Fire Won't Halt Future Sale of Tenn. Warehouses

Homeless people have lived in the warehouses, which have burned twice recently.

Feb. 04--Knoxville's Community Development Corporation was talking with potential bidders looking to price how much it would cost to stabilize the McClung warehouses two days before the buildings caught fire again Saturday, online records show.

In fact, those potential bidders were scheduled to tour the site Monday before a blaze lit up the pre-dawn skyline on Saturday.

Instead, Mayor Madeline Rogero spoke with reporters Monday on West Jackson Avenue in front of the misfortune-prone property known by local residents and authorities as a haven for homeless people and vagrants.

Rogero, who earlier this year announced her plan to address homelessness, said she hopes the city-owned property will be sold to a developer by the end of the year, despite the setback from the two-alarm fire.

She wouldn't call the buildings a loss.

Structural engineers today will begin to survey the remaining structures to determine when West Jackson Avenue can reopen and nearby businesses can reopen and a resident can return home.

"I think we'll find out after the structural assessment if it's a loss," Rogero said. "Certainly if a building like this can be preserved, that would be our first preference. It's a key historic building in downtown Knoxville, but we have to be realistic."

City officials had hoped to pay to get the buildings stabilized prior to holding public sessions about what to do with the property before selling it to developers by the end of year, said Bob Whetsel, the city's director of redevelopment.

"What gets continually discussed for the future (of McClung) is mixed-used development," Whetsel said after Monday's news conference. "What component is residential, retail or hospitality, those things we're not sure. There's no details anywhere at this point in time."

The city paid $1.45 million to acquire the properties last year. About half of the cost was associated with a bankruptcy lawsuit, said Alvin Nance, KCDC president and CEO.

KCDC, which owns the title, insured the buildings but not necessarily for property damage, Nance said.

"If somebody got in and got injured (or) if the building falls down and tears up another building, those were the focal points for us," Nance said. "It's more so making sure we have the liability coverage in place versus replacement cost."

Charlene Oesterling, a personal trainer who lives across the street from the McClung buildings, has been displaced by the fire, she said.

"Just the whole idea of what to do with the building and as much trouble as they've had here, you want to preserve everything you can for history," said Oesterling, who is staying with friends. "But to what extent do you do that for safety?"

Oesterling often runs along the train tracks behind the McClung warehouses and often sees signs, such as leftover items, that people are going in and out of the buildings. She sometimes hears them, she said.

"I'm not against homeless people," Oesterling said, "but when they're starting to destroy the environment and there's garbage and trash laying constantly, that's disruptive to the community, and I think that needs to be taken care of as well as the buildings."

Fire Marshall Danny Beeler said Monday he is not narrowing any list of suspects to just homeless people, but admits there has been constant use of the vacant building by vagrants.

Copyright 2014 - The Knoxville News-Sentinel, Tenn.