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Instead of Crestpointe, let’s redevelop the City Center

Previously I posted my views on the Crestpointe proposal. The obvious follow-up question is “What would you do instead?”

My answer is “Let’s commit to redevelopment of the City Center.”

A little history may be necessary to explain what I’m talking about…

Back in 2000 the City (with the help of consultants) developed — and City Council adopted — a conceptual master plan for the 293-acre heart of the city (roughly, the area bounded by Oak Ridge Turnpike, South Illinois Ave., and Rutgers Ave., including the Oak Ridge Mall area, Civic Center, and Oak Ridge Associated Universities campus); see the city’s website for some details. Some of the details shown in the plan maps (such as relocatiThumbnail image of City Center Master Plan mapng Recording for the Blind and the Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge) were ill-conceived and caused citizens to criticize the entire proposal, but those were details, not the main thrust of the recommendations. At the heart of the plan was a recommendation to increase the overall density of development in the city center area, while reconfiguring the area with additional roads and walkways that would draw people in to shop, visit attractions, and participate in community events. Notably, the plan recommended “de-malling” the mall (which was already moribund), putting roads and pedestrian ways through it and eliminating about 40% of the enclosed space, to convert it into a “town center” type of shopping center development. The City’s consultants had concluded that the mall was greatly overbuilt (the local market could not support the amount of shopping space it contained) and recommended this change to bring new vitality to the area.

At the time, it was understood that implementing these concepts would require a public-private partnership — because the proposal promised to benefit both the community and center-city businesses, both the city and private landowners/developers would need to share the costs. City staff and prospective developers proposed a modified version of the “de-malling” plan in 2002, but the extravagance of the plan and other issues (too numerous to review here) caused the $23.2 million bond that was proposed for the project to be defeated in a referendum. Chattanooga developer Steve Arnsdorff ultimately purchased the mall with the intention of revamping it. He has publicly stated his intentions to proceed, but he has been offered far less city financial assistance than GBT Realty is now requesting.

If in 2007 Oak Ridge is now so desperate for retail that the City would spend $10.5 million in public funds to flatten a mountain to build a shopping center (in a location that is zoned industrial and is isolated from our existing retail areas), it stands to reason that we should be willing to consider committing some public funds to bring functioning retail back to the center of the city, particularly to the site of the dead Oak Ridge Mall, by recommitting to the vision that the City embraced in the City Center Master Plan.

There is no denying that there are significant issues to overcome in bringing new retail to the center city area (not the least of which are deed restrictions imposed when Wal-Mart bought the tract where its store is located from former mall owner Crown American), but I believe these issues are not insurmountable, and I am convinced that if we do not try to resolve these issues we will never recover a functioning retail sector in our center city.

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3 Comments

  1. Fred Stephens says:

    Why don’t you call Walmart’s home office and find out what it would take to get them to drop the deed restriction for which Walmart paid Crown American $4 million dollars.

  2. Ellen Smith says:

    Interesting idea, but I respectfully suggest that would be a terrible way to start a negotiation…

    Also, note that Wal-Mart did not pay Crown American $4 million for a deed restriction. The $4-million deed was for transfer of real estate from Crown American to Wal-Mart. That deed included several restrictions on the future use of the adjoining land that Crown American continued to own.

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