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.

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 fa├žade 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.)