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Weekend edition February 17, 2023 | Tom Ballard

After 75 years Oak Ridge will soon have its downtown

There's no such thing as downtown Oak Ridge, but there's about to be. Plans have started to develop condos, apartments, and retail in what leaders hope will be the city's new and first downtown hub.

Sometimes, it takes time for good ideas to fully materialize.

That’s certainly the case for the City of Oak Ridge where the first master plan for the community, developed in 1948 by the old Atomic Energy Commission, included the idea of a downtown area. Now, after multiple plans were developed over the next 75 years, that longtime vision for a true downtown where people can live, work, gather and play is about to come to fruition with the transfer of two properties this month to private developers along what is dubbed the Wilson Street Corridor.

That’s according to Wayne Blasius, Director of Planning and Development for the city, who outlined the progress made in a February 17 presentation to the East Tennessee Economic Council (ETEC). He has a more than 40-year history of working in a variety of capacities, both public and private, in economic development in the region, including the past five and one-half years with the City of Oak Ridge.

Ahead of his presentation to ETEC, Blasius sat down with us to describe the project that finally got the ball moving forward after so many years.

The catalyst was a grant to the city from the Tennessee Department of Transportation in 2019 that resulted in an intensive three-day charette involving stakeholders, property owners, and a group of design and transportation consultants. What could it be? What should it be? What is needed to make it a reality?

The result of that process, captured in this brochure, led the City Council to unanimously adopt a resolution on January 13, 2020 endorsing the vision for the Wilson Street Corridor, now known as “Downtown Oak Ridge.” The plan guidance calls for mixed use, multi-story urban buildings, an attractive streetscape, and pedestrian connectivity.

The action by the governing body also authorized the City Manager and his team to begin the necessary steps to turn that vision into a reality. “Having a plan was important, but that wasn’t sufficient,” Blasius explains. “Our goal is to grow Oak Ridge in a way that is uniquely Oak Ridge.”

What followed the City Council resolution was a two-year process. The 6.5-acre site includes what Blasius described as a “generous donation of land by the Diane and Guilford Glazer Foundation.” The Oak Ridge Land Bank Corporation, a 501(c)(3) organization, acquired the property and issued a request for proposals in August 2021 that resulted in the selection in March 2022 of two firms – Cappiello Real Estate of Oak Ridge and a company at the time that was known as Wright Makers LLC – to develop the now mostly vacant land. Wright Makers is transitioning the company name to either Machinations Development or Architects Wright.

Blasius said the two proposals were ultimately blended into a single master plan. Jessica and Joshua Wright, owners of Machinations/Architects Wright, will be developing mostly luxury condos, with limited commercial development on the ground level, while Tony Cappiello will be developing mostly apartments with eating/drinking/playing commercial on the first floor.

As part of the development plan, the city has instituted a new zoning classification. Additionally,  a portion of the property involves open spaces that will reflect the uniqueness of the assets for which Oak Ridge is known.

“Not having a downtown is an impediment to attracting certain types of retail development, particularly indigenous businesses,” Blasius says, noting that “the rebirth of Downtown Knoxville had a real impact on the community. Oak Ridge will be richer for having a downtown district.”

As he looks at his role for the city, he says that “our job is to make sure Oak Ridge is well-planned, built safely and properly, and well-maintained afterwards. His department practices a philosophy of  helping people do it right, not catching them doing it wrong.”

Blasius notes that the population of Oak Ridge peaked at 75,000 in the md-1940s before dropping to 30,000 by 1950. Amazingly, it has remained  at or below 30,000 for 70 years! But now an infusion of new housing, such as The Preserve (former Rarity Ridge off State Highway 58) and growth of mission programs at the federal contractors are projected to increase the population to nearly 40,000 by 2030. It also helps that the former Oak Ridge Mall, which was a dying retail space, was redeveloped as Oak Ridge Main Street with 52 thriving businesses.

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