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A visit inside the homes of families dwelling downtown reveals what brought them to the neighborhood and what keeps others in the suburbs By LaRue Cook

A view of Knoxville’s revitalized Gay Street from a sixth-floor loft in the recently renovated Holston. Photo by LaRue Cook / Knoxville Voice

On a Sunday evening downtown,

Chris and Ruben Roybal, holding a restaurant box of leftovers, stand on the east side of South Gay Street, peering down to the parking lot adjacent to the Gallery Lofts condominiums. “Is that where you park if you live in one of those?” Chris wonders. It’s one question among many often asked by Knoxvillians who frequent the city’s resurgent Market Square yet don’t have the luxury of living in one of downtown’s more than 1,200 units, which at the Gallery are priced upwards from $300,000: Where do you buy groceries? Where do you send your children to school? How do you afford it? Mayor Bill Haslam coined the phrase, “Live, work, and play downtown,” but some citizens still aren’t quite sure what to make of the concrete jungle bordered by 11th Street on the west and James White Parkway on the east. Haslam’s invitation and the subsequent “revitalization” of Knoxville’s downtown began when he defeated Madeline Rogero in 2003, grabbing the downtown torch

The Holston lofts overlook Krutch Park. Photo by LaRue Cook / Knoxville Voice

from four-term mayor Victor Ashe. He realized the potential in restoring the Tennessee Theatre and helping raise the $2.1 million needed to return the Bijou Theatre to a usable concert house. Similar to what the Tennessee Aquarium did for Chattanooga, Regal Riviera Stadium was an anchor Haslam knew had to be established to attract people downtown year-round, which is why he made a $2 million personal investment for the theater to come to fruition. “I think the reality is there needs to be a certain momentum, enough interest to bring people downtown,” says Haslam, who can be seen taking jogs around the neighborhood before City Council meetings. “Then they have the ability to see what it looks like raising a family downtown.” Prior to Haslam taking office, about a halfcentury had passed since successful businesses brought crowds downtown for entertainment, shopping or dining — perhaps even longer since a sizeable population actually AUGUST 7, 2008

Knoxville Voice 21


FEATURE called Gay Street “home.” While some condos are still under construction, including The Residences at Market Square and the Crimson Building at the intersection of Gay Street and Summit Hill, others, like the Gallery Lofts and The Holston are filling up with homeowners, albeit owners of homes many Knoxvillians can’t fathom purchasing when for a similar cost they could have more than twice the square footage, a yard and, just maybe, a picket fence. The once-blighted facades of a formerly ghostly downtown may have been transformed into viable businesses, restaurants and entertainment venues with residents flocking to the Market Square Farmers’ Market and Sundown in the City, but that doesn’t mean local perceptions of living in the area have been completely altered. At the moment, the neighborhood’s residents skew toward young professionals, students and retirees who can afford to fill the condos lining Gay Street and, in the future, across the river to the South Waterfront. According to the Central Business Improvement District, the downtown demographic breaks down into roughly one-third students, one-third young professionals and one-third empty nesters (nearly 80 percent of which are white). “We’ve increased the housing shortage downtown, and it’s true there isn’t as much for people who have a modest income,” Haslam admits. “But everything doesn’t happen at one time.” The CBID estimates about 15 families cur-

rently reside downtown, but says that number will likely grow as couples continue to populate the area. Still, for many Knoxvillians living in neighborhoods and suburbs to the north, east, west and south, the question remains: What is it like to raise a family on the ninth floor of a 15-story high rise? Touring the lofts and condos of several families and soon-to-be families provides a glimpse into the lifestyle of a downtown dweller, revealing the elements that drew them to the neighborhood and sometimes, those that keep others away. “You have to be honest: There are limitations with every living situation,” Haslam says. “There is no perfect living situation. But I think downtown’s strengths are starting to outweigh its weaknesses. “To make downtown work, first you have to have more than a 9 to 5 area. But for downtown to truly work, you have to have more than just either end of the spectrum, students or retirees, you have to have families.”

AUGUST 7, 2008

before we can even think about moving down here.” Further down Gay Street at Krutch Park, a handful of kids run and jump through the fountain as their mothers snap pictures. Christine Foley, who lives in South Knoxville, and Karen Hammontree, who lives in North Knoxville, bring their children downtown a couple of weekends each month to play in the fountain that came with the park’s renovation two summers ago. The two friends have five children between them: Foley an 11-, 7-, and 4-year-old and Hammontree a 6-year-old and 18-monthold. Both say they enjoy and feel quite safe bringing their families to the year-old Riviera

“They were telling us to live ‘out west,’ that that’s where young professionals go.”

— Daniel Lyons

For Chris and Ruben Roybal, a vast cityscape is not as novel a concept as it is to many of the residents “out west,” which is how some of the 1,800-plus folks living downtown commonly refer to the sprawl that continues to grow, stretching toward the Interstate 40/75 split.

Katie Hannah’s house in Island Home Park is a hang-out for neighborhood kids. Photo by LaRue Cook / Knoxville Voice

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The Roybals arrived in Knoxville three years ago from Los Angeles when Chris was relocated to Clinton for her job as an accountant with Techmer. They own a 3,000-squarefoot home on an acre of land in Powell, but they’re longing for a semblance of the urban setting they once knew. “Downtown feels like home,” Chris says. “Yards are overrated.” Both in their mid-to-late-30s, the couple has seriously entertained the idea of giving up the wide-open spaces for a loft that, if comparable in price to their house, would be much more modest in size. It’s up to their 13-yearold daughter, though, because the downtown area is zoned for Austin-East Magnet High

School, which would force her to leave behind the friendships she’s made in Powell. “Our 10-year-old is ready to pack up and move now,” says Ruben, who works parttime in logistics and is completing a degree in business at Tusculum. “But I don’t want to pull our older daughter away from her friends just when she’s about to start high school, so we’ll probably wait until they’re both grown

cinema and frequenting the Downtown Grill and Brewery with their husbands. Yet neither Foley nor Hammontree wants to leave behind the porch and yard most Tennesseans, especially East Tennesseans, covet for a posh loft. “I open the door and my kids can run out and play,” Foley says. “That’s not something you can do down here.”

Daniel Lyons and Trisha McKinney relax with Lola and Beaux in their downtown loft at the Gallery. Photo by LaRue Cook / Knoxville Voice


Michelle Simpson’s living room in the Lerner Lofts overlooks Gay Street. Photo by LaRue Cook / Knoxville Voice

Michele Hummel, director of the CBID, grew up in a suburban home in West Knoxville, but now lives on the third floor of the Gallery Lofts building, which also houses Mast General Store and Knoxville Voice. She attended college in Cookeville at Tennessee Tech and came back to spend a year in a condo out west before deciding to move downtown in 1999. “I was just drawn to the downtown setting — I don’t enjoy planting flowers and yard work and that type of thing,” says Hummel, a 40-year-old single mom who lives with her 3-year-old adopted daughter, Isabella. “I like to be able to walk wherever, and you’ve got so many different restaurants, entertainment, bars, museums and the YMCA, so many different things in close proximity you don’t have to go anywhere else in Knoxville.” Across the Gay Street bridge in the Island Home Park neighborhood of South Knoxville, it appears that almost every kid on the block is at the home of Katie Hannah, the acting president of the neighborhood association. “Only one of them is mine,” says Hannah, pointing to her 10-year-old son Issac who sits among five or six others watching TV in the living room. Hannah is a model of efficiency. While preparing food for the book club meeting she’s hosting later that evening, she finds the time to serve the kids lemonade, not to mention field pesky questions and give a quick tour of her 1,700-square-foot home. She and husband Brendon, whose band Brendon James Wright & the Wrongs often play Barley’s in the Old City, grew up in the South, but moved to Connecticut when Ka-

tie’s job with a textbook company took them there. When the couple returned six years ago, they lived for a year in Bearden but wanted to be closer to downtown — “we ride bikes to Regal and take the kids” — just not in it. “We liked Island Home because it was family-friendly but still close to downtown,” says Hannah, hinting that the area where Mayor Haslam wants people to live and work may not be as prone to play. “I just don’t think the logistics would work. I want a place with a yard and a park close by. I’ve thought about how cool it would be to live in one of those downtown lofts, but then I think about my kids running around like the Kennedys in Manhattan and I don’t feel too safe about it.”

First it’s dinner at the Bistro, then over to the Tennessee Theatre to see the Knoxville Symphony. You cap the evening with a cocktail at Sapphire and then take the short walk up the street to your loft. The elevator doors open to the lobby on your floor, where soft light spills on local art on the walls. You’re home. — Gallery Lofts Knoxville.com

It sounds nice, this pristine image of an elegant couple seemingly floating up and down

Simpson’s balcony gives her family prime access to Knoxville’s skyline, not to mention a great perch for people-watching during Sundown in the City. Photo by LaRue Cook / Knoxville Voice

Gay Street. He’s sporting a white cotton suit over a plaid navy blue oxford with the top button undone just so; she’s on his arm wearing a flowing summer dress, bright and bold. Trisha McKinney and Daniel Lyons — an engaged couple in their early 30s not unlike the pair described above — have lived for a little more than a year in a 1,700-square-foot, two-bedroom, two-bath loft at the Gallery. They moved together from New Orleans after Lyons received a promotion as a sales rep for the pharmaceutical company Pfizer, and Trisha, also in sales, works conveniently on the building’s second floor for Adaptable Furniture Concepts. The realty company Pfizer recommended, according to Lyons, didn’t even mention downtown as a possibility for relocation. “They didn’t even know anything about it, so we just did a lot of research on our own,” says Lyons, who will return to the Big Easy with McKinney for their wedding in December. “They were telling us to live ‘out west,’ that that’s where young professionals go.” McKinney and Lyons have no children — just two Dobermans named Lola and Beaux — and didn’t know anyone in the Knoxville area prior to arriving. Doing some research, McKinney found downtown realtor Kimberly Dixon Hamilton, who led them to the Gallery Lofts. “If you live sprawled out in the suburbs, it’s not as easy to get to know your neighbors,” says the couple, who have a drum kit near the flat-screen TV in the living room, which they use when their friends come over to play the video game Rock Band. “We have a group of about 20 friends now downtown

that we spend time with. “You can’t walk down the street without seeing someone you know.” The couple admits missing the ethnic diversity of New Orleans — “and the jazz” — but is pleasantly nestled amongst several other demographics. A door down the hall either way is a couple of empty nesters with grown children and a single student working on his MBA at the University of Tennessee. At the corner of Gay Street and Wall Avenue, inside the Lerner Lofts, Michelle Simpson’s 13-month-old daughter, Sierra, sleeps soundly in the second-level room of her three-story loft. Simpson came to Knoxville from L.A. just two months before Sierra was born. “They were having the festival on Gay Street after she was born,” says Simpson, sitting in the renovated classic movie theater, which has much of the original brick still intact. “I took her out there in that heat; people thought I was crazy.” Simpson, 28, says if her husband, Sterling, who is currently away at East Tennessee Children’s Hospital where he’s a pediatric pulmonologist, would’ve “put me in the country, I would’ve run for the hills.” She’s a self-professed “city girl,” having lived in New York before L.A. Coming from two cities well above the national average in terms of both cost of living and crime rate, she was unaware of some Knoxvillians’ perceptions about panhandling, crime and drugs surrounding the city’s downtown. “We didn’t know that downtown had that reputation,” says Simpson, a freelance personal stylist who says she’s seen similar lofts AUGUST 7, 2008

Knoxville Voice 23


Hummel’s boyfriend, Alex, leisurely gazes on Gay Street from a third floor Gallery loft. Photo by Andrew Hock / Knoxville Voice

“I realize for what I’m paying I could have something much larger in the suburbs. But for me and my daughter this is enough space.” — Michele Hummel with 40-foot ceilings go for about $3 million in Manhattan. “We just came here with open minds and open arms. Later, all our friends that live out west would tell us, ‘Oh, we never go down there. I haven’t been there since I was a kid.’ “They didn’t know the [family-friendly] activities that go on down here — when they found out, they said, ‘When can we come over?’” Hummel, who lives down the hall from Lyons and McKinney, was one of about 1,000 pre-21st century downtown residents. Before the Tennessee Theatre renovation and the Bijou restoration. Before Nama, La Costa, Trio, Oodles and Preservation Pub. Before Sterchi and the Emporium helped raise the number of housing units from 752 in 1990 to 1,217 in 2006. When Market Square was empty after 5 p.m. on a weekday, suits rushing to their cars, hoping to beat the interstate congestion heading west. She remembers when there was no Market Square Garage and when parking wasn’t free after 6 p.m. and on weekends. The city has now worked out a deal that gives down24 Knoxville Voice

AUGUST 7, 2008

town residents reduced priority parking rates (about $30 a month) for permits in city-managed garages. She also remembers, however, when property downtown sold for about $90 per square foot. That number has more than doubled in the last three to four years to nearly $250 per square foot. According to several real estate agents, the average cost of square footage on the outskirts of downtown Knoxville is about $100. “I realize for what I’m paying I could have something much larger in the suburbs,” Hummel says. “But for me and my daughter this [a one-bedroom, one-and-ahalf bath loft] is enough space. I wouldn’t ever use that spare room, anyway.”

Chris Austin, a 37-year-old father of three who lives in West Hills, says condominium-style living does afford a closer-knit community — but it doesn’t make it more

Hummel and Izzie enjoy their loft. Photo by Andrew Hock / Knoxville Voice

affordable. “The idea sounds great; you get to know your neighbors so much better because you’re in such close proximity to one another,” says Austin, who works from home in sales and has a 6-, 5- and 1-year-old. “It’s just way out of our price range, not to mention the schools zoned for downtown are some of the lowerranked schools and we can’t afford to send our kids to private schools.” From Gay Street westward, downtown was rezoned for Sequoyah Elementary in 2003 instead of the more proximal Sarah Moore Green Elementary. Because of overcrowding, the school board chairman at the time, Sam Anderson, proposed zoning downtown for Sequoyah because “downtown growth [was] not anticipated being a significant number of children.” The board voted unanimously in favor of the rezoning. For those attending middle school, downtown children are bused to South-Doyle, then Austin-East for high school. According to the most recent data combined by SchoolMatters, Austin-East had the lowest average ACT scores of schools in the Knoxville area, while Bearden, which is where Austin’s children will eventually attend, was ranked second behind Farragut. What the future holds in terms of a family for Lyons and McKinney is uncertain. They aren’t keen on speaking hypothetically, though they “would do research and find the best school available if they have children in the future.” Simpson says she isn’t all that familiar with the various public schools in the area, but she’s already planning to send Sierra to the Knoxville Montessori School, then likely pri-

Isabella’s artwork hangs on the refrigerator. Photo by Andrew Hock / Knoxville Voice

vate school for the remainder. Hummel is pleased with Sequoyah for Isabella. After that, there is some hesitation about her daughter attending South-Doyle and Austin-East. “It’s hard to say where she’ll be when she goes to high school,” she says. While Hummel may have reservations about where Isabella attends middle and high school, she’s relatively at ease with her daughter’s safety downtown. “We have a very safe downtown. We review crime reports weekly, and then proactively work to address any issues,” Hummel


says of her work with the CBID, which was established in 1993 to provide services the local government otherwise could not. Simpson says Knoxville’s safety concerns are a “joke” compared with her experiences in New York and L.A. Austin frequently visits downtown from West Hills and “feels completely safe on the main avenue [Gay Street],” but he has different sentiments regarding the area across Summit Hill. “I haven’t gone to the Old City in a few years,” says Austin, who moved to Knoxville in 1994. “I remember being very uncomfortable when I tried it in the past, and those memories linger. It’s not as safe as going to a restaurant in Bearden.” When the Voice requested crime statistics for the CBID area from the Knoxville Police Department, the crime analysis unit was cooperative in providing them, but suggested the paper not compare them to another neighborhood. Factors like demographics, population and general surroundings cannot be weighed properly and will skew findings, according to the KPD. The statistics provided for the CBID indicate crimes such as burglary and vandalism of property are up from 2006 to 2007, but lower than in 2005. Simple assault fell 15 percent from ’06 to ’07, while theft from a motor vehicle rose 40 percent and prostitution rose 75 percent in the same time frame. There have been two recorded murders since 2001 in the downtown area. “Safety is really not an issue,” Haslam says. “If you look at crime statistics, it’s really safer by far than most downtowns and than most other areas in Knoxville.”

Inside the Boetgers’ Holston loft. Photo provided by Carolyn Boetger

One of the most recent downtown residential developments, The Holston, was once the city’s tallest building at 14 stories. Standing almost directly across Gay Street from the Regal Riviera, the building received another level from local developers, adding yet another picturesque balcony view of Knoxville. Less than 10 vacant units remain, among them downtown’s lone “penthouse,” which spans about 3,500-square-feet of the building’s top floor and lists at a cool $1.25 million. Nine stories below, sitting in their 1,400sqaure-foot, roughly $370,000 loft, the Boetgers roll their eyes at the notion of affording it. Thirty-four-year-old Chad Boetger says it actually sickens him to a certain extent. When he graduated from UT in 1997 with a degree in architecture, he wanted to buy his own loft downtown and redesign it, much like one of his architect buddies had done. “I called a local realtor and asked about a loft downtown,” he says, having recently reAUGUST 7, 2008

Knoxville Voice 25


turned from Atlanta for a job with BarberMcMurry architects. “They didn’t even know what a loft was. They thought it was one of those beds that sit up high and you put your desk under. “Finally, I got someone to bring me down here, and they wanted me to buy an entire building for $70,000 in Market Square. To a recent graduate, that’s too much of an investment. But, man, now‌â€? Chad and his wife of four years, Carolyn, 32, have been in and out of downtown Knoxville lofts since both graduated college. Carolyn, born and raised in Memphis, earned a degree in graphic design from the Art Institute of Atlanta and was the Phoenix’s ďŹ rst resident in 2003. The couple is adamant about keeping their children, when they have them, downtown, at least through elementary school. But both admit they don’t see many middle- or highschool aged kids downtown. That mindset may be gradually changing, though. “There’s nothing I ďŹ nd scary about raising a family downtown,â€? says Chad, who admits to being more guarded when he lived in East Knoxville as a college student. “You’ve got people moving in who already have small children, or who are having children downtown,â€? Carolyn says. “All of these people moving here now aren’t people who grew up in the suburbs or already have 12year-olds in the suburbs. I think the perception of growing up downtown is dierent now.â€? Some of the mothers downtown have organized play nights, where children congregate at Krutch Park and ride tricycles in Market Square or on the promenade. “It’s a great open space, people are friendly and once you live down here for a while everyone knows each other and it becomes just like a neighborhood,â€? Carolyn continues. “You know your kids are being looked after by people who live down here.â€? With more than 1,000 business establishments now downtown, the Boetgers say they hardly ever have reason to move their cars when they get home from work — which at

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Custom brick basement rancher 7133 Brickey Lane, Halls 4 Bedrooom, 3.5 Bath, 2 fireplaces, large family room 3,960 approx sq. ft. Includes 25 x 65 garage on main level Available for $310,000 all the businesses down here,� Chad says. “This is all very genuine to me; it’s all very local. I know the people who run them; I’m friends with them. Which means something to me. It means something more than just giving my money to Taco Bell.�

In the last year, the New York Times has featured Knoxville (nicknamed “the couchâ€? according to one author: “too unassuming to shout about but too comfortable to leaveâ€?) in both its travel and national perspective sections. The travel piece focused on the thriving downtown scene, referring to the city as, “Austin, [Texas] without the hype,â€? while the national perspective trumpeted eorts to transform the 750 acres of vacant or unused land along the South Waterfront. The 50-unit River Towne Condominium

was the ďŹ rst noticeable sign of improvement along the waterfront when it was completed in August 2006, and the Cityview at Riverwalk will add 122 condominiums and a marina to the district when it opens. The Times cited a market study paid for by the city predicting the waterfront will be populated with 600 units of housing by 2012, along with 15,000 square feet of retail space and 15,000 square feet of oďŹƒce space. (By 2027, the study indicates 100 marina boat slips will be constructed, as well.) On the north side of the river, CBID projections for 2011 show an inux of nearly 700 residents downtown and 400 new households, a 34 percent increase from 2006. The median household income could also reach nearly $40,000, doubling the current average. But referring to downtown as a “revitalized areaâ€? is becoming clichĂŠ, according to Haslam, thrown around with relative ease. The South Waterfront Development and Cumberland Avenue Project, advertised as a pedestrian-friendly link between downtown and UT, are eorts the mayor plans to utilize for expanding an area that is currently “boxed in.â€? Old photos of Knoxville around 1900 reveal a city that had a grid-like map of streets stretching freely from downtown for miles. Over the past century, though, boundaries have been set and communities have become more isolated. “If you look at other cities, they’ve been able to take advantage of their waterfronts better than we have,â€? says Haslam, referring to cities like Chattanooga, which has one of the largest pedestrian bridges in the world connecting its downtown with its thriving North Shore district. “The problem is, you go north you hit the interstate, west you hit UT and east James White Parkway. It’s about pushing out across the river to the South Waterfront and improving Cumberland Avenue.â€? Now that Haslam says the city is able to “Live, work, and play,â€? he has a new banner for downtown: “Build the heart strong, then build out.â€?

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AUGUST 7, 2008

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