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Johnson City poised for major step forward downtown

JEFF KEELING • Mar 5, 2009 at 12:00 AM

JOHNSON CITY — A giant unused warehouse just west of downtown Johnson City could fall to the wrecking ball later this year as part of a combined flood control and beautification effort that a redevelopment specialist said also could help spur downtown business growth — if the Johnson City Commission approves its purchase Thursday night. Young’s Warehouse (also known as the White’s Warehouse) at 125 Lamont St. runs parallel to Lamont and the Norfolk Southern rail line, starting just east of Sevier Street, and flood-prone Brush Creek runs under much of the building in a culvert. If the City Commission approves the $537,500 purchase then funds demolition, opening up of Brush Creek and creation of surrounding “green space,” it will mark the city’s first big step toward implementing any portion of its master plan to address flooding, Commissioner Marcy Walker said Wednesday. “Hopefully, this is going to send a message to businesses downtown and to the rest of the city that we’re serious about addressing the flooding issue for downtown,” Walker said. The city considered buying the building from owner Butch Carr in 2007 but balked at the $1 million asking price, and an auction in November 2007 did not draw a satisfactory bid. Since then, further studies of the flooding problem have confirmed the role that opening up Brush Creek between Sevier and Wilson Avenue — right where the building sits — could play in mitigating flood problems, Walker said. The warehouse sits on 3.5 acres, 70 percent of that under roof, and the city also has a contract for the adjoining building that once housed the local Red Cross office. City staffers provided commissioners with information showing that razing those buildings and opening the creek could capture storm water that flows down State of Franklin Road after heavy rains, enhance water storage capacity in the downtown area, and “correct a significant hydraulic inhibitor” under the building (translation: the stream gets backed up in the culvert). “It won’t cure the problem, and we know we’ve got to fix King Creek as well — and we have to have off-site detention upstream — but to me it’s the commitment I’ve wanted to see from the city in beginning to address these issues,” Walker said. The money will come from the storm water fee the city began collecting in 2007, and Walker said purchase and demolition won’t tap all the storm water money that has accrued so far. Walker said she believes the move is a good use of city dollars, especially with the other development taking place between East Tennessee State University and downtown. The prospect of the building being razed in favor of an open waterway and green space also excites Johnson City Development Authority Director Suzanne Kuehn, who believes redevelopment along the corridor between ETSU and downtown is crucial to downtown’s eventual resurgence. “Our redevelopment area covers the connectivity of State of Franklin from the university to Main and Market streets, and this area is definitely the epicenter of how it all comes together,” Kuehn said. “By creating this green space, it enhances all of the redevelopment area around it.” Some of that redevelopment includes an $18 million apartment project, University Edge, two blocks west of the warehouse, a proposed new ETSU baseball stadium just west of that, and a new chamber of commerce building with surrounding development on the former General Mills site across West State of Franklin Road from the warehouse. A recreational trail, due to be completed this summer, also is slated for that south side of State of Franklin. And trails along the north side, paralleling the creek, are in the planning stage. “This is kind of a validation that the (downtown) renaissance is coming,” Kuehn said of the proposed warehouse demolition. “And I think the community has been waiting for this. The attitude has kind of been, ‘Show us the proof that it’s going to be there,’ and I think this dividing wall coming down is proof to the community at large of the city’s commitment to seeing downtown come back to life.”

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