Street of potential

Key stretch of Hermitage Avenue could benefit from anchor buildings and businesses

A city’s buildings relate to its streets like walls to public outdoor rooms, with the tenants of those buildings enlivening the rooms as much as the structures themselves.

Indeed, an effective street anchor — whether an eye-catching building or a popular business, or both — is what gives any street its personality.

Streets without anchors are, essentially, non-streets. Rather they are car-accommodating asphalt stretches that few pedestrians would want to stroll.

On this theme, the downtown stretch of Hermitage Avenue between Korean Veterans Boulevard and Lindsley Avenue offers Nashville an unusual opportunity, as its five blocks are characterized by various visual warts that if updated or eliminated could yield an exciting change.

The Hermitage segment is strongly defined on its east shoulder by Metro Development and Housing Agency projects Rolling Mill Hill and the Trolley Barns. While attractive, neither fully addresses Hermitage’s sidewalks. Along the stretch’s west shoulder is a hodge-podge of structures that show no coherent theme with either their designs or physical arrangements.

It is within this context, then, that the downtown segment of Hermitage Avenue faces the challenge of elevating to full anchor status the little treasures (for example, Crema and Hermitage Café) presently in place — while simultaneously adding better built fabric and, as such, more high-profile anchors.

Part of the challenge in doing this is the fact that those mini-anchors are either businesses housed in nondescript buildings that are severed from the sidewalk by surface parking or are handsome and historic buildings that sit a good distance from the street.

Still, there are numerous empty parcels along the stretch — particularly the MDHA-controlled surface lot west of the Trolley Barns — that could be home to a major building with, say, retail on the main floor and residential above. 

“The privately held parcels will develop when the right concept or development comes along for that owner,” says John Tirrill, SWH Residential Partners managing partner. A few years ago, SWH bought the then-unfinished The Metro, The Victorian and The Art Deco buildings from Bank of America for about $7 million and then spent about $1 million on updates before selling to Des Moines, Iowa-based Principal Real Estate Investors. SWH is now overseeing for Principal the construction of CityView Apartments, a 100-unit building on RMH.

Tirrill says that the redevelopment of Hermitage is taking shape at a practical pace. 

“It’s a positive thing that not all this development is happening at once,” he says. “One, it would be chaotic with all the construction going on. Two, we have to keep in mind the supply and demand. There is only so much supply any city can handle. Right now it’s manageable.”

 Most of the parcels on Hermitage’s west side are considered “underdeveloped,” Tirrill adds.

“So it’s just a matter of time,” he says.

How much time is questionable. The site west of the District Energy System building sits empty, even though its KVB/Hermitage locale offers a great view of downtown. 

In 2006, an out-of-town company attempted to joint partner with a Florida-based company that developed for Publix. The goal, which failed, was to lure the grocery company into a new building next to the DES building. 

Across Peabody Street from the DES, the  Trolley Barns surface lot could be prime for a high-profile building. However, MHDA is in no rush.

“It’s definitely in a holding pattern,” says Joe Cain, MDHA director of urban development, “We are taking a measured approach.”

Kim Hawkins, founding principal with Nashville-based design firm Hawkins Partners Inc., says major opportunities await at the site adjacent to the DES building and at the surface lot.

“Those are your crystal sites,” says Hawkins, whose company participated in the South of Broadway Strategic Plan that was unveiled in January.

In addition to the MDHA-driven RMH and Trolley Barns projects, Hermitage has seen some positive building construction and rehab on its west side during the past six years.

US Community Credit Union improved its once-painfully bland building located at Academy Place and Hermitage. The building that serves as the Nashville Fire Department headquarters generally earns high praise from local architecture buffs as does the tasteful update to the structure that houses The Copper Kettle.

Of note, the Copper Kettle building is for sale. Similarly, an empty brick warehouse sitting at Lea and Hermitage is for lease and could make, according to Hawkins, a strong space for a restaurant or an “artisan industrial” operation.

“Cool new restaurants will come into an area first,” she says. “They are destinations.”

Because some folks like the funkiness and quirkiness the Hermitage segment offers, Hawkins says the hypothetical construction of a “wall of big buildings” could prove detrimental. But she acknowledges improvement is needed.

“It’s a far stretch to say Hermitage is a comfortable, likeable street,” she says. “There are a lot of missing teeth that could be filled.”