2018 Revue: Reshaping a City

MPC meeting

2018 Revue: Reshaping a City

Newcomers on City Council, public improvement projects and a new zoning code are signs that major changes are in store for Knoxville.

by scott barker • December 27, 2018

City Council watches a presentation during debate over an affordable housing project in October.

This story is part of a series looking back at 2018. See also:

  • 2018 Revue: The turnover in county offices was expected, but some of the results were still surprising.
  • The Bully Pulpit: Three months in, Glenn Jacobs is finding his voice as Knox County's chief executive.

The City of Knoxville’s 2018 was a year of new faces and major initiatives that will help shape the city for years to come. Here’s a look back at the highlights from the city government’s year.

Newcomers and major initiatives augur change in Knoxville.

Fresh Faces

In 2017, term limits opened up five seats on City Council, so a majority of Council members served their first year in 2018. In another big change, the Knoxville Police Department is headed by a woman for the first time in its history.

Four of the five new Council members are women, the most ever elected to City Council. Among them are Gwen McKenzie, the first black woman to serve on the panel, and Seema Singh-Perez, the first Council member of South Asian descent. Lauren Rider and Stephanie Welch, plus Andrew Roberto, round out the freshman class.

“I think we have a very strong Council right now,” Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero said in a pre-Christmas interview, citing the members’ courtesy even when they disagree as one of their strengths.

“Civility, in my mind, is a value we should all share and this Council exhibits,” Rogero said.

Next year, the four other Council members -- Marshall Stair, Mark Campen, George Wallace and Vice Mayor Finbarr Saunders -- will rotate off the panel because of term limits. Possible candidates to replace them have begun making plans for the 2019 election.

Rogero will be leaving office after two terms as well. Stair, former school board chair and city project manager Indya Kincannon, and businessman and former Rogero aide Eddie Mannis are the leading candidates to replace her who have made official announcements so far.

In June, Rogero, the city’s first female mayor, named Eve Thomas as the first female KPD chief. Thomas replaced David Rausch, who left to become the director of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. It was a big year for Thomas, who was just appointed to deputy chief in March.

Rausch departed as a popular police chief, although the rape trial later in the summer of former Vol football players AJ Johnson and Michael Williams brought renewed attention to the “courtesy call” about the case that Rausch had made to former UT football Coach Butch Jones. KPD has since stopped the practice of making courtesy calls to the Athletic Department about UT athletes in potential legal trouble.

Zoning Revisions

The effort to comprehensively rewrite Knoxville’s zoning code for the first time in more than a half century gained steam during 2017.

Recode Knoxville, led by Knoxville-Knox County Planning (the new name for the Metropolitan Planning Commission), has featured more than 60 public meetings and four drafts of the proposed zoning code.

The proposed ordinance would allow greater density to accommodate projected population growth -- which Knoxville-Knox County Planning says will cater in part to millennials’ preference for urban living.

Sticking points have been accessory dwelling units -- garage appartements, carriage houses and the like -- that would be allowed in all residential neighborhoods; areas where small apartment buildings would be permitted; and how to place buildings in commercial zones.

In response to public comments, Knoxville-Knox County Planning has inserted an owner-occupancy requirement for properties with accessory dwelling units and expanded the number of areas where small-scale apartment complexes could be built.

The original timetable was for City Council to have adopted the new ordinance in December. Public complaints about the pace of the process, as well as unresolved issues, have pushed back the schedule. Planning commissioners are set to make their recommendation in January, followed by City Council consideration -- which is to include public workshops -- to follow in January and February.

Public Safety Shuffle

Early in the year, the Rogero administration announced it was exploring a deal with financially strapped Knoxville College to build a new home for KPD, the Knoxville Fire Department and the Municipal Court on the vacant back portion of the historically black college’s Mechanicsville campus. When the college was unable to work out an arrangement with its primary creditor, the city set its sights on the soon-to-be vacated Physicians Regional Medical Center in North Knoxville.

City officials began negotiations with Tennova Healthcare in September to possibly buy the former St. Mary’s Hospital campus, with the idea of placing the public safety offices in the buildings close to Woodland Avenue and offering the venerable hospital and other buildings for private development. The Rogero administration has earmarked $40 million for the project, which will entail renovations to the buildings the city intends to use. The city and Tennova are close to an agreement, and City Council has already scheduled a workshop in January to discuss the move. Physicians Regional closes its doors for good on Friday.

As part of the plan, the city plans to let the Clayton Family Foundation build a $100 million science museum on the site of the current Safety Building, which is just to the east of the Civic Auditorium and Coliseum. The foundation, led by Clayton Home founder Jim Clayton, is in preliminary planning stages for the interactive museum.

Change Center Opens

The December 2015 killing of Fulton High School student athlete Zaevion Dobson drew national attention and renewed local commitment to the scourge of violence borne by young people of color in America.

Dobson's death brought more attention to the city's already existing Save Our Sons initiative. One of its prime initiatives became to help build a safe place for young people to go to avoid violence. The Change Center, a nonprofit facility to which the city contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars opened on Dec. 21.

Located adjacent to Overcoming Believers Church on Harriet Tubman Street in East Knoxville, the Change Center has a skating rink and other activities. Young people from across Knoxville can go to the Change Center for free, though some activities will come with a charge. The city changed some Knoxville Area Transit bus routes so young people from other parts of the city can get to the Change Center without transferring buses.

Construction Zones

The city’s North Central Street reconstruction project is continuing with utility and streetscape improvements in Happy Holler. Magnolia Avenue is getting a makeover, too, with entry signs for those traveling east from downtown and improved sidewalks and landscaping. The projects follow the “Complete Streets” philosophy of making roadways safe and convenient for pedestrians, bicyclists and transit vehicles as well as for automobiles.

The Rogero administration also has been busy lending a hand in affordable housing construction. The city’s affordable rental housing fund amounted to $2.5 million for this fiscal year, and Rogero said she plans to ask City Council for an additional $1 million during this fiscal year. The fund helps provide “gap funding” for private-sector affordable housing programs.

The city also is investing in the redevelopment of Five Points in East Knoxville. Knoxville’s Community Development Corp. opened an 84-unit complex for families in the summer and broke ground on a 28-building, 80-unit complex in May. The first phase of the project opened in 2017. The fourth and final phase will include 82 units. Once complete, the Five Points Redevelopment Project will have added 336 units of affordable housing at a cost of $85 million. The city also is spending $13 million on infrastructure upgrades in the neighborhood.

“Over the past year,” Rogero said, “we’ve really focused on affordable housing and youth programs.”

The 1,000-acre Urban Wilderness in South Knoxville will get a new entrance, though it won’t be complete until long after Rogero leaves office. Gateway Park would run from the end of James White Parkway to the Baker Creek Preserve. The city has budgeted $10.4 million in capital funding for the project. Long-term plans call for a linear park to run alongside a reconfigured James White Parkway from Morningside Park in East Knoxville to Gateway Park.

UPDATES: This story has been edited to correct the name of the street bordering the Physicians Regional Medical Center property, and to clarify that the Save Our Sons initiative was already in place in 2015 and that Mayor Madeline Rogero plans to ask City Council for additional funding for affordable housing during the current fiscal year.