In 1999, Metro officials began pondering long-term plans to overhaul downtown’s scenic Rolling Mill Hill. They contemplated what was a voguish idea at the time: to build the sort of all-in-one, live-work-play urban community that many hope will replace the traditional American suburb. Rather than sleepy bedroom community, this decidedly more cosmopolitan version of the suburb is designed to bustle with pedestrians, shops, offices and residences.
Four years later, local urban advocates predicted the massive site overlooking the Cumberland River just south of the central business district would become home to hundreds of purposeful urbane types and various trendy restaurants and shops by the end of the decade. And they had a pair of 2003 studies — from Economic Research Associates and RTKL Associates Inc. — to prove it.
It is telling, then, that as 2010 concludes, Rolling Mill Hill’s most significant landmark — at least in terms of usage — is the District Energy System, an industrial operation that uses gas to heat and cool large structures within the nearby central business district. In fact, as of today, nobody dwells in cosmopolitan comfort in Rolling Mill Hill. There is no place to purchase fashionable shoes, no outdoor cafe at which to sip a latte (though the nearby Crema suffices superbly), no hipsters passing by on electric scooters. Three residential buildings sit empty, optimism in some quarters is no more noteworthy than Titans fans’ hopes of a Super Bowl victory anytime soon, and the site’s master developer, the Metro Development and Housing Agency, is in need of some positive progress to jump-start the dead-battery enthusiasm from private developers and the general public.
To date, MDHA has spent about $12 million, which has included greenway and environmental clean-up work, at the site.
“Looking at the pace of development in 1999, I would have been surprised that [Rolling Mill Hill] wasn’t further along,” said architect John Abernathy, whose trendsetting DA|AD is designing Nance Place, a lower-cost rental development in Rolling Mill Hill.
The setbacks are numerous and include the following: the unfortunate collapse of the industrial-gritty vintage gem to have been called the Powerhouse Building; the stepping aside of Village Real Estate Services, which handled some of the marketing involved; the failed attempts at new construction of residential buildings The District and luxury-living-themed Middleton Townhomes; RMH Development 1 LLC’s defaulting on $21.4 million in construction loans; and the departure of a trio of high-profile out-of-town investors: Direct Development, Post Properties and Struever Bros. Eccles and Rouse.
MDHA executive director Phil Ryan and development director Joe Cain say the timetable remains in solid shape, particularly given the recession. Still, the evidence suggests that Rolling Mill Hill might better be called Hobbling Mill Hill for all the progress made there.
But there are signs of life. In fact, the sometimes-embattled MDHA appears to have found its footing as this year concludes, determined to ascend Rolling Mill Hill and make 2011 a symbolic year in its evolution. With new projects to come online during the next 12 months and, more importantly, MDHA’s shrewd focus as sole developer of back-to-back projects (Nance Place and Ryman Lofts), there is hope Rolling Mill Hill progress could reach a significant level of success and stability in 2011, putting behind the fumbles and stumbles that have plagued the project for so long.
“It’s going to be the defining year,” Cain said of 2011. “That’s when folks will start living at Rolling Mill Hill.”
Last week, Franklin-based Civil Constructors began site work at the Trolley Barns at Rolling Mill Hill, an effort that will include placing underground conduits, electric service lines and storm drainage li nes; demolishing existing roadway segments; and grading Peabody Street and Lea Avenue. The $1.3 million infrastructure project follows a major overhaul of the streetscape along both shoulders of Hermitage Avenue, the east side of which now features a wide sidewalk, contemporary silver utility poles and 50 cherry trees.
Infrastructure improvement may not seem sexy to the casual follower of any major project, but to Rolling Mill Hill players, the updates are critical, said Bert Mathews, a principal with Colliers International and that entity’s point man in the redevelopment of the Trolley Barns.
“For all of Rolling Mill Hill — not only the Trolley Barns, but a variety of buildings — in these first steps, this infrastructure work will help make the buildings market-ready,” said Mathews.
Mathews declined to say what Colliers is spending to update the Trolley Barns. But high-profile future tenants that have announced a move to the vintage structures include software company Emma and the Center for Nonprofit Management. Other tenants could move in by the end of 2011, Mathews said.
Last week, Atlanta-based Chartwell Real Estate Partners acquired the Art Deco, Victorian and Metro buildings, the three residential would-have-been condominium buildings that have sat completed yet empty since 2009. Chartwell will begin leasing them as apartment spaces in January.
John Tirrill, Chartwell managing partner, said the company paid $7 million for the 72 units plus .80 of acreage that could be used for additional development. Chartwell bought the property from Bank of America, which had taken control in 2009 via foreclosure.
Chartwell, which has an office in Franklin, developed garden-style apartment complexes The Grove at Whitworth, The Grove Richland and The Grove at Devon Hills — all in Nashville.
“We’ve been interested in the buildings since 2009,” said the Atlanta-based Tirrill, who once lived in Nashville and whose grandfather, a physician, volunteered at the former Metro General Hospital, which was in Rolling Mill Hill.
Chartwell’s opportunity with the three buildings stemmed from another setback. In June 2009, the three buildings were forced into receivership following a lawsuit filed by Bank of America on behalf of itself and other lenders, asking that the court allow foreclosure on the properties. The lenders claimed nonpayment of $21.4 million in construction loans taken out by then-property owner RMH Development 1 LLC, a Wisconsin-based holding company for the project’s investors, Direct Development. The original construction loans were $42.8 million, with that amount reduced in a loan amendment in September 2009.
The foreclosure and receivership created negative media and public perception for Rolling Mill Hill, but John Cheadle, the court-appointed receiver at the time, said interest in the properties remained strong — a validation of the site’s location, the rehabbing of the historic Victorian and Art Deco, and the cutting-edge design of the contemporary Metro.
“Things appear to be coalescing,” Cheadle said of the current activities.
Indeed they do. Officials expect Nance Place to be ready for leasing in March. The affordable-housing residential building is expected to receive LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) gold status. Michael Hayes, the Struever Bros. point man while the Baltimore-based company was involved in Rolling Mill Hill, said the area remains a “pioneering location” and will be for the next five to 10 years, while redevelopment continues in SoBro and at the former thermal plant site.
“I think it’s important to continue the scale outlined in the master plan, the ERA study and the plan for SoBro,” said Hayes, whose C.B. Ragland Co. owns 17 parcels and five buildings within two blocks of Rolling Mill Hill.
Recently, MDHA announced it would develop Ryman Lofts, a 60-unit affordable housing apartment building similar to Nance Place and also in Rolling Mill Hill. Designed by Nashville-based Smith Gee Studio, Ryman Lofts construction will begin in July 2011 with tenants slated to arrive during summer 2012.
Ryman Lofts represents another example of MDHA’s partnering with a local entity. Joe Cain said that trend’s continuation is “hard to predict.”
“We’re open to everybody, and we’re not trying to limit anybody,” Cain said. “But the locals know the area and have more of an interest in it.”