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.

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.”