Downtown Sewanee will see substantial changes by 2022


sewanee village.jpg
Downtown Sewanee. Photo courtesy of courtesy of

Fleming Smith


Downtown Sewanee, often called the Sewanee Village, may look markedly different by the time next year’s freshman class graduates in 2022. The new vision of Sewanee as a college town will center around a Main Street and a village green, and the plan also seeks to combat the lack of available housing by developing more land.

Plans have changed constantly in order to handle challenges of drainage issues, development, and what Sewanee’s size can reasonably sustain. Frank Gladu, special assistant to the Vice-Chancellor, developed the plans over several years since the 2011 Campus Master Plan identified steps needed for Sewanee’s future as an institution, including the development of the Sewanee Village.

Now, a date has been set: by 2022, the University plans to make substantial progress on narrowing Highway 41A to two lanes in order to create a Main Street, as well as moving the bookstore downtown, adding more housing, creating a larger Sewanee Market, and developing a village green.

“The Village has a long-term impact on how viable the destination is for people to choose to come to Sewanee, so it has an importance factor that I think is really tied to the long-term health of the institution,” Gladu explained.

Gladu often jokingly refers to the Village plan as a “100-year plan” due to the scope of the project. “It’s a very long-range plan, but we have to give it some immediate relevance as well,” he said. Many of the additions planned will not happen all at once or even in the same decade.

As Highway 41A is a U.S. and state route, Gladu has negotiated its reimagining with the Tennessee Department of Transportation. The design will be completed early this year, after which the Department will determine a construction schedule. “Hopefully sometime within 2018, certainly by 2019, we should see some activity of making that project actually a reality,” Gladu commented.

After the highway is narrowed, it will be more friendly to pedestrians and bikers. A village green will occupy the location of the current Sewanee Market, which will be moved to a spot across from Taylor’s Mercantile.

According to the plan, the Sewanee Market will be rebuilt on a much larger scale, approaching 10,000 square feet in comparison to its current 1,800 square feet. The building will include two upper stories for apartments. The operator of this new market has not yet been determined, though Gladu commented that the current operators have done a “fantastic job.”

A major impetus of the Sewanee Village plan involves housing. Currently, more than 20 percent of houses on the Domain are owned as secondary residences and often left unoccupied, not available to faculty and staff who may have to search for housing off the Mountain.

A study group under the direction of Provost Nancy Berner is currently investigating the issue, according to Gladu. At this time, no plans exist for student housing downtown. “The primary efforts for more housing is for faculty and staff,” Gladu explained regarding the downtown Sewanee planning.

“We are looking at the possibility, particularly in the downtown zone, the actual ‘Phase One’ of the Village development, [that] we look at primary residency in that zone. That hasn’t been decided yet, but it’s something that I’ve publicly said I wanted to pursue,” he commented.

Parson’s Green Circle, located behind Regions Bank, is a relatively new development which requires that its residents be primary residents. “I think it makes sense to have someone who lives here full time to activate the area,” said Gladu.

While the actual Sewanee Village encompasses 250 acres, Phase One of the University’s plan only focuses on the downtown area. No construction has yet begun, but several developers have expressed interest regarding investing in the land.

The Sewanee Village plan does face some challenges, requiring plans to adjust constantly. “If this was easy to build on, they would have built on it a long time ago,” Gladu commented with a laugh. Several community members have mentioned storm drainage issues as a concern during monthly meetings at the Blue Chair Tavern & Café about the project.

They now plan to build on higher ground in many places, allowing for green space where the drainage issues are most affecting.

“We don’t have a lack of challenges or obstacles,” said Gladu. “The topography is very challenging. You would think that we’re on the top of a plateau, that everything is nice and flat, but it really isn’t,” he said. At one point, the plan called for building houses on stilts to combat steep drop-offs.

Many aspects of the plan are speculative, set beyond the new date of 2022 that will see many projects mostly or totally completed. Gladu envisions a possible movie theater framing the village green if the Sewanee Union Theater is repurposed as a student union.

In order to hear the community’s feedback on the Sewanee Village plan, Gladu hosts monthly meetings to update community members on the project. “In the fall, I had about 100 people attend those meetings. I’ll also say that of those 100 people, the vast majority of them were not repeats,” he said.

Gladu has noticed a spirit of caution in many community members who fear that the character of downtown Sewanee will change or that current businesses will be driven out. “They are very cautious and remind me constantly that the nature and culture and fabric of the place—we don’t need to be like every other small town in rural America, that we need to maintain our identity,” he said.

Gladu commented that the meetings give him a chance to “have some dialogue and to hear other people’s point of view so that we can land at a good place, or maybe a better place than we were envisioning before.”

He also hopes to do more outreach with students, and he presented the plan at a Rotaract meeting last semester. Gladu imagines that the recent Domain Dollars program will act as a “bridge” between Sewanee student life and what downtown Sewanee offers and will offer in the future.

“I know generally speaking, students don’t look at the Village as something that they regularly incorporate into their student life, but I think that’s today’s student. I can understand why that exists. What about 10 years from now?” he asked.

Mary Margaret Murdock (C’19), the student trustee on the advisory group plan, commented, “I am the only student on the board, which sometimes makes it difficult to share my opinion. I really enjoy being on the committee because I feel like it gives me the opportunity to be involved with something out of the direct student sphere. There are many community members on the board that have given me more of a ‘Sewanee as a town’ perspective, rather than Sewanee as a place just for students.”

Gladu’s monthly meetings take place on the first Tuesday of every month at 10 a.m. in the Blue Chair Tavern and again at 5:30 p.m. in the Café. The next meeting will be on February 6.

“I’ve been here six years. I want to say I appreciate it, but there’s always something I learn and always something I get exposed to that I wasn’t aware of before, where a person who grew up here just knows it instinctually,” said Gladu.

“We don’t want to destroy, or erase, or transplant the uniqueness that Sewanee has. We are hopefully, deliberately, trying to incorporate that while at the same time positioning for the future. It’s a very challenging balance,” he concluded.