An H-1 application, which can be initiated by either the mayor or a member of City Council, will stop demolition for 180 days, during which a historic-zoning review process, which may or may not be successful, is initiated. In Knoxville history, the process has been used only a few times, with mixed results. Twice, when the demolition-minded landowner was especially powerful, like Cherokee Country Club in the case of the J. Allen Smith house, and Home Federal, in the case of the Sprankle Building on Union, the buildings were torn down anyway. The only time it's been used contrary to the owner's wishes in the last 10 years was when Councilman Nick Pavlis recently evoked it to save South High.

The city's law office has not yet questioned the constitutionality of H-1, but the Pryor Brown controversy does suggest a weakness in it, a Catch-22. There's strong sentiment among some City Council members in favor of invoking an H-1 on the property now. However, even though there's some dissension on the matter, most attorneys close to the issue are convinced that H-1 has no protective effect after a demolition permit is approved.

If no historic-preservation authority has to sign off on demolition-permit requests, not MPC's preservation office, or even the mayor, it's easy to imagine a building not in a historic zone could be approved for demolition--and therefore ineligible for H-1 protection--before the public is aware that it's threatened.  That's the way downtown operated in the '50s, '60s, and '70s, when newspaper reporters often didn't know buildings were in the line of fire until the wrecking balls were already toppling them. 

The demo permit window, between application and approval, is usually just three-five days. If the property owner had been able to keep his plans a secret beforehand, that's the narrow window during which an H-1 would have to be filed.

Knox Heritage executive director Kim Trent and Councilman Marshall Stair met with Rogero and her staff on Monday evening. Trent says "We had a positive meeting with the mayor for positive solutions best for everybody involved." She acknowledged that there's a movement to place an H-1 overlay on the property, perhaps including the mostly residential block opposite the parking garage on Market Street. It wouldn't overrule the already-approved demolition permit, she says, but it would give the Historic Zoning Commission some oversight over what's built on the site.  

At this point, the only hope for saving Pryor Brown itself appears to be in persuading the owner to consider other options. 

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