Finding the Right Blend

Finding the Right Blend

KCDC is finalizing its master plan for the Austin Homes makeover, which will feature up to 440 mixed-income apartments.

by scott barker • May 1, 2019
Planner Andre Brumfield chats about the Austin Homes redevelopment master plan on Tuesday with Knox County school board member Evetty Satterfield and Bill Clark.

The new vision for Austin Homes is coming into focus with the unveiling on Tuesday of a draft master plan for the redevelopment of the aged housing project.

Public involvement has shaped plans for the East Knoxville apartment community.

Knoxville’s Community Development Corp. plans to replace the existing 129 units of subsidized housing with a 410- to 440-unit mixed-income community. The draft design released Tuesday depicts buildings ranging in height from two to six stories, a tree-lined boulevard bisecting the East Knoxville property, green space and community gardens.

“We believe everyone deserves a dignified place to call home,” KCDC Executive Director and CEO Ben Bentley said late Tuesday afternoon at an open house for the project at Green Magnet Academy.

The mixed-income aspect of the project marks a big change for Austin Homes, which has historically been used for low-income housing.

In addition to replacing the 129 subsidized units to be razed, KCDC will add 50 more units for families making up to 60 percent of the area median income. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has set Knoxville’s area median income at $69,900, adjusted for family size.

The remaining units will be split, with half reserved for families making up to 80 percent of the area median income and half with rents closer to market value.

Bentley said the subsidized units will be scattered throughout the community, not separated into designated buildings. “You won’t be able to walk up (to a unit) and know the income level of the residents,” he said.

The four- to six-story mid-rise buildings -- one at each of the four corners of the roughly seven-block housing area -- could contain small local businesses.

“We want to offer a broad range of choices and options for the residents of Austin Homes,” said Andre Brumfield of the planning firm Gensler, which is teaming with Johnson Architecture on the project.

The draft plan also provides space for a grocery store at the western reaches of the property, which residents desire but is more conceptual at this point. Bentley said KCDC wouldn’t build a grocery store on spec and would need a commitment from a company before moving forward.

The green space on the site will primarily run along the bank of First Creek, which marks the western end of the property. A pedestrian bridge is planned to connect Austin Homes to the warehouse district east of the Old City, and room was left in the design to extend Georgia Street across the stream as well.

The connection is a priority for city officials because it would link Austin Homes to a possible baseball stadium under discussion on the other side of First Creek on property owned by University of Tennessee Interim President Randy Boyd, owner of the Tennessee Smokies.

City officials say they would want a ballpark that is open for public use when games aren’t being played and would serve as a bridge between Austin Homes, the Old City and Magnolia Avenue.

Though no plans for a ballpark are imminent, Benltley said the design team kept the possibility in mind as they drew up the Austin Homes project.

“We know that’s coming,” Bentley said of development across First Creek, “and want our site to be compatible.”

KCDC has been gathering comments from residents and other stakeholders in a series of meetings and open houses in recent months. Many of the recommendations have been incorporated into the draft master plan, which combines elements of three options presented to the community in previous meetings.

“We’ve got to have housing,” said affordable housing advocate Vivian Shipe, who likes the mix of income levels planned for Austin Homes. “We’ve got to find a way to live together.”

Shipe also is encouraged about the possibility of a grocery store for an area of the city that doesn’t have a supermarket. “It’s important to get a grocery store. This is a food desert,” she said.

Bill Clark, who works with a children’s ministry that serves Austin Homes and other communities, pointed to the child-friendly elements of the plan -- active and passive park areas, for example. “I like what I see so far,” he said.

“I think it’s awesome,” said businessman J.D. Jackson. “I like the community gardens. Children will be able to see plants grow from seed and families can grow their own food.”

There is no budget for the project at this point. Bentley said the design team is crunching the numbers for estimates on infrastructure needs and construction costs.

Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero has proposed allocating $4.5 million in next year’s budget for infrastructure improvements associated with the project.

KCDC will partner with a for-profit developer so low-income tax credits can be used to cut construction costs. The developer would step away from the project after 15 years, Bentley said, so KCDC will continue to provide low- and moderate-income housing at the site.

Funding also will affect the timeline. Bentley said the project could be completed in one or four phases, depending on how financing is structured. KCDC will present a final plan at the end of May and hopes to break ground on the first phase in May 2020.