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.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Creating Places: 4th and Monroe

Good to see the Germantown development 4th & Monroe will have a second shot at success, as it has been bought out of foreclosure. Reportedly, the buyer will lease the residential spaces — a smart move in this economic environment.

Of note EOA Architects designed 4th & Monroe in a very traditional manner (noteworthy given EOA opts for cutting-edge design) for then-developer Traditional Urban Concepts. Often, 21st century architecture made to "look vintage" fails. But 4th & Monroe is quite tasteful, with an interesting mix of brick colors, angles and forms.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Creating Places: Random Observations

A few thoughts as we prepare for the big man with the red suit, bulbous nose and white chin beard to visit...

* One of the more interesting views of downtown can be enjoyed at the intersection of 12th Avenue South and South Street.

* The building to be home to the Nordstrom at The Mall at Green Hills is topped and showing strong massing.

* Google Streetview reveals various cities that, like Nashville, lack quality sidewalk networks located 2 to 5 miles from their respective urban cores. Examples include Syracuse, Oklahoma City and Houston.

* Glad to see Smith Gee Studio is handling design work for Ryman Lofts (to be located in Rolling Mill Hill). SGS is a progressive architectural firm that will deliver a quality building.

* I wonder if the project slated for 24th and West End avenues (to include a hotel) will affect (i.e., sidetrack) the proposed mixed-use project (to include a hotel) at 18th and West End avenues.

* A downtown skyscraper I admire more and more as time passes is the SunTrust Building (formerly the Third National Bank Building), located at the northwest corner of the Fourth Avenue North and Church Street intersection. This mini-masterpiece has a well-defined base (highlighted by limestone and a fairly grand entrance), shaft (bathed in dark glass) and cap (note the gold highlights).

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Creating Places: Good-bye to "Tower Building"

If the 2400 West End project (for hotel and wine bar space) materializes, Midtown will lose a 1920s-built structure with some classic features. The building, currently home to FYE and best known as the former space of Tower Records, offers at its entrance two pilasters with ionic capitals, a cornice and a roof line with a balustrade. Also, the main door is extremely close to the sidewalk. That's the type old-school entrance arrangement we don't see much with new construction (as car usage often dictates otherwise). I like the facade of this building and will hate to see it go. But the replacement will offer a mixture of uses and, likely, a scale more suitable for that site. Let's hope the design is as effective as the function.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Creating Places: Nashville 2025

Check this post on the Nashville forum of Urban Planet and involving a blueprint for the city's future growth. Post No. 2 by Shuzilla. I like it.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Creating Places: Barbed Wire Mess

As noted within a piece I penned for this week's hard-copy edition of The City Paper, Nashville's inner-interstate loop is marred by areas ringed by rusted metal fencing, some of it with barbed wire. This stuff is nasty and unnecessary — and, of note, uncommon in other cities.

For example, a quick Google Maps Street View search reveals Southeastern peer city Charlotte is minimally pockmarked by chain link/barbed wire fencing at exit points along inner-interstate loop I-77/277. Similarly, Street View shows only modest segments of metal fencing in Memphis along I-240 but none straddling the I-40 segment slicing through downtown.

So do these two cities — and many others — fail to "get it," simply not understanding that barbed wire metal fencing is attractive and functional? Obviously not.

You can go down the list with our built environment problems: TDOT's barbed wire fencing; streets that not only lack sidewalks but curbs or even white edge stripes; fire hydrants whose red paint is so sun-faded as to suggest Pepto-Bismol pink. I could go on but am tired.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Creating Places: Building Facelifts

I noticed today the 176 Third Ave. N. structure last home (and perhaps still — who knows?) to Atlantis is being given a major facade modification courtesy of masculine paint colors and new awnings. The effect thus far is successful. During the past few years, this vintage brick building has undergone more facelifts than an aging, and insecure, Hollywood star. Many of those updates have partially marred the Central Business District-located building with excess paint and less-than-ideal embellishments. Let's hope this latest look is both attractive and long-term.

On a related note, the two-story residential building called The Marc (on West End Circle in West End Park) looks vastly better than its previous iteration courtesy of an earth-toned paint job, sleek signage and multi-colored geometric shapes. An otherwise non-descript 1960s-era brick building, The Marc — or "the marc" as the all-lowercase letters hiply display on the structure's face — strikes a modern-era pose in a district dominated by bland multi-unit residential buildings. Kudos to the person who hit on this simple, yet tasteful, improvement idea.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Creating Places: Random Observations

* The structure that will be the future home to Nordstrom (at The Mall at Green Hills) is framed and topped out. I like the way it straddles the sidewalk along the north side of Abbott Martin Road. Nice height, too.

* And speaking of Green Hills, a soon-t0-be-completed office structure in Bedford Commons (seemingly to be called the Annie Campbell Building) is looking fairly attractive — at least as far as conservatively designed structures can look in 2010.

* I'm curious as to how the park that will front Convent Place (along 21st Avenue South) will appear and function once finished. Landscaping will be a key.

* Similarly, the gymnasium under construction at Christ the King School (and running along Belmont Boulevard) has me intrigued, in part, because so much "academic design" in Nashville during the past few years has been painfully uninspired.

* On the academic building theme, I consider the exterior design of the recently completed James D. Hughes Center on the Lipscomb University campus to be solid — but nothing more.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Creating Places: Night-Time Signage

The building home to the downtown Holiday Inn Express now sports blue night lighting on both its east and west sides. Linear and attractive, the blue lights point toward new (and much improved) signage near the building's roof line. Now, if Holiday Inn would only change the building's general color scheme (a nasty "light pinkish beige" for the brick and blue for the cheap-looking metal elements). That scheme suggests a non-masculine and generic throw-away motel building located off some random interstate and in the middle of nowhere — not ideal for a structure that is within close proximity of architectural masterpieces such as Christ Church Cathedral, the Frist Center and Union Station.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Creating Places: Memphis

Journeyed to Memphis earlier this week and will be posting some observations soon. Two items of note: 1. there is an effort to rehab the vintage commercial buildings along a three-block stretch of Broad Avenue (between Hollywood on the west and Collins on the East). I noticed a number of businesses already operating from the spaces. Work is needed but the future might be bright; 2. I marveled for the last time at the architecturally impressive Union Avenue United Methodist Church anchoring the southwest corner of the Cooper and Union intersection. This stately gem will soon be felled to make room for a building — one we know that will be anything but a stately gem — to house a CVS. Splendid.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Creating Places: Mass Transit Update

For years, comprehensive mass transit in Nashville has been no more impressive than NPR’s handling the firing of Juan Williams (no relation).

But on the heels of concluding a major study regarding intelligent transportation systems (ITS), the Nashville Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) is now crafting a plan that could aid Midstate public works departments and transit agencies with low-cost solutions to addressing infrastructure concerns.

Though not fully funded, the ITS Deployment Plan could yield transit improvements related to usage efficiency.

The MPO study, conducted by the Nashville office of Texas-based Kimley-Horn & Associates, touches on the nationally newish open transit data concept. With an open data approach, a transit agency makes its information available to software programming companies, which then create applications citizens can access via their hand-held devices. Lots of transit agencies are a bit skittish about “going open.”

Of note and with the ITS plan possibly providing some guidance for a future broader strategy, the Metro Transit Authority is preparing to implement a real-time data plan. The MTA program will see electronic signage offer bus status updates, specifically at stops along the authority’s bus rapid transit line (Gallatin Road/Main Street) and at the Music City Central downtown hub. Signs already are installed at the BRT stops and will soon be installed at MCC.

That real-time data effort was to have been in place by now but was delayed when MTA servers and equipment suffered flood damage, according to James McAteer, the authority’s director of planning.

“Real-time data is the path were going down,” McAteer told me via phone and for an article I wrote for The City Paper. McAteer added that MTA is exploring mechanisms to make the authority’s data “open” to programming companies.

McAteer said MTA is planning to offer its bus route schedules in real time and to riders’ hand-held devices. This can be done, he said, prior to making the agency’s data open to programmers. Both McAteer and MTA spokeswoman Patricia Harris-Morehead told me the agency is neither philosophically nor fiscally opposed to a fully open data approach. However, there are legal and contractual issues with MTA vendors that must be addressed.

Transit Now Nashville, the city’s feisty non-profit advocacy group, wants MTA eventually to provide the more comprehensive open-data system and hopes the MPO-commissioned study can be of help.

With an open-data system — and assuming programmers develop applications with it — bus riders, for example, can use their hand-held mobile devices to monitor route efficiency and ridership. In simple terms, if a bus is running late, a rider could find out — and then take time to, say, quickly grab a cup of coffee at the nearest cafĂ©.

“With open data, software developers can use the data to create new applications,” Travis Todd, Transit Now president, told me via phone while he was stressed during a regular work day and I was still in sleepwear, enjoying a cup of coffee and trying to convince myself that this freelance writing gig is legitimate work. “If the data stays closed, the public’s only source for that information is the agency that controls it.”

Todd said that an open data system could help spur private investment as an ancillary component of public transportation.

“Like weather information, we want to have transit information easily available, real-time and free,” he said. “The best way to get there fast is to open the data and give private companies a chance to create tools to complement existing transit systems.”

Todd said Transit Now has surveyed numerous citizens who have never ridden transit in Nashville and determined that a real-time app for bus services “would persuade them to ride for the first time.” I have some doubts about that as folks tend to exaggerate their seriousness about hopping on a public bus. But I want to be hopeful and if we combine hand-held devices and buses, well it might just work.

Not surprisingly, Nashville is not alone in failing to embrace open transit data.

Of note and according to City-Go-Round, of the nation’s 824 major transit systems, 122 offer an open-data system and 702 do not.

“Transit data sharing is a relatively new concept and [Metro Government] officials may see it as a cost, especially if their system was built for internal use only,” Todd said. “In addition, we know that MTA was greatly affected by the flood. They lost buses and equipment, and they are in the process of moving their offices again. Yet, they have made many accomplishments this year. We are optimistic that, in time, they will open the data.”

The Rockefeller Foundation-funded City-Go-Round website retrieves — via the General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) Data Exchange — a list of those agencies that provide public data in GTFS format. City-Go-Round matches these agencies against its master list of transit agencies that was compiled from the National Transportation Database. This enables the City-Go-Round site to show users those agencies that do and do not provide open data.

Josh Herst, CEO of Seattle-based Walk Score (for which City-Go-Round is an initiative), said open data can help make transit usage more convenient.

“More people will find transit valuable and land values will increase near areas that are well served by transit,” Herst said in yet another phone interview.

A fine example of open data benefits, Herst said, is location-based mobile network Foursquare, which allows riders in the San Francisco Bay Area to monitor if their friends are using transit.

If MTA eventually opts for a full open data approach, the MPO study may have served the broad purpose for which it was conducted.

Michael Skipper, MPO executive director, said the next step with the ITS Deployment Plan, is finding funding for the study’s recommendations.

“As we move forward in an environment with limited financial resources, we’ll be looking to invest in low-cost solutions that help modernize our infrastructure,” Skipper said (no need to add “in a phone interview”) “ITS solutions span a broad range of projects ranging from providing real-time transit arrival and departure information via cell phone to improving the synchronization of traffic signals to keep roadways moving efficiently."

Related to mass transit in Nashville specifically, an intelligent transportation system program could use computer-aided dispatching tools to, say, help bus drivers monitor the location of accidents and automated passenger counting systems.

Mary Beth Ikard, MPO’s hard-working spokeswoman, said a major reason for the organization’s commissioning the ITS architecture study was “to improve emergency management coordination across jurisdictional boundaries to speed incident response.”

“Not all the jurisdictions in our planning area need to agree to use identical technology that speaks to each other, but it’s important to have everyone sitting at the table and aware of what their neighbor has and is using (under the umbrella of the ITS architecture),” Ikard said. “You can see how this would be especially important during something like the May flooding.”

Ikard said the ITS Deployment Plan is not “fiscally constrained.”

“So even though many of projects identified for the plan don't have any funding associated with them," she said, "they do represent important priorities for the region."

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Creating Places: Vista Germantown

With my modest "self-employment work schedule" not a hindrance, I attended this past week's groundbreaking ceremony for Vista Germantown. Thankfully, Mayor Karl Dean and other officials kept their comments (cliched as you might expect) brief. Looking at the renderings and talking to Southeast Venture architect Gaius Overton and Bristol Development's Ashlyn Hines I am encouraged at their willingness to solicit feedback. I told both that though I like the overall appearance and functionality of the building as currently proposed, I have a few concerns (particularly regarding color scheme). Not that one man's opinion will spur changes — or that others would share my views regarding the colors — but both Bristol and Southeast Venture are open to modifications. This is encouraging. More on Vista Germantown very soon.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Creating Places: Wells Fargo Signage

I noticed yesterday new signage for the downtown office building at 230 Fourth Ave. N. and with the anchor tenant Wells Fargo. The building's face and plaza both sport signs similar to the sign in the photo on the right. That is, the lettering essentially overwhelms the sign itself with no proportionality. Compounding the ugliness is a color scheme that suggests a fire-red hot dog with mustard. Very tacky. In contrast, note the sign in the image on the left. The lettering is nicely balanced in the relation to the overall rectangular sign, there is an image of a stagecoach (with a tasteful underline), and the black and white soften the garishness of the red/yellow hot dog vibe.

Even a 4-year-old could determine the more attractive of the two signs.

This is another classic "signage misstep" that we so often see in Nashville. Fumbles of this type, when multiplied, can "cartoon-ize" our built fabric. Very disappointing.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Creating Places: The Square...Madison

I drove through Germantown this past Sunday and noticed what seems to have been some recent work on the site of the proposed The Square at Fourth & Madison. Do any of the five of you who read this blog have any updated info on this project?

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Creating Places: Omni Hotel

Viewing the Omni Hotel rendering for the first time today (and, of course, realizing this is a rendering only) I nonetheless asked myself, "Where is the distinctiveness? Where is the edge? An 800-room hotel that will anchor a nationally significant convention center and we get, seemingly, a basic box? And a box that's not even 300 feet tall?"

True, it's early in the process and images of this type can be misleading. Maybe the Omni will feature various eye-catching metal elements, some colored glass and interesting geometric forms — despite what will apparently be a very conventional overall shape. Of note, I am optimistic about the street activation. On this theme, the structure should feature a well-defined base, always a plus. And I like the catwalk connecting the hotel to the MCC (and spanning Fifth Avenue).

At the least, we're getting a nice-sized building that will add substantial pedestrian activity to SoBro. But after hearing Omni officials, during the media event to announce the company's arrival, gush about the stellar building they would deliver...either they exaggerated or they misguidedly (perhaps driven by ego) think that every building they develop is outstanding. Questionable either way. Still, I want to be hopeful. There are some very cool Omni hotels, so maybe ours will be too — my modest initial reaction notwithstanding.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Creating Places: Skyscraper City or Not?

With the renderings for the Omni Hotel to be released, we hope, any day, high-rise nerds (myself included) are pondering whether the building might reach 500 feet. The discussion of the height of the future Omni begs the question: Will Nashville, like Atlanta, one day be a "skyscraper city"?

Perhaps the question is not "will" Nashville ever be a skyscraper city but, rather, "should" it be? I would say "no."

Ideally, Nashville's urban core will offer primarily tastefully designed small to mid-sized mixed-use buildings (three to 10 stories) with the occasional high-rise (up to 500 feet) for vista punctuation and man-made environment variety. Lots of tall buildings would limit the need for the small to mid-sized mixed buildings that make things interesting on a pedestrian (i.e., ground) level -- and that provide the type building and people density that drives mass transit. Among mid-sized cities, Portland is great example of this model. It has a handful of buildings 300 feet or taller and a plethora of structures in the three- to seven-story range.

Just like we don't want a sprawling built fabric with every building one use, horizontal and sited on lots of dead acreage, we don't want, say, 20 buildings of 500 feet or taller and a sea of surface parking "connecting" those towers. A middle ground (much like the one I describe previously) is preferred.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Creating Places: More SoBro Grit Gone

Demolition began today on a non-descript cinderblock building on the west side of Encore and facing Demonbreun Street (across from the Schermerhorn Symphony Center). Though of no design/architectural significance, the little building will be missed when you consider SoBro has already lost so much of its gritty, fine-grained built fabric. Apparently, the replacement for the structure will be surface parking. Wonderful.

I can still visualize so many smallish old-school buildings in SoBro that have been toppled only since 1995. Some were handsome (i.e., the Chilton Building) some offered a cool usage (the structure home to 328 Performance Hall) and others were, well, bland. But all were built prior to 1970 and offered a pedestrian scale and feel. At this rate, "SoBro circa 2030" will offer 10 massive post-2000-built structures and a sea of surrounding surface parking. Such a landscape might look imposing from afar and from a car, but up close and on foot...that will be one ugly SoBro.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Creating Places: HKS

I'm hearing Dallas-based architecture company HKS will be the lead designer for the proposed Omni Hotel tower to accompany the Music City Center convention facility. Of note, however, HKS has a rendering on its website for a "Nashville Peabody Hotel" (and nothing for the Omni). Baffling. Could HKS, which has done a good bit of international work, be designing both the Omni and what could be a Peabody? Perhaps the website info is outdated and there will be no Peabody any time soon. I can't determine. Regardless, HKS creates some very 21st century, eye-catching designs.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Creating Places: Room In The Inn Building

Glen Oxford is president of 12South-based Oxford Architecture. Following is a Q&A regarding the Campus for Human Development Building (a.k.a., the Room In The Inn Building), the attractive SoBro building that OA designed and that recently opened.

Your thoughts on the Room In The Inn Building’s color scheme, materials and size? The new building is 46,000 square feet with the existing building that is just started being renovated at 20,000 square feet. The goal of selecting the materials on the project was the desire to use materials that were manufactured within close proximity of the Nashville. Materials must be durable, warm and reusable.

What was OA’s approach to designing the building? The original site for the building was actually located on Drexel Street where the current parking lot and rain gardens are located. When we started designing this facility in 2006, this was the site that had been purchased by the Campus. During the programming and design stages, it was determined that relocating the building to the current site would provide a much better design based on control, security and function due to the fact that the Campus was going to continue to occupy the existing building.

Any interesting features? Dealing with the homeless and intoxicated population provides its own design challenges. We wanted to be able to design a warm and comfortable atmosphere such as a home environment but at the same time provide a durable and lasting structure. Being located in the Arts District, and in a prime site facing the [under-construction] Music City Center and downtown, we want the building to address not only the users of the facility but also the city itself.

We have included 38 apartments that serve as a stepping-stone to future homes the residents seek. These residents along with the staff have access to the rooftop garden that overlooks the courtyard and downtown. The view from the common areas and the Board Room on the north side of the building will rival any housing units in the downtown area at a comparable height. The residents will be able to watch the Music City Center come to life and watch Nashville grow.

The Campus has expanded the square footage of the educational areas with an art room any school would envy, a computer lab, home economics rooms and classrooms that are flexible for a wide arrange of class sizes.

Any “green” elements? This building follows the green principals from the rain garden, green roof, materials, day lighting and the mechanical and electrical systems. It was decided during the budgeting process of the project not to seek USGBC (United States Green Building Council) certification due to the cost involved in commissioning the building. This $150,000 plus cost was better served in buying furniture and supplies.

Of note, the building does not address a street in the conventional sense. It’s almost wedged into a mass of built fabric, creating an interesting building density within the specific district in which the building sits. Thoughts? Although the building does not address Eighth Avenue North, it does in fact address Drexel, which is the building’s address and more importantly, the building addresses the City of Nashville in which it is serving.

Any other thoughts? Much thanks needs to be given to Father Charles Strobel and Rachel Hester, whose vision for the homeless community was our inspiration in the design of this facility.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Creating Places: Regions Bank

I see the updating of the Hillsboro Village building home to Regions Bank is almost completed. Not sure how to put this to the fine folks at Regions but the building's exterior, despite looking a bit better, is still hideous. And that's because, very simply, the building essentially mimics a massive roof that has swallowed its base and mid-section. And no improved and/or new color scheme, signage, landscaping or doors can change that fact. Perhaps the best comparison to the building and that I can give is this: a toddler sporting a towering top hat. The ideal option — had cost not been a factor or a Regions leader had shown some vision — would have been a new building anchoring the northeast corner of the 21st and Wedgewood avenues intersection. With this hypothetical new bank structure open and helping define the intersection, the existing building could have been demolished and the lot cleared for future quality infill development. Relatedly, the sea of surface parking currently servicing the building could have been greatly reduced. (Note to folks who operate from spaces other than churches, events venues, schools, etc., i.e., the type places at which many motorists arrive and leave at the same times: You don't need nearly as much surface parking as you think.) This is another missed opportunity for Nashville's urban core. The sad thing is not that Regions didn't do something bold. Rather, it's depressing because it's likely nobody running the show at the bank at least thought in these terms.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Creating Places: Virago Midtown

The vintage industrial building that will soon be home to a re-located Virago is looking stellar. Midtown-based architect Barry Brechak Architecture + Design is handling the work and appears set to hit a homerun with the effort. Recently, the brick facade received a nice coat of dark gray paint. Masculine, yet warm, the new color gives the building (located at 12th Avenue South and McGavock Street) a sleek feel. And now an eye-catching cladding is being applied. Of note, the South American rot-resistant material is called "tiger wood" and is used for, among others, outdoor decking. Slated next is the installation of a corner sign that will have "Virago" on both the building's west and south faces. Barry Brechak is one of many local architects 40 and younger who studied design at the top-notch architecture program at the University of Tennessee. He's a good man doing quality work — as his firm's retrofit of the once-hideous and now quite attractive exterior of the nearby structure home to Whiskey Kitchen attests.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Creating Places: Eastside Cycles

It always pains me to criticize folks who are doing something very positive for Nashville. And the wife-husband/business partners duo of Francie Hunt and Scott deShon are class folks clearly making a wonderful contribution to the city with their Eastside Cycles. But I have to be honest: The exterior of the couple's new location in Five Points is glaring, as each excessively large letter of the business name screams from window after window after window. At quick glance, the lettering looks hand painted on the glass, rendering the presentation even more make-shift. The overall effect reminds me of the over-the-top signage we see at used car lots and check-cashing joints. Essentially, the building looks like one massive sign. It's disheartening, particularly when you consider Hunt and deShon are such community oriented people who would never purposely deface the district. In fact, the Eastside Cycles metal signage — with the pointing bike rider — is as cool as it gets.

Perhaps I'm being harsh. And it's possible I did not get the best view of the signage and, as such, failed to see that it's temporary. The bottom line, however, is this: Rarely do massive and significantly spaced individual letters — one per window, no less — provide an attractive visual for a business. The keys to signage are a combination of quality color scheme, font, materials and proportionate relationship to the overall building exterior space. Blended perfectly, a sign can make a strong contribution to the built environment. Fumble with any of the elements and signage is often no more attractive to our manmade fabric than a surface parking lot.

I wish Eastside Cycles nothing but the best. I also hope new signage is forthcoming.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Creating Places: Midtown Development Update

The Bid Clerk site offers info that seemingly is for the proposed mixed-use development the Patels are doing at 18th and West End avenues. The building will feature two specialty Marriott hotels and restaurant, retail and office space.

Dr. Anil Patel is a highly respected businessman who did his fellowship at Vanderbilt. He is a guest lecturer at VU's Owen School, has a private practice in gastroenterology and is chairman of the board at Civic Bank and Trust (which once operated a branch from the site). Mr. Patel and his wife own five hotels in Clarksville and are experienced and savvy business people. Earlier this year, I exchanged an email with the wife (Divya) and she said at the time that the plan was to begin work in the fall. The project appears on schedule.

This should be a strong mixed-use product that will add building density and a diversity of commercial use for Midtown. No doubt, if Midtown is not destined to land West End Summit any time soon, this is the next best development for the district.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Creating Places: Omni Hotel architect

With the announcement of an Omni Hotel to be the anchor hotel for the MCC, I did a bit of searching for architectural firms that have designed other Omnis.

Hornberger + Worstell Associates (San Francisco) designed the San Diego Omni, while HOK handled design chores for Forth Worth's Omni. 5G Studio Collaborative and BOKA Powell teamed to create the Dallas Omni, currently under construction. Culpepper, McAuliffe and Meaders designed Atlanta's Omni, while Morris Architects crafted Omni Houston.

See a trend emerging? The privately held, Irving, Texas-based Omni Hotels & Resorts (whose Omni Corporate actually owns many of the hotel properties) uses various architects.

At this point, I might lean toward hoping Nashville's Omni is designed by San Francisco-based Hornberger + Worstell. A quick glance at the H + W website reveals the firm has designed hotels for numerous high-profile hospitality operations, including Intercontinental, Marriott and W. And the designs seems of quality.

Of note, I'll be surprised if Omni Nashville rises more than 30 stories and 350 feet. Regardless, the building should be rather robust for its location, extending downtown's skyline farther south than is currently the case.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Creating Places: Random Observations

A few things of note...

* The finishing touches being applied to the Fulton Complex suggest a tastefully done project. In particular, the new-look Howard Building offers a handsome exterior.

* Nearby the Fulton Complex, work continues on Nance Place, the three-story affordable housing residential building designed by DA|AD. My concern is that Nance will open in isolation, surrounded by nothing but dead space. This will negatively impact what should be an otherwise attractive building. In time, and as Rolling Mill Hill is infilled, Nance should look much better.

* I have to say I'm not a fan of the exterior of the Gulch industrial building home to Yazoo Brewing Co. While I give props for the cool Yazoo logo painted on the building's south face, the overall color scheme (maroon and light yellow) is ugly. Also, the new patio does not fit well with the building's materials and forms. Still, I credit Yazoo official for choosing the Gulch for their new home, using a previously empty building — and crafting some fine beer.

* YMCA of Middle Tennessee deserves praise for the tasteful update of the exterior of its one-story admin building located on Church Street between Ninth Avenue and YMCA Way. A paint job and landscaping have rendered the little 1960s-era structure considerably more visually appealing.

* I hate to see Performance Studios leave its building on Church Street (across from NES). That building is a "gateway" of sorts into downtown (from Midtown) and needs to be activated with a new tenant.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Creating Places: Name That Street

A recent street name change in downtown Nashville has caught my attention — and represents a noteworthy example of how Metro Government occasionally complicates citizen efforts to make this city as urban as possible.

In a move that I will soon explain as less than ideal, city officials have moniker-modified McLemore Avenue with the appellation “YMCA Way.”

At first thought, the name change makes sense. YMCA officials made a commendable commitment to downtown by pumping millions into what is the non-profit’s anchor facility of the Midstate. The building is both attractive and functional, and the Metro Council likely wanted to show some appreciation for a venerable Central Business District institution.

The name even has a nice ring to it, rhyming the “A” and “Way.”

Well intentioned though the move may be, it is nonetheless questionable. Here’s why.

First, the street type designation “way” — although in a general sense appropriate for geographically modest segments of asphalt such as this — is almost overwhelmingly used nationwide for roads in suburban residential areas. It suggests a calm lane in a pastoral setting, free of both urban grit and a mixture of building types and uses. “Way” is what developers of generic subdivisions name a street to appeal to home-buyers who hear the word “street” and conjure images of crime, building density and, gasp, pedestrians.

In short, there is a reason vibrant cities populated by true urbanites don’t feature central business district streets with “way” in their names.

Second, cities must be deliberate, even strict, when considering central business district street name changes involving specific recognized entities. Obviously, “Capitol Boulevard,” which runs from Commerce to Church and visually connects the State Capitol and Main Library, makes sense for Nashville.

But is the YMCA — though a wonderful operation — truly an iconic landmark deserving of a street named in its honor? With Tennessee State University’s Avon Williams Campus fronting a portion of YMCA Way, why not “TSU Street,” as TSU offers arguably a greater variety of local history (involving education, civil rights, research and sports) than does the fitness-focused Y.

But lets hypothetically say that both the Y and TSU deserve to have streets named for them. If so, why not change the segment of Fifth Avenue between Commerce Street and Broadway to “Ryman Auditorium Street”? Or the stretch of Church Street between Fourth and Fifth avenues to “Downtown Presbyterian Church Avenue”?

At what point do we draw the line? At “Tootsie’s Boulevard”?

The point is simple: Street names must meld multiple functions, including conveying geographic accuracy and ease of understanding; paying homage to the most significant historical figures and special places; and/or “making sense” within their context, whether urban, suburban or rural. To treat the topic without full consideration, as seems to have been the case here, is unacceptable.

Third — and related to the second point — north-south downtown Nashville streets, ideally, would all be numbered streets so as to minimize logistical confusion. This is particularly important for tourists, business travelers and those locals who rarely venture downtown. When in the heart of our downtown, these folks need to feel as comfortably oriented as possible. For this reason, I am opposed to the Central Business District segment of Rosa L. Parks Boulevard being called such. Using the RLP designation for the street’s stretches north of Charlotte and south of Broadway would have been one thing. But “Rosa L. Parks” in the CBD simply creates logistical confusion.

Last, the YMCA recently opted to use, simply, “the Y”for branding and marketing purposes, thus rendering “YMCA Way” almost awkwardly and instantly outdated.

So what would be better?

Ninth and Tenth avenues sandwich the street, so what about a “numbers clever” designation? Perhaps “9/10ths Avenue”?

If the city is so compelled to recognize the YMCA, how about “Y Street”? It sounds kind of cool, and “street” better suggests urban asphalt than “way.”

For a less edgy and more inclusive option, how about “Education Avenue” to recognize how both the Y and TSU admirably stress the importance of keeping a fit body and mind, respectively?

In short, “YMCA Way” was a poor choice of names, the fumble made all the more glaring considering what a stellar design and function of the retrofitted Y building itself.

Of course — and disturbing to consider — the street name change could have been worse. We were lucky Metro avoided the hyper-suburban “YMCA Trail” or “YMCA Cove.”

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Creating Places: Bye-Bye Murphy Building

Some time has passed since demolition began on Midtown Nashville gem the Murphy Building. Prior to now, I simply couldn't stomach the sight of the demolition and, as such, had to wait before I posted regarding this. I first spotted the demotion effort on Sunday, July 18, and almost vomited. To this day, I remain disheartened.

Saint Thomas Health Services, which owned the structure, apparently will operate a surface parking lot on the site (at least for the time being). Wonderful.

In 2009, Historic Nashville Inc. designated the Murphy Building as one of nine buildings worth saving. I guess Saint Thomas (which claims it tried to find a use for the structure) didn't get the message. Or didn't care. Saint Thomas does fine health care work. But bluntly, I doubt the company has any interest in Nashville's historic architecture and its importance to the city. Shameful.

Originally, the now-toppled vintage mini-masterpiece served for years as the Samuel E. Murphy School. Back then (the school opened in 1910), educational buildings looked like actual places in which learning was valued. Nowadays, we design schools that look like minimum security prisons. They may function effectively inside, but their exteriors are typically hideous, cartoonish and/or poorly defined. In the old days, many schools were vertical (often three stories), giving their form a certain dignity and masculinity. Today, school buildings are almost always one-story, exaggerated horizontally and typically lacking interesting embellishments.

With its brick and stone detailing, clean proportionality and symmetry, and handsome clay roof, the Murphy Building stood as a proud reminder of the days when Midtown glistened with grand architectural creations. By the 1960s, various old-school jewels were being lost, a trend that increased in intensity in the 1970s. Then some boneheads thought it would be OK to demolish the former Governor's Mansion (located on West End Avenue where the Caterpillar Financial Center now stands) — later to be replaced by a cheap piece of crap home to a fast food fry pit. Since that fateful day in June 1979, when a stately mansion occupied by history makers of Tennessee was allowed to be razed, the destruction of Midtown has continued at a furious pace.

The Murphy Building is the latest casualty.

Losing attractive civic buildings would not be as painful if they were replaced with equally handsome contemporary structures. The reality — particularly in Nashville — is that rarely happens. We substitute quality for junk. The distinctive for the bland. The treasured for the trashy. At this rate, Music City may as well be renamed Generic Place.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Creating Places: Bicycle Rack Mania

The new bike racks are installed courtesy of the Metro Arts Commission, and I've seen all but those at the Nashville Farmers Market.

My fave is likely the vintage mic at the Music Row Roundabout. Not a fan of the "banjo" racks at the Fulton Complex. The "combination lock" racks at Church Street Park (across from the library) are quite quirky.


Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Creating Places: Beaman Automotive Building

Some thoughts regarding the new Beaman Automotive Group building on Broadway...

...I like the massing and materials. The landscaping seems sufficient, while the color scheme plays nicely off surrounding structures. I don't care for the setback (I can already envision the sea of new cars fronting Broad), but this seemingly is an otherwise very fine building. In fact, I think Beaman is shooting for silver LEED certification.


Sunday, July 4, 2010

Creating Places: Citizen Assessment

After about five or six viewings — each undertaken during my daily exercise walks — I've come to rate Citizen a 7.5. The two public art pieces, flanking the Metro Courthouse Public Square Park grounds on the southeast and southwest corners, are very acceptable additions to Nashville's painfully limited collection of civic art. And though my knowledge of art is no more significant than my understanding of the public education system in Iceland, I'll nonetheless provide a quick overview.

Here's what I like...

Nice verticality, with both the base and "human forms" creating a fairly suitable overall height
Metal base (very industrial feel with an almost mesh-like appearance)
Color scheme contrast between the base and human form
Interactive (people can turn the crank and see the human form move)
Appropriate number (one piece might have been awkward; three or more, excessive)
Placement related to the other elements of the Public Square
Interesting lighting elements for night-time viewing/visability

And what I don't like...

Material for the "human forms" (seems flimsy and impermanent)
Shape of the "human forms" (somewhat cartoonish)

No doubt, I would have preferred a more cutting-edge addition to this important civic space. Perhaps something a bit more futuristic and/or boldly lit. Still, Citizen will make a fine contribution to a public space that does, indeed, beckon all of Nashville citizens to enjoy.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Creating Places: Underrated Southern Design Cities

The architecture, planning and design communities are well established within the South’s four first-tier U.S. cities — Atlanta, Dallas, Houston and Miami.

But at closer look, the region’s so-called mid-major cities also are home to thriving architectural communities, many of them defined by a combination of well-established companies handling large-scale work and scrappy boutique firms that deliver eye-catching, functional and “green” creations. Often overlooked nationally, but respected regionally, these companies may not be as high profile, for example, as Thompson Ventulet Stainback & Associates Inc. (Atlanta), Arquitectonica (Miami), FKP Architects (Houston) or Corgan Associates (Dallas). But don’t dismiss their work.

On this theme, consider the following quintet as perhaps the South’s top five most significant second-tier markets (listed alphabetically) for design firms delivering cutting-edge and sustainable work.

Austin: The architectural companies in the Texas capitol might produce more dramatic work than, collectively, all the other firms in the South’s non-first-tier cities. No doubt, Austin’s design community is vibrant. Even the high-profile Nelsen Partners, STG Design and Graeber Simmons & Cowan Inc. — successful companies that could safely opt for a more conventional approach and, as such, more predictable work — push the design envelope.

Sally Ann Fly, executive director of The American Institute of Architects’ Austin chapter, said Austin’s design community is a rising power.

“Based on the number of magazines that have identified Austin as a ‘hot spot’ on the design map, and the strong contemporary architecture design, I’d have to assume that it is positive,” she said of national public perception. “Austin continues to be [architecturally] strong in areas of healthcare and public sector work.”

Maurizio Maso, principal with Orlando-based HuntonBrady Architects, agreed, noting, “Austin is doing some great design work.”

Louisville: Bravura designed the striking Louisville Ballet Studios & Offices, the inviting Waterfront Park Place and the edgy Iron Quarter. JRA Architects delivered the Dr. Tom Haas Medical Office Building; boutique firm De Leon & Primmer Architecture Workshop shined with the industrial-looking United Mail Corporate Headquarters; and Potter & Associates Architects crafted the almost radical Preston Pointe. Since 2006, AIA Kentucky has recognized each project listed above with some type honor.

“The city the past 10 to 15 years, [Louisville] has made some significant investments, and you’re seeing some top design work being done because of that,” said Manuel Zeitlin, founder of Nashville-based Manuel Zeitlin Architects (MZA).

Jim Walters, Bravura president, said the historic city’s heritage of 19th century buildings has spurred a focus on adaptive re-use projects. Still, he added, some local firms are deploying cutting-edge approaches.

“Louisville is a conservative city in a lot of ways but there is tolerance for new ideas,” Walters said.

Nashville: Music City offers more than Tennessee twang, as boutique stalwarts Allard-Ward, Bonidies, DA|AD, EOA, Hastings, Gilbert|McLaughlin|Casella, Polifilo, Tuck-Hinton, Woodson-Gilchrist and the aforementioned MZA consistently yield 21st century gems.

The city’s larger firms, in particular, have suffered some downsizings during the recent economic slump, but Carol Pedigo, executive director of AIA Middle Tennessee, remains optimistic the momentum built the past 10 years or so will continue.

“In an economic downturn, you retool and re-evaluate,” Pedigo said.

Nashville is somewhat unusual for a second-tier U.S. city in that it is the national headquarters to two “Top 200” (based on revenues) design firms: Gresham, Smith & Partners and Earl Swensson Associates. The city also has the Nashville Civic Design Center, which contributes significant ideas regarding the local built fabric.

A strong example of the type cutting-edge work being produced by Nashville’s design sector is Terrazzo, a mid-rise mixed-use building on which MZA and Hastings collaborated.

Orlando: The heavy hitters in the Magic City deliver strong work. HuntonBrady Architects has crafted numerous gems, with its Community Presbyterian Church in Celebration (done in association with Moore Anderson Architects in Austin) ranking as one of the nation’s most attractive houses of worship designed during the past 10 years or so. Baker Barrios Architects has redefined the Orlando skyline with striking towers, but the firm’s diminutive Eola South, a handsome four-story residential building in the city’s Thornton Park, is an overlooked mini-masterpiece. C.T. Hsu + Associates (the associate architect in charge of exterior design for the Orlando Events Center) is internationally recognized.

Orlando firms are gaining a reputation for their work on buildings in the healthcare and higher education sectors, according to HuntonBrady principal Maurizio Maso.

Maso said Orlando is “transitioning into more of a modern design city, which we haven’t been in the past.”

“We have a really diverse group of firms,” he said. “Even though we compete, we all are on positive terms.”

Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill: Of note, most firms in the Triangle have principals with strong ties (either as graduates or professors) to the North Caroline State University College of Design. On this theme, the 2009 national AIA president was Marvin Malecha, dean at the college. The NCSU College of Design has a roughly 60-year tradition of being founded on modernist principles that are still in place.

David A. Crawford, executive director for AIA North Carolina, said that during the past 12-15 years, the balance of design accolades has shifted from the Charlotte region to the Triangle.

“It’s probably not a coincidence that that’s about the same time period that Charlotte has become a huge center for banking and big business in the country and regionally,” Crawford said. “More medium-size companies have begun locating in the Triangle area, giving the architects in this region a clientele that may have a little more design freedom than the large corporate culture that exists in Charlotte.”

That design freedom has yielded jewels from various firms, including Frank Harmon Architect (generally considered North Carolina’s top design firm for capturing awards), Pearce Brinkley Cease + Lee (known for its government buildings work) and The Freelon Group. The latter has earned national attention with its high-profile African-American museum projects nationwide, including the April 2009 announcement of its collaboration (with Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup) on the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of African American History and Culture. Firm principal Phil Freelon was AIA’s 2009 Jefferson Award recipient.

Interestingly, in the 2006 AIA South Atlantic Design Awards, Triangle firms captured nine awards to Atlanta companies’ five.