Seven-story housing development marks start of race to redefine historic M.L. King Boulevard

photo A pool area is planned for Douglas Heights, the new privately operated UTC dorm.

The new 691-bed student housing project off M.L. King Boulevard could mark the beginning of a battle for the soul of the street, as forces vie to bring entertainment, retail, housing and cultural developments to the promising corridor, said City Councilman Moses Freeman.

"This is the start of something big," he said. "It's going to be all of the above, because this is going to be the hub."

With enough housing, including nonstudent housing, M.L. King Boulevard could one day relive its glory days as "The Big Nine," when blues musicians partied the night away at now-shuttered clubs like The Whole Note and visitors came from across the U.S. to soak in the culture, Freeman said.

"M.L. King, or The Big Nine, always had its own character, and I see that character present and growing again," Freeman said. "It will include music, entertainment, but it will also include eateries, drugstores and other things it always had."

River City Co., a nonprofit developer that advocates for more housing downtown, estimates that downtown could currently absorb 2,415 new rental units, with demand for 1,641 for smaller apartments including those demanded by college students. Annually, the city needs between 665 and 905 new housing units in a mix of condos, single-family homes and rental units in order to meet demand, according to a study prepared by Robert Charles Lesser & Co Real Estate Advisers.

"It's really hard to build that kind of housing in a city center because every block there's something there, whereas in the MLK, UTC area there are some really great opportunities that can really accommodate the housing demand, not only student but general housing demand for downtown," said Amy Donahue, marketing and communications manager for River City.

With UTC officials promising to bring retailers and other vendors to what they call the university's "backyard," to development officials promising more projects near the 275,000-square-foot student housing project known as Douglas Heights, the race is already on to see who can profit from renewed interest in the M.L. King district.

"I can't tell you how many developers have been in our office," said Kim White, president and CEO of River City Co., a nonprofit downtown developer.

Chris Curtis, president of Riverside Development, which is heading up the Douglas Heights project, said the seven-story housing development is already paying dividends for the community.

"I truly feel the MLK district is poised to take off," he said. "Hopefully, this will encourage others. We want to see many more storefronts."

Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at 423-757-6315 or with tips and documents.