Buildings and Blocks

The Meaning of the Candy Factory

When the Knoxville Museum of Art was interviewing architects for its new building to be sited in World's Fair Park, I suggested to one of the selection committee members that they contact Frank Gehry. Having just completed the wildly innovative Weisman Museum in Minneapolis, Gehry's star was on the rise. A signature building of his in downtown Knoxville, literally in the shadow of the Sunsphere, would guarantee Knoxville's place on the architectural tourism map. My advice, however, was rejected and the committee chose Edward Larrabee Barnes, a modernist with considerable museum experience and a more conservative design approach.

Barnes began with a site plan that carefully reflected the physical and programmatic context of the site. The proposed museum had a footprint and massing similar to its historic neighbor, the 80-year-old publicly-owned Candy Factory, which housed Knoxville's visitor center, art galleries, art, theater and music workspaces, and meeting rooms freely available to a diversity of community groups. A landscaped courtyard between the two buildings was provided to accommodate outdoor events in a shaded, semiprivate setting. As one might expect of a good architect, Barnes envisioned the two buildings and outdoor space as part of a master plan to consolidate the art-related buildings on what was, in effect, the front lawn of the city.

In September 2004 the new city administration issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) for the redevelopment and/or adaptive reuse of the Candy Factory, seven Victorian Houses, Sunsphere and Tennessee Amphitheater. The process included a solicitation of comments from citizens about the potential reuse of these structures and a public meeting to review the suggestions. The comments revealed a near-consensus that the Candy Factory remain functionally what it had been for over two decades: a center for the arts and a public gathering place.

At the conclusion of the RFP process, the city selected the proposal of Kinsey Probasco Hays and Associates (KPH) which supposedly offered the "most comprehensive and financially beneficial proposal" for all the park structures. The KPH development agreement for the Candy Factory, approved by city council, provided for a "restaurant/lounge and/or retail space, designated arts and art-related galleries, working studios, a residential component, and/or such other uses as the city approves in writing." The property would be sold to KPH at a favorable price.

To critics of the deal, there were three glaring problems: the public process itself, the low sale price of the properties, and the novel use of eminent domain to acquire public buildings and land for private development.

In what was called an open process, the city solicited public opinion but ignored the overwhelming sentiment, expressed verbally and in writing, to preserve public use of the Candy Factory. At an April 2005 meeting organized by an ad-hoc group that became known as Save the Candy Factory, the city informed over 60 concerned citizens that the project to redevelop the building was "a done deal" even before the agreement with the developer had been approved by city council or the KCDC redevelopment plan prepared. At the legally mandated KCDC public hearing where opposition to the plan was unanimously voiced, not a single KCDC commissioner was present to hear the evidence.

As a response to the considerable media attention that the proposed sale had attracted, the mayor and city council began to construct specious arguments about how much the ownership and operation of the building was costing taxpayers (in part due to deferred maintenance over the years). Save the Candy Factory presented its own estimates of the fiscal and social costs of divestment but its arguments fell, as expected, on deaf ears.

While negotiations had already begun to remove and relocate some of the tenants to leased properties around the city, no provision had been made to find alternate meeting space for the 170 community groups that had called the building home. In a conciliatory move to mitigate the damage, the developer agreed to provide two rooms (net 3,150 sq. feet) of new meeting space in the basement of the Emporium on Gay Street which the city would lease for $15,750 per year. (That space fell far short of the net 8,950 sq. feet previously available on the second, sixth and seventh floors of the Candy Factory.)

Following a heated city council discussion, an agreement was signed in August 2005 to sell the Candy Factory for $1,612,020. Deducting the tax-increment financing (TIF) provided for the project, the cost to the developer was $212,020 or $2.65 per sq. foot. (The Victorian Houses were sold, together with an adjacent empty lot, for $215,580 or $30,797 per house.) The agreement, however, was originally drafted and approved without a formal appraisal of the properties. When this was pointed out by city council members, an appraisal was quickly prepared in which the Candy Factory was valued at $1.4 million, the precise amount of the TIF.

Then, in a novel use of eminent domain powers, council asked KCDC to prepare a Redevelopment and Urban Renewal Plan for the west side of World's Fair Park, and declare the area blighted. After the plan was approved by city council, KCDC seized the Candy Factory and Victorian Houses from their owner - the City of Knoxville - and delivered them to the predetermined buyer, Kinsey Probasco Hays.

Imagine the federal government divesting itself of office buildings, post offices and parks to suit developers and increase its tax base, the state divesting itself of courthouses, regional offices and college classrooms to make room for student condos, or the county selling off its libraries, health clinics or jails for tax-generating big box shopping centers. That can now happen under the 2005 United States Supreme Court ruling (Kelo vs. The City of New London) which gives broad authorization to state and local governments to seize properties, not just for public use (roads, parks and public buildings), but for the so-called public good of private economic development. As Justice Sandra Day O'Connor stated in her dissenting opinion, "Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private party, but the fallout from this decision will not be random. The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms."

The final touches are now being put on the residences that have replaced the shops, galleries, meeting rooms, assembly rooms, art studios and performance spaces that made the Candy Factory a convenient and joyful gathering place and provided the context for Ed Barnes' master plan. A few of the units, sold once in auction, are up for sale again even before they are finished - at prices of over $250 per square foot (nearly 100 times the sale price of the building). In the wake of this speculative windfall, Knoxville is now papered in redevelopment and urban renewal plans that declare blight in order to prepare the way for additional seizures of public and private properties, endangering neighborhoods that have nothing wrong with them except their affordability.

Led by a small cadre of engaged individuals, the noble, difficult, and ultimately failed campaign to save the building was one act in the long and contentious drama to hold elected officials accountable for their decisions. Trusting them to protect public use from predatory development has proven illusory, underscoring the limits of progressive organizing and the need for broader coalitions and more militant challenges to power.

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