Buildings and Blocks

Trail of Tears

Public education has been one of the great levelers in a diverse society like ours, and the college dormitory has been the place where the leveling occurs at its most intense. Like army barracks in times of military draft, dorms are, at their best, a forced-mix of class, ethnicity, culture and achievement level. Recognizing the social and academic value of such a mix, colleges have traditionally required their freshmen to live on campus. Once this requirement lapses, however, students face the decision to remain in campus dormitories or seek off-campus residence in apartments, condominiums or private houses.

Like other schools of its size, the University of Tennessee has an active and expanding housing program, with an on- or near-campus population numbering 6800 students paying an average of just over $360/month, including telephone, television and internet access. Demand for quality affordable housing has led the university to plan a new 600 student dormitory on campus, renovate its Laurel Apartments in Fort Sanders to accommodate 660 students in 320 units, and refurbish the venerable and controversial Hess Hall dormitory.

These units will compete with private housing offered in the Fort and elsewhere in town, where monthly rents currently run between about $300 and $500 per room. More affluent students - and their parents - look to another solution: condos that can be purchased as investment property for the multi-year duration of their education. In responding to this need, developers have begun to move across the river.

South Knoxville is seen as particularly attractive due to its proximity to campus, low per acre cost, and secluded, wooded character. River Towne, a 50-unit condominium developed and built by Denark Construction, has already been completed at the west end of Scottish Pike where it turns its back on (and fences out) what remains of a riverfront community of small private homes. Another apartment and townhouse project, the 122-unit City View at Riverwalk, is in construction adjacent to the Gay Street bridge on the site of the old glove factory. Both offer commanding views of the river, the UT campus, and in particular, Neyland Stadium.

Three additional developments are currently in progress at the high point of Cherokee Trail, the two-lane narrow winding road that connects Alcoa Highway (at UT Hospital) with Scottish Pike. The Woodlands of Knoxville is being built in two phases by The Dovetail Companies, an Athens, Georgia firm developing other "Woodlands" near college towns in Georgia, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. The local version of this formula housing, when completed, will include 305 units and is located almost entirely outside the city limits. In an attempt to exercise some design control and gain additional tax revenue, the city tried to annex the land but the developer has challenged the move in a court case that has yet to be resolved. Whatever the outcome, it is likely that Cherokee Trail will have to be widened and improved to accommodate the heavier vehicle traffic and/or KUB will have to add a service to move students safely to and from campus. Either solution will impose an additional burden on county taxpayers, weakening the familiar argument that economic development is a near-free ride.

Current construction on the north side of the Trail - where 40 acres of forest were removed - provides a look at what is yet to come. Buildings are sited with little regard to orientation or topography. Rather than follow the natural slope of the ridge, they are built on flat platforms buttressed by retaining walls four stories in height. Units face every which way, some getting only north light (no sun) in the winter or only west light (direct sun) in the summer. If there was an architect involved, she or he either never received environmental training, or the pressures of economy and expediency were simply beyond the ability to resist.

A third site now being prepared for construction provides a shocking look at development at its worst: the visual and environmental damage caused by the brutal scraping of the ridge-top, where half of it has been removed, flattened, and cleared. What will likely rise are a series of ordinary apartment buildings surrounded by on-grade parking lots. Planting and decorative landscaping will surely follow, but they will be a poor substitute for the species-rich flora and fauna lost to development. The toxic mix of runoff water, vehicle waste and fertilizer will make its way to huge retention ponds and then into the ground.

In a market economy, it is difficult to prevent one party from selling land to another, especially when 'economic development' calls. But elected officials are sworn to guard the public safety and welfare, and protection of natural resources could fall within their purview. Other cities here and abroad have found ways to increase housing density while respecting the landscape and mitigating damage to the environment. As pressures to build near downtown increase, we need to develop tools - and attitudes - that help us preserve what we collectively recognize as good and valuable. In the meantime, one can admire those students who forego the 'lifestyle' promoted by the real estate merchants for the simple pleasures and economies of publicly subsidized campus housing.

2007 Michael Kaplan. This article originally appeared in the Knoxville Voice.