From big box to human scale

Nashville faces opportunities to adaptively reuse its suburban commercial spaces

In 2007, H.G. Hill Realty opened its urban-themed Hill Center Green Hills.

Prior to the unveiling of the mixed-use development, Green Hills — a suburban shopping mecca that has been dominated by the car since its evolution began in the mid-1940s — offered its visitors little, if any, chance to move via foot from Point A to Point B with any degree of ease or, much less, enjoyment.

The Hill Center was an instant hit, perhaps proving that Nashvillians — even those conditioned to motoring about for their daily shopping and errands — were ready to embrace a pedestrian-centric development located in a vehicle-focused commercial district.

But in Nashville, for every Hill Center Green Hills, there are seemingly 20 generic shopping strips designed with a sea of asphalt severing those buildings — often cheaply constructed — from the sidewalk and street. In fact, the city is pockmarked by nondescript commercial strip centers located in otherwise urban areas no more than two miles from downtown.

This all sounds disheartening, particularly to those who want Nashville to look and feel more like a city than a suburb.

But with the past brutalizing of our public realm with car-centric construction comes a possible future reinvention of those strip centers. If done correctly, Nashville’s suburban-themed buildings — whether located in the urban core or in more sprawling locales — might one day actually assume a fairly attractive form and function.

Ellen Dunham Jones, a Georgia Tech University professor of architecture and urban design, feels Music City offers substantial potential to retrofit its bland big boxes and stale strip centers.

“In Nashville you have scads of opportunities,” Jones told a big crowed that had gathered for the April version of NashvilleNext, a Metro Planning Department initiative featuring monthly meetings focused on urban design.

Jones said the commercial areas of Nashville’s “first-ring suburbs” (that is, areas that developed between the end of World War II and through the 1970s) are ripe for reinvention. Examples of such suburbs, which tend to be located no more than five miles from downtown, include Donelson, Green Hills, Madison, Melrose/Berry Hill and Tusculum.

Though the suburbanization in the 1980s and 1990s in surrounding counties resulted in what Jones termed a leap-frogging of the first-ring suburbs — and, as such, a long-standing almost ignoring of those suburbs — that post-1980 sprawl left the modest commercial areas of the city’s first-ring suburbs relatively intact. As such, they offer some older, quirky and often inexpensive buildings that, with some imagination, could yield interesting adaptive reuse.   

“We need cheap space,” Jones said. “First-ring suburbs can be more urban [than more recently developed and often more sprawling second- and third-ring suburbs] if they so choose.”

Jones offered various examples of how other cities have seen their suburbs retrofit big-box suburban development. These include Mashpee Commons in Cape Cod, Mass., The A&P Lofts in Montgomery, Ala., and Merchant  Square in Carmel, Ind.

Of particular note, Jones highlighted Denver, which has retrofitted (or is in the process of doing so) eight of its approximately 13 regional malls. Specifically, she noted Belmar in suburban Lakewood.

“It now offers 22 walkable urban blocks,” she said.

Nashville is lagging in the adaptive reuse of suburban-oriented development. Previous projects that involved the updating of big-box buildings — including those that were once home to Harding Mall and One Hundred Oaks Mall — yielded improvements but few, if any, pedestrian friendly spaces. At both, the car is still treated with equal, if not superior, focus than the human.

However, there are some smaller-scale projects involving area suburban retrofits. An example is The Melrose, which involves a major retrofitting of the building once home to a 1942 art moderne theater, live music venue The Sutler and a 1950s-era bowling alley. The limestone-clad strip center (which, in the suburban model, is severed from the street by surface parking) still accommodates the iconic Melrose Billiards bar and pool hall.

Franklin-based Parkes Development Group and Nashville-based Fulcher Investment Properties broke ground in October 2012 on their long-awaited Franklin Road project in the Melrose section of Berry Hill. The seven-acre project (pictured below) will include 220 apartments and the adaptive reuse of the historic Melrose Theater building, which is located at 2600 Franklin Road.

“Our construction company was founded across the street in 1978,” Joe Parkes Jr. said when on-site work started in 2012. “We used to celebrate obtaining a job at The Sutler. To have the opportunity to bring this building back to life and add a great apartment community is what makes our business rewarding.” 

The development team is taking what served as a barrel-vaulted movie theater originally and, later, the former Scene Three sound stage and converting it into a 7,000-square-foot commercial space.

“The adaptive reuse of the former theater will create a place for residents to enjoy that is unlike anything else in town,” Fulcher said.

Ron Yearwood, an urban designer with the Nashville Civic Design Center, said one of the best strategies for Nashville's continuing expansion will be for developers and Metro officials to emphasize development along the main arterials and historic pikes leading out of the city center and spanning both urban and suburban areas. Fronting Franklin Pike about four miles south of downtown, the Parkes/Fulcher development  is a perfect example of implementing that strategy.

“Infill development, with the creation and expansion of major commercial nodes, can help alleviate problematic sprawling patterns, preserve precious open space in rural areas, and support all modes of transportation,” Yearwood says. “Shaping new and molding our existing communities into walkable mixed-use neighborhoods promotes a healthier, more sustainable model for our city's growth. A successful Nashville will pay special attention to public spaces, affordability and alternative means of mobility.”

In the late 2000, local entrepreneur Ben Freeland, bought some big-box and strip center real estate in the Hickory Hollow Mall area of suburban Antioch and has since radically reinvented the spaces.

“We updated the space and look of the shopping center,” says Freeland, who serves as president of CNAP and owner of Freeland Realty. “We added a fitness center and a medical center. The final phase will be a public market and we will start construction in September. It will offer hydroponic farming, a butcher, seafood and a brewery. You will get a different feel than a traditional retail center.”

Freeland’s former office building now houses Knowledge Academy Charter School. Part of the structure offers an events center for corporate training events, wedding, bar mitzvahs, etc.

“It’s been a smart investment and fun to see the transition,” Freeland says. “The community has been supportive. We have people who live in the area but don’t work here. Now we’re trying to have them work here and make it more a community.”

Another less-grand, but noteworthy nonetheless, example involves The Gateway at Armory Oaks near One Hundred Oaks. Southeast Venture handled the redesign of a nondescript box that had been home to Magellan Furniture. The transformed structure now housesNashville School of Law, Cenwood Appliances and Southeast Venture.

“What made this opportunity unique was literally cutting the center out of the building to create a central courtyard, which is an amenity to the tenants and a unique architectural feature giving the structure more exterior glass/light that is essential for the office user,” says Wood Caldwell, Southeast Venture principal.

Such a project is exactly what Nashville needs, according to Jones, the Georgia Tech professor.

“There is an opportunity to remake those parts of suburbs,” she told the attendees in April, “that are due for an upgrade.”