City to spend $46 million on St. Mary’s site

Nick Della VolpeOur Town Leaders

Public safety is job one for any city, including Knoxville. So, it is not surprising that the city has proposed a state-of-the-art police and fire headquarters, equipped with the right communication and data systems, and training and lab space on the site of the former St. Mary’s hospital. But it would be costly: $40 million plus demolition.

Knoxville’s existing safety building, located near the Civic Coliseum, is 50 years old and apparently in need of substantial repair and expansion. It includes police headquarters and the city court. Neither the fire department or the city pension office is located there, but both are part of the proposed safety complex.

Many folks have asked why not rebuild a new facility right there? After all, the city already owns the land.

The project: Shouldn’t we just rework and expand what we have? Heck, European cities have buildings that are hundreds of years old.

The answer I got was “no.” Knoxville’s chief operating officer, David Brace, explained the situation:

  • The existing 4+ acre site is effectively part of downtown and has significant independent market viability. It can be privately developed to benefit the city.
  • Jim Clayton and his charitable foundation have expressed strong interest in developing a $150 million science museum there. They are currently doing engineering site review/due diligence.
  • By contrast, the old St. Mary’s hospital site is in need of reinvestment and redevelopment. Some of the older buildings can’t be saved.
  • The city plans to spend $40 million to develop the safety complex (to house police, fire, city court and the city’s pension offices), and that money would be leveraged to provide a substantial stimulus to the area.
  • The historic St. Mary’s campus has dedicated, secure parking for 700 city vehicles and workers.
  • As a part of the construction contract, the contractor would clear the northern half of the roughly 20 acres included in the land transfer (the historic original hospital would be saved), and build out the interior of 3 or 4 buildings for public safety use. That northern half will be available for potential private development.
  • Lincoln Memorial University (LMU) has already expressed an interest in locating a nursing school in a remaining seven-story office tower, which has some 300 dedicated parking spaces below it.
  • This site is adjacent to Fulton High School, and the current principal, Seth Smith, sees an opportunity to add career technical training for students in practical fields, like nursing, emergency response, criminal justice and firefighting.

Cost: As to whether it would be cheaper for the city to build a new safety complex on a green field, Brace again said “no.” The architectural-engineering team which evaluated the site estimates that the current plan to redo the interior of the retained buildings will save some $10-$15 million compared to a greenfield project; it would also be completed more quickly. A projected cost of $46.5 million, which was presented to city council at its July 30 meeting. The breakdown (millions):

  • Construction manager at risk                    $ 35.5
  • Architectural/Design Services                        2.6
  • Contingency                                                        3.7
  • Owner’s Representative                                   1.6
  • Furniture, fixtures and equipment                 2.0
  • Information technology                                    .8
  • Environmental services                                    .2

Of that $46.5 million project total, some $6.5 million relates to demolition and site preparation of the northern parcel, which would be reserved for future development.

Finance chief Jim York told city council at the July 30 meeting that the initial project funding would be paid out of current city reserves, but a bond issue would be arranged to cover the major construction costs at the appropriate time in the project. (No need to incur interest expense prematurely.)

What is the current status of the project? The design and construction professionals are working on solidifying the maximum guaranteed price of the construction contract (estimated at $35.5 million, above). Construction is projected to begin in the spring of 2020 and be completed by November 2021. Employees would be able to move-in to the facilities by the end of 2021.

Nick Della Volpe is a lawyer and a former city council member.

See additional illustrations below:

Overview of safety complex plan and adjacent area.








Graphic representation of proposed safety complex and existing garages.




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