Regal Riviera project shows preservation win/wins still possible

Friday, September 8, 2017, Vol. 41, No. 36

More information

Learn more at:

“Why didn’t somebody save that wonderful old house?”

If Kim Trent had $1 for every time she’s heard that, the coffers of Knox Heritage would be much fatter, and perhaps a few more historic structures in East Tennessee would still be standing.

As executive director of the historic-preservation organization, Trent has the often-thankless job of getting owners, community members, government officials and developers – all with agendas that often don’t align – to the table.

The organization was established in 1974, and through the East Tennessee Preservation Alliance, a 16-county regional partnership, works to keep and preserve historic and cultural sites in Anderson, Blount, Campbell, Claiborne, Cocke, Grainger, Jefferson, Hamblen, Knox, Loudon, Monroe, Morgan, Roane, Scott, Sevier and Union counties.

Some of those efforts are vastly better known than others. A high-profile property being saved is news. Such was the case with Knoxville’s Howard House (also known as La Reve), which was preserved by an outside buyer and taken off the organization’s annually updated Fragile 15 list of endangered properties.

Often the property in question has, or had, a business use, which can ease tensions between preservationists and developers. That was the case for the 500 block of Gay Street that Trent refers to as “the poster child for how preservation can be used to encourage investment.”

As downtown Knoxville began to undergo a renaissance around a decade ago, a plan began to take shape that would take down everything on that block between the Farragut Hotel and the Fidelity-Bankers Trust building in order to put in a new Regal Cinemas multiplex.

“Everyone wanted that movie theater, because it would be a great way to generate visits and spending,” Trent explains.

“Downtown boosters were ready to sacrifice that block to get the theater.

“We went to then-Mayor Bill Haslam and said we have a better plan. He gave us 30 days to prove it, and then a little more time once he saw our first effort. That became the block that you see today.”

Almost all the buildings that would have been demolished remain, and the theater was built in an existing gap where the Riviera Theater once stood (it’s even named the Regal Cinemas Riviera 8 in a nod to its predecessor).

Working with the Tennessee Historical Commission, Knox Heritage helped develop a design that mirrored the nearby Tennessee and Bijou theaters, where the lobby was right at street level and windowless theater boxes wrapped around the back.

That left the existing buildings standing and ready for redevelopment, and private developers swooped in and did just that. Enter the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which brought tax credits, and the end result was multiple new businesses, a bustling movie theater and growth in surrounding, feeder establishments such as cafes and retail stores.

“We showed that you can have your cake and eat it, too, when it comes to preservation,” Trent explains.

“Economic success is possible when you incorporate a historic building into a project rather than just knocking it down. And rural areas, smaller downtowns, see that and really get inspired to save their own properties.

“These buildings can be reused in a way that makes them an asset to the community and also for the tax rolls. Preservation has become more of a basic community value, and that’s only helped when property owners and developers realize they can make money doing it.”