Apr 21 2018
03:31 am

The building at Western Plaza looks taller than 35 ft. Who introduced the legislation to remove the 35 ft height restriction on that section of Kingston Pike?

Last week, Sequoyah Hills and Bearden residents learned to their surprise that legislation to remove the height restrictions on new buildings (35 feet above the street) on the scenic route portion of Kingston Pike (at Western Plaza to be precise) was about to repealed by the state legislature. Most never knew legislation to do this had even been introduced. In fact, it had already passed the state Senate, was out of committee and was on the floor of the House.

Victor Ashe: Despite city maneuver, Western Plaza plans blocked

R. Neal's picture

Ashe misleads in column on

j.f.m.'s picture

More detail

I also posted this longer account on the KNS Facebook page:

This bill was not something the City administration particularly promoted or tracked. We were aware of it in the way we are aware of lots of things we aren't directly involved in, and we knew the developers had lined up legislative sponsors to slightly change the scenic highway boundary to make it easier to do a mixed-use development in Western Plaza. We supported that idea in concept, and so when anyone asked us about the bill, we said, sure, we're OK with it. But that's as far as our knowledge went. I didn't know, for example, that Sen. Massey requested assurance from the Kingston Pike Sequoyah Hills neighborhood group that they supported it, or that she received that assurance in the form of a letter from their attorney on March 22. I didn't even know it had passed the state Senate -- there are a ton of bills in the legislature every year, and we were focused on the issues that more directly affected City government (like short-term rentals, deannexation, sales tax distribution, immigration, neighborhood design guidelines, etc.).

The first indication I had that there was trouble with this particular bill was when Vice Mayor Saunders called me on a Sunday afternoon after the apparently contentious meeting between some neighborhood residents and the developers. The Vice Mayor, who supported the mixed-use concept, told me he was concerned that the tenor of the meeting might lead Rep. Smith to withdraw his support for the bill. He also mentioned that Rep. Smith had at one point in the meeting suggested amending the bill to put an 18-month time limit on it for the developers to produce an approved concept plan. Vice Mayor Saunders thought that sounded like a reasonable compromise. I said, OK, I'll make sure the Mayor knows about it. By the time I saw the Mayor the next morning, she had already been contacted by Councilman Roberto, conveying the same concerns. Again, we had not been engaged in this issue at all to this point. But Mayor Rogero assured Councilman Roberto we would do what we could to try to keep the legislation on track, since the concept was something we supported.

Deputy to the Mayor Bill Lyons and I called Rep. Smith, with whom we have a friendly working relationship, and conveyed what we had heard from the Council members. He confirmed that the meeting had not gone well, and he said that for him to continue to support the bill, he would need a resolution from City Council in support of the 18-month timeline idea and support from the local neighborhood groups. We told him we would do what we could. We relayed that information back to Vice Mayor Saunders and Councilman Roberto (in individual phone calls, as Sunshine law requires). They said they would sponsor the resolution and contact the neighborhood groups if we would contact the rest of the Council members and let them know what was going on so they wouldn't walk into the next night's Council meeting and be caught by surprise. The neighborhood groups would also not be caught by surprise.

As it turned out, Rep. Smith apparently received a sufficient volume of negative emails or phone calls that he didn't feel comfortable continuing to support the bill, so the next morning he let Councilman Roberto know that he was going to move to withdraw it. At that point, the resolution of support was unnecessary since the thing it was supposed to support was no longer happening. At that night's Council meeting, the president of the neighborhood association came to speak to Council and acknowledged that the group "could have handled this better," and assured everyone that they still supported the idea of mixed-use development in Bearden, but that they wanted to see more information from the developers about this particular project.

And that was that, basically. I don't think anyone involved acted in bad faith, there were obviously some misunderstandings within the neighborhood about the level of information and support for the project. These kind of tumults over land-use issues aren't exactly unusual. As I said before, neighborhood politics are complicated. I do think Victor, for his own reasons, painted a grossly inaccurate and misleading picture of all of this in his column. But that is also not unusual.

j.f.m.'s picture

To reiterate, when you talk

To reiterate, when you talk about “the 35-foot height restriction on that section of Kingston Pike,” Western Plaza is the only commercial development included in that restriction. Removing it from the “scenic highway” corridor would have the effect only of treating it exactly like every other commercial property on Kingstoon Pike in Bearden. None of this has anything to do with the building under construction at the eastern end of the development, which is allowed under the current restriction. The apparent concern is actually about the section at the western end, the side farthest away from Sequoyah Hills and right next to other commercial areas that already allow construction up to 90 feet.

We are likely to hear more of these kinds of discussions if/when other mixed-use proposals come up along commercial corridors. Knoxville has generations of experience with sprawl development, to the extent that buildings taller than a couple of stories may seem weird or even alarming to some people. But if we want some amount of future growth to happen inside the city rather than farther and farther out into greenfields, the only way to do that is with greater density and verticality. It will be an interesting issue to watch.

bizgrrl's picture

I really like the 414 Flats

I really like the 414 Flats on Forest Park Blvd., just around the corner from Western Plaza. It would be nice if there were a few more like it in the area, or similar condos. So convenient to everything. I would not like it if there was no green space in front. I am really disappointed with the new apartments along Cumberland. It is beginning to look like a concrete canyon. Must have green spaces.

Don't need a lot of tall buildings, IMO.

j.f.m.'s picture

Cumberland form-based code

Cumberland form-based code actually requires buildings to be built to the sidewalk, not recessed behind landscaping or parking. It’s deliberately urban design. Along a corridor like Kingston Pike, landscaping would probably be more of a feature. As for how many tall buildings we need, I guess the reverse question is how many sprawling subdivisions we need. If we assume more people are coming, which is the expectation, they need to go somewhere. From a sustainability perspective, vertical development gives you much greater energy efficiency. From an economic standpoint, density gives you more concentrated economic impact. Adding a couple hundred people in a small area can make a big difference for local retail (which then also benefits everyone in the surrounding neighborhoods).

Of course, some buildings will be more aesthetically pleasing then others, and there’s only so much you can dictate about design. But when we’re talking about commercial corridors we’re mostly talking about areas already populated by undistinguished strip plazas and acres of asphalt.

Bbeanster's picture

Cumberland Avenue is turning

Cumberland Avenue is turning into just another urban canyon. That's what's for breakfast this decade. Next decade's planners will be looking for alternatives to these soul-less space eaters.

michael kaplan's picture

Right. Building to the

Right. Building to the sidewalk line is one thing, but building straight up 5 or 6 stories - without setbacks for light and air - is another. Who actually proposed/approved this 'form-based' zoning variant?

michael kaplan's picture

It looks like the city may

It looks like the city may have widened the sidewalk by installing planters on Cumberland to provide legal setbacks. That's still a massive six-story hulk casting its shadow (in the autumn and winter) on Cumberland and Mountcastle. Proper zoning ordinances usually contain street sections, so one can assess visual outcomes and the casting of shadows. Do such exist?


Factchecker's picture

Bring it on

Knoxville has generations of experience with sprawl development, to the extent that buildings taller than a couple of stories may seem weird or even alarming to some people. But if we want some amount of future growth to happen inside the city rather than farther and farther out into greenfields, the only way to do that is with greater density and verticality.

It's good to see the city take this long view. Increased populations, as is occurring in healthy cities we can be proud to now count Knoxville among, cause growth strain one way or the other. If we're serious about sustainability issues, higher density housing closer into town is generally better.

What I'd like to see is developers trying out engineered wood structures such as cross-laminated timber. From what I can gather, such materials are limited to 12 stories or so, which would be self-limiting for height. And they're more sustainable, lower carbon emissions, etc., than traditional materials.

Housing density is one of the hot topics now and California is particularily embroiled in it. Seems they're making a lot of NIMBY mistakes Knoxville shouldn't follow. (link...)

Bill Lyons's picture

Cumberland and Density

This is an important discussion. I would start with a gentle departure from Betty's point. I agree that Cumberland had a bit of a soul in the memories of those of us who were there in the 70s and early 80s - quaint houses turned restaurants on a long-flattened hill - "The Cat's Meow," Sam and Andy's, and a few others. Those have long been replaced by suburban chain fast food operations fronted by parking lots. A very few spots retain any semblance of what I would call soul, or its distant cousin - charm.

When we began the very public visioning / planning process for Cumberland the underlying dynamic was that it was not working as a commercial area, mainly because of the challenges of a customer base tied to the academic calendar. Summers were deadly.

The redo of the street from 4 dysfunctional lanes to 3 lanes with wider sidewalks and landscaping, along with the carefully vetting form code provides for mixed use and density but limits building heights and includes step back requirements.

I walk through the area regularly and it is really heartening to see students living right near campus walking and biking to shop, eat, drink, and, of course to class. Personally, I look forward to the prospect of the new mixed use structure on the former parking lot / one story First Tenn Bank site The bank and other retail will front the street when this is complete.

I guess I would not attribute a soul to either the former or latter use. But in any case, the density in the area will support all kinds of restaurant and retail that the suburban, one story model did not enable

All this might be a good place to responsibly engage a discussion of quality urban development and density. As Jesse pointed out, Knox County is expected to grow fairly rapidly in the next decades. Already just about every time MPC considers a subdivision request outside the City the neighbors push back on units per acre. They do so because of the challenges on road and school capacity. And of course, these new schools must be built and operated - putting strain on other school funding priorities (see recent discussion on Project Grad and Magnet funding).

We will engage a lot of this as we move through the public discussion of Recode and the new zoning code for the City. This is a discussion worth having. And the Western Plaza misinformation / correction dialog does touch on this discussion.

As we move to the next steps here there will be lots of suggestions and lots of pushback. People don't like change. And we know that change is not always a positive. But we have to change the way in which we live and work. We can't just keep spreading out and using our resources in such an irresponsible way. Density does work. It enables a lot more options for public transportation, walkability more interesting shopping and dining, and so much more.

Of course it must be done in a way that works for the community. That is why we engage the community at every step. I have been in the midst of many of these changes for quite a while. I am proud of the way our city is growing and changing.

Bill Lyons's picture

Cumberland Ave, height requirement, public review & Council vote

Michael Kaplan..

Right. Building to the sidewalk line is one thing, but building straight up 5 or 6 stories - without setbacks for light and air - is another. Who actually proposed/approved this 'form-based' zoning variant?

FYI.. The following was approved with full public discussion over a two year period. It was approved unanimously by City Council. . And yes, it does provide for setbacks.

2. Cumberland Avenue (CU-2) a. CU-2 is the key retail street within the area and is primarily intended to accommodate ground floor retail with upper story residential or office uses. b. Buildings in CU-2 can be a maximum height of 8 stories / 90 feet. Each building must provide a stepback above the second or third story

October 2016
View 2016 Proposed Changes of South Waterfront Form Based Code [PDF] (10/19/16)
Meeting Presentation for Proposed Updates to South Waterfront Form-Based Code [PDF] (10/20/16)

Comments on the proposed updates to the South Waterfront Form Based Code can be sent to DeAnn Bogus, Deputy Director of Plans Review & Building Inspections, at Please send written comments by November 3, 2016. If you have any questions, please call 865-215-4282.

May 5, 2015
View Meeting 05/05/15 Presentation on City's Form Based Code [PDF]
View 2015 Proposed Changes of City's Form Based Code [PDF]

November 29, 2014

View Meeting 11/29/12 Presentation on City's Form Based Code [PDF]
View 2012 Proposed Changes of City's Form Based Code [PDF]

j.f.m.'s picture

Yes, and the Evolve building

Yes, and the Evolve building that everyone points to — which has no stepback — was approved under the previous code that was in place before the form-based code was adopted. You couldn’t build that building that way now.

Bill Lyons's picture


I may write more on this later. There is a real difference between a principled discussion about height and density vs posting bad information without any apparent effort to gather the most basic materials. Jesse (primarily) and I have spent a ton of time in the past couple of weeks responding to bad information.

Cumberland's form code was discussed at great length,with a lot of public notice, and with participation of merchants, Fort Sanders residents, UT faculty and students, and people interested in good planning practices. All of this was placed online in great detail. There were Council workshops and discussion prior to council consideration. There was vetting and discussion by MPC and MPCs staff. So who is responsible? The answer is the engaged public and stakeholders, the City administration,the planning commission, and City Council.

I would hope the present national political situation would demonstrate the importance of adult, grounded discussions of such matters. Thank you.

Joe328's picture

The meeting were more of a

The meeting were more of a presentation without public input. The same is happening with Recode Knoxville. Recode Knoxville was introduced as an update to codes with public input. So far the meetings have been presentation without opportunity to ask questions.

Bill Lyons's picture

Input and the Recode Process


Thanks for the question. Recode is quite an extensive undertaking. I know at times it appears that the meetings are mostly presentations but that is essential to set the stage for comments and feedback.

The initial set of meetings was structured to provide attendees with a base of information about the project and process. This set the stage for questions and comments that could inform City, MPC and Camiros staff as they prepared the first draft of the new zoning ordinance. That draft was made available on March 21st

The series of five community meetings in April provided opportunities for questions and comments about that first draft. If you did not feel you had an adequate opportunity to participate, the purpose of the community workshops scheduled for next week (see (link...)) is to provide further opportunities for questions from attendees and discussion between attendees and staff.

I hope you do attend and please don't hesitate to let the MPC staff and the members of the Camiros team hear from you. It is critical to get this right. The new zoning code will guide the region, and in particular, the City as we grow over the next decades.

Submitted by Joe328 on Wed, 2018/05/09 - 12:09pm.

The meeting were more of a presentation without public input. The same is happening with Recode Knoxville. Recode Knoxville was introduced as an update to codes with public input. So far the meetings have been presentation without opportunity to ask questions.

reform4's picture

No questions?


I went to the one of the first presentations at the Council of Neighborhoods. They took easily 20 to 30 questions- there was a time schedule limitation, but they did their best to answer as many questions as they could, and they did a good job in providing as detailed an answer as they could.

I’d be very surprised if this were the case, unless there was some kind of time limitation out of their control.

Joe328's picture

Public Comments at Recode Knoxville

The Recode Knoxville website lists 174 comments and questions from the public dating back to March 31, 2018. The staff has only responded to 7. The staff is picking and choosing questions which agrees with their agenda. Many of of the unanswered questions deal with confusion in the present codes and lack of correcting vagueness in the current draft. The power to resolve the disputed codes will be bestowed to individuals instead of communities.

Many times the community supports a proposed business, but staff personally opposing it may use the vague codes to rejected it. Author Seymour said it best when City Council once asked if there was any opposition to his proposal. He answered with, “the only opposition was MPC staff.”

Bbeanster's picture

I've been complaining about

I've been complaining about that butt-ugly Evolve building since it went up (as you probably know, Bill. I'm not quiet about these things).

The answer I've always gotten is that it was approved before the form based codes were approved.

But the new construction going up doesn't look any different than the previous monstrosity, which appears to have had a very tough time attracting commercial tenants on the street level. Not sure that the expectation that students living upstairs would leave their cars at home has come to pass, either. Parking is impossible – no more meeting people at Panera for me!

Unlike most of you administration peeps, I grew up here and came of age on the Strip. My memories go back to the 60s, and I remember so many cool, interesting, one-of-a-kind locally-owned businesses – Troll Leatherworks, Peasant Garb, the Quarterback, the Odyssey, Varsity Inn, the Pump Room, the White Store, and later stuff like the Complex and the original Ruby Tuesday (that actually served good food).... I could go on and on.

I don't see anything there now that makes me inclined to go there and spend money. I don't blame the city for all of this homogenization – UT has been a terrible steward of this fragile urban area, as well.

Y'all can justify it all you want, but it's still spinach and a bunch of us don't like it. Maybe that'll change when you train us not to go there, or when we die off; whichever comes first.

Somebody's picture

I’m going to drop this in

I’m going to drop this in here, mostly as a time capsule for the benefit of some future academic, sifting through the cobwebs of that old internet thing.

I’ll offer a fairly safe prediction that in, say 40 or 50 years, some members of the current crop of UT students will be lamenting about changes being made to the Cumberland Avenue area, and comparing them unfavorably to the good old heydays of the late teens and early twenties, when that area was really cool.

Bbeanster's picture

BTW:I had to run out to


I had to run out to Western Plaza earlier today and east-bound traffic was backed up past the Neyland Drive/Concord St. intersection with carloads of people in orange. Cumberland Avenue was a parking lot. Then I realized where all the people in orange were headed – .It's (spring) football time in Tennessee!

God help us in September.

j.f.m.'s picture


We don’t want you to die, Bean! Where you go to shop and dine is entirely up to you. To be clear, the specific thing about the Evolve building that wouldn’t be allowed now is the lack of stepback. It could still be just as big and, from your perspective, just as ugly. I’ve lived around a lot of tall buildings in my life, many often not particularly interesting architecturally — Manhattan e.g. is about 95 percent uninteresting verticality. So I may be less bothered by big buildings than some people. But the point of density is not about the frills on the roofline, it’s about the impact of a bunch of people in a concentrated space. Cumberland is still in transition, there’s likely to be construction going on for some time to come, so it’s too early to know what the retail impact will be once you have all those students living there right on or just off the block. It is likely that it will be mostly geared toward younger people, and so maybe not that appealing to us olds, but that’s been true of Cumberland for decades. If there is a lack of funky coolness, then that will reflect the tastes of the time, which we can all bemoan as every generation does.

But from the standpoint of effective urban design, mixed-use on that corridor is a better use of real estate in every way than a long string of gas stations and drive-thrus. And in terms of the aesthetics we can control, the public space, Cumberland is already a much more attractive and human-scaled place for pedestrians — who will be its primary users — than the old four-lane highway with its endless curb cuts. There are several places you can easily cross it now without even the benefit of a stoplight, which would have been a death wish before. I understand the nostalgia someone might feel for the hip spots of another era, but Cumberland hasn’t been that for the last 20 years at least, for reasons that have nothing to do with the redesign.

j.f.m.'s picture

And don’t forget we have

And don’t forget we have already been through three football seasons with restricted traffic on Cumberland. Everyone has survived as far as I know.

Bbeanster's picture

So I was wrong to hope for

So I was wrong to hope for better times when the construction phase was over?

j.f.m.'s picture

It’s better in the sense that

It’s better in the sense that the roadwork is done and the lanes are open in both directions. But the point was not to make it an easier place to drive through. It’s safer — fewer left turns cutting across and people suddenly braking to accommodate them — but it is not intended to be a commuter route. Though to be honest, the times I do drive through it now (which I try to not do if for example there’s a big event on campus) I have encountered no more delays than anywhere else in or around downtown.

It is, however, better experienced on foot.

barker's picture

The Strip

I don't have a problem with the "urbanization" of Cumberland Avenue. Shoot, Fort Sanders is already the most densely populated neighborhood in the city, so it makes sense to encourage high-rise (for Knoxville) development along the Strip. I haven't gone to the Strip on a regular basis for years because, well, I'm not in college anymore. I did drive down Cumberland the other day at about 6 p.m., the first time during rush hour since the road diet was complete. Traffic moved smoothly, much more so than it did when the street was a four-lane. I don't know if that's the norm. It would be interesting to know if the city has done a study of the traffic flow now compared to traffic flow before the reconfiguration (hint, hint).

Bbeanster's picture

P.S I's an honor to be double

P.S It's an honor to be double teamed by Lyons and Mayshark on a fine Saturday afternoon!

PPS: Re the Western Plaza snafu: I agree that the legislators and the developer were given reason to believe that the plan was A-OK with the neighborhood folk.

Looks to me like maybe they've delegated too much responsibility to the officers/executive committee. Maybe they should meet more than once a year.

j.f.m.'s picture

We just want you to feel

We just want you to feel special.

Bill Lyons's picture

Administration peep tag team

Betty.. You have more than held your own against the administration peeps tag team. In re: Cumberland I understand that it is far different that it was back in the day. I won't quarrel with the appeal of the shops you noted. And I understand that today's version is not a place you, and many others may find worth going to. On that note I would not rule out Sunspot, which is really attractive in its new location next to the Old College Inn, which has also departed a while ago. They have some parking in the rear of the building as well.

But there is no land use or other policy that could revisit the Cumberland of the 60s and 70s as an option. It had long become a far different place that was unattractive and economically challenged. I think the new one is working well for the UT community, Fort Sanders residents and the hospitals.

There is no right or wrong on this, of course. It is all a matter of taste and preference and we appreciate yours on this and other matters as well. Thanks.

bizgrrl's picture

As a follow-up to the

As a follow-up to the conversation,

And I understand that today's version is not a place you, and many others may find worth going to. On that note I would not rule out Sunspot, which is really attractive in its new location next to the Old College Inn, which has also departed a while ago. They have some parking in the rear of the building as well.

I kind of chuckle when I see the Sunspot billboard on Alcoa Hwy. It appears they want to attract Blount County residents.

Rachel's picture

there is no land use or other

there is no land use or other policy that could revisit the Cumberland of the 60s and 70s as an option.

I miss the Cumberland of the early 70s as well, warts and all (and yes, there were warts - all the curb cuts and parking lots a pedestrian had to maneuver for one thing). I know of no way to force funky, local businesses to come back and mediocre chains to depart. If anyone does, I'd like to hear it.

The "soul" of Cumberland was gone long before the new code. And I'd add that the university and Covenant are taking the soul of the Fort right with it.

Joe328's picture

Look to Maryville for excellent codes

I been to a few community meeting and found little to no objections to mixed use. What most were concerned with was the micro management of businesses and residents.

Maryville went through rewriting codes several years ago and held public meetings allowing everyone to debate the issues. They wrote some of the best and easy to understand codes that made everyone happy except Ed Mitchell, who will never be happy without full control. Maryville is attracting higher paying jobs, building the best bike trails, and it's growing in a very good way.

Knoxville has the opportunity to become a destination attraction as it once was, but city leaders must be transparent with the citizens.

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