What would you do if you woke up one morning and discovered that UT planned to buy and replace your home with another building?
Ask Rob Dansereau – he's struggling with the same question.
The owner of Cumberland Avenue's Flashback Hookah Lounge and resident at 1302 White Ave. lives with his wife and three children in a home that UT plans to buy to make room for a new science facility.
The university has already bought the house at 1312, and is in negotiations to buy 1308 White Avenue.
Since UT is a state institution with the power of eminent domain, it can bypass many regulations that would apply to private individuals and businesses. If any individual refuses to sell his or her land to the government when asked, the government can take them to court.
"The difference with the University of Tennessee is that it is a state entity," Kim Trent, executive director of Knox Heritage, said. "It is exempt from all local zoning rules; they do not have to listen to the voice of the community."
In its 2011 Campus Master Plan, UT stated it required an additional 560,000 square feet of research space in order to meet its goal as a Top 25 public university, and as a result, the school would need to expand.
The new building, designated as Class Lab Building 1, is still in the design phase. No final decision has been made whether the White Avenue houses will be incorporated into the new structure or torn down.
"It's not a determination how we go forward, that's a call by the chancellor and the president," said Dave Irvin, vice chancellor for Facilities Services. "We'll show them all the various options, but certainly before the end of the year we'll try to determine what direction we're going in."
With little space for new buildings on the Hill, UT has looked across Cumberland Avenue for land. Irvin said UT wants property close enough to other science buildings so faculty and staff will be able to travel between the other structures in a timely manner.
The university selected the three White Avenue houses despite a pledge to respect certain boundaries around Fort Sanders. In 2000, UT and several other Knoxville institutions agreed to the Fort Sanders Neighborhood Plan, which was adopted by the City Council and the Metropolitan Planning Commission. At the time, the businesses and government stakeholders agreed to set limits on where each body can and cannot expand.
Those limits were intended to protect the Fort Sanders Historic District, an area bounded by the intersection of 11th Street and White Avenue and that of 19th Street and Grand Avenue.
Trent said the precedent set by UT's purchase may have dangerous consequences.
"The Dansereaus have invested so much money in that house based on the premise that these houses are protected, and the university agreed to that," she said. "And it will go beyond that block. If they're not safe, nobody is safe. All the other houses protected in the Conservation District are not safe if these aren't."
It was only through the media that the family realized the school planned to buy the property after 15 years of promising no interest in the land.
Dansereau said he does not want to interfere with UT's need for growth, but admitted frustration over his lack of options.
"I want people to understand that we're not standing here in opposition to the university's needs and goals in trying to further the economic development of our state," Dansereau said. "But at the same time, people need to understand that the unique character of the university is what is going to be the long-term hook that is going to pull people into Knoxville and want to go to the University of Tennessee.
"If we do not figure out how to come to some kind of balance and compromise between the local pressure and the state's goals for the university, then we're going to lose Knoxville in terms of its history, its heritage, what it is and its character which makes it unique."
Trent remains concerned about the future of Fort Sanders, though her career at Knox Heritage is devoted to preserving the past. She said she now believes the current UT administration will no longer honor its past agreements on where the school will and will not buy land.
"Unfortunately, there is a short memory with administrators who did not participate in that process," Trent said. "Apparently the community can't count on UT to stick to the promises that they make when a new chancellor comes in, a new administration, and they choose to throw out those plans made with the community and move forward with their own plans."
On this, both Knox Heritage and UT administrators, ironically, have found something to agree on.
"This administration ... would never say that we would never acquire property in a particular area of town because you never know what possibilities may come about," UT Vice Chancellor for Finance and Administration Chris Cimino said. "We've had these meetings and discussions with Fort Sanders and Knox Heritage, and we fully respect the historic significance of the area, but we're not going to get into the situation where we're going to say 'we're never going to buy property in this area.'"