Bringing Austin Homes Into Focus

Bringing Austin Homes Into Focus

Public input is helping guide KCDC’s master planning process for mixed-income housing at the East Knoxville site, adjacent to a possible new baseball park.

by scott barker • March 1, 2019
Andre Brumfield, left, a principal with Gensler, points to portion of one of the site options for Austin Homes as he discusses the project with Raisin Young and Carren Broadnax on Wednesday.

The redevelopment of the Austin Homes housing project in East Knoxville as envisioned would represent a marked departure for Knoxville’s Community Development Corp.

KCDC plans to replace Austin Homes with 350-400 mixed-income housing units in a community revitatalization effort.

The city’s housing agency has long engaged in providing low-income or senior housing, but the housing mix proposed for the Austin Homes site would include affordable and market-rate units as well.

The proximity of the site to property that could be used for a new minor-league baseball stadium has officials talking about the possibility of connecting downtown, the Old City and Magnolia Avenue in a chain of redevelopment.

KCDC held an open house at Green Magnet Academy on Wednesday, the second in a series to start its master planning process for the Austin Homes site.

“These first few meetings are to listen to the community,” said Ben Bentley, executive director and CEO of KCDC.

Representatives of KCDC’s design team of Gensler, a global architecture firm based in San Francisco, and Knoxville-based Johnson Architecture, were on hand to discuss the philosophy behind the plan and discuss implementation options.

Andre Brumfield, a principal with Gensler, said the process is in its early stages of developing a vision for the site. He said the goal is not just to build housing units.

“We don’t want this to be a development. This is a community,” Brumfield said.

SaRhonda Thompson, president of the Austin Homes Residents Association, said residents are pleased with the way the design team is engaging with them.

“It’s going over well so far. It’s a great idea to revitalize the community,” Thompson said.

On Wednesday, the design team displayed four possible designs for the community, with different street layouts, varying amounts of greenspace and options for building placement. The design team expects to combine elements from each of the designs into the final plan.

“We’re looking at four options to address the site,” said Shannon Elliot of Johnson Architecture. “It probably becomes a combination of these, or something we haven’t thought of.”

Raisin Young, who grew up in Austin Homes and now lives in Northwest Knoxville, said she didn’t want to see the community destroyed, as she views the redevelopment of College Homes in Mechanicsville two decades ago.

“I grew up in Austin Homes. To give my input means a lot ot me,” Young said.

The original Austin Homes development, built in 1941, featured courtyards hidden from view. Knoxville Police Department Sgt. Will Wilson, who is assigned to KCDC housing, said  over time those courtyards concealed criminal activity from police patrolling the streets. The more open street plans proposed for the project would be better for officers and for public safety, he said.

“We like something that’s open and airy and we can see most of what’s going on,” Wilson said.

Fifteen years ago, KCDC began razing some 150 units in Austin Homes. One hundred twenty-nine units remain, and they will be demolished and replaced under KCDC’s concept plan.

Bentley said the new Austin Homes community would have 350-400 units.

“The density is going to increase significantly,” Bentley said. “We want to create an urban neighborhood with a variety of building styles.

“We’re trying to create communities that are affordable but provide a good quality of life.”

City officials have said Austin Homes could be an integral part of a possible development of a baseball stadium at the Knox Rail Salvage property just to the north. The owner of the Tennessee Smokies, University of Tennessee Interim President Randy Boyd, has assembled seven acres at the location just east of the Old City. City officials and Tennessee Smokies management have held preliminary talks about a new ball park there.

At a budget retreat last month, Mayor Madeline Rogero’s two top deputies, Chief Policy Officer Bill Lyons and Chief Operating Officer David Brace, laid out the administration’s vision of a multi-use ball park that connects the Old City, Austin Homes and Magnolia Avenue.

At previous stakeholder meetings, the KCDC design team found that the idea of reconnecting the areas is important to residents. They also want high-quality design and a safe neighborhood with a mix of income levels, cultures and uses. Residents have said they’re open to small retail businesses being included in the neighborhood.

“It will bring a whole different feel to the community,” Thompson said of the overall aims of the project. “I like some of the ideas they have about getting people to come to the community. I’m just glad they’re rebuilding on the land.”

Current tenants would have to move during the demolition and construction phases of the project. Residents will be able to move to other KCDC housing, and would have a “right of return” to move back to the Austin Homes neighborhood once construction is complete.

KCDC’s market analysis shows that Austin Homes could capture up to 10 percent of the projected demand for housing in the downtown area between now and 2025.

“There are enough people in Knoxville who want to live in a unique neighborhood” to make the redevelopment a success, Bentley said.