Creating Places: A Citizen Observer's Look at Nashville's Built Environment

Writer's Note: William Williams' interest in the manmade environment dates to 1970, at which point the then-young Williams started a collection of postcards of city skylines. The collection now numbers 1,000-plus cards. Among the writer's specific interests are exterior building design, city district planning, demographics, signage, mixed-use development, mass transit and green/sustainable construction and living. Williams began his Creating Places column with The City Paper in February 2005. The column in its original form was discontinued in September 2008 and reinvented via this blog in November 2008. Creating Places can be found on the home page of the website of The City Paper, at which Williams has worked in various capacities since October 2000.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Creating Places: 2009 Review, Part I

As we look back, let's take a few blog posts (to be written spanning this week) to review some manmade environment highlights (and frustrations) from 2009.

I'll start with the one-two punch of the Belle Meade Town Center and Hill Center Belle Meade, both finished this calendar year. With their arrival, this segment of Harding Road was transformed with building density heretofore unheard of for this car-heavy mixed-use district. Note the various shapes, forms and colors of the many new buildings on either side of Harding. My favorite structure might be the new Pinnacle Bank Building that fronts the street.

Grade: A

Monday, December 7, 2009

Creating Places: Deaderick Street Kiosks

They may not be a sleek new skyscraper, a recently completed mixed-use building of striking 21st century design or a badly needed sidewalk (all of which this writer cherishes as much as enjoying spiked eggnog and How The Grinch Stole Christmas during the holiday season). But the new kiosks that are part of the now-finished — and tastefully done — Deaderick Street streetscape improvement project are outstanding additions to downtown Nashville. Large, colorful, detailed and useful, the kiosks are very big city.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Creating Places: Pinnacle Signage

Good to see the new signage on the cap of the handsome The Pinnacle at Symphony Place tower. Of note, the cap sports "Pinnacle" signs on its east and west faces, with the north and south sides left unadorned. Nice move, as signs on those two sides would have resulted in visual overkill.

On a negative note, however, the "P" in the signage is not visible at night.

On the "building signage theme," I'm not sure where I stand regarding the new Baker Donelson signage (which replaced the Caremark Rx sign) on the east side of the building cap of 211 Commerce Center. Though acceptable, the sign is a bit too plain, offering no color or distinctive shape. However, at night, it is clearly seen (unlike the Pinnacle signs).

With the addition of the Pinnacle signs, the Nashville skyline now boasts 14 buildings of 80 feet or taller with tops sporting signage that is both lit at night and visible from great distances.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Creating Places: Random East Side Notes

Driving East Nashville yesterday, I took a close look at the contemporary building that appears finished and that sits on the northeast corner of the intersection of 10th and Main streets. I'm not sure what type business the structure will accommodate, but I am certain of this: The building, with its 90-degree-angled geometric forms and understated color scheme contrasts significantly with the hideous home to Hunter's Custom Automotive and the handsome East Literature Magnet School/East Middle School buildings that sandwich it.

On the east side theme, work on the "new-look" masonic lodge on the southeast corner of 14th Street and Eastland Avenue continues. I'm afraid the architects of the building, which will replace a 1950s-era non-descript brick structure, might have designed the reincarnated facility to look like some type of semi-stately civic building. Could be a misstep.

Check this post, which explains possible design concerns nicely:

Monday, November 9, 2009

Creating Places: T-Truck Gets Paint Job

The new exterior paint job for the east side building housing the Turnip Truck looks strong. The previous color scheme (dominated by yellow) was a tad too whimsical, thus somewhat emasculating the little brick building. In contrast, the new look (primarily green, with some touches of white) gives the building a more bold appearance. Good work.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Creating Places: A Touchdown for Germantown

One of the most interesting stories involving Nashville's transformation the past 15 years or so involves Kat and Michael Roos (she of Drinkhaus fame and he of Titans offensive line toil). The Germantown-dwelling couple are a rare breed, as few Titans live in Nashville's urban core (most opting, instead, for neo-mansions in the suburbs of Davidson and Williamson counties.

No doubt, the Rooses dig G-Town, as the two now want to undertake a development they are currently calling The Square at Fourth & Madison ( Kat and Michael have selected DA|AD as the architect for the mixed-use building, a website image of which suggests an interesting structure with various square forms and angular definition.

With a slumped economy, don't expect the city's core to see much built in 2010. But do look for the Rooses to start work next year on TSatF&M, as the wife-and-husband team have already proven with their quaint cafe that they possess business savvy. Furthermore -- and more importantly -- Kat and Michael are well-rounded urbanites who have a passion for city living and all its attendant elements.

Football and tea aside, The Square at Fourth & Madison will be a major score for this likable couple. The end zone awaits, Kat and Michael.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Creating Places: Music Row Project Proposed

An empty Music Row-area lot is now sporting a sign advertising a proposed project that would give the district some added architectural flavor. The rendering on the sign suggests an attractive contemporary design for the mixed-used building, which would feature retail, office and structured parking. An official with ProVenture, one of the entities involved in the development, said the project is in its early stages.

To be located at the northeast corner of the 16th and Horton avenues intersection, the approximately 50-foot-tall building would be one of the larger structures in the geographic area bordered by Edgehill and Wedgewood avenues on the north and south, and 16th and 17th avenues on the east and west. Relatedly, the building seemingly would represent a handsome and adventurous design when compared to other post-1960s-built Music Row structures, many of which offer understated, if not bland, architectural themes.

Though time will be needed for the economy to allow this project to unfold, the building should be worth the wait.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Creating Places: A Fiddle Breakdown

The Comfort Inn at 14th Avenue South and Demonbruen Street was recently affixed with absurd looking fiddles. Of cheap materials and a cartoonish design, the fiddles create the effect of unsightly zits on the non-descript structure. It never ceases to puzzle me that some folks think this type junk is aesthetically appealing. 

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Creating Places: VU Addition, Pangaea Update

Work appears completed on the facade addition to Cohen Memorial Hall, which fronts 21st Avenue and is located on Vanderbilt University's Peabody Campus. The addition greatly limits long-distance views (for motorists navigating 21st) of the other three sides of the historic structure. On a positive note, the new component of the building (dominated by limestone) is very handsome.

In nearby Hillsboro Village, the brick building home to Pangaea has been given a fresh coat of paint and looks fantastic. The color scheme of bold yellow and semi-electric blue pops with a funkiness befitting of the district. Now if Pangaea's aging (and fading) red awning can just be replaced, perhaps with a silver or charcoal (no more red, please) version...

On the Village theme, I must mention the building that houses Cornerstone Financial Credit Union (a retrofitted structure that was completed in the early 2000s). With each passing year, I dislike this building's exterior more and more — and yearn for the original, despite its flaws. The current exterior is painfully bland, mimicking the uninspired — and safe — junk thrown up seemingly everywhere in this town, whereas the previous iteration at least brought a bit of 1960s urban grit to the table. 

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Creating Places: Rating The Pinnacle

As the exterior work on The Pinnacle at Symphony Place comes to a close, it's time to consider where the tower ranks (based primarily on appearance and function) among downtown's buildings of about 300 feet or more.

This writer's Top Five:

1. L&C Tower
2. AT&T Tower
3. The Pinnacle at Symphony Place
4. Fifth-Third Center
5. Nashville City Center 


Sunday, September 6, 2009

Creating Places: Around Town

A few quick hits:

Recently, I noticed for the first time a metal horse framing the roof line of the Charlotte Avenue building home to the Darkhorse Theatre. A very nice artsy touch, no doubt.

New street lights have been installed along the State Street side of the under-construction 1700 Midtown apartment building. The hardware is of a traditional design, which makes no sense given 1700 Midtown is very industrial/contemporary. Disappointing.

On the State Street theme, 1805 State Street (I believe it's a residential structure) ranks as one of Midtown's most underrated buildings. Standing only two stories and offering primarily brick with some stone touches (including a nice cornice), this classy little building is worth checking out either in person or via Google Street View. Doing so will help the viewer better understand the type architectural aesthetic Midtown featured prior to the 1960s, since which developers and architects have often brutalized the area with heinous designs.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Random Tidbits

Both driving and walking this weekend, I noticed the following elements of Nashville's built fabric that are worth a mention:

* The under-construction Pinnacle financial center in Belle Meade (in front of the new Publix) is looking strong. Hastings Architecture Associates has given the building a handsome 21st century design. I'm digging it.

* The vintage brick building home to Smack and located on Elliston Place continues to see its east wall defaced with graffiti. The amount of spray-painted mess seemingly accumulates each month. Sad, as this old-school gem deserves the utmost of care.

* The little brick buildings on Church Street and across from the new-look YMCA are gone. LifeWay owns the land and had the structures demolished, citing their poor condition. No doubt, rehabbing would have been costly. But it could have been done. If downtown is lucky, what eventually replaces the fallen structures will be architecturally noteworthy. This writer, however, is anything by hopeful.   

* One of the best street-level urban views of Nashville can be enjoyed while standing at the intersection of Church Street and Fifth Avenue and looking both north and south. On a similar theme, check the views of the city from the Baptist Hospital crosswalk that spans Church Street. Quite something.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Pinnacle Cap Creates Visual Pop

With the exterior work almost finished for The Pinnacle at Symphony Place SoBro office tower, a key element is worth noting: the decorative cap illuminated at night. 

Most Nashville highrises offer modest (if that) tops. This design characteristic simply adds to the glaringly bland linear form of the city's skyline. Hypothetically, the AT&T Tower ("sunken" as it is on its site) rising from the lot at the southwestern corner of the Fifth Avenue and Church Street intersection would mitigate this "flatness" (as would, for that matter, Signature Tower). 

With the addition of Pinnacle, the skyline now boasts of a building with a eye-catching crowning element (either day or night), thus helping soften the visual monotony of the aforementioned skyline flatness.   

I have noticed that the Pinnacle crown is lit only on occasion. Check it out if you can. 

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Demolition Hits Church Street Building

I drove along Church Street yesterday and noticed that an old-school brick building (across from the YMCA and next to the building that houses Venito's) is being demolished. A LifeWay official (LifeWay owns the building, which contained four spaces) confirmed today that the building is being razed due to structural deficiencies.

For now, the replacement will be a surface parking lot. 

How many times has Nashville seen the loss of a charming little pedestrian-scaled building -- only to be replaced by either a synthetic-stucco piece of junk or what may as well be a used car lot? With the rain falling as I type and another historic architectural piece of downtown Nashville soon to be no more, my stomach is upset. 

Details, and a commentary, to follow.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Good-Bye Grit

Nashville recently lost an old-school and gritty structure and seems likely to lose another.

The Tennessee Department of Transportation recently removed the steel, green 1960s-era pedestrian bridge that spanned Interstate 40 (a few hundred yards west of the I-40/Briley Parkway/White Bridge Road exchange). Although the bridge was likely rarely used by walkers, it nevertheless delivered a cool, big-city visual and was the type structure you commonly find in the traditional metropolitan areas in the densely populated North. With the removal, Nashville now has only three similar bridges remaining.

Next on the chopping block? Could be the 1950s-constructed building that was once home to the state's Department of Highways and Public Works. Located at the northwest corner of Charlotte and 22th avenues in Midtown, the building offers a slightly industrial vibe and plays nicely off a rambling old warehouse next door. Many of the building's windows are broken and the beautiful stone continues to gradually deteriorate. To see a quirky and underrated gem like this fall, while generic junk continues to rise throughout the city's core, would be painful.


Sunday, July 5, 2009

Random Notes

Following are a few observations:

— 1700Midtown, the under-construction apartment complex sited about midway between Charlotte Avenue and Church Street (and on the eastern fringe of the Medical District), is taking shape. I noticed today a segment of the corrugated metal skin. In fact, when the full complement of metal cladding adorns 1700Midtown, it could rank as one of the city's three most industrial-looking residential buildings.

— A few weeks ago, I finally checked out the exterior design of the diminutive building home to Amun Ra Theatre (located on Clifton Street in North Nashville). The structure represents one of the best examples of a non-descript cinderblock building being given new life. 

— On the "re-inventing cinderblock buildings theme," a mural now adorns the west wall of the little building located on Halcyon in 12South and home to Halcyon Bike Shop. Very eye-catching.  

— The recently retrofitted Holiday Inn Vanderbilt is now sporting new signage on its walls, with the property's surface parking lot now getting a free-standing sign. The dominant signage color is lime. Risky and bold. Not sure, however, if I'll like it as time passes.

— Exterior work on 1914 Charlotte, a one-story medical office building in Midtown, is almost completed. I've got mixed opinions on the design, as the building offers nice brick detailing, an attractive color scheme and solid definition (via its shapes and materials). It also is built to the sidewalk at an intersection, another major plus. Of note, however, Charlotte Avenue is a major street on various levels and needs major buildings (that is, those of at least three stories). Furthermore, the design of the structure's entrance is questionable. Still, and compared to so many buildings constructed in Midtown from the 1960s through the 1990s, 1914 Charlotte is acceptable.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Glen Echo Lands a Sidewalk Segment

A modest segment of sidewalk is being constructed in Green Hills along the north shoulder of Glen Echo Road and connecting the sidewalk at Hillsboro Road to the sidewalk running in front of the Metro library along Benham Avenue.

So what's the big deal?

Simply put, this might be Davidson County's first new sidewalk — and by "new" I mean a sidewalk where there had not been one (and not merely a replacement for an existing sidewalk) — in at least six months. For about a year now, I have received each Friday, via email, the Metro Public Works project update list. And it has been months since I last recalled seeing the announcement of a new sidewalk in the county. As a man who drools at the sight of new sidewalk construction (yes, sad), I closely check the weekly report.

I could be wrong. So if you are aware of new sidewalk construction from the past year and within the county, please post a comment noting so.


Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Portman/ESa Hotel Tower Assessment

Based on the rendering (and I'm open to the thought that this tower might be fairly attractive and functional), the tower portion of the proposed MCC anchor hotel building reminds me somewhat of a much taller version of the 3322 Building at West End and Murphy Road. The latter sports an exterior design that has not aged particularly well.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

StudioEightDesign Delivers Deftly

A quick kudos to StudioEightDesign, which has delivered a marvelous update of the former Belcourt Avenue residence now home to Zumi Sushi Japanese Kitchen. Both the building's exterior and interior shine, with sleek, contemporary elements.

S8Design's Matthew K. "Matt" Taylor, project manager Anna Ruth Kimbrough and general contractor DWC Construction nailed this project.  

"[Anna Ruth] deserves the credit for creating the design vision and helping make sure it was carried out," Taylor said, adding that DWC skillfully executed the build-out on a tight schedule.

Attractive and suitable for Hillsboro Village, the Zumi space design is an outstanding example of a small-scale project that yielded large-scale results. 

Friday, May 29, 2009

Hillsboro Road Update — Disheartening

I contacted TDOT earlier this week to see if the recently announced Hillsboro Road improvement project will include curbs, sidewalks and a stormwater drainage/management system. No, no and no.

Typical TDOT

To be fair, the agency's adding a center turn lane will be helpful. And the department does intend to improve the road's shoulders and the ditches above which the street perilously snakes. 

Still, we can all imagine what's about to happen. Drive along the stretch (from I-440 on the north to Crestmoor on the south) and see a handful of huge trees seemingly tagged for removal, their lush shade to go with them. A TDOT official told me that adding even one sidewalk (which would have been prime for the street's condo-heavy east side) would be expensive, given land-acquisition costs. Fair enough. But to not even add curbs, which require minimal (if any) land acquisition? Curbed streets suggest "urban streets." Non-curbed suggest "highway" or "interstate." Oh, I forgot, this is TDOT. Even if the ditches are modified so as to minimize potential danger, they will remain unsightly and still somewhat hazardous. 

Also, TDOT plans to add along certain segments of the road some retaining walls and metal guardrails. Example of the latter can be seen on nearby I-440 and have a "brown powder coating." Expect ugliness.

In terms of aesthetics and the chance to have created a somewhat more pedestrian-oriented and urban street, this project spurs no more excitement than the thought of my next prostate check-up.

Monday, May 25, 2009

ULI Announces Top 9

And the winners are…

Last week, the Nashville District of the Urban Land Institute recognized nine area developments with its Excellence in Development Awards.

Each project was to have been completed in either 2007 or 2008, though for some reason the Schermerhorn Symphony Center (which was finished in 2006) found its way among the winners.

Other projects recognized included Belmont Lofts, Edgehill Village, The Hill Center in Green Hills, ICON in The Gulch, the Noah Liff Opera House; Summer Street Lofts, Vanderbilt University's The Commons and the W.O. Smith Nashville Community Music School.

Evaluation criteria included innovation in land use and design, design excellence, contributions to the community and exhibiting community character, public/private partnership, environmental sensitivity and financial viability.

No doubt, the nine winners are deserving of recognition, as each is strong in various areas. However, there are five buildings absent from the list that are worth mentioning.

On that note, I present the “Bill Williams Excellence in Development Awards — an ‘Alternative Quintet’ — for Nashville Buildings Completed in 2007-08.” One judge (admittedly with his biases) and three key criteria: new construction, distinctive design and symbolic emphasis.

Adelicia (Midtown): Of Nashville’s eight residential towers of six floors or more and opened this decade — Adelicia, Encore, Icon, Rhythm, Viridian, The West End, West End Lofts, West End Lofts II — Adelicia trails only Terrazzo (which opened this year and, as such, would not qualify for this “ranking”) in attractiveness and functionality. The building’s materials, colors, forms, massing, private pocket park and relationship to its surroundings are top notch. Inside, the 20-story tower shines with a distinctive layout, inviting commons areas and variety of unit floorplans. Though unlikely to eventually be viewed among iconic Nashville skyscrapers that include (as examples and listed chronologically) the American Trust Building, the L&C Tower and the AT&T Tower, Adelicia is, nonetheless, a strong addition to the city’s collection of mid- and high-rises.

East End Lofts (East Nashville): Brick, glass and metal. Concrete floors for the residences. A commanding presence on Woodland Street (and a nice interaction with that street). Superb. Perhaps years from now, Nashvillians will look back and credit East End Lofts for jump-starting the reinvention of what is now a Woodland Street segment of buildings no more inviting than a garbage dump. Clearly, the EEL delivers contemporary design excellence.

East Park Community Center (East Nashville): Notice the manner in which this mini-masterpiece addresses the southwest corner of the Sixth and Woodland streets intersection. Very nice. As is the “East Park” logo gracing the center’s north wall of frosted glass. EPCC’s skin of white metal and brown brick is extremely attractive, while its playful interior invites users to exercise and socialize.

MC3 (East Nashville): An MC3 highlight is the combination of three distinctively different buildings functioning effectively as a whole. The use of alley-accessed residences, with living spaces above garages, is quite appealing.

Tennessee Association of Realtors Building (Midtown): The TAR Building, located only a few yards from Adelicia, is one of Nashville’s best examples of dramatic 21st century architecture. Outstanding.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Kunstler's Version of Nowheresville

If you have not done so, read "The Geography of Nowhere," a biting commentary regarding how Americans have allowed the car culture to brutalize both the nation's built and natural environments. James "Jim" Howard Kunstler — a writer who has no peer regarding the talent, for example, to cleverly compare a generic suburban elementary school with a sludge-processing factory — penned this mini-masterpiece, which is must-reading for those who lament the loss of the art of U.S. place-making. Kunstler's thesis is simple: When anywhere is no different than everywhere, we may as well live, work and play in nowhere.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Not all OK in OKCity

Google Streetview is a wonderful tool, especially for those of us more interested in the built environment than in all the stuff "normal" people enjoy.

In an effort to determine what second-tier U.S. city might rival Nashville for having a bad sidewalk network within its central core (that is, within about a 20-square-mile area, with downtown as an epicenter), I use the aforementioned Google program. The results are inconclusive, but I can say this: Oklahoma City's sidewalk system -- from what I've seen via Streetview -- borders on horrid. I'll check OKC a few more times and provide a report.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Cream and Bright Red?

Note to Hilton Hospitality Inc. and its team of architects who stamp out countless hotels: Off-white cream stucco and fire-engine-red signage result in a horrendous color combination. For proof, check the soon-to-open Hilton Garden Inn on Broadway. 

In fairness, there are various components of this building (particularly the window types and some metal elements) that have been surprisingly and effectively incorporated. I also like the building's northeast side/corner and, overall, its facade. Considering most chain hotel companies opt for buildings that are no more adventurous than the junk from which the nation's Walgreens and Beds Baths & Beyonds operate, the new H-Garden Inn is actually decent.  But in comparison, the sleek Hutton Hotel, a retrofit of the quirky 1808 West End Building and re-designed by Nashville-based Earl Swensson Associates, is — though not to be confused with the Chrysler Building — much stronger.

The Maxwell: Good to the Last Drop

I took a tour today of The Maxwell, a four-story 12-unit residential building that is nearing completion in West End Park. A full assessment might be forthcoming in the next few days, but I will note now that that exterior of the building, though very "historical replica like" in its design (an approach for which this writer is not a fan), offers some attractive touches and details. The brick, stone and column work, for example, is very handsome, while the "2008" engraved within a properly scaled stone plate positioned on the upper facade and just below The Maxwell's roofline offers a nice nod to a signature move found with some of the area's vintage apartment houses (most of which have been flattened over the years). Quirk Designs, the architect, and general contractor Nashville Construction Co., have delivered — following the input of developer Accord Properties and sales/marketing leader Tonna Heath — a neo-traditional structure that is about as respectably designed and built as could have been asked.  

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

DA|AD-Designed Building Shows Promise

I'm liking the look of 12th & Paris. Not surprising, given the under-construction mixed-use building has been designed by DA|AD. Since 2000, the Nashville-based architectural company has nailed numerous local projects, including Madison Square, Morgan Park Place, Summer Street Lofts, The West Eastland and the east side building home to Sweet 16th A Bakery. 

With 12th & Paris, DA|AD has incorporated on the building's north face two tones of dark brick and a clerestory piece (a design element that defines various DA|AD buildings) clad in Hardie siding. 

The building's commercial segment, which anchors its northeast corner, has been framed and shows great promise, both in terms of scale and materials. Lastly, despite being the "least design-significant" side, the south wall of the building has been given a nice touch, with bricks above each window positioned vertically and half-bricks placed below.

Quality work.


Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Artful Artesia

Sometimes the best building is one that simply acts as an object of architectural design and functionality related to its time and place.

Artesia is a “best” building. Soon to open in West End Park and overlooking the Parthenon, this three-story residential structure succeeds on many levels, but mainly because architect Preston Quirk has respectfully allowed his creation to be itself with no self-consciousness or pretense. Simply put, Artesia is a fine 21st century building that takes some cues from earlier design vocabularies but refrains from applying them to excess.

Quirk and Centennial Development Co. are to be commended for their choice of exterior materials and forms, all of which blend seamlessly to create a masculine and ever-so-slightly experimental building. Artesia’s highlight might just be how its angular, dark-brown-brick forms contrast with its curving roof shapes -- both a vaulted, green metal cap and a mesh-like metal border to that cap and that acts as a sleek semi-parapet.  The effect is anything but subtle.  Of note, Artesia’s exterior nicely combines square, rectangular and circular shapes, while its stone vertical balcony pieces extend from the façade in a straightforward yet attractive manner. Globe lawn lights add a playfully quirky touch. Balanced and well massed, Artesia strikes a commanding presence on its Parthenon Avenue site.

In short, Quirk and CDC have delivered not so much an architectural masterpiece but, instead, a masterfully attractive addition to Nashville’s built environment.  

(Note: Thanks to Holly Ing for providing this writer a nice tour of Artesia’s two models and its various commons areas, particularly the entrance with its dramatic water feature. Good luck with sales, Mrs. Ing.) 

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Assessing The Acropolis

During a tour of the soon-to-open condo building Artesia in West End Park, I strolled a few properties west to view The Acropolis, located at the southwest corner of the Parthenon and Avoca avenues T-intersection and also nearing construction completion.

Frankly, I have some concerns.

But before  I offer criticism, let me note the following. The three members of Acropolis developer JBS Enterprises (Jay Ellis, Brian Glasser and Stephen Nestor, along with co-developer U. Grant Browning) are class gentlemen who are passionate about urban Nashville's manmade form. For this development, they deserve credit for using Nashville-based architect Quirk Designs (Preston Quirk) and for retaining project consultant J. Mark West, who is working to maximize the chances of the residential building's achieving LEED platinum certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. And, as noted in the previous post, the project will feature a beautiful water fountain on the site's northeast corner.

No doubt, The Acropolis will be strong on many counts.

However, and I write this with great respect for the team, The Acropolis exterior disappoints on two fronts:

1. The building features numerous design elements commonly found in pre-World War II-built structures. Though perhaps not a "replica building" in every respect, the overall presentation screams traditional. For example, one of the six residences (more on this in Point No. 2) offers windows with shudders. I shudder (bad play on words intended).

2. The building's six residences have been designed to appear distinctive of one another, giving the overall structure an "architecturally hodge-podge-like vibe" that can be compared to that of The Row at 31st (located nearby). No doubt, it should be clear to even the lay person that The Acropolis is one building attempting to present itself as six. It is not often that this type design works effectively, particularly if the colors, shapes and forms, as is the case with The Acropolis, contrast significantly (for an exception to this rule, check the Hill Center in Green Hills).

Contrast The Acropolis exterior design to that of the aforementioned Artesia. The latter, a three-story structure dominated by handsome dark brick and featuring contemporary metal and stone touches, leaves no doubt of its 21st century design vernacular. Of note, Preston Quirk designed both Artesia and The Acropolis.

The Acropolis has been constructed with quality materials and craftsmanship. Its sustainable building qualities are to be praised. Most folks (particularly if they know little, if anything, about architecture) likely will find the building's exterior to be attractive.  

Still, I am struggling to embrace this building, despite its many plusses.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Fountain of Acropolis

During a recent drive through West End Park, I noticed a classy fountain on the site of the soon-to-open The Acropolis (located at the southwest T-intersection of Parthenon and Avoca avenues). Although I favor the use of fountains, outdoor art and distinctive signage to enliven the public realm and while pleased that The Acropolis could earn platinum LEED certification via the U.S. Green Building Council, I have some concerns about the exterior design of this building. We'll take a look at those concerns in the next post.


Monday, April 20, 2009

CapStar, Hastings Nail New Center

The exterior designs of most free-standing Nashville-area bank buildings are bland and unadventurous. Not surprising when you consider bankers tend to be a cautious lot, and not the type to opt for edginess, whether with their personal grooming/wardrobe, hobbies/interests or preferred designs for financial centers.

And although the CapStar Bank brass is not likely to start sporting radical facial hair, collecting the music of Radiohead and embracing the architecture of I.M. Pei, it deserves credit for enlisting Hastings Architecture Associates to “push the design envelop” with the financial institution’s recently completed Green Hills building.

In fact, based on architectural significance, the CapStar Bank Building already ranks in the top 5 percent of Green Hills structures — although one could argue that distinction is not particularly impressive given the commercial district’s suburban-themed buildings, collectively, are emasculated by cream-colored synthetic stucco elements, impermanent-looking parapets, faux stone touches and odd attempts to appear traditional. Many of these generic structures are no more substantial architecturally than Jonas Brothers songs are lyrically.

Not so with the CapStar Bank Building.

To get a feel for the ideas HAA incorporated in this 21st century jewel, I chatted today with the firm’s Derek Schmidt, who spearheaded the project. Schmidt said Hastings opted for a Rockville (Minn.) beige granite base as an anchor to an Indiana limestone mid-section. The bulk of the building, which tops out at an effective 32 feet, has a limestone cap, as the facade “box” feature counters with an aluminum-composite cap. Similarly, the canopies are aluminum composite, while the curtain wall and storefront offer clear-anodized aluminum. The effect flirts with being dramatic.

“Most of the upper management of the bank are Nashville banking veterans,” Schmidt said. “They wanted this new branch to have a sense of permanence, but also a sense of place.”

Schmidt said CapStar officials favored some of the older Third National Bank branch design elements (in fact, the bank’s main office is in the iconic former Third National Bank Building downtown). These branches (Green Hills sports a handsome version on Hillsboro Road next to Macy's) feature limestone and marble and have aged in a dignified manner, both functionally and stylistically, since their unveiling.

“So we kind of looked at that for inspiration,” Schmidt said.

Inside the building, the floors are crafted of travertine, while wood elements derive from clear walnut. The centerpiece might just be a two-story, open-riser staircase with glass panels.

Of note, the building’s back exterior stairs are nicer than the façade elements of many Green Hills buildings.

To an extent, the CapStar Bank Building (located at 2321 Crestmoor Road and constructed by general contractor Solomon Builders Inc.) reveals, as Schmidt said, a “high-tech meets high-touch,” feel, its interior giving a “slight nod to mid-century modern.”

That nod, though subtle, is effective nonetheless, rendering the CapStar Bank Building one of the better free-standing buildings (regardless of usage) unveiled in Nashville during the past few years.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Bedford Commons Gets Uncommonly Attractive

I took a quick jaunt yesterday through Bedford Commons, the Rochford Realty and Construction Co. Inc. mixed-use "linear village" on the western fringe of the Green Hills commercial district. Of note, three buildings are opening (seemingly) simultaneously, and their respective exterior designs play nicely off one another.

The dominant member of the Bedford Avenue trio is the green-friendly Freeman Webb Building, a strikingly 21st century offering highlighted by rectangular metal pieces that act as facade-positioned picture frames.

Hastings Architecture Associates earns between an A-minus and a A for this quality project, while the Freeman Webb Co. deserves credit for opting for a building that is set to earn U.S. Green Building Council gold LEED certification. Given Green Hills is as known for bland architecture as Brooks & Dunn are for bad facial hair, the standout Freeman Webb Building is an instant classic.

Read more at the following:

Not as adventurous — but effectiveness nonetheless — are the 3817 Building and 3811 Bedford Plaza. I need to determine the architect(s) for the duo, but both are constructed of quality materials and showcase strong massing and proportionality (and even a few subtle touches not commonly seen in understated buildings of this type). The face of 3811 features large, charcoal metal panels and an arched cap nicely defining the center entrance segment. 3817, the most reserved of the three structures, is topped by a very masculine stone parapet.

Collectively, the threesome provide a strong anchor to what is currently the northern end of Bedford Commons. Good work.

Coming soon: a review of the contemporary new Capstar Bank Building at 2321 Crestmoor Drive in Green Hills.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Gresham Smith Makes Kendall's Shine

A recent “tour” of East Nashville revealed some interesting manmade environment updates. One in particular is the former Kendall’s Appliances Building, a recently updated version of which — courtesy of the Nashville architectural office of Gresham Smith & Partners — now serves as home to two retail shops.

Walking the perimeter of the building, I noticed a number of nice exterior touches, particularly a clay-tiled cornice-like element near the roof line. To create a more inviting feel, GS&P added windows near the corner of the west side of the building, along which was also added new siding painted a masculine olive. Metal door frames and three metal lights (affixed to curving stems) give the building’s facade a contemporary flare. On that theme, the building’s east side offers two smallish tubular light fixtures (to provide decorative night-time illumination) that are very attractive. Colorful and playful roof-line signage for Hue (the tanning salon/clothing retail business operating from the building’s east space) is very eye-catching, with understated landscaping along the building’s east flank and a brick-surfaced parking pad and wood deck giving the back side a needed facelift.

Developer Mark Sanders is to be credited for sparing this diminutive vintage jewel. And kudos to GS&P for quality work.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Bongo Lot is Bongo Bad

I visited Five Points today and will post a few blog entries soon regarding various elements of its manmade fabric. However, there is one point worth noting now: The surface parking lot in front of Bongo Java needs to go, as it is both unsightly and dangerous. Bongo owner Bob Bernstein would lose only one spot if he eliminated the three-vehicle parking and, instead, had Metro Public Works create two parallel parking spots on 11th. This would also allow Bongo to create a larger outdoor seating area. Bob is a progressive gentleman who appreciates an attractive and functional built environment and, as such, would be open (I would hope) to considering this. Perhaps he has already pondered the possibility but was limited due to Codes restrictions involving businesses and the number of parking spots they must maintain based on their square footage. I don't know. But I do know the lot is troublesome. If you agree with my point, email Bob ( and politely suggest he considers this. 

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

An Interesting Big-City View

At the intersection of South Street and 12th Avenue South, gaze north and behold Terrazzo and Icon in the foreground, with Encore and Pinnacle to the right and in the distance. These four major towers have risen only in the past few years, radically transforming the vista as presented from this South Nashville intersection.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Avenue Bank Building Elicits Mixed Emotions

I continue to wrestle with my thoughts regarding the recently opened Green Hills building home to Avenue Bank. Located at 3823 Cleghorn Avenue and across the street from La Paz, the building is perhaps best recognized for its barn-like shape. That jarring form, along with the structure's "turning of its side" to the street (with this "anti-urban design model" resulting in the facade facing the building on the adjacent lot), limits my full enjoyment in viewing 3823. Of note, I am hesitant to criticize Nashville-based architect Tuck-Hinton for its design work, as the company may have been limited by a tight budget and the desires of Avenue Bank officials to site the building as is (in part, of course, to accommodate motorists). On a positive note, the building's brick color, sleek roofing material, metal window frames, window proportionality and overall height are all of solid or strong attractiveness.

Compared to First Tennessee's Looney Ricks Kiss-designed cookie-cutter "faux-traditional" free-standers on 21st Avenue, Gallatin Road and Thompson Lane, 3823 Cleghorn is a masterpiece. In contrast, First Tennessee's two contemporary branches (on West End Avenue and White Bridge Road and expertly designed by LRK) are much more eye-catching than the 3823 Cleghorn building. For that matter, I like Tuck-Hinton's quality retrofit of the West End Avenue building home to Avenue Bank more so than the design firm's built-from-scratch 3823 effort.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Eyesore of the Day: CVS

The Green Hills building home to CVS Pharmacy (located at Crestmoor and Hillsboro roads) has never been remotely considered an architectural masterpiece. But for years, it offered a certain odd quirkiness and even -- at least by the bland design standards of GHills -- a bit of grit.

No more.

A recent "update" has simply brutalized the structure, which is now topped by a "creamy pink" stucco cap on which is monstrous signage completely out of scale with the building's other parts. From some angles, the building presents itself as, essentially, a hideous roof -- and nothing else.

My 9- and 6-year-old Lego-obsessed nephews could have designed better.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Last of the West End Lodge

Demolition work is now fully underway on the buildings formerly housing West End Lodge and Civic Bank & Trust. Located on the northwest corner of 18th and West End avenues and next to the recently opened Hutton Hotel, the site is expected to be used for a mixed-used project that will include hotel, office and restaurant space, and parts of which will rise eight stories.

For more information, see the following:

Thursday, April 9, 2009

A Final Slice Through the Ham

With a full week having passed since my trip to Birmingham, I wanted to share one more thought regarding the city's manmade environment. Specifically, I was impressed with the number and quality of Birmingham's tall older buildings. Of note, and according to, the Ham boasts approximately 22 structures built prior to 1950 and rising at least 100 feet. These old-school gems lend a dignified flavor to both Birmingham at street level and the city when viewed from afar.

Southeastern cities that can rival this number (Emporis figures can be difficult to dissect so the accuracy of these numbers is questionable) are Atlanta (approximately 32), New Orleans (30), Richmond (28) and Memphis (28). Nashville offers 17 buildings of this type. On a side note, the Emporis list for Miami is very difficult to decipher, as the Florida city has so many tall buildings, many of which Emporis lists with no date or no height (or either). From what I can determine, Miami offers about 15 buildings constructed prior to 1950 and standing 100 feet or taller. But this seems low, even considering the fact the bulk of Miami has been built since 1950. One more point: For this exercise, I did not include Louisville, which although located in a Southeastern state is as much a Midwest city as it is a Southern city.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

H-Inn Brings Broad Bad Interstate Vibe

With each time I walk or drive past the downtown Nashville building home to Holiday Inn Express (located at 920 Broadway), I become more agitated at whomever devised the gameplan used to re-do the structure's exterior. The color scheme (almost a "muddy cream pink"), blue metal roofing, signage...all hideous. Since its update about 2.5 years ago (as I recall), the exterior of this once quirky brick building has been rendered a downtown version of the type generic motels found off interstate exits. Pathetic.

Birmingham Offers Key Sign of Urban Form

Within Birmingham's central core — a roughly 360-block mass comprising the city's Central Business District and Southside (and the fringes of those two districts) — there is a defining characteristic of a traditional built fabric. Very simply, this massive sea of B-Ham urbanity contains few, if any, buildings that are sited with their sides "facing" streets. It's almost stunning to see this, as the central cores of most Southern cities have various buildings positioned in this manner, often when such a physical arrangement was not even necessary. For a Nashville reference and a comparison, mentally visualize the siting of the Wachovia Bank Building, located on West End Avenue between 17th and 18th avenues. The developer could have opted to position the building facing and straddling the sidewalk. Instead, the building seemingly "turns its side" to West End, its facade facing east and overlooking asphalt. And there are other examples of this in Midtown, which is the equivalent (and only very modestly so) of Birmingham's Southside. In fairness, sometimes tight geographic constraints render such a site arrangement necessary for a building. Often, however, the developer wishes to maximize ease of motorist access, thus harming the attractiveness and urban functionality of the structure. Somehow, Birmingham's core has managed to avoid this example of non-urban design.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Birmingham's Version of Louisville's Cherokee Park

There is a geographically tight district southeast of downtown Birmingham that, compared to similar areas in other U.S. cities, offers one of the best examples of combining built and natural environments. The area is a few blocks west of Forest Park and bordered by Eighth Avenue/Clairmont Avenue on the north, Highland Avenue/31st Street to the east, Highland Avenue to the south, and the Red Mountain Expressway to the west. Commonly referred to, not surprisingly, as the Highland Park District, this heavily wooded urban node features some handsome vintage residential buildings, a handful of splendid church buildings and five parks (Caldwell, Highland, Rhodes, Rushton and Underwood). During my drives though the district, I noticed vibrant pedestrian activity. Among other Southern cities, the eastern fringe of Louisville's Cherokee Park perhaps compares most favorably. Sadly, there is no place within urban Nashville that remotely resembles the Highland Park District. For that matter, as some upcoming posts will note, there are many interesting elements of Birmingham's manmade environment for which Nashville offers modest, if any, competition.

Liggett Building Opts for Edgy

Downtown Nashville's diminutive and historic Liggett Building (located on the southeast corner of Second Avenue and Demonbreun Street) is now sporting a strikingly cool silver metal sign. Vertically spanning the building's northeast corner and about 10 feet tall, the sign reads simply: Liggett

A very nice touch.

B-Ham Street Grid Grabs Attention

Is downtown Birmingham the South's most "street gridded" city? This writer just returned from a fine two-day trip to the Ham and walked a good bit of both the city's Central Business District and Southside (dominated by UAB and Five Points). After doing so, and thoroughly studying various maps of the city (as only a "map geek" can) during the stay, I concluded the central street grid of Alabama's largest city ranks among the best in the nation.

For the sake of discussion, let's define downtown and Southside as being bordered by 11th Avenue North on the north, Interstate 65 on the west, the Elton Stephens Expressway on the east and 11th Avenue South on the south. With the exception of the four corners of this "box," the streets within it form an almost perfect grid of roughly 360 square blocks. With very few breaks in the grid (a train gulch severing Downtown from Southside being the main example) the opportunities to navigate — by car, foot, bike, DART Circulator, city bus, etc. — and view the city are fabulous. Most vistas are uninterrupted, as the streets (many wide and one way to create proper traffic flow and safety) stretch for many blocks. In fact, there are few "interrupters" within this "built fabric mass." Two key examples are Linn Park and the massive UAB campus, one of the most impresses urban campuses in the country. The diminutive Kelly Ingram Park (the only green space of note downtown and a very nice one at that) somehow manages to avoid distorting the grid. Four viaducts span the railroad tracks and connect the Central Business District to Southside. On this theme, driving north via the Dr. Richard Arrington Jr. Boulevard, over the Rainbow Viaduct and marveling at the sea of vintage buildings is a must-do.

More on the built environment highlights of this trip to follow...

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Bound for Birmingham

There are only a handful of Southern cities whose built forms are similar to those of gritty, blue-collar Northern cities such as Buffalo, Milwaukee and Pittsburgh. Of these, Birmingham might be the best example. In addition, Alabama's largest city offers one of the best "big city pedestrian epicenters" in the South: Five Points. This writer will be in the Ham the next two days, during which a self-guided tour of industrial architecture masterpiece Sloss Furnaces is on tap. A report of this trip will soon follow.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Outfitting Urban Outfitters

Building signage is one of the most overlooked — yet important — elements of a building's exterior. On this note, I offer a commendation to MarketStreet Equities and Urban Outfitters for opting for the attractive and prominent metal sign on the facade of the former's Gulch building housing the latter's just-opened "bohemian-hipster" clothing store. Word on the street is that the Metro Housing and Development Authority was a bit taken aback when MarketStreet and U-Outfitters proposed the eye-catching, and somewhat envelope-pushing, sign. Fortunately, the fine folks at MDHA, which must approve any architectural designs and features for those buildings within the entity's redevelopment districts (including The Gulch), summoned what is likely a modest level of inner coolness (and I write this with all due respect) and OK'd the sign.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Velocity Takes Shape

The still-under-construction Velocity is now giving us a taste of its final look, as the the futuristic caps topping the Gulch building's two entrance columns are lit at night. Very attractive.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Dean could Blow Riverfront Effort

Mayor Karl Dean and MDHA are poised to make a horrendous mistake related to Cumberland riverfront redevelopment. That possible blunder would be such from both a practical perspective as it relates to the sequencing and citizen usage of the riverfront master plan and a political perspective, as Dean might cost himself a re-election in 2011.

In short, Dean has all but ordered MDHA to implement the riverfront redevelopment plan "out of sequence" compared to the originally agreed upon sequencing of improvements as recommended by Hargreaves Associates (the lead consultant for the program) and embraced by those East Nashville residents who are passionate about community and understand built and natural environment issues. If Dean succeeds, the Riverfront Adventure Park (to be located between the East Bank ramps of the Shelby and Gateway bridges) and an accompanying urban forest pilot effort (essentially a lush grass and tree parking lot) would not be the first effort for Phase I. Rather, updates along the East Bank between the Shelby Street Pedestrian Bridge ramp on the south and the Woodland Street Bride on the north would be addressed first.

Let's put this bluntly: The Riverfront Adventure Park (with nine components) is the ONLY of the planned 20 riverfront improvements that would be a "big-ticket item" with star quality. It would be the type destination location that could — much like Coolidge Park in Chattanooga — provide Nashville a level of regional notoriety. Furthermore, work on both RAP and the urban forest would not require approval of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

In contrast, none of the other approximately 18 elements within the five-year, roughly $50 million program (to include the East and West Bank downtown riverfront corridor between the Interstate 24 river bridge and the James Robertson Parkway Bridge) will offer such pop. These elements — including recreational boat docking facilities, waterfront features, boardwalks, overlooks and piers — are, though worthy of creation, simply not as sexy as the Adventure Park. (The one exception for hard-core vintage building fans (this writer included) might be the rehabbing of the NABRICO Building.)

Also of note, the Corps will have to give approval for the other 18 elements, a process that can consume months, if not more than a year.

Hargreaves recommended the Riverfront Adventure Park and its adjacent urban forest pilot be undertaken first. No Corps approval is needed. The site, a brownfield, will be remediated. East Nashvillians overwhelmingly want this sequence. And, most importantly, the park will be a huge draw for both locals and tourists alike.

Perhaps most disturbing about this entire matter, Dean and MDHA were going to quietly make this change in sequencing without any public input but were thwarted only because of the passionate effort by a determined Metro Councilman Mike Jameson, in whose District 6 sits the riverfront property to be transformed.

MDHA and the Dean Administration, citing possible excess expense in starting the effort with RAP and the urban forest pilot, claim there is a cost element driving the proposed change in sequencing. Yes there will be a cost, one to be paid in a loss of credibility for both the agency and the mayor.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Roadless in Nashville

Sylvan Park offers some wonderfully attractive homes with huge shade trees.

Sadly, these otherwise tasteful S-Park properties are often marred by horrific streetscapes. Most roads in the historic residential neighborhood have no curbs, much less sidewalks and stormwater management systems. Battered mailboxes litter these Sylvan Park streets, their asphalt-crumbling shoulders bleeding into eroding land (you can often see tire tracks from postal carrier vehicles).

Sylvan Park is not the only old-school residential district with such hideous streetscapes.

Given the condition of the shoulders and the adjacent grounds of many curbless roads in Nashville neighborhoods, I continue to be baffled why the Metro Public Works Department doesn't simply paint white stripes on either side of all these streets.

In addition to giving the roads a more defined and attractive appearance, such white lines (I've talked to various "built environment pros" about this) can subtly psychologically spur motorists to reduce their speed a bit. In addition, the white lines are very helpful (in terms of safety and visibility) for night drivers.

In fairness, Public Works has painted white lines on either shoulder of various residential streets. For example, Public Works recently repaved the segment of Graybar Lane from Leland Lane to Granny White Pike. Though it required more time than would have been expected, the department recently gave the street the "white-line painting treatment." The result is quite attractive.

Painting streets with white outer lines seems a very inexpensive way (compared to overhauling these streets with proper sidewalk, curb and stormwater streetscape infrastructure) to improve the city's secondary and tertiary residential streets. But does Public Works agree? I talked to a Public Works official about this topic a few years ago and found his unenthusiastic response very disappointing.

Similarly, a number of well-traveled segments of key streets (including the stretch of Granny White from Harding to Otter Creek, Hillsboro Road between I-440 and Woodmont, and a stretch of Estes Road just south of the Woodmont/Estes intersection) essentially have no shoulders and are perilously elevated. These streets are striped (fortunately) but there is minimal room for a slight miscalculation. Steer a few inches to the right and your car is flying off the elevated road and into a deep ditch. At night, the hazardous conditions are likely magnified three-fold.

The Estes section I reference involves the road being elevated at some points (as if on a platform) at least three feet above ground level. And there is no more than two inches from the painted outer stripe to the edge of the asphalt shoulder. From that point, the drop is steep. Erosion (I would assume) has contributed to the problem.

I’ve visited countless American cities and driven extensively throughout these places. Nashville ranks among the worst for street conditions and streetscape attractiveness. Immediate attention is needed.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Updates, Updates, Updates

I took a quick drive today to check on some projects. Here's what I found:

* Work has resumed on 30North Office Condos, the four-story structure near Centennial Park and being developed by the Graymont Group (which did the 2222 Building in 12South). The big hole sat empty for what might have been a year, but now the building is out of the ground and I saw lots of equipment there today. Like 2222 (and disturbingly), some of the first-level entrance seems "above sidewalk grade," a model for which I am not a fan. However, 30North is being sited to the sidewalk, so that's encouraging.

* Work on The Maxwell in West End Park is in its final stages. I drive by about once every three weeks and from what I saw recently, seemingly no exterior progress has been made since my last drive-by. However, I did re-check a few days later and men were on the site.

* Also in West End Park, Artesia nears completion, while The Acropolis looks about 50-60 percent finished. The two buildings offer radically different exterior designs, and I'm not sure which I prefer. Artesia is very 21st century, with handsome dark brick and the type green metal roofing that will age gracefully. But some of the elements (including a handful of circular windows and some curved shapes) are questionable. In contrast, The Acropolis is stately and traditional, but excessively replica. Neither hits a home run regarding exterior design. But both are acceptable, solid additions to the general West End district.

* Velocity is showing some "1980s-popular colors" (maroon and medium olive) that look horrid. Also, the futuristic caps topping the two entrance columns — though of a sharp design — appear very impermanent and flimsy. On a positive note, Velocity offers interesting exterior shapes and definition.

* 12 & Paris (next to the Cypress Building) is out of the ground, while work on Gale Loft Apartments and Jefferson Street Lofts (between Third and Fourth) has started, too. Core Development is the developer of all three. I predict 12 & Paris will be a great addition to the city based on various factors. I'm not, however, as optimistic about the other two, as they border no buildings specifically and are sited within overall "built-fabric contexts" that are lacking (at best). Perhaps GLA and JSL will serve, over time, will spur quality growth in their two respective areas.

* The verdict is in: The exterior of the new Downtown YMCA rates a 9 to 9.5. Excellent work from Allard Ward Architects.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Memphis: Orderly with a Vintage Touch


For those who relish a traditional and old-school manmade environment, there is no Tennessee city that can rival it.

Not even close.

Recently, a long-time friend and I took a day trip to the Bluff City. My buddy — a “city hobbyist” who nonetheless knows a good bit about the fundamentals of a quality urban built fabric — had never truly explored Memphis. After six hours of aggressively driving the city’s parkways and avenues while clinically dissecting vintage structures, 1960s-era office buildings and fabulous streetscapes — and after enthusiastically exploring (both via car and on foot) the Pinch, Cooper-Young, Harbor Town, the south side, Midtown and the Central Business District — my dear friend came away impressed.

So, too, did I — even though this was my fourth visit (in four years) to Memphis, including one stay during which I drove about 100 miles throughout the city’s dense central core.

Given my familiarity with the buildings, streetscapes, planning efforts and mixed-use districts in both Memphis and, of course, Nashville, what follows is one man’s comparison of Tennessee’s dominant cities.

Memphis: More than any other characteristic, “orderliness” dominates Memphis much more so than it does Nashville. Within 30 minutes of our “tour,” my friend noted how consistent and clean the Memphis streetscape is. And how, unlike in Music City, the Memphis core is so much more building dense. He’s dead on.

Within the city’s Interstate 240 loop — an area covering a minimum of 70 square miles (and maybe as many as 80-85 square miles) — nearly every street offers proper sidewalks and curbing. Street signage is consistent. Mailboxes, one of the great culprits of street-side clutter, are typically placed on front porches. Alleys, which eliminate the need for front-yard driveways (another cause of visual clutter, particularly when of the gravel variety), are much more common in Memphis than in Nashville. Housing styles flow smoothly from district to district. Numerous Memphis buildings are sited at the sidewalk, thus minimizing huge surface parking ponds that (here we go again with the visual clutter theme) allow for unsightly auto storage. Memphis, compared to Nashville, has far less “dead space” and fewer swaths of unused or underutilized real estate. In short, Memphis historically has been vastly better planned than Nashville (notorious for its many old neighborhoods and commercial districts with ramshackle vibes). This foresight, courtesy of Memphis leaders since the early 20th century, has resulted in a much more efficient maximization of space, with the Bluff City’s manmade environment acting in a more urban manner related to is surrounding natural environment.

Another noticeable Memphis built environment trait is the city’s impressive collection of pre-1950s-constructed buildings. Downtown, of course, offers many of the best examples. However, various Midtown stretches of high-profile streets, including Madison, Poplar and Union avenues, are framed nicely by such vintage building stock. Even the inner-I-240 rectangle bordered by Summer Avenue on the north, East Parkway on the east, Park Avenue on the south and Perkins Avenue on the west offers a respectable number of charming old commercial/retail buildings.

Next, and related to the second element just mentioned, Memphis contains much more “grit” than Nashville, more historic water towers, smokestacks, factories, storage facilities, industrial sites, old viaducts, etc. This gives the city a certain authenticity and “coolness” that the more “sterile” and generic Nashville simply cannot match.

Lastly, the Memphis built fabric fans from downtown and the Mississippi River. So you cannot encircle the city's downtown for a variety of angled view. However, if you are driving via, say, Poplar Avenue and from I-240, the stretch of urban mass is quite eye-opening.

Nashville: In comparison to Memphis, Nashville showcases significantly more contemporary buildings. Though Nashville’s urban core (the area with decent building density, street grid and orderliness) spans a modest 25 to 30 square miles, it has seen a mini construction explosion of sorts since the late 1990s. This architecture and development frenzy has rendered Nashville somewhat similar to Atlanta and Charlotte, the two Old South cities that best define a “New South architectural design vernacular.” During a mere 10-year span, Music City’s downtown, Midtown, Vanderbilt/West End corridor, Gulch, SoBro, Germantown and Five Points have added no fewer than 100 buildings (many of them sleek and bold). In contrast, there is, at best, a minimal “21st century architectural vibe” within Memphis’ massive inner interstate loop. A smattering of recently constructed buildings is simply too randomly place or blandly designed to command attention.

A very specific characteristic of Nashville’s manmade environment (and somewhat connected to the previously noted trait) is the number of buildings 100 feet or taller. It’s difficult to accurately compare Memphis and Nashville in this category, but based on personal observation and lists found at and, Nashville offers at least 33 percent (and maybe 50 percent) as many “tall” buildings than Memphis. The difference is noticeable.

Next, Nashville’s downtown is like a wheel’s center, with the mass of the city dispersing like spokes from that core and the Cumberland River snaking through its gut. To an extent, this minimizes the impact of what little street griddedness the city contains (or could ever have boasted). But it does provide for multiple viewing angles of the Central Business District.

Lastly, because Nashville is extremely hilly, the “built environment vistas” offered to pedestrians, cyclists and motorists alike — and courtesy of the rolling natural environment — can be quite visually striking. Navigate Nashville, and big buildings and cool urban massings can literally “pop up out of nowhere.” In contrast, Memphis is fairly flat, with modest changes in topography and street bends offering rather predictable viewsheds.

In summary, my good friend and I spent at least an hour of our 3:15 drive back to Nashville comparing and contrasting the manmade fabric of the state’s two most prominent cities. Both have their strengths, and warts. From a planning, layout, topography, architecture and development perspective, Memphis mirrors a mini-St. Louis; Nashville, a mini-Atlanta. No doubt, the two Tennessee cities are very different regarding their physical arrangement and feel.