Urban Living

Downtown Maryville is on the cusp of a new residential revolution

There’s a revival going on in downtown Maryville. The recent addition of the River of Life Church to the downtown landscape may come to mind, but this revival isn’t religious in nature.

It’s a revival in urban living, with developers and entrepreneurs hanging on during the current economic downturn to continue to have faith in the future of residential living in downtown Maryville.

Maryville Center Square owner Jim Carter is banking that demand for residential property downtown will only grow stronger. As more residential growth occurs downtown, more people will move into the city proper and sidewalks will get crowded, Carter said.

“I think it will be more of a sidewalk community where people will go back to being able to walk from one place to another versus driving everywhere. That will be the beauty of the downtown lofts and apartments,” he said. “With that in mind, we’re putting five to six lofts on our property on Washington Street.”

Carter said the lofts will be on the upper floors of Maryville Center Square, a new development behind USA Super Pawn that features such businesses as LaNese Salon and Day Spa and Firehouse Deli. He is adding the lofts to the new commercial development “because of what we see as the trend today,” he said. “Everything is going more to the sidewalk type communities.”

Leann Moe, artist and owner of Studio 212 on East Harper Avenue, said the landscape has changed much in the past couple years as more residential living has developed.

“Doug Harris and I were the only ones living in downtown, and then he moved out. In the last two or three years, it has been a complete transition with people moving in and business picking up,” she said. “It has started a revival in the area,” she said.

Moe and Hollowtree band musician Mike McQueen live above Moe’s studio with their daughter Olivia. Moe said she hopes privately-owned businesses continue to expand and develop downtown.

“It’s a good support for the arts. We talk about Maryville turning into an Asheville. We’ve got a good arts community and music community. I’d like that to continue to grow where locally- owned businesses support the arts and music,” she said.

Realtors Dan Mizell and John Melton developed the Harper Street Lofts in Maryville three years ago. It was the first new residential development downtown since Steve West opened apartments above Sullivans restaurant.

“It proved people do want to live downtown,” said Mizell. “We sold out rather quickly. There have been several units come back on the market for re-sell, and several have resold. It’s just a movement across the country that is really kind of just now hitting here. Other places, it has been going on some time,” Mizell said.

Mizell said people are moving out of the suburbs and back into the inner city for convenience and the lure of an urban, downtown style of living.

“Really, with gas prices as they are, it’s becoming what I call ‘smart living,’ meaning you are utilizing all the space for living space,” he said.

Mizell said that as people move downtown, they will begin walking to the bank, to church, the grocery store, restaurants and entertainment venues. In Blount County, they also have quick access to the Greenway, the Blount County Library and the new civic arts center, he said.

“With what we have in Maryville, we have a unique and wonderful situation for our downtown,” he said. “We are surrounded by 20-plus miles of walking trails and parks.”

Mizell predicts that the trend toward downtown living will continue to grow. “Right now, there is a little downturn in the market, but when the market comes back up, people will look hard at smart living choices,” he said. “Do you want to live in a subdivision where you have grass to mow, which takes gas; where you get in car to go see friends or enjoy entertainment or would you rather live downtown and walk our your front door to see everything?”

Mizell said downtown living has always been popular in New York City, is gaining popularity in Philadelphia and in the past few years has taken hold in Knoxville. “My goodness, look at what has happened in the downtown area of Knoxville -- the Gay Street area. They can’t build them fast enough,” he said. “We’re just getting there. It is a definite thing to come, and I am personally very interested in seeing more done and want to be involved in more downtown living. I’m convinced it will be a good investment.”

Mark Brackins, owner of Brackins Blues Club on East Broadway Avenue said that he sees more growth in the commercial development downtown, especially with the recent addition of Swanks, Two Doors Down and the Capital Theater’s new look. Brackins said he hasn’t seen as much residential growth as he has commercial.

“Business has obviously taken off pretty good. As far as residential, I hadn’t noticed a lot of people moving in recently, but there are obviously more things to do downtown to bring more people in on the residential side,” he said. “I think with bringing more businesses downtown, you will get more people actually moving downtown, especially with the price of gas.”

Brackins said the plus to downtown living means people can work and live downtown and have entertainment venues and shopping venues.

“A lot of cities, not just Maryville, are gearing toward central locations like downtown. It will eventually pick up -- with people living downtown in affordable housing,” he said.

Bill Womac and his wife, Marti, opened Boyd Thomas Clothing in December, 2007.

Bill Womac said he felt everything was starting to come back to downtown, and he felt drawn to the area when planning to open a high-end clothing store for men and women.

“I had looked for different locations and almost did go out of downtown but I wanted to be part of what was the downtown renovation. I grew up here and used to shop downtown when I was a kid. I’d like to live downtown personally,” he said.

Womac said residential growth will be nothing but positive for Maryville. The growth will continue as long as amenities necessary for downtown living become available.

“Particularly a grocery store,” Womac said. “That seems to be one thing lacking and possibly a few more things to do downtown. A movie theater would be nice and, always, additional restaurants are good.”

Womac said he hopes more businesses continue to locate downtown. “Even though it’s a difficult climate for anyone to open a business, hopefully people will continue to support those that do open,” he said.

Allen Swank, owner of Swanks at 100 Court Jazz Restaurant and Club, said cities are defined by their downtown districts.

“With all the effort and interest in downtown, we have the chance to put Maryville on the map. We could easily become a destination,” he said.

Swank credited the City of Maryville with looking forward and putting more more parking downtown, saying that has spurred development in the past few years.

“It is so easy to access everything down here,” Swank said. “We are quickly becoming a one-stop destination for shopping, dining and entertainment venues.”

As more residential growth occurs, more commercial development will follow, he said.

“I think people living downtown is going to transform our landscape downtown. As opposed to finding strip malls, businesses are going to start jockeying for positions to move into downtown, especially as more people move in,” he said.

Swank said he and his family invested in the idea of downtown growth by opening their new business.

“We love being a part of something so vital to Blount County,” he said. “I’m excited about it. Our downtown is actually growing as opposed to shrinking. More eyes are on it because so much is going on.”

Jane Groff, director of Special Events for the City of Maryville, has lived in the apartments above Sullivan’s Downtown since May of 2007. In that time Groff said she’s seen the addition of new business and many new neighbors.

“It’s becoming more of a community. I can go to Amburn’s and the Farmers’ Market. I can get my haircut downtown. If I need a gift, I can run over to Dandy Lions or Raspberries,” she said. “There are plenty of great restaurants, and there is quite the night life with someone usually offering a live band or other form of entertainment. At Christmas time, I went to the Palace to see classic Christmas movies. There is plenty of parking with the new garage, and it is free.”

Groff admitted that living downtown isn’t for everyone. “If you enjoy having a yard and being able to run around outside in your pajamas, picking flowers, think twice,” she said with a laugh. “Local businesses frown on you picking their flowers, Or if you don’t particularly enjoy long flights of stairs or traffic noise at night, then downtown probably isn’t for you,” she said.

City of Maryville Mayor Joe Swann said residential living downtown was virtually non-existent 10 years ago in terms of downtown proper. There were some folks toward the college on High Street and in the roads around there, but in downtown, there was very little urban living.

The mayor said that several years ago the council started talking about the possibility of doing high-density housing along the Greenway. Olympia Fitness Club was the first to build condos along the Greenway, and adjacent to their facility.

“There are good opportunities to do more things such as the new lofts Danny Mizell and John Melton have put up along the Greenway. You combine the Greenway with downtown, and it makes for a desirable place to live,” Swann said. “It gives you pedestrian access to an awful lot of urban services and amenities.”

The mayor said that the more entertainment, restaurant and retail venue open or grow in downtown, the more people will be drawn to the area. “All those different components tend to support each other,” he said.

Have a little fun

The list of types of businesses in downtown Maryville is growing in diversity. In the past year, two clothing stores, a gift and stationary shop, a church, hair salons and spas have opened their doors for business.

The Maryville Municipal Center is 3 years old. The Blount County Public Library, which celebrated its sixth birthday in April, is offering extensive programming for all ages --- both inside and outside at the library. While a grocery store and first-run movie theater haven’t appeared yet, an upscale market with produce and meats is scheduled to open soon and the renovated Capital Theater plans to offer vintage movies to the public.

But, with all that, downtown Maryville is still first thought of by those who don’t frequent it regularly as a place to have a little fun. Brackins and the Palace Theater have long been attracting crowds to the downtown area, and new venues that offer both music and food have opened in the past six months. The selection of live music has grown with the opening of Two Doors Down and Swanks, and the addition of Last Friday Art Walk has brought new crowds to the urban area.

Still on the horizon is the new Civic Arts Center which is being built on Maryville College’s campus and the renovations being finished at the Capitol theater. Many hope as Swank said, that downtown Maryville will also become a destination for tourists.

Special events also have a home in downtown Maryville. Foothills Fall Festival brings more than 100,000 festival-goers to the streets every October. Hometown Christmas bathes the city in lights and holiday spirit. The Farmers Market is having a record year and Taste of Blount grows each year in vendors and customers.

National trends

America’s urban and downtown areas began a long period of decline in the 1950s and 1960s with the growth of the family car. According to Pew Partnerships “Solutions for America: Viable Economics,” a civic research project, the automobile changed individual and commercial behavior, and the focus of commercial activity shifted from the cities to the suburbs. During the late sixties and seventies, cities declined further as white flight to the suburbs accelerated. “The result was a vicious cycle in which downtown businesses closed because of population declines, which increased the rate at which residents and visitors left downtown areas,” cites Solutions for America.

Studies still insisted that a healthy and vibrant downtown boosts the economic health and quality of life in a community, creating jobs, aiding small businesses, protecting property values and reducing urban sprawl. The study outlines nine strategies for downtown revitalization:

1. Aim for a multi-functional downtown. Successful downtowns attract a wide range of individuals by affecting housing, work, shopping, culture, entertainment, government, and tourist attractions.

2. Develop a broad strategy for revitalizing downtown areas. Blueprints for improving downtown areas must address several areas at once. Downtown revitalization should include not only new housing and commercial businesses, but also after-school programs, anti-crime initiatives, youth development and employment services, arts, recreational opportunities, and public transit.

3. Create partnerships. Downtown revitalization encompasses a wide range of activities. Therefore, it requires the cooperation of local government, chambers of commerce, the private sectors, civic organizations, and other key institutions.

4. Pay particular attention to attracting commercial business. Businesses are often more comfortable and familiar working in suburban areas than downtown. In particular, downtowns should provide guidance with financing, parking areas, zoning, and building design.

5. Focus on developing the unique qualities of downtowns. Downtowns have an advantage over suburban developments in terms of their historical value and compact, walking-friendly size. Development should focus on these strengths by preserving historical architecture and promoting traditional architecture through zoning and adaptive reuse of existing structures. Downtowns should also improve pedestrian walkways through installation of attractive lights, benches, and flowers in order to draw shoppers and other traffic.

6. Maintain and develop genuine public spaces. The legacies of urban renewal programs are downtowns with fewer sidewalks, more car traffic, and more “dead spaces” such as parking lots, highway ramps, and vacant buildings. As a result, pedestrian activity and public gathering in many cities is discouraged. Careful planning through widening sidewalks, encouraging mass transit, and landscaping can encourage “on-street” activities such as commerce and dining and widen the public sphere, promoting community.

7. Make strategies locally based and flexible. Downtown revitalization programs must be flexible not only in terms of goals, but must also adapt their strategies to local needs.

8. Secure multiple sources of funding. Although it is important to secure funding from a variety of sources, assistance from local governments is particularly important for long-term project sustainability (The Urban Institute).

9. Get local governments involved in several areas. The National Main Street Center of the National Trust for Historic Preservation conducts an annual survey of organizations in communities that are revitalizing their downtown and commercial districts. In 2000, four of the five factors most helpful to development cited in the survey-securing favorable zoning codes, retaining government offices, increasing housing stock, and approving historic preservation codes-all require local government involvement. Governments can use their regulatory powers to make it easier for a wide variety of small businesses to locate downtown, as well as help preserve existing housing and promote new, affordable housing.

(For more information on the Pew study, go to

www.solutionsforamerica.org.)

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