Developers Plan to Change Baptist Hospital Site Plans
Jan 02, 2015 01:39AM ● Published by Marty McWhirter
Jacqueline Arthur speaks to Board of Zoning Appeals Dec. 18. Photo: Marty McWhirter
A recent decision by the Board of Zoning Appeals to grant variances to a developer working on the old Baptist Hospital site may change how the property fits into the overall South Knoxville Waterfront plan.
Although Friday is the deadline to file an appeal of the BZA decision to the Metropolitan Planning Commission, it doesn’t appear at this point that any of the residents or groups who have expressed concerns over the variances will be filing one.
Many South Knoxville residents are afraid the Baptist Hospital site may end up becoming an exclusive, gated community instead of the open, pedestrian-friendly retail corridor they had initially hoped for.
Blanchard and Calhoun, the company developing the property, has been seeking variances to the plan that had initially called for the construction of a hotel and retail shops as well as ensuring easy pedestrian access to the waterfront.
Company representatives, however, have explained over the past couple of months that no hotel will be built on the property because they determined it to be economically unfeasible. Also, they have at least temporarily ruled out having any retail shops in the lower levels of the two planned apartment buildings on the riverside tracts.
Despite concerns voiced by residents about the proposed variances, one of which more than triples the maximum allowed lot size from three acres to approximately ten acres, the five-member BZA voted unanimously at its Dec. 18 meeting to grant them.The Dec. 18 decision came after the developer’s architect, Alan James, surprised the crowd by announcing that the existing hospital foundation has caissons (watertight retaining structures) drilled into the ground “that go as deep as 60 feet to bedrock, some of them are only 45 feet. That foundation system that has concrete grade beams poured on top of that -- it's a substantial structure. There are vertical retaining walls."
The subterranean caissons have caused planners to completely re-evaluate what can be done with the site.
James said "the goal is to be both above and forward of those walls" and the foundation really "sets where the building can be on the street," which is why the company wanted a variance for the setback.
South Knoxville resident Jacqueline Arthur was surprised to learn of the caissons in the former hospital’s foundation. She said the company’s desire to leave them undisturbed was reasonable if for no other reason than to avoid potential environmental issues but she was still concerned by the request to change the lot size.
According to Arthur, the lot size restrictions were there to "ensure the setback requirements are relevant and we don't have monolithic buildings blocking access- including access to views. Space between the buildings creates an open environment that facilitates access and fosters connectivity."
She also noted that the General Development Standards for the South Knoxville Waterfront prohibit private developments that inhibit access to public places like the proposed river walk or which create physical and social enclaves.
Her sister, Jenny Arthur, submitted her written opposition to the variances prior to be meeting. Arthur, a South Knoxville resident and former member of the South Knoxville Waterfront Oversight Committee, feared the change in plans might signal a drastic departure from the “Market Square”-type of neighborhood that planners had hoped for.By allowing the developer to combine the two massive structures as part of one parcel, she argued, the BZA would be privatizing the public access route from Blount Avenue to the public riverwalk and essentially create "one oversized, gated community.” She also pointed out the planned private swimming pool between the complexes would replace the pedestrian-friendly environment that might exist between them.
Arthur stressed that parcels were intentionally kept small to "ensure a walkable, inviting public space." She told the board that if the first two variances were granted, they would "undermine the integrity of the Vision Plan and will erode the public trust we have so carefully cultivated throughout this long process".
BZA member Kristin Grove noted that the apartments are being built in a way that could allow them to be converted for retail use in the future. She asked James if there was a plan to start marketing the available retail space or if a marketing study had been done.
James said that current market conditions wouldn’t support retail establishments at this time. Blanchard and Calhoun President Mark Senn added that if they could find "the right retail" to fit in the buildings they would be happy to include them. He also said he had sought the opinions of downtown developers about retail shops at the site and they were “somewhat positive.”
After the meeting, James spoke with the Hard Knox Independent about the restrictions to public access to the waterfront that the development might create.
The overall waterfront plan involves several miles of land that will be used to create residential developments, he said. These apartment communities will in turn support the entertainment and commercial zones envisioned by the plan.
James said the sheer amount of space involved and the diverse uses to which the land will be put should give plenty of opportunities for people to live on the river and use the river walk to get around even with the proposed changes at the Baptist site.
Susanne Tarovella, an architect with Sparkman & Associates Architects and a South Knoxville resident, said after the meeting that she felt over all, a good compromise had been reached.
"When there are difficult circumstances that prevent owners from following the letter of the law, there has to be a balance between the intent of the law and letting the people develop their land how they want to," she said.
Like others who attended the meeting, Tarovella was surprised to learn about the foundation issue and wondered why it hadn’t been made public before. “If people had learned about this earlier, there probably would have been more people on board with the setback request,” she said.
Disclaimer: Marty McWhirter and her husband, John Ryan, own a warehouse on Davenport Road that is in the South Knoxville Waterfront Development area. Marty is what is called a "community journalist," meaning that we have asked her to report on certain issues despite her lack of prior experience as a reporter. We asked her to cover this story because of her familiarity with the project. Although she and her husband own property several blocks from the Baptist site, we have satisfied ourselves that she has no direct personal stake, financial or otherwise, in the deliberations over this issue.