"We want to preserve neighborhood character. That’s the number one thing we want to see."
After half a century without review, Knoxville’s zoning ordinances are getting renovated.
By Sarah Plemmons
In 2016, Mayor Madeline Rogero proposed an update to the city’s zoning ordinances, kicking off the Recode Knoxville Project which aspires to reorganize zoning so that it supports 21st century development trends, according to the Recode Knoxville page.
The most recent draft map, however, saw some backlash from Fourth and Gill, an historic neighborhood near Knoxville’s city center.
“We want to preserve neighborhood character. That’s the number one thing we want to see,” Bob Whetsel, Fourth and Gill’s External Relations Chairman, said in an interview.
Fourth and Gill is part of the N. Broadway St. / N. Central St. suburb near Knoxville’s city center. Considered an up-and-coming neighborhood (though already unaffordable to many), it is ranked third in highest appreciating Knoxville neighborhoods since 2000 by Neighborhood Scout, yet it is still among the lowest income neighborhoods in the United States, lower than 93.6 percent of American neighborhoods.
Fourth and Gill was largely developed between the 1880s and 1920s. Originally, it was a single-family neighborhood. After World War I, however, many of the homes were split into multiplexes to accommodate the demand for wartime housing.
“There were just a lot of chopped up houses, and not well-chopped up. We’re talking single-room occupancies and bathrooms put into closets,” Whetsel said. “The great concern to me is that they start to chop these houses up again.”
When Whetsel moved to Fourth and Gill in 1980, urban redevelopment had already taken hold, and many people were buying property with the intention of renovating the homes to later sell at a higher price.
In 1985, 282 buildings including houses were listed on the National Registrar of Historic Places, and in 1993, Fourth and Gill was designated an Historic Overlay District, meaning it would be protected by the Historic Zoning Commission. Since then, Fourth and Gill has been transitioning back to a predominantly single-family neighborhood. Currently, it is classified as R1-A which allows single-family homes on properties of at least 5,000 square feet and duplexes on properties of at least 10,000 square feet.
The original zoning draft set Fourth and Gill as RN-2, a new zoning designation that is essentially the same as R1-A with the slight difference that duplexes would be considered special use. In other words, to build or convert to a duplex, a developer would need special permission to do so. Moreover, any existing, non-conforming buildings would be grandfathered in and considered permitted use.
The newest draft has set Fourth and Gill as RN-4 which would allow single-family homes, duplexes, townhouses and fourplexes. According to Recode Knoxville, this addresses the “missing middle” or the housing that exists between single-family and high-density development.
The Fourth and Gill Neighborhood Board set out to form a unified stance against this newest zoning draft. However, one resident raised her voice in support of the new RN-4 zoning.
April Ellis, former board member and longtime low-income renter in Fourth and Gill, believes this new zoning code is a step in the right direction for the neighborhood.
“I had served on the board for three years,” Ellis said in an interview. “I think for the most part, I was the only low-income renter serving on the board, so that definitely offers a different perspective given the general demographic of the neighborhood.”
Ellis resigned from the board in October but was included in a later email thread asking for board members’ support for their stance on the newest zoning draft. Ellis voiced her concerns about opposing the zoning.
“Based on what I know about the proposed zoning, it is to allow multifamily housing, while protecting the existing structures, and likely an attempt by Recode to pave the way for more affordable housing in areas near resources,” Ellis said.
Under RN-4, single-family homes, duplexes, townhouses and multifamily homes would all be permitted use, meaning a developer would not need special permission to construct or convert. However, lot sizes for multifamily constructions could not exceed 40,000 square feet, not even a full acre of land. They would also have to adhere to existing height restrictions of 35 feet, or about two stories, and be subject to the historic overlay that protects any building within its jurisdiction from being torn down without permission from the Historic Zoning Commission.
As for paving the way to affordable housing, Bring Back the Orange groups in Knoxville are advocating for higher density living and more inclusive zoning to encourage affordable housing. With the new RN-4 designation, Fourth and Gill would be taken from a yellow, medium density designation to an orange, high density designation.
“It’s really important as a community and it will be a richer community if we do manage to keep on providing affordable housing because then we have students, we have elderly people, we have people who have lived here for 50 years, working class people whose relatives are living in their house, and I just think having that economic diversity is an important part of having a vibrant neighborhood,” resident Gerry Moll said.
At a neighborhood meeting held Monday, Nov. 12, resident David Bocangel raised the issue that the half of Fourth and Gill south of Lovenia Ave. was under more pressure from the newest draft due to the amount of developable lots on the south side.
“There’s a lot of potential for developing in one single block,” Bocangel said.
While the only options presented in the drafts so far have been the initial RN-2 and the most recent RN-4 designations, Fourth and Gill has two more options on which attendees to Monday’s meeting voted.
One is to meet halfway at RN-3. This would consider single-family and duplexes permitted with the addition of townhouses as special use.
The second option is to combine RN-2 and RN-3, applying RN-2 to existing structures in the Historic District and applying RN-3 to vacant lots.
“I know that the flipside to protecting the homes is creating affordable and more dense housing, and that is part of our consideration when we talk about this,” board member Katey Hawley said. “We found that RN-3 was a really great way to balance both.”
Recode Knoxville has extended the comment deadline for the newest draft to Nov. 16. Once comments have closed, Recode will offer a fourth draft.
After open houses and public hearings regarding the fourth draft, a final draft will be presented. The final draft is set to be adopted by February 2019.
This story has been updated to state Fourth & Gill was issued an Historic Overlay District in 1993.