Covenant Health wants to establish a “medical district” in Fort Sanders, and this time neighbors and preservationists are on board.
The idea of establishing a medical district around Covenant’s Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center and the independent East Tennessee Children’s Hospital came up about a decade ago, according to Patrick Birmingham, Covenant Health vice president of philanthropy and governmental relations.
Neighbors and Knox Heritage resisted the earlier proposal, concerned about preserving historic houses and changing the character of the Fort Sanders neighborhood. But leaders at Covenant and other parties has changed since then, and the hospital engaged with neighbors from the start this time, said Birmingham, who is also a former publisher of the News Sentinel.
“We are really trying to be better partners,” he said.
The proposal, a sector plan amendment, will come before the Knoxville-Knox County Metropolitan Planning Commission at that body’s next meeting, 1:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 10, in the City-County Building at 400 Main St. SW. If approved there, it will go to Knoxville City Council for final approval.
The irregularly-shaped 44-acre district, lying roughly between Cumberland Avenue, Forest Avenue, 18th Street and Metron Center Way, would include 53 parcels of property. According to an engineer’s survey, those include seven parcels with houses and one with an apartment building; six parcels with parking garages and 24 with parking lots; and Fort Sanders Educational Development Center. The rest hold medical offices or the hospitals themselves. Some structures cover more than one parcel.
Most of the houses surrounding the proposed district are rental properties, whether used as residences or small businesses, Birmingham said.
Tennova Healthcare closed its Physicians Regional and Lakeway Regional hospitals near the end of October. But almost a year earlier, Covenant anticipated those closings and ramped up the timetable for its own FSRMC expansion, Birmingham said. In so doing, Covenant officials knew they’d need to make some changes to adjacent property. When executives brought it up to the neighborhood association, that group suggested establishing district guidelines instead of having repetitive discussions, Birmingham said.
“That was the genesis of kind of reinvigorating this and establishing that boundary,” he said.
The children’s hospital is involved so it, as well as Covenant, can have a “crystal ball” for development in Fort Sanders for the next 15 or 20 years, Birmingham said.
The boundary isn’t much different from the decade-old initial proposal, but has been tweaked and now establishes a “hard line” blocking hospital expansion west of 18th Street, Birmingham said.
The special district designation was created to define the boundaries of a medical campus and set general development guidelines within it, allow concentration of medical offices, and guarantee the chance to expand related physical infrastructure, according to planning staff documents.
The district’s creation doesn’t mean medical facilities will occupy the entire area – just that they won’t grow outside of it, said Todd Morgan, executive director of Knox Heritage.
“We’ve worked with the hospital and the neighborhood association on a plan that would basically establish their growth boundary,” he said. “We know what the future holds, and that’s very helpful.”
Fort Sanders is an important historic neighborhood, and all concerned parties worked together on the plan this time, Morgan said.
“We appreciate the hospital’s efforts to be a good neighbor there,” he said.
Covenant gave neighborhood groups a draft map, and agreed to move the border to exclude a few more houses, Webster said.
That was a row of houses facing Forest Avenue between 20th and 21st streets, Birmingham said.
Covenant is expanding FSRMC’s Center for Advanced Medicine, a $115 million project, but has no further growth in immediate prospect, Birmingham said. The children’s hospital just finished an expansion, but also has nothing else on its drawing board, he said.
Even so, it’s good to let all concerned parties know the rules in advance of future work, and to dispense with “reinventing the wheel” every time some change is proposed, Birmingham said. Clearly defined boundaries should endure for many years, potentially outlasting the hospitals’ current leadership, he said.
Neighbors’ goal is to protect as many historic buildings as possible, and keep Fort Sanders as a vibrant and diverse residential area, said Adrian Webster, treasurer of the Historic Fort Sanders Neighborhood Association and a member of the Knox Heritage board.
Preservationists were somewhat disturbed at the recent loss of three area buildings, but Knox Heritage worked with Covenant to ensure two historic homes threatened by Covenant’s current expansion would be moved to new sites, she said.
Neighbors, Knox Heritage and the city were all involved in moving those houses, coordinated by Councilwoman Stephanie Welch, Birmingham said.
Webster expects neighbors and Covenant will continue conversations on preservation.
“Certainly the hospital has been more communicative with us as of late,” she said. “Now the focus is going to be to maintain that hospital boundary.”
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