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VOL. 41 | NO. 2 | Friday, January 13, 2017

Messy, yes, but a new Knoxville is emerging amid the jackhammers

By Mike Blackerby

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“No hard hat required, Happy Hour 4-9 p.m.,” reads the marquee outside the Copper Cellar restaurant, an anchor of Knoxville’s iconic Cumberland Avenue Strip since 1975.

Though posted partly in jest, the sign is reflective of an ever-expanding downtown undergoing a construction and redevelopment renaissance unparalleled in the city’s recent history.

So yes, pardon the mess.

The extensive makeover is intended to fix several long-term problems, change the landscape of the city and help Knoxville reach its full potential as a vibrant retail, business, entertainment and residential hub.

“Looking back at 2016, the city partnered with property owners and redevelopment teams to hit the gas pedal on a large number of high-profile projects,” Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero says.

“In 2017, the momentum will accelerate.”

“We’ll be hitting some big milestones in the new year,” she adds. “Many more people will be living and working along the South Waterfront a year from now. And we’ll begin construction on our long-term investment plan on Magnolia Avenue.”

Work will also be wrapping up on the Cumberland Avenue Corridor Project, a massive and lengthy overhaul of the popular, but tired and haggard half-mile stretch of businesses, bars and eateries adjacent to the University of Tennessee.

The Cumberland Avenue area includes the historic Fort Sanders neighborhood and stretches roughly from Alcoa Highway to the west to World’s Fair Park to the east.

“The reconstruction of Cumberland Avenue will be finished this year – another huge milestone,” Rogero explains.

“Even with the orange traffic barrels still in place, you can sense a new vibe and excitement along the Strip.”

Here’s a look at the status of several redevelopment and improvement projects underway – and on the drawing board – in Knoxville for 2017.

And yes, grab your hard hat.

Cumberland Avenue Corridor Project

Start date: April, 2015

Projected completion: late 2017

Significance: City investment of $17 million

Some say the Strip, a popular student haunt with a history of rich and colorful businesses, has long lost its soul.

A lack of public infrastructure upgrades over the last several decades, coupled with minimal new private investment, left the Strip on life support.

Enter the Cumberland Avenue Corridor Project, which was conceptualized in 2008 to rejuvenate the woebegone six-block Strip from 16th Street to 22nd Street.

The Cumberland Avenue Corridor Project is redeveloping the aging ‘Strip’ into a destination district attracting shoppers from throughout the region.

-- Adam Taylor Gash | The Ledger

It’s only noon on a recent Friday, but Carter Bills already attends to a steady stream of customers at University Liquors, 1919 Cumberland Ave.

Outside, construction workers wearing yellow safety vests far outnumber pedestrians as they go about their tasks.

Snarled traffic often comes to a complete halt, making way for construction vehicles, cement trucks and heavy machinery.

The noise of traffic and jackhammers is deafening at times.

Unlike some of the other Cumberland Avenue businesses, Bills says University Liquors has generally been unfazed by the year-and-a-half of inconveniences caused by the construction.

“I can’t put a percentage on it, but it (the construction) has definitely slowed us down a little bit,” Bills points out.

“It has affected a lot of people much harder than us. It helps us tremendously that we have our own parking lot here. A lot of our business comes from students, and they can walk to us.”

Bills suggests the wait will be worth it later this year when the project is finally completed.

“What I understand is they’re trying to get back to not having people just cruising up and down Cumberland,” he says.

“The end goal is to drive traffic (people) here.”

Exactly, says Anne Wallace, the city’s deputy director of redevelopment.

“Cumberland Avenue had really become a cut-through street, and a street filled with drive-ins, drive-throughs and drive-outs,” says Wallace, who is also the Cumberland reconstruction project manager.

“That model wasn’t working. That wasn’t functioning well, and then you add to that land values were suffering and there was a lack of private-sector investment.”

The next incarnation of Cumberland Avenue, which has already taken on a new aura with several completed projects, figures to be much different.

Wallace explains that the corridor project aims to transform a congested, auto-oriented artery that is used by 30,000 motorists daily and make it into a multipurpose urban destination point.

“Cumberland Avenue is no longer viewed as a cut-through route, but more of a destination in its own right,” she adds.

“Think of Cumberland evolving into a walkable, multi-use street, like Gay Street, with pedestrian-level retail, upper-level residents and office space. The city’s $17 million investment in infrastructure has helped to leverage $190 in private investment.”

Carter Bills’ University Liquors on is in the heart of the construction zone. But he understands the end game.

-- Milke Blackerby | The Ledger

Investors were quick to jump at the prospects of a new-and-improved Cumberland Avenue.

There was a $65 million investment in the 211,000-thousand-square-foot University Commons development, which opened in 2014.

Situated between Alcoa Highway and Volunteer Boulevard, the development includes a Walmart, a Publix grocery and several other retail businesses.

A $17 million investment in the renovation of a vacant hotel property at 1706 Cumberland Ave., culminated with the 2013 opening of the 112-room, seven-story Hilton Garden Inn.

The new skyline, a by-product of mixed-use development through form-based zoning, continues to grow.

The Standard, an eight-story, 672-bed off-campus housing complex on 17th Street near Cumberland Avenue, recently opened for business.

With the recent opening of other student apartments, like Evolve, more than 2,000 students now live adjacent to Cumberland Avenue.

Ongoing work on Cumberland’s streetscape is another vital piece to the district’s makeover as the project enters its final phase.

The existing four-lane road between 22nd and 17th streets is being remade into a safer, more pedestrian-friendly corridor with a three-lane cross section, raised median and left-turn signals at intersections.

Changes are striking along the north side of Cumberland where stylized black streetlight poles are in place, decorative brick patterns line the widened sidewalks and spaces await planting of urban trees.

Unsightly pre-World War II utility lines have also been moved underground on the north side of Cumberland.

South Waterfront

Start date: Ongoing

Significance: Renaissance of Knoxville’s long-neglected South Waterfront on Fort Loudoun Lake through a massive infusion of mixed-use development and redevelopment of residential, retail, office spaces and green spaces.

Dawn Michelle Foster is well aware of what makes a great waterfront town.

Foster, Knoxville’s redevelopment director, is a native of Louisville, Kentucky, one of the great waterfront cities in America.

In the last 30 years, Louisville’s frontage along the Ohio River has undergone a metamorphosis with the addition of an 85-acre Waterfront Park, walking paths, green spaces and entertainment venues.

Southeastern’s (formerly Blanchard & Calhoun) Riverwalk at the Bridges Project.

-- Knoxvilletn.Gov

Given the scope of development on the South Waterfront – and the plans and long-term wish lists on the drawing board – Foster says there’s no reason Knoxville can’t emulate Louisville’s template for developing a world-class waterfront.

“One of the first things I did when I came onboard with the city (of Knoxville) was to go back and talk to the waterfront development corporations and do some comparisons,” Foster says.

Prior to redevelopment, Louisville’s waterfront looked a lot like Knoxville’s, Foster points out. “There were a lot of vacant and abandoned properties in Louisville due to the riots.”

A former medical office building – vacant since 2008 – will become a linchpin of the South Waterfront redevelopment.

A $12 million renovation of the nine-story, 178,000-square-foot building next to the Gay Street Bridge is ongoing.

By the end of 2017, the building will be the world headquarters for Regal Entertainment Group.

More than 400 Regal employees will work in the corporate complex, and more than 1,300 people are expected to reside and work along the South Waterfront between the Henley and Gay Street bridges later this year.

“It’s exciting that Regal’s renovations are happening and that, in about a year from now, we’ll be welcoming a major employer to our downtown,” Foster says.

According to city spokesman Eric Vreeland, the city of Knoxville’s Industrial Development Board purchased the office building from Southeastern Development Associates (SEDA) for $6 million.

On behalf of the city, the Industrial Development Board will lease the building to Regal, which will pay all taxes, insurance, maintenance costs and utility expenses for the building.

Regal also will pay more than half of the renovation costs for the building it will be leasing, with the option to purchase it.

The city’s contribution for renovations and improvements to the building was $3 million.

Other projects include construction of a $60 million Riverwalk by SEDA – at the Riverwalk at the Bridges luxury apartments at the former Baptist Hospital site between the Gay Street and Henley bridges.

Just west of the Henley Bridge, University Housing Group is constructing the $35 million Riverfront Station student apartment complex.

Riverwalk at the Bridges will include 300 residential units while the Riverfront Station apartments will house more than 400 students.

The developments are scheduled to open in late 2017 and the fall of 2018, respectively.

“Many more people will be living and working along the South Waterfront a year from now,” Rogero says.

Perhaps topping the wish-list of city officials is a spectacular pedestrian/bicycle bridge connecting the South Waterfront to the UT campus.

“We do have it on our radar,” Foster adds. “It has a great, unique design.”

The bridge, with a $34 million price tag, would span from the upper concourse of Thompson-Boling Arena to land near Clancy Avenue on the South Waterfront.

The long-span, double-arch bridge would stretch more than 700 feet across the lake and tower more than 100 feet above the water at its highest point.

Foster says the city is exploring funding options for the bridge as other projects along the South Waterfront proceed.

“This is a 20-year strategy, and we are probably halfway through it,” she says.

Magnolia Avenue

Start date: Spring, 2017

Significance: City investment of $8 million

Streetscape amenities are on the way for the venerable six-block stretch of Magnolia Avenue between Jessamine Street and North Bertrand Street.

“This is a project that will start the gateway entrance into East Knoxville,” Foster says. “It will provide a great connectivity to East Knoxville and downtown.”

She says a signature gateway monument will serve as a signature welcoming entryway.

Landscaped medians will replace the center turn-lane. There will also be improved bike lanes, spaces for bus pull-offs, wider sidewalks, new benches and bike racks.

Lighting along Magnolia Avenue will be enhanced with new black LED pedestrian and street lights.

Left-turn lanes will be provided at major intersections, and crosswalks will be upgraded for improved pedestrian safety.

“We’re going to create more of a boulevard-type setting, with trees and green spaces,” Foster points out. “This will be a complete urban landscape to better serve the community and create opportunities for private development interests.”

Other projects

While the Cumberland Avenue, South Waterfront and Magnolia Avenue projects are the city’s most high-profile redevelopment and construction endeavors in 2017, projects abound elsewhere:

Tombras Group

Vacant for more than 16 years, the old Knoxville Utilities Board Building in the 600 block of South Gay Street will become home to The Tombras Group.

About 250 employees of the advertising and public relations firm are expected to move into the building by the end of the year.

The overhaul of the 50,000-square-foot building comes at a cost of $10 million.

Farragut Hotel

Once a showcase of downtown Knoxville, the nine-story Farragut Hotel has been mostly vacant for years.

About $22 million of private investment has made renovation of the hotel on the corner of Gay Street and Clinch Avenue possible.

Knoxville-based Dover Development is slated to open the 165-room Hyatt Place hotel in the fall of 2017.

State Supreme Court

Negotiations are ongoing between the city and Dover Development on the 1.7-acre downtown site that was formerly home to the Tennessee State Supreme Court.

The city purchased the property, bounded by Henley Street, Cumberland Avenue, Locust Street and Church Avenue, from the state of Tennessee last year for $2.47 million.

Dover’s proposal for a mixed-use project is under review and could be approved sometime early this year.

The Tennessean

The Tennessean Personal Luxury Hotel & Residences, 531 Henley St., is slated to open in 2017.

A $28 million private investment by a development team headed by Commercial and Investment Properties is transforming the former state office building into an 82-room hotel with 12 residences.

Pryor Brown Garage

The 90-year-old, 76,000-square-foot parking garage at Market Street and Church Avenue is being converted into a mixed-use development with condominiums and street-level retail.

The price tag for the overhaul is $9 million, with the first occupants expected to move in by 2018.

Marble Alley Lofts

In 2016, Marble Alley became the first major new-construction downtown residential development to open in more than a decade. Located between State Street and Central Street, Marble Alley has plans to add to its initial 248 units.

Regas Square

Construction is pending for Conversion Properties’ $36 million Regas Square on Depot Avenue. The development, which includes more than 100 condominiums, restaurants, retail and parking, is expected to open in 2018.

Mike Blackerby is a freelance writer living in East Tennessee.

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