Buildings and Blocks


Urban waterfronts have traditionally been places of utility, marked by piers, docks, wharfs, and warehouses serving a transport industry that moved goods and people between cities on the great rivers, lakes and oceans. Ports accommodating passenger ships have been the site of bars and brothels, hotels and restaurants, providing services to transient populations of sailors, businessmen and tourists. They have hosted wholesale food markets, while factories located on the waterways used them as sewers for waste of the manufacturing process. And the waterfront, historically an economic and military lifeline, became a natural place for union organizing and strikes.

That began to change with the dominance of railroads, then trucking, and finally airlines as delivery systems. With the availability of large tracts of land and buildings along the water, what was utilitarian became fashionable. Piers became venues for antique shows, markets transformed into food courts, warehouses were converted to spaces for living, and docks for fishing boats became harbors for luxury yachts. New construction provided housing for the affluent, hotel rooms and convention centers for expense account travelers, and aquariums for casual tourists.

Functional ports still exist, of course. Memphis appears on the "50 busiest ports" list, with over 19 million tons of goods handled annually. But the model we see in places like Newport, Kentucky, is more common, and typifies what smaller cities are doing along their riverfronts. Newport was founded in 1795 and sits on the south bank of the Ohio River across from Cincinnati. Notorious for its gambling casinos, bars and racy nightclubs, the town is connected to its big sister by what was originally a railroad bridge built in 1872, now restricted to pedestrian use. Most of its gridded downtown is flat, but rises steeply to provide low- and middle-income neighborhoods with a dazzling view of the big city skyline across the river. As one ascends the hill, however, a large sign in the porch window of a Victorian house reads, "If you want to save your house, call us," followed by the phone number of a local attorney. And indeed, as one drives up the incline, a large, new apartment complex appears that obviously erased several blocks of old, unprotected houses.

Seeing this reminded me of South Knoxville, somewhat behind the curve. City and county taxpayers, through tax-increment financing that could top $46 million, are funding a variety of infrastructure improvements that will provide public amenities, redesigned roads, and river bank stabilization in support of a series of private housing and retail projects. These will flesh out a 20-year "Vision Plan" for the South Waterfront designed by the Boston planning firm of Hargreaves Associates whose work includes waterfront projects in Nashville, Louisville and Cincinnati, among many other cities. What we will get is a public promenade, retaining walls, mooring space for pleasure boats, and medium-density housing sprinkled with retail uses and the requisite parking. This "new suburban" formula seems to work, judging by its appearance in so many other cities, but its success in times of economic uncertainty is not a sure thing. With energy and construction costs escalating, and an increased need for higher densities near a rejuvenated city center, the old paradigm may already be outdated.

The Hargreaves master plan for the waterfront was introduced to the community at a series of meetings (complete with free drinks and hors d'oeuvres) where hundreds showed up to inspect and provide "public input". The proposal was carefully conceived and beautifully presented, as it should be for the million dollars spent on it. The centerpiece was a beautifully crafted balsa model of the waterfront site, along with the entire northern slope of the ridge to its south, the hill that commands an impressive view of the river and downtown. When I asked one of the consultants where "ordinary" people were supposed to live within the plan area, he pointed to one of the little wooden blocks on the model, one of those small houses on the hill that was outside the Vision Plan. "There!" he said with a laugh.

I smiled too at what seemed to be an innocent, offhand comment. But several months later, when the first draft of Knoxville's Community Development Corporation's Redevelopment and Urban Renewal Plan for the area was published, it didn't include just the Vision Plan for the waterfront. It crept up the hill to take in an area twice its size, including hundreds of houses that hadn't even been inventoried by the planners. At a community meeting held prior to the City Council and County Commission votes on the KCDC plan (which, by then, had expanded to three times its original size) I asked about this. Eighteen people showed up, including about a dozen residents of the neighborhood, representatives of the city, and a few members of the press - hardly the hundreds that attended the early meetings. The answer: the area might be needed for future, unspecified infrastructure improvements.

While the city offered assurances that no houses within the development area would be seized under eminent domain unless they qualified as "dilapidated" (a term undefined by state law and ultimately subject to challenge in court), the inclusion of those small houses and empty lots in KCDC's Redevelopment Plan gives the city legal tools to continue development up the hill.

Shortly after the city and county approvals were granted in September 2006, owners of property within the boundaries of the KCDC plan received a letter from the city mayor containing the following paragraphs:

"We will continue to keep everyone informed and involved as several sites begin the redevelopment process. Interest is high and some developers and investors are moving aggressively to participate in the South Waterfront's revitalization.

"During this time, you may be approached to sell your property, and some may use unnecessary pressure or misrepresent the facts. We have gone to great lengths to assure residents that we intend to preserve existing neighborhoods. The decision to stay or sell is and should be yours alone, and we want you to be able to make an informed decision about your property."

While the economic and social functions of the urban waterfront change over time, its profit value from near- or long-term development remains as compelling as ever. Significant public funds are going into a project without an affordable housing component, as if there were no further need to accommodate working people in new housing efficiently close to the center city. That's not only an inequitable policy, but a short-sighted one that undermines the diversity - and resulting vitality - of an urban community. It deserves thoughtful reexamination as the project evolves.

2008 Michael Kaplan. This article originally appeared in the Knoxville Voice.
Photo: The new commodity: Downtown skyline, viewed from a South Knoxville ridge.