For weeks, rumors have been floating around South Knoxville that restaurateur Randy Burleson was going to put an Aubrey’s in the old Kern’s Bakery development. Or at the intersection of Chapman Highway and Gov. John Sevier Highway.
Or that he was going to put an Aubrey’s on the Kern’s site and a different restaurant inside the historic building. Or that he was walking away from Kern’s because he couldn’t get a variance on the South Waterfront Form-Based Code, which has been expanded to include the Kern’s site.
Burleson cleared up the confusion Thursday night at the monthly meeting of the Old Sevier Community Group, held at Stanley’s Greenhouse. There, in front of about 20 Old Sevier neighbors and hundreds of blooming plants, Burleson said that he wants to put an Aubrey’s restaurant on the southwest corner of the Kern’s “campus,” and he had the glossy renderings to prove it.
Burleson grew up in South Knoxville and says building an Aubrey’s there would “be like coming home.” Being part of the historic Kern’s campus is a huge draw for him.
“Kern’s is such a special gem in South Knoxville,” he said. “It’s been here longer than any of us.”
But – because there’s always a “but” – the plans he has for the building don’t meet the requirements of the form-based code. However, by his reasoning, the plans honor the spirit of the site better than the code does.
The powers that be suggested that he take his case “to the street,” to the people of South Knoxville, to get their support for his proposed plans. Old Sevier marked the beginning of his campaign.
The code calls for structures to be at least 40 feet tall. Burleson pointed out that the Aubrey’s location is on a slope, and a structure that tall would loom over the Kern’s building and put it in shadow part of the day.
“It would break my heart to put a shadow on the Kern’s building,” Burleson said.
Also, the Aubrey’s template is a one-story building. Building up to 40 feet would mean three stories and create obstacles for HVAC and all the piping and vents of a restaurant.
The code moves buildings closer to the street, tries to make the area more bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly, and emphasizes green spaces. Burleson said his plans call for the building to be 70-75 feet away from busy Chapman Highway, with landscaping, including the sidewalk, acting as an attractive buffer.
The Kern’s Bakery building holds 70,000 square feet, sitting on three acres of a 14-acre tract. The site has 1,100 feet of greenway frontage.
Also, Burleson sees the South Knoxville Aubrey’s as being the trailhead for hiking and biking projects involving Fort Stanley and the G&O Rail with Trail being spearheaded by Legacy Parks.
The crowd seemed to appreciate Burleson’s approach and agreed with most of his ideas. But several voiced concerns that making exceptions for one business might make it hard to keep future developments to stick to the code. Helping the city create the form-based code was a long and passionate effort for many Old Sevier residents.
Burleson did his best to convince them that he had only the best intentions for SoKno. This is a big investment for his company. The building itself will cost about $2.3 million, with the land costing about $1.2 million.
There will be 80-100 employees at the restaurant. He said many of his employees at other Aubrey’s locations live in South Knoxville and can’t wait for him to open at the Kern’s campus.
He also brought up his commitment to the communities where his restaurants are situated. Each Aubrey’s hosts Saturday pancake breakfasts twice a month to let school and nonprofit groups fund-raise. Aubrey’s donates the food and staff and lets the groups sell tickets as pure profit for their cause.
Burleson said that this would be the last Aubrey’s to open in Knoxville; any more and they would cannibalize each other’s business. But he said the SoKno Aubrey’s would be a standout.
“Kern’s should be a destination for all of Knoxville,” he said.
Burleson will be visiting other neighborhood groups to make his case. He said the Metropolitan Planning Commission and the Board of Zoning Appeals have been encouraging and helpful. On April 12, he and his team will go before the MPC, BZA and other city representatives to see if they can get a ruling of “alternative compliance” to make it possible to move forward on the project.