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Downtown Supreme Court: New apartments, Airbnb like hotel, new retail

After 20 years, a transformation is beginning at the old Tennessee State Supreme Court site in downtown Knoxville. 

As Dover Signature Properties and Bristol Development Group begin construction in early November to revitalize the city block bounded by Locust Street, Cumberland Avenue, West Church Avenue and Henley Street, the developers hope the $76M project will lead the transformation of the southwest quadrant of downtown

The project, one of the largest upfront private investments in downtown‘s history, will repurpose the former State Supreme Court building, its attached office tower and its parking lot into a short-term rental hub and a mixed-use apartment community. 

“I think we’ll raise the bar for the experience that people have coming to downtown Knoxville,” Dover Signature Properties president Rick Dover said. 

Dover gave Knox News an exclusive deep dive into the site plans, set to be completed in Fall 2021. The official groundbreaking is Oct. 28. 

It’s the biggest challenge yet for Dover, a self-described historic developer with projects like the Hyatt Place Downtown and Knoxville High Independent Senior Living to his name. 

“As we fill in these missing teeth in the smile of Knoxville, the smile just gets bigger,” Dover said. “I love it, I love being part of it.” 

Not exactly a hotel

The first element of the project is the restoration of the State Supreme Court structure and its attached office tower. 

Completed in 1951, the mid-century modern Supreme Court, known for its Tennessee marble exterior, was designed by Baumann Baumann Architecture.

That part of the building will be faithfully restored, and its 12-foot ceilings, “spaceship” light fixtures and signature pink marble both inside and outside will be preserved.

“It will be like going into George Jetson’s apartment,” Dover joked.  

The office tower will be gutted and a rooftop deck built atop both portions of the structure. 

The word “hotel” has been used to describe the project, but Dover is hesitant to use it, dubbing it instead a “short-term residential rental in a hospitality format.” 

“It will be unlike anything else this market has seen,” he said.  

Basically, a building with 60 short-term rental apartments inside. There’s no hotel brand or management company; instead they’ll likely use a booking platform such as Sonder, a competitor to Airbnb.

“The problem I’ve got with the word ‘hotel’ is that anticipates a certain level of guest services and interaction,” Dover said. “Where in this we’re going to encourage (guests) to get out in the community.”

Guests will also be encouraged to utilize ride share and municipal parking as there won’t be much parking on site.

Apartment living with amenities

The second aspect is the mixed-use apartment community known as Church Henley that will be built where the parking lot sits.

“Few things are ‘deader’ than a surface parking lot,” he said. “That’s going to go from being just kind of an urban desert to a place where 400 people will live and shop and interact.” 

The 237-unit Class-A apartment community’s exterior will offer a “sophisticated urban” vibe with an mix of glass, metal, stucco and wood finishes. 

Church Henley will emphasize finishes and amenities over square footage. Or, as Dover puts it, the things that make living downtown more interesting and convenient. 

The seven-story building will feature seven floor plans from 350-square-foot studios to around 1,000-square-foot two-bedroom units. 

Amenities will include a co-working space with a coffee shop, outdoor dog park with pet spa, 24-hour package delivery, wellness studio, fitness studio and media center.

An interior courtyard will feature a pool, outdoor kitchens and seating area exclusively for residents, who will also utilize a subterranean parking garage.

Betting on Henley Street 

The Henley Street side of the apartment building will be lined with storefronts featuring some of the amenities like public art, the fitness center, business lounge, makers space, pet spa, doggy day care and bicycle shop. 

Though intended to serve the residents, Dover and the city are betting it will attract  pedestrian activity on a street where downtown shoppers aren’t known to linger. 

One of city’s main goals in this redevelopment project is to inject Henley Street with some life. And, as most people who access downtown via I-40 to Henley Street will turn left on Church Avenue, the building will be a gateway of sorts.

“Which means this is the front door of downtown Knoxville,” he said. “So I think this project ne to be very urban, it ne to be smart and current and hopefully something that will age well architecturally.”

Is the market overbuilt? 

Both parts of the project will commence and conclude concurrently as set out in the development agreement with the city. 

They both are designed by DIA and the engineer is Facility Systems Consultants. Dover estimated the work over the next two years will create about 350 jobs in construction. 

Dover said overbuild is always a concern in the development business — new hotels and apartment buildings have been announced or launched since he started this process two years ago. 

He shared that after the $43 million downtown Courtyard and Residence Inn by Marriott opened, the occupancy rates at his nearby Hyatt Place rose. He said projects that make Knoxville a more compelling place for visitors and residents are accretive for the market. 

“It’s incumbent on us to do a good enough job that people want to come here,” he said. “If we fail at that, shame on nobody but us. That’s capitalism.”