Magnolia Blooms - Knoxville, TN


A Viral Strategy for Developing Knoxville, Tennessee

© 2017 Daniel Hodge. Genius Loci.

The following is excerpted from Daniel Hodge's Master's thesis, entitled Pro Bono Publico:  The Architect As Developer. In this section, he introduces a viable strategy for developing affordable housing options and a mindfully designed community for the Magnolia corridor, where he intends to spur innovation and development in an incremental style - as opposed to master-planned models.

Knoxville, Tennessee, particularly within its urban core, lacks good affordable housing options and in many areas, it does not have any at all.

If it features some variation of affordable housing then they are mostly relegated to isolated districts far away from the central community hubs, job opportunities, and wholesome food outlets. “I have never seen a community that is against so many things and in favor of so few,” says Sherry Kelly Marshall, former executive director of the Partnership for Neighborhood Improvement in Knoxville.

Perhaps this negative disposition and misplaced conservatism stem from the historical vision and identity of Knoxville that has developed over many years. Dr. William Bruce Wheeler, Professor Emeritus of the University of Tennessee’s Department of History, contends in his book, Knoxville, Tennessee:  A Mountain City in the New South, that this dominant sociocultural attitude of Knoxville happened because “Knoxvillians fabricated a history that portrayed the city as the almost impotent product of historical forces that it could neither alter nor control."

With this in mind, it is easier to comprehend the historical economic and political forces that shaped the organizational and aesthetic composition of the city. Political infighting and a stark unwillingness to innovate beyond traditional models characterize the gridlock between actors vying for ideological primacy in the region.

Several glimpses of hope have been observed in the past half-century but the political machine dashed the majority of these efforts. Pioneering interests have swayed the status quo only slightly during this time and the greatest amount of change and ideological restructuring has come about in recent years by virtue of a renewed sense of historic preservation that is not wrapped in tired models of the past and instead views such determinations as ways to envision a better future.

The optimism in Knoxville's historic preservation movement is, of course, challenged to some degree by disagreements about how to utilize its resources. As Katherine Morris contends in her 2007 Master's thesis, “Ideology interacts with geography and scale in downtown development projects and clearly shows fragmentation in pro-growth coalitions as well as community members.” While Knoxville is comprised of various actors who agree that growth is a good thing, there are many diverging perspectives for how to accomplish growth. David Dewhirst, a successful engineer turned developer and real Rousseauian Citoyen, appears to have realized that incremental growth, realizing a single project at a time, is the most effective way to build public consensus.

Unanimity of opinion is not what triggers the incremental growth desired by the city’s leadership and community. Master-planned communities require massive consensus upfront, compared to projects developing singularly that need much smaller amounts of consensus in order to succeed and proffer value. Knoxville’s unsuccessful attempts to achieve growth are marked particularly by the failure of its master plan schemes, from the 1972 General Redevelopment Plan prepared by Boeing Corporation’s planners for the Knoxville City Council (see below), the 1998 Renaissance Knoxville plan by Worsham Watkins International (WWI), to the 2002 plan by the Portland, Oregon-based Crandall Arumbala. None of these major proposals have materialized.

Remastered from Wheeler's  Knoxville, Tennessee . The lightbulbs are all indications of green space!

Remastered from Wheeler's Knoxville, Tennessee. The lightbulbs are all indications of green space!

The advantages of disconfirmatory knowledge are once again proven:  knowing what does not work, we are better informed to seek alternative strategies that might work. Gradual propagation of an idea requires conviction imbued with the notion of delayed gratification. The abruptness so characteristic of master plans is in part a result of having aims in pursuit of immediate gratification.

Incremental growth, in the vein of David Dewhirst, is effectively a way to tinker with the revitalization of the res publica. The slow, gradual process has the advantage of gaining momentum over time as it surges through the immediate sociocultural context; whereas top-down, master-planned schemes necessitate favorability before the kernel of a proposed development can properly mature.

Gradual development leads by example when one successful rehabilitation project engenders another and another, and finally, a network of successes generates the galvanization of divergent, pro-growth interests.

Not only that, a chief component of Dewhirst’s development scheme is the provision of residential space. His high-end loft and consequent middle to upper-class preferentialism notwithstanding, happy residents are likely to be some of the most influential spokespeople for the continued supremacy of the Dewhirst brand's vision. The business plans that he has inevitably assisted in realizing, especially in the Market Square and Old City districts of the downtown, also assist in galvanizing public support and generating rapport for Dewhirst Properties, LLC.

This idea, of garnering snowballing support, is the crux of the viral strategy that is required to generate momentum and eventually achieve the ends of self-propagation in developing Knoxville, Tennessee. It is a strategy of investing incrementally and letting ideas evolve organically and allowing them to prove their value. It is also a strategy that curbs the often harmful effects of gentrification as a district itself cultivates its identity, not a high-end marketing agency bent on selling a foreign idea of "place." 

Low-impact developments lead to high-impact networks of developments. By disrupting the established real estate network through a steady subordination of its equipments that exist contrary to the res publica, the objectives of a publicly activated district are more productively stimulated. The Magnolia Avenue corridor is ripe for value-intensive projects. If enough seeds are planted constructively and organically (in their season), the somewhat dormant and certainly disenfranchised community will once again be able to flourish.


1. Wheeler, William Bruce. Knoxville, Tennessee: A Mountain City in the New South. 2nd Edition. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2005.

2. Morris, Katherine. From Gay Street to Turkey Creek: Knoxville's Urban and Suburban Growth Machines. Master's Thesis. University of Tennessee. Knoxville, 2007.