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, July 31, 2013

Creating Places: Omni GM Q&A

With the Omni Hotel in SoBro slated to open Sept. 30, I touched based with General Manger Dan Piotrowski  to get his thoughts as to how the building will interact with the public realm. Via email, here is what Piotrowski had to say. 

Will you have an interior retail shop/market that the general public can use?
Absolutely, Five & TENN will feature everything Nashville. Omni is working to have a vast majority of the items sold in this shop proudly made in Tennessee.

How many of Omni's retail spaces will be accessible to the public via Fifth Avenue?
Four outlets will be accessible via Fifth Avenue: Bongo Java Coffee Shop, Bob’s Steak & Chop House, Barlines Live Music Venue and the retail shop. 
Omni will be the owner/operator of the venues.

How will motorists access the building and, as such, what type pedestrian safety safeguards will you put into place?
Omni will offer 24/7 valet parking at the main entrance on Korean Veterans Blvd.  Fifth Avenue will be very walkable. Omni will have a two additional hotel entrances located across from the Music City Center.
When will the Omni sign at the building's top and facing north be lit?
The sign will be lit by Labor Day.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Creating Places: Musings on modernism

After having recently watched The Fountainhead, a 1949 film about an architect who steadfastly advocates a modernist aesthetic in the face of traditionalism, I got to thinking about some of Nashville's best modernist buildings.

Here is a fine example (courtesy of Google Streetview): The Doctors Pavilion building located at 1916 Patterson St. in Midtown. I've always rather liked this building, finding it very underrated. Clad in brick, the structure offers a clearly defined entrance on Patterson and a cap featuring a pronounced eaves. The color scheme is tasteful, and the vertical window columns (a feature I typically don't care for on buildings of this style) provide the building a needed sense of height.

Grade: B


Monday, July 22, 2013

Creating Places: Charlotte faces a challenge with changes

Following a fine piece in The City Paper about the future of Charlotte Avenue, penned by my SouthComm colleague J.R. Lind (read here), I must say I am not as high on Charlotte as many others. Obviously, I want to see the street reach its full potential and be as interesting, pedestrian friendly and vibrant as possible. But the shortcomings are numerous.

They are as follows: 

1. The street is excessively linear, with very few commercial spaces on the side streets (its Midtown segment notwithstanding). True, there are some impressive urban streets in other cities that are extremely linear in their commercial fabric. East Carson Street in Pittsburgh and Bardstown Road in Louisville, like Charlotte Avenue, stretch for many, many blocks and feature few commercial spaces on their respective side streets. But those two streets are much more narrow than Charlotte Avenue and offer significant housing/people density on either side. Carson and Bardstown also are defined by eye-catching vintage architecture, too, (which is lacking on Charlotte) so perhaps it is unfair to use them for this example. South Boulevard in Charlotte, N.C., might make for a better comparison but that street and its multi-block stretch of commercial spaces infilled nicely the past 15 years or so, in large part, due to its proximity to light rail line The Lynx, which runs on nearby Camden Road. 

 2. The 10-block stretch of Charlotte between I-440/33rd Avenue on the east and 43rd Avenue on the west is simply brutal, as crappy buildings, garish signage and weed-strewn lots line the segment. It would take a brave developer to undertake along that hellish span a building with, for example, retail on the first floor and residential on floors two through four.

3. During the last 10 years, Charlotte from 1-440 on the east to White Bridge Road on the west has seen little (if any) new construction that would both act as a catalyst and nudge hesitant would-be developers off the fence. There has been a reason for that. True, the stretch from the inner interstate loop to I-440 has gotten some new construction but that infill has been modest overall. I do like the proposed The Sheds on Charlotte project. And One City could be huge. But there are, and will remain, excessive segments of the street that remain underutilized and/or ugly.

4. Nashville's population growth (currently between about 1.7 percent and 2 percent annually) can accommodate the significant growth of only so many mixed-use urban districts. As such, there will simply be some areas that many of us might agree show great potential but that simply don't take off given mathematical realities. Very simply, Nashville already has multiple mixed-use districts that have seen serious post-2000 changes in terms of new construction, including Five Points/Main Street, Germantown, The Gulch, Hillsboro Village, Midtown and SoBro. How many more such districts can a city of this size accommodate?

Having said all this, I could see H.G. Hill Realty Co. beginning work sometime in  2014 on its Charlotte Avenue building at the carwash/railroad tracks/40th Avenue. If so, that would be hugely helpful as it could spur some additional new construction. 

Many folks have been talking about Charlotte Avenue and its great potential for at least two years but no boom has hit. In fact, I don't recall any new construction west of I-440 and to White Bridge Road. The adaptive reuse projects and the new businesses that are redefining the street are wonderful and will be part of the positive evolution of Charlotte. But it will take no fewer than five large-scale buildings for that stretch to truly pop. Until those structures rise, I will take a very measured and realistic approach to Charlotte's short-term redevelopment prospects.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Creating Places: Random tidbits

There is lots happening in the city, enough so to tempt me to say Nashville is in "full boom mode." Whether the city can actually explode with, say, three times the number of projects we currently have underway (which, depending on how you define "project," would be upwards of 100 developments) is hard to  say. Our population is currently growing at about 1.7 to 2 percent annually (or no more than 20 percent over a 10-year Census Bureau span). For a massive development boom, we would need to get that up to about 3 percent (if not more). Until that happens (if it ever does), there is still much to follow. A few examples:

* Work has resumed on the SoBro site of the Hilton Garden Inn. Read here.

* Does the start of construction of Gulch Crossing loom? Read here

* The under-construction Fairfield Inn by Marriott in The Gulch is now on Floor 4 and taking on some very nice definition.

* The Homewood Suites at 24th and West End avenues is showing some tasteful brick and stone exterior cladding.

* An October groundbreaking has been set for Artisan Lofts, to face Rosa Parks Boulevard and sit in Hope Gardens next to Row 8.9n. Read more here.

* I am liking more and more the color combination found with the brick and Hardie siding exterior on 12South Flats.

* Ray Hensler's Gulch luxury apartment tower is now on Floor 3.

* Tony Giarratana is closer to making his SoBro apartment tower a reality. Read here.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Creating Places: Major design firms impact city

(Note: I wrote this for Nashville Post but thought some readers might not see. So, I'm posting here.)

Last week's announcement that Giarratana Nashville LLC intends to use global architecture firm Gensler to design a proposed tower to house a Marriott hotel was newsworthy (read here) in that the city likely has never seen a more high-profile design company undertake work here.
To date, the most high-profile architecture companies to do work in Nashville (based on various sources) likely have been HOK Sport Venue Event (which designed the Bridgestone Arena and LP Field and is now called Populous and, at the time, part of heavy-hitter HOK Group), Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates (Fifth Third Center) and Skidmore Owings & Merrill (Snodgrass Tower). Some would contend SO&M remains more "big time" than Gensler (based on various criteria, including venerability).
Gensler (read more here) has about 3,500 employees working in 43 offices internationally and has designed some of the world’s most high-profile buildings, including the World Trade Center in Saudi Arabia and the Government Communications Headquarters in the United Kingdom. In 2012, the San Francisco-based company generated the most revenue of any architecture firm based in the United States, according to Architectural Record. ArchDaily ranks Gensler the world's No. 2 design firm based on number of employees (read here).
Interestingly, Giarratana Nashville is working with Loewenberg Architects for the proposed SoBro, a 33-story tower the local company hopes to co-develop with Chicago-based Magellan Development Group LLC (read more here). Also, Giarratana hopes to use Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill for its planned 505 CST. Both can be found on lists for the nation's Top 200 design firms.
Relatedly, Thompson, Ventulett, Stainbeck and Associates (Music City Center) and KA Architects (Icon in The Gulch) are highly respected and found on various rankings lists.
The bottom line: These are the exciting times for Nashville related to high-profile national architectural firms both doing and hoping to do work here. 

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Creating Places: The most 'Nashville-like' city

As the conclusion looms for another weekend — this one highlighted by Art Deco-era cars and some quality Mayday beer — I ask a question: What U.S. city is most like Nashville?

Here are a few that come to mind:

* Austin. Like Nashville, it's a state capital, has a great music scene, is hilly, is home to lots of cool young people and is positively perceived by many folks nationwide. In contrast, Austin has one university (the University of Texas) of note (to Nashville's "big four" of Belmont, Lipscomb, Tennessee State and Vanderbilt universities), has a demographic makeup that shows more Hispanics than African-Americans (Nashville offers the opposite of that ethnic composition) and has already gotten in the game with mass transit.

* Charlotte. Similarities between the Queen City and Music City include topography, a modest collection of vintage masonry buildings (Nashville has more, which doesn't say much for Charlotte) and their status as their respective states' "main city" despite tough competition (Memphis for Nashville and Raleigh-Durham for Charlotte). There is also a similarity in ethnic/racial numbers. In contrast, Charlotte's Uptown skyline is significantly more impressive than Nashville's downtown skyline, while Nashville has a much more prestigious collection of universities.

* Atlanta. On the surface, this seems insane as Atlanta is considerably more populous, vibrant, urban and cosmopolitan. But look closely and you will see some parallels. Both cities are state capitals, both are home to multiple quality universities (including vibrant HBCU districts) and both offer diverse economies. Both Atlanta and Nashville bulldozed countless beautiful historic buildings in the 1950s,  60s, and 70s. Also, the geography — lots of hills and trees — is extremely similar.

* Providence. No doubt, this is a major stretch. Providence teems with historic architecture, people density and lots of water. In contrast, Nashville offers multiple contemporary buildings and great name recognition. But when I visited the Rhode Island city, I noticed some similarities that some might not realize. Both Nashville and Providence are capital cities, both have high-profile private universities (Brown in Providence and Vanderbilt in Nashville) and both have burgeoning arts scenes. Both have metropolitan populations of about 1.65 million. Nashville is home to the nation's largest Kurdish population, while Providence has one of the country's largest Liberian populations. Both cities have major employers in the health care and higher education sectors.

Feel free to weigh in. I'm curious to get reader feedback.