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.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Creating Places: Local ugliness

A quick criticism of a Nashville-area building as I enjoy some Irish whisky and the music of George Harrison ...

As a young lad living happily in Bellevue in the late 1960s, I genuinely thrilled to visiting Phillips Toy Mart near the Highway 100/70 split. Back then, the little gem of a boutique business was housed in a tiny and unremarkable brick building, its treasures crammed from floor to ceiling within tight confines. Wondrous were the days my folks would take me to Phillips and buy me a Slinky or Legos. That little building is no more, replaced by the monstrosity seen above. Gruesome.

Just about everything I detest in generic exterior architectural design can be found in this building: a nasty color scheme, a cartoonish overall presentation, ugly materials, odd "windows" and bland awnings. Much like the toys housed inside, the building offers a somewhat childlike feel — a "we play with toys as children and then move on in life" aesthetic. In fact, the Toy Mart building seems immature and non-adult-like (if buildings can be such). Though I exaggerate somewhat, it pains me to drive past this junk on the to-a-from car trips to my folks's house in Bellevue.

As nondescript as the previous building was, it may as well have been the most grand building ever designed compared to its replacement. I have to wonder if most folks — who, admittedly, have more important things to do than walk/drive around and assess Nashville's manmade environment — consider this building as ugly as I do. On a positive note, at least the Peter Pan signage remains and the pictured-above segment of the building is not severed from the street by surface parking.

Now let me say that the interior of the building is airy, inviting and — for kids and adults alike — a treasure. I still visit every holiday season to buy the nephews various gifts. The staff is highly professional; the vibe, wonderful as toy store settings go. No complaints on any of these counts.

But, again, as to that exterior ... What has society come to when its citizens at the least, don't notice how horrid this building is or, at the worst, don't care?

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Creating Places: A look at Third and Chestnut

As I enjoy a cup of flavorful chocolate soy milk and the timeless music found on The Who Live at Leeds, I must commend the good people at Urban Housing Solutions for their Third and Chestnut Building currently under construction at the southeast corner of the intersection of Third Avenue South and Chestnut Street just north of Wedgewood-Houston in the Chestnut Hill neighborhood. There is so much I predict I will like about this building once it's finished, including the mix of materials (brick, Hardie siding and cedar siding), the corner piece (with its retail space, vertical dark brick segment and extra floor), the window-frame-like forms encasing the siding and the contrasting color scheme. Of note, the brick (it's being applied currently) offers a rugged charcoal hue. Very nice.

Zach Provonchee is the architect and has done a strong job with this mixed-use building, which will offer both retail space and 10 one-bedroom apartments.


Sunday, July 22, 2012

Creating Places: Exploring Wedgewood-Houston

A friend and I yesterday enjoyed a pleasant drive though the Wedgewood-Houston neighborhood near Greer Stadium in South Nashville. We checked the relatively new street signs (I counted about five) that have given the area a nice touch. The commercial/industrial section of the neighborhood sits on its northern fringe and offers some cool, gritty architecture and two strong businesses in LetterLogic and United Record Pressing, both operating from handsome old buildings. Also nearby is the southern fringe of the Cameron-Trimble neighborhood, which is getting urban infill — one building will feature charcoal brick that is quite eye-catching — on Third Avenue South. 

Included below is a photo of Houston Station, a tastefully rehabbed structure that serves as one of the anchors of the district — and that somewhat reminds one of Marathon Village in its form (if not function). Of note, I can visualize the commerciall/industrial segment of Wedgewood-Houston emerging within the next 10 years as a somewhat popular destination place featuring some bars, eateries (Gabby's continues doing a fine business) and art galleries (Ovvio Arte, for example, already operates from Wedgewood-Houston). No doubt, this is an urban district on which to keep an eye. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Creating Places: The Terminal Tower

The Terminal Tower, a downtown Cleveland landmark, ranks among my 10 favorite U.S. skyscrapers. As such, the opportunity to marvel at this architectural masterpiece (read more here) while I visited Ohio's most misunderstood — and most underrated — city last week was greatly appreciated. The photo below (taken from Wikipedia) shows the iconic highrise looming over Lake Erie, with Cleveland's gritty warehouse district (note all the vintage red brick buildings) clearly visible to the right of the tower's midsection. I walked a good bit of downtown Cleveland and noticed many other interesting buildings (both old and new). Yes, there are some empty once-grand gems, and random surface parking lots (though not nearly as numerous as those found in downtown Nashville) don't help matters. Still, downtown Cleveland is worth experiencing if you enjoy urban design and vibrancy. A major highlight: the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, located in the heart of downtown and in the shadows of the Terminal Tower.

Creating Places: Sign of the (South Nashville) times

A friend recently took this photo of a new street sign in the South Nashville neighborhood Wedgewood-Houston (and that some calls Rains). Word is (and this could be inaccurate info) the neighborhood group South Nashville Action People worked with Metro to get the classy signage installed. If so, congrats to SNAP. I'll be driving through the neighborhood this weekend to check the number of intersections with the signage.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Creating Places: BRT — Cleveland style

Comparing the riding of a conventional city bus to the riding of bus rapid transit is like comparing the music of The Beatles to that of Kiss. You simply don't do it.

On this bus and rock and roll music theme, I just returned from a trip to Cleveland, in which I stayed downtown and checked on various elements of this underrated city. Construction on the much-discussed medical mart/convention center is underway, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum is stellar, the University Circle district is vibrant and the Ohio City commercial district along 25th Street is very cool. A pleasant surprise included the distinctiveness and liveliness of the central business district's pedestrian-only Fourth Street (see photo below).

As to Cleveland's HealthLine bus rapid transit ... outstanding. I rode it twice and was quite impressed. The HealthLine is the prototype on which many other U.S. cities (including Nashville) are hoping to model their proposed BRT systems. Of note, I had coffee with Joe Calabrese, GM of the Greater Regional Transit Authority (more on this meeting later, as Joe is familiar with Nashville and what we're trying to do here with bus rapid transit). The man knows BRT — which he playfully calls "better rapid transit."

In short, the HealthLine is efficient and easy to use. It has spurred, since it opened in 2008, an estimated $4.3 billion in economic development. And the buses are quite eye-catching, sleek and surprisingly quiet. I last visited Cleveland in 1999 and drove Euclid Avenue (along which the BRT is located). The street seemed tired and in need of an infusion. Euclid got that infusion courtesy of the HealthLine. Indeed, the changes to the street since then have been dramatic.

Cleveland has hit a home run with its bus rapid transit.

More on this topic — and other Cleveland tidbits — in an upcoming post.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Creating Places: Cleveland bound and BRT ready

I'm headed to Cleveland Monday to sample that city's HealthLine bus rapid transit system. Assuming a visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum doesn't so overwhelm me with excitement that I quit writing on this blogsite to pursue a career as a musician, I will provide a BRT report soon. Until then, I can say that — based on a good bit of time I've spent on Google Streetview and talking to some pros — the system looks inviting and successful.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Creating Places: Ryman Lofts update

After pondering whether I prefer the frontman stylings of Nashville-based performers Jason Ringenberg or John Webb McMurry (a.k.a., Webb Wilder), I decided to visit Rolling Mill Hill last Sunday and took this photo of Ryman Lofts (included at the top is a rendering for comparison). Given various positive factors — the building's positioning close to Hermitage Avenue, its combination of traditional and contemporary elements, the design team of Smith Gee Studio, etc. — I am optimistic this will be a quality addition to Nashville's urban core. Of note, the under-construction RLofts offers a bit of brick variation, with mainly horizontal placements contrasting with some vertical arrangements above certain windows. To get a nice feel for Smith Gee Studio's work, visit here.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Creating Places: A nice Chattanooga photo

A good friend took this tasteful photo while he was recently visiting Chattanooga. Coolidge Park is in the foreground with some buildings on the North Shore (and along Frazier Avenue) nicely visible. To the left (and in the center of the shot) can be seen some of the lighting fixtures of the John Ross Bridge. I am not disclosing the name of my friend, as he is a reserved and private gentleman who humbly shuns praise and attention.