At-large Councilman Charlie Tygard, representing the wishes of some Bellevue area residents, is exploring what it would take to retrofit the old Bellevue Center mall into a new magnet high school.
Over the weekend, Tygard organized what he thought would be a small gathering of parents and community activists to discuss opening a new high school in Bellevue. To his surprise, the Saturday morning gathering turned into an overflow crowd of nearly 60 residents.
“Maybe we ought to at least explore the possibility of whether a mall would be a good retrofit for a school,” Tygard said he came away thinking. “There might be a deal to be had there.”
For years, residents have pushed for a new high school to ease the long distance Bellevue students travel to attend Hillwood High School. Lengthy trips are an unreasonable compromise, some have contended, considering the student body at Hillwood — located in the affluent West Meade neighborhood — contains many more Bellevue students than West Meade children, who often enroll at private institutions.
The school also contains a large population of students bused in from north Nashville.
Momentum has even led to the creation of a citizen-led blog “dedicated getting a new high school built and running in Bellevue,” found at www.highschool37221.blogspot.com  — named after the Bellevue ZIP code.
“I hear everyday from parents who are concerned either about the distance from their home to Hillwood or other issues relating to Hillwood,” Tygard said. “And we hear everyday of parents that choose a Williamson County home just over the (Davidson County) border ... because of the school choice.”
Though still very much in a discussion phase, Tygard and Bellevue residents have talked about turning the 848,000-square-foot Bellevue Center into a magnet high school that could complement a new Edible Schoolyard that Tygard hopes will begin at Bellevue Middle School within a few months. Unlike some magnet schools that take into account academic performance, admissions would be solely lottery-based.
“If we do go forward with this, I think it’s important that we have a game plan,” Tygard said. “That goes hand-in-hand with the edible schoolyard that we’re looking to establish this spring at Bellevue Middle School.”
Meanwhile, the existing Hillwood High School building would close down, under Tygard’s plan, with its property going back to H.G. Hill Realty Company, which could potentially redevelop the campus for residential use.
“We would put property back on the tax rolls where Hillwood High School sits and use that funding as an incentive to relocate the high school to Bellevue,” Tygard said.
But the Bellevue Center — where only a single Sears store remains — is also the focus of a $130 million mixed-use redevelopment plan that would turn the west Nashville facility into an open-air shopping center.
That project, proposed by the California-based Foursquare Properties, contains a new Bellevue branch library to be operated by the Metro Pubic Library system, a component that helped the developer receive tax-increment financing. Plans, however, haven’t moved forward.
“The one-year expiration is in March,” Tygard said. “So, if nothing is presented in March then basically that $8 million in tax-increment financing goes away.”
Tygard said representatives of Foursquare haven’t returned his phone calls. He said retrofitting the mall to house a new high school would require down-zoning the mall’s property.
“The new high school could work in conjunction with the library,” Tygard said. “And perhaps retail would still work there. We don’t want to run Sears away and shut down any more of Nashville’s tax base.”