What design firm's track record means for riverfront redevelopment

Sunday, September 12, 2010 at 8:45pm
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Prior to 1990, few nationally recognized architects placed their stamp on Nashville with noteworthy buildings and grand civic spaces.

Perhaps the first was international power Skidmore Owings and Merrill, which in the late 1960s designed the William R. Snodgrass Tennessee Tower, a monolithic high-rise clad in travertine and looming large on downtown’s western fringe.

During the past 20 years, however, several major design players have left their architectural legacy in Music City. Populous (formerly HOK Sport) designed both LP Field and Bridgestone Arena. Robert A.M. Stern Architects oversaw the main library, while Pickard Chilton & Associates handled The Pinnacle at Symphony Place. TVS designed the Music City Center, currently rising.

The latest in this growing trend is the nationally known Hargreaves Associates, a Cambridge, Mass.-based landscape architecture and planning company that will attempt to reinvent the Cumberland River’s downtown segment in what could be the most prominent design project in Nashville’s history, given its civic thrust, timetable (up to 20 years) and challenges involving a major natural resource that has long gone underutilized.

Work on the first element of Hargreaves’ Nashville Riverfront Master Plan — the Adventure Play Park — is slated to begin in the next few weeks. The plan, which currently costs about $30 million, follows a 2006 unveiling of the firm’s Nashville Riverfront Concept Plan, noted for its proposal to divert the Cumberland River. (Although “splitting” the river, many privately speculate, will never materialize because of the enormous expense.)

No doubt, Hargreaves offers experience in reinventing city riverfronts not far from Nashville, including Chattanooga, Knoxville and Louisville, Ky. And while the company generally earns high marks for its work, the projects have not been without missteps, missed opportunities and legal battles.

Contention in Chattanooga

The City of Chattanooga and its development agency, the Chattanooga Downtown Redevelopment Corp., have filed a lawsuit claiming Hargreaves failed with The Passage, a pedestrian link between downtown and the Tennessee River, which celebrates the area’s Cherokee heritage. Developer RiverCity Co. and builder Continental Construction Co. also are named in the unresolved lawsuit, which contends there are structural and safety problems at the water-attraction Passage due to faulty design and construction.

Frank McDonald, founder of Chattanooga-based FMA Architects, described Hargreaves’ effort as one of “missed opportunity” and “grand graphic gestures.”

“The areas [Hargreaves designed] are largely ceremonial and are vacant unless some big event occurs,” McDonald said of the project’s 83 acres of open space. “Public places should engender public participation on a casual basis. Any big event can draw a crowd, but to develop a ‘fairground’ that is otherwise empty is foolish.”

McDonald said Chattanoogans have discovered an unanticipated use for some steep slopes Hargreaves incorporated into the plan.

“They sit on a piece of cardboard and slide down the slopes,” he said, noting some slope segments now lack grass. “Designers are supposed to take notice of this kind of thing. I wonder if Hargreaves even knows about this activity.”

Mark Schimmenti, an architecture professor at the University of Tennessee, said Hargreaves’ efforts in Knoxville have been respectable. The 600-acre South Waterfront project, which eventually could see a public transit component and various residential additions, is still under way and could require 20 years to complete.

“Hargreaves was very good at working out the politics of dealing with the landowners,” Schimmenti said of the early process. “They worked hard. They built a giant model that was open to the public.”

But Schimmenti — who led a group of UT architecture students in an academic exercise dissecting the plan — said Hargreaves might have stumbled in failing to give the waterfront space more details and not fully considering topography.

“When you look closely, you find stuff you have to account for that Hargreaves didn’t,” said Schimmenti, who previously served as design director for the Nashville Civic Design Center. “A good master plan is by definition flexible. This master plan as I look at it works beautifully at the level of a master plan. But when you look at it specifically, Hargreaves will need to deal with more specific issues of each site.”

Still, Schimmenti is optimistic about Hargreaves’ Knoxville plan, which was adopted in 2006 and could take 20 years to complete.

“Hargreaves is not coming in dogmatically, and that’s very important,” he said.

Good open space in Louisville

Hargreaves’ work in Louisville, in general, earns mixed reviews, according to Michael McCoy, director of planning at City Solutions Center.

“Louisville’s Waterfront Park, in contrast to Frank McDonald’s description of Chattanooga’s 21st Century Waterfront Park, is fairly effective at attracting people, but I don’t find it especially nice to look at,” said McCoy, who also serves as a visiting planner at the University of Louisville School of Urban and Public Affairs, and as an adjunct faculty instructor of landscape architecture at the University of Kentucky.

McCoy said the strength of the park rests in its ability to easily accommodate large gatherings on its Great Lawn.

“Unfortunately, Hargreaves’ design for this project proved to be more successful at creating objects, as a local architect put it, than creating great spaces or places,” he said. “I sense that the scale of waterfront/riverfront projects such as Louisville’s challenges Hargreaves’ ability to elegantly design a coordinated system of spaces that easily flow from one to another without abrupt transitions.”

McCoy said, in contrast, that Hargreaves’ University of Cincinnati campus design, which has garnered high praise, provided a scale that lends itself to “superior results.” But riverfront and university projects are quite different, McCoy added, noting landscape architects sometime feel obligated to fill vast geographic spaces along rivers with numerous public wish-list elements. Nashville’s project, for example, is slated to offer 19 elements such as interactive fountains, wetlands and a spiral boardwalk.

“The insistence of designing a multitude of objects and object spaces in the larger riverfront designs tends to fractionalize the space unnecessarily,” he said. “Sometimes simpler is really better. I tend to believe that simple isn’t always elegant, but elegant is almost always simple.”

Trouble in Miami

Hargreaves recently found itself facing another possible lawsuit, this time courtesy of Miami Beach officials, who paid $25 million for the landscape architect to reinvent South Pointe Park.

In an Aug. 24 Miami New Times article, Assistant City Manager Jorge Gomez said city engineers contend that a flaw in a Hargreaves irrigation plan might have caused grass to die at the park, which reopened in March 2009. He added that the city believes Hargreaves failed to consider possible lightning strikes on tall metal light fixtures along the waterfront. As well, officials believe the company did not design a water fountain framing the park’s entrance to meet county codes.

Hargreaves countered by noting it made good-faith efforts to address the concerns but met resistance, the article notes, when the Miami Beach government staff the firm originally had worked with were replaced following a late-2009 election.

Gavin McMillan, a Hargreaves principal, acknowledged there has been criticism of the company’s work.

“Riverfront parks are a different beast than typical parks,” said McMillan, who is overseeing the Nashville effort. “They are responding to a lot of difficult challenges.”

Whether Hargreaves hits the mark on Nashville’s riverfront might depend on the company’s ability to effectively meld civic recommendations with its professional know-how and experience. The firm is working closely with various local architecture and planning entities, and earned praise for listening to East Nashvillians’ requests to have the Adventure Play Park (on the river’s east bank) be the first element in the project.

“There has to be a fine balance struck,” Louisville’s McCoy said, “wherein the local stakeholders are able to participate in the public space-making process, and the project’s designer is then freely allowed to interpret their input with minimal second-guessing and backseat designing by the local powers that be.”

3 Comments on this post:

By: floyd1 on 9/13/10 at 9:03

"Prior to 1990, few nationally recognized architects placed their stamp on Nashville with noteworthy buildings and grand civic spaces."

The corner of Fourth and Chruch downtown has two wonderful examples of noteworthy buildings, the original 3rd National Bank Building and the L & C Tower. These are both architecturally noteworthy structures.

By: WilliamWilliams on 9/13/10 at 3:38

Floyd1,

No doubt, the L&C Tower is a noteworthy building. But I'm not certain we can say that Edwin Keeble (the architect) was nationally known in the 1950s. Regionally? Yes. But nationally? Perhaps a matter of opinion.

I can't seem to find the architect for the Third National Bank Building. Could have been a national heavy hitter at the time but I don't think so. I could be wrong.

My focus was on buildings designed my major, national players.

Thanks,

William Williams

By: WilliamWilliams on 9/13/10 at 3:41

Floyd1,

No doubt, the L&C Tower is a noteworthy building. But I'm not certain we can say that Edwin Keeble (the architect) was nationally known in the 1950s. Regionally? Yes. But nationally? Perhaps a matter of opinion.

I can't seem to find the architect for the Third National Bank Building. Could have been a national heavy hitter at the time but I don't think so. I could be wrong.

My focus was on buildings designed by major, national players.

Thanks,

William Williams