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Burn, Baby, Burn...Fire Street Lofts further exemplifies downtown's viability

(this article appeared in the November 4, 2004 edition of Metro Pulse)

by Matt Edens, Metro Pulse

Heading down to Gay Street the other night an unusual thing occurred-the sort of thing I've read about in the papers, but had never experienced first hand. I had to hunt for parking, in downtown Knoxville, on a Thursday, after five. Granted, I didn't have to hunt for a space that long. I was still in Knoxville, after all. Must have been Autumn on the Square, I assumed, after parking my car bass-ackwards on the Gay Street viaduct. But the concert series, I quickly realized, had ended the week before.

"What was going on?" I wondered, as I walked up the 100 block, beneath the brightly lit facades of the Emporium and Sterchi buildings and past the small knot of chain-smokers on the sidewalk outside Nama-whose tables were crowded, even on a Thursday.

That's when it dawned on me. There wasn't anything special going on that Thursday night, which, if you think about it, is kind of special in its own right. After myriad missteps in search of big-ticket tourist attractions to draw people downtown, the alternate strategy of converting downtown real estate into residential housing has begun to pay off.

A couple dozen diners sucking down sushi aren't the only indication, either. Downtown housing is evolving. In the '90s rentals were rare, lofts were primarily sold as shells to be finished out for the owner-a strategy that spread the risk around in an era when banks balked at making loans downtown. More recent projects like the Sterchi have been rentals, to tap historic preservation tax credits and bridge the gap between construction costs and what the banks would underwrite. But now, with the Sterchi and Emporium leased up, the market has matured to the point that developers are redoing entire buildings from the ground up as ready to move in, owner-occupied condos. Lerner Lofts, at the corner of Gay and Wall, was the first out of the gate. And sales-even though units are priced at more than $150 a square foot-have been strong. But I suspect that Fire Street Lofts, the new project from developer David Dewhirst will prove downtown's residential market is, well, on fire.

Fire Street, according to the old Sanborn Insurance map, was once the name of the alley that runs behind the 100 block of Gay on the Old City side. And the Fire Street Lofts are in the building that once housed the dance clubs Fiction, the Boiler Room and the Underground. And, even without the throbbing bass beat and back-lit go-go dancers of the Underground days, it's still a hell of a space. The first two floors-off the alley, I mean Fire Street, and at the Jackson Avenue ramp-will be commercial space, hopefully art studios/galleries to complement the Arts Alliance space in the Emporium. The top four floors will be 28 loft units. Ranging from 900 to 1,845 square feet, all the lofts will have loads of natural light (unlike lots of downtown, the building has light on all four sides), hardwood floors, and spectacular exposed pillars, beams and hardwood overhead. Construction crews have just finished stripping off decades of dirt and cigarette smoke to reveal rich reds of the original heart-pine. Many of the units will have exterior balconies, some on both the east and south elevations, and top floor units have the potential for rooftop decks as well. One unit even comes with the original rooftop penthouse, which, in addition to providing ready roof access, comes with built-in industrial chic courtesy of the gears and pulleys to the old freight elevator.

Oh, and since Dewhirst is building a two-level, 42-space parking deck in the old loading dock next to JFG, you'll never have to hunt for parking.

Fire Street Lofts | 214 Jackson Ave. | Knoxville, TN 37902

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