East Towne: Plan aired for e-commerce fulfillment center

Nick Della VolpeN/E Knox County, On the Grow

What do you do with a shuttered mall? Especially in the e-commerce era.

Hillwood Inc. aired a proposal to convert East Towne Mall into an e-commerce fulfillment center at an hour-long virtual meeting, hosted by the Alice Bell community and MPC via zoom on Sept. 23.

The initial issue is Hillwood’s proposed rezoning of the mall site from its CR-2 commercial zone to an IG general industrial zone, a zone which allows warehouse operations. That issue is on Knox Planning’s Oct. 8 agenda (item 21).

Last night’s informal meeting was to air the basic proposal and discuss community concerns.

Hillwood development in Nashville

The Plan. Demolish the existing buildings and build two roughly 60-foot high structures on the site, one 280,000 square feet and the other 110,000 square feet. The proposal includes warehousing, offices, loading docks and parking for both commercial vehicles and employees. Hillwood would develop the site. It was not revealed whether this would serve as an Amazon center, or one for Wayfair or another online retailer.

Based on call-in questions, project spokespersons said it would involve an investment of $70- to $80-million, and would employ an estimated 500+ workers. Hillwood has previously done several such fulfillment centers, including one in Nashville.

Main Issues. The hour-long discussion addressed concerns raised about: traffic, noise and lighting pollution, as well as potential impact on nearby apartments and the other businesses on the periphery of Mall Circle Road surrounding the existing structure.

Another big issue was whether a broad IG zone is needed, since it could open the door to other less benign uses of the tract. Could lesser industrial zones be used? For example, there is a mixed-use industrial IMU zone, or an industrial R &D zone IRD. Remember, a rezoning affects the underlying land use, not just the particular business applying for the change. An overbroad zone might open the door for potentially less-desirable uses later. MPC staff has not yet made a specific recommendation.

Traffic was the main concern. Large trucks coming in and out of the facility could complicate an already congested section of Millertown Pike, especially at rush hour when traffic backs up. Access to the internal Mall Circle Road from Millertown Pike could involve lane changes and a turn in a too-short stretch of road just off I-640. Less traffic conflict might occur if the company’s trucks were to cross straight at the Millertown exit light and turn into the complex from South Mall Road (the one-way parallel to the interstate).

Hillwood said it has retained a traffic engineer to study the issues and work with TDOT and the city.

Aside. TDOT has already been studying widening the interstate exit ramp at Millertown Pike and also widening the half-mile stretch of Millertown Pike from the exit to Loves Creek Road. That fix is intended to ease daily rush-hour congestion. Presumably the design would now look at a reuse of the mall property, if the Hillwood proposal goes forward.

Nick Della Volpe is a lawyer, a gardener and a former member of Knoxville City Council.

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