Nashville is becoming more urban in its form, function

Sunday, August 21, 2011 at 10:05pm
Midtown Wine & Spirits (Eric England/SouthComm) 

In early 2001, an unassuming local liquor store owner unwittingly became an antagonist to Metro’s efforts to reject the city’s long-embraced suburban appearance and function.

Ten years later — and with Midtown Wine & Spirits owner Paul Patel likely a wealthy man thanks to his wildly popular Church Street business — Nashville’s urban core has gained numerous infill developments thanks, in part, to the Metro Planning Department’s Urban Zoning Overlay district. 

The UZO is a geographic area covering Nashville’s circa-1950 boundaries. It was established roughly 10 years ago in an effort to require developers to build in a way that was consistent with how city planners thought about and designed urban places before the rise of the automobile-dependent suburb. 

Patel and his attorney, Tom White, were the first to both challenge the UZO (approved in December 2000) and defeat it by securing a setback variance, which allowed for a parking lot between the building and the street. 

At the time, Patel admitted only a modest interest in the city’s built environment. In contrast, White — the Nashville attorney who has most altered the city’s physical form by challenging standards on behalf of developers — is fascinated by urban planning and construction. Born in Queens, N.Y., White — while graciously listening to critics who contend he is happy to help clients construct ugly buildings or raze beautiful ones —  lives within Nashville’s urban core and considers himself a hobbyist of the urban manmade fabric. He supports the UZO, given it provides some practical flexibility. 

It did in 2001 — and it still does. 

Patel’s building presents a predictable exterior and is severed from the sidewalk and street by a large surface parking lot. In both look and function, it is a suburban building oddly jarring in its urban context. 

Rick Bernhardt, executive director of the Metro Planning Department and the man who oversaw the crafting of the UZO, acknowledged it has been an imperfect tool. 

“The UZO — if you look at the technical parts — has had a middling degree of success,” Bernhardt said. “But it’s been wildly successful for setting the stage for other types of urban development. This was the first time Nashville had been exposed to a zoning code different from a ‘one size fits all’ code.” 

Although the UZO failed its first challenge on April 5, 2001, those interviewed for this story said the succeeding 10 years have seen Nashville’s original urban core (the 186-square-mile area upon which the overlay rests and is considered the “old city”) infilled with generally attractive, distinctive and pedestrian-friendly development.

Indeed, Nashville has become more urban in its form and function over the past 10 years than during any previous 10-year period since the explosion of the automobile and the resulting suburbanization. 

Bernhardt said Nashville urbanization success transcends any zoning regulations. The Nashville chapter of the Urban Land Institute and the Nashville Civic Design Center have been key. And Bernhardt points to progressive developers and architects, Metro’s Downtown Code (passed in February 2010), Mayor Karl Dean’s Complete Streets Program (finalized in October 2010), an infusion of cosmopolitan citizens and a looming new downtown signage code — all of which have rendered urban Nashville more like a mini-New York City than the Music City of 1950 to 2000. 

Bernhardt points to a key example — the tasteful Hill Center in Green Hills — of how the city’s development and architecture communities have embraced truly urban buildings, which are typically characterized by offering a mixture of uses; bold shapes and colors; masculine materials such as metal, real stone and dark brick; understated signage; maximization of site usage to minimize dead space; concealed parking; and, more than ever, environmentally sensitive components. 

The vision of Hill Realty’s Jimmy Granbery, the Hill Center in Green Hills — in the epicenter of the suburban Green Hills neighborhood — stands in stark contrast to the autocentric development Hill specialized in the last half of the 20th century. 

“Ten years previous, [Granbery] wouldn’t have been able to broach it,” Bernhardt said, referring to the city’s prior long-term failure to embrace urban development.

Other examples of strong infill from the past 10 years include private-sector gems 1700 Midtown, Fifth & Main, the Tennessee Association of Realtors Building, Terrazzo, Mercury View Lofts and The Marquee at Belle Meade. From the public sector, the Metro Parks and Recreation Department has delivered a fine collection of community centers, while the Metro Development and Housing Agency’s The Metro and Nance Place, both on Rolling Mill Hill, have earned praise from local designers. 

“Almost anywhere you go — whether you’re downtown, in The Gulch, Germantown, East Nashville, Melrose, certainly West End Park — you’re seeing it now,” Bernhardt said of the city’s blossoming aesthetic. 

White agreed. “The type of urbanism coming to Nashville is quality urbanism. You can’t just look at these places and not see that they have made a huge leap. It’s almost a universal acceptance of continuing quality urban growth.”


Despite the strides, the city has suffered setbacks and missed opportunities the past 10 years. 

In addition to Midtown Wine & Spirits, one of Nashville’s most glaring non-urban large-scale projects is MDHA’s sprawling John Henry Hale Homes, which mimics a generic subdivision with its bland red-and-yellow homes lost in a sea of dead non-park green space. Sadly, the Charlotte Avenue project is near downtown, rendering its suburban form all the more glaring. 

Other such projects spanning this period and located no more than four miles from downtown include the Walmart Neighborhood Market on Gallatin Road in East Nashville, the recently unveiled Beaman Toyota building on Broadway in Midtown and the warehouse-like Watson Grove Missionary Baptist Church on Horton Avenue in South Nashville.

In addition, Metro government has had its share of foibles. They include various public schools, police stations and fire halls that are no more daring than a Bellevue strip mall.

Compounding the problem are the facts that Metro lacks both a comprehensive mass transit system and a level of building- and people-density to fuel such a system. Metro Planning Commission records show that of the 668 acres in the city’s Central Business Improvement District, 131 — or nearly 20 percent — are vacant. Of the number of property parcels in downtown, 37 percent are unfilled. That doesn’t count parks and plazas.

Indeed, Nashville faces years of continued urban infill development to even reach the point of a poor man’s Portland, Ore. But the Downtown Code will help, according to Kim Hawkins, a co-founder of landscape architect and planning company Hawkins Partners Inc.

Hawkins said the code — which emphasizes the actual physical form and function of buildings — is a prime example of how Nashville has become more urban the past 10 years.

“It’s very big in changing the way we look at things — to focus on the mass and scope and urbanity, what a place feels like versus more ambiguous terms like floor-area ratio and impervious-surface ratio and sky exposure plane, terms that most people have no idea what that means,” Hawkins said. “Most people understand terms like three- to six-story building with a maximum height of ‘x’-feet and the first floor must have a certain percentage of windows.”

Manuel Zeitlin, a local architect who favors making Nashville as urban and urbane as possible, said it’s easy to recognize the leaders of both the architecture and developer communities. 

“Look at the core, including The Gulch,” he said. “Even a developer like Hill [Realty], they are a great example of what had been a suburban developer that has helped lead the transition to urban development.

“It’s really about an overall snowball effect,” Zeitlin added. “You do one project at a time.”  

7 Comments on this post:

By: Moonglow1 on 8/22/11 at 9:21

Moonglow1: is it cost prohibitive to have underground electricity. It would improve the city to remove the huge electric poles and reduce the expense of having NES cut down trees. Hill Center is beautiful but then the rest of Green Hills has the large unsightly poles as does Hillsboro Road toward Brentwood.

By: JeffF on 8/22/11 at 12:26

Doesn't matter, Green Hills is not in downtown. Only downtown matters. If you want it to matter move it to downtown. If you want a sidewalk on your street, your street better be in downtown. If you want public transportation to work and to school, they better be in downtown and your home better be in downtown. Want to see the benefits of increased policing? Better be in downtown. Have a restaurant needing government help to pull in customers, better be in downtown. Need to check out a book or use a computer? Better be in downtown. Need to arrange a meeting with the mayor and his cabinet at MnNeely Piggot & Fox? You better find a way to be in downtown, and you better make it about downtown?

By: san r on 8/22/11 at 4:14

or if you want concentrated poverty, high crime, little or NO green-space, high noise levels, interstates running through the center and borders, pollution, check out the north-east corner of brick church pike with it's over-populated side-by-sides showing the progress that blacks have made in the 21st century. oh, don't forget the ones who have already gone section eight to cause further devaluation of property.
i filed an appeal to have my property taxes lowered since my property no longer has the re-sale value that it once had. i got a letter back saying all i did was state the facts that my extra lot was unsellable but that i did not provide any proof. what kind of proof is needed if a buyer offers 17, 000 in 2002 and doesnt't want to touch it in 2011 because of the change? excuse me your honor, whatcha want me to do, see if i can confiscate the 9mm and assault weapons and bringem to court with me when i come down?

By: joshoc on 8/22/11 at 4:23

Back to the article, Nashville city officials need to entice employers to locate their offices in this urban core instead of in Cool Springs.

By: on 8/22/11 at 5:17

The writer has been drinking too much Kool-Aid from the Mayors office and the Planning Dept. To start with why would anybody want to live in a mini New York City? They have been pushing this since Barnhart came back to Nashville, the people have to be dragged kicking and screaming into it because THEY DON'T WANT IT! The Hill Center is only successful because it has a close and convenient parking garage, and is in Green Hills. Nobody walks in Green Hills, nobody walks to the Hill Center. Property owners don't want to be told what they can do with their property. If you want to see what this kind of land management can do to an area and you are in Green Hills just drive down almost any street and see what the planning dept has let the developers do when they build a new McMansion 'er house. No setback hardly at all on side property lines, houses built on top of one another. The most egregious of these is at the corner of Hobbs and Estes. They let a side lot be sold off and a house be built right on top of the one next door, it looks like a movie set facade. The Planning Dept. is a joke in this area, the developers rule and run the show, God only knows what money has exchanged hands over the years. Because of all of this behavior, traffic in Green Hills is horrible. And yes Moonglow1 it's way to expensive to put utilities underground, Nashville is built on a lot of rock. And joshoc, if they tried they would only employ MP&F to do it, and it would be a failure. Most of the other names mentioned are either designers who have a vested interest in this issue or are just dreamers that want other people to embrace their vision of perfection.

By: JeffF on 8/23/11 at 12:07

You will never entice companies to move to downtown with promises of statutory design standards from the 30s and 40s "or else". You can have pretty Portland or you can have real economic growth. Right now Portland is just a city with all the things urbanistas want (rail, trolleys, streetcars, "design standards") without all those mean capitalist employers getting in the way.

The Hill Center is just another fad sales platform that has stretched across the country. "Lifestyle Centers" are not premised on getting people out of their cars and into higher density, they are all about appealing to people who want to go to mall stores but want to park closer than what a mall typically allows.

By: Vuenbelvue on 8/24/11 at 11:03

How come the reporter can hit the nail on the head in his article "Compounding the problem are the facts that Metro lacks both a comprehensive mass transit system and a level of building- and people-density to fuel such a system". Nashville is not high density enough to absorb costs for mass transit but politicians allow the discussion to re-occur every several years.
If I said the following I would be ostracised. Again in the article "Metro Planning Commission records show that of the 668 acres in the city’s Central Business Improvement District, 131 — or nearly 20 percent — are vacant. Of the number of property parcels in downtown, 37 percent are unfilled. That doesn’t count parks and plazas". Again politicians refer not to accept this fact and create illusion.