Comparing Charlotte and 12South, reputational risks and investing in better public spaces

The final installment of our chat with Boom magazine cover subjects Kim Hawkins and Aaron White

This is the third segment of a conversation on Nashville's growth between Kim Hawkins and Aaron White of Hawkins Partners and Evergreen Real Estate, respectively, and the Post's Geert De Lombaerde and William Williams. To read the first two parts, click here and here. The full menu of Boom magazine content is available here.


DE LOMBAERDE: How does the state of infrastructure — overhead power lines, for instance — affect your thinking in terms of looking at for future projects? Are you inclined to wait for Metro to bury them or are you more inclined to look at something and say, “We’ll kind of force the issue by looking at developmentthere?”

WHITE: There are always a number of factors, and certainly, you have to consider the environmental conditions. With Eighth Avenue, you’ve got the interstate on one side, power lines on the other and then you’re surrounded by surface lots and fast food. So it is hard to be the first [to initiate redevelopment].

With Gale Park and Gale Lofts, we were trying to tie into the neighborhoods behind them, because that was kind of early for Eighth Avenue. But we kind of pulled the good area in toward Eighth Avenue. Then what Stonehenge and the Parks Company are doing in the Eighth Avenue corridor, we looked at those sites.

WILIAMS: Two sites?

WHITE: Prior to starting Gale Lofts and Gale Park, and they weren’t ready, but probably what we were doing there helps that area.

WILLIAMS: You gave them a certain comfort level.

HAWKINS: It did what Row 8.9 did for Germantown. It’s the same kind of thing. You guys went in there and kind of set the bar on it and tested the market for them.

WILLIAMS: I’ll tell you another thing that’s driven the Parkes/Fulcher project and the Stonehenge project: M.L. Rose. That was so needed for that area. A community watering hole, that’s big. A coffee shop, a bar — anything like that is going to drive change.

WHITE: I totally agree.

WILLIAMS: But M.L. Rose wouldn’t have been there perhaps had it not been for Gale Park.

WHITE: Well, I don’t know.

HAWKINS: Between that and Athens being right across the street [laughter].

WHITE: M.L. Rose beat Gale Lofts. It helped us be convinced that that could be a cool district, and you know, Austin Ray has done [M.L. Rose] again on Charlotte.

HAWKINS: Miel was there, but Austin was one of the first saying, “I’m investing in Charlotte.” And when Austin invested in Charlotte, you go, “hmmm.”

WILLIAMS: But here’s the thing about Charlotte, and I would be curious to get your takes. We’ve been talking about it for at least two years. Notwithstandingthe segment from the interstate loop to roughly where The Sheds on Charlotte will be, there’s been no new construction. And if you go from I-440 to 46th, it’s hellish.

HAWKINS: Be patient.

WILLIAMS: Okay, so you really believe that. Obviously, if H.G. Hill Realty does its proposed project at the car wash and the train tracks, then that’s a game-changer, as they say.

HAWKINS: I think there are so many peopletalking about that corridor right now.

WILLIAMS: Okay. I hope I’m wrong. You’ve got this amazing potential [with Charlotte]. But all the new businesses are going into existing buildings. There has been no new construction.

HAWKINS: But that’s what happens. It’s the restaurants. Those go first. Those are the ones peopletake because they become destination.

WILLIAMS: And that will drive the new construction?

HAWKINS: You know, Stone Fox. Who was going on 51st before Stone Fox?

WILLIAMS: Aaron, are you interested in doing a development on Charlotte?

WHITE: Right now, it would be hard to rate Charlotte as high as Eighth Avenue, especially since Eighth has also the benefit of tying into the convention center and The Gulch and just from there, flowing right into Oak Hill and Brentwood. And so it’s a little further along in terms of infrastructure.

But I’m also a 12South guy. There are Sylvan Park people who would argue me under the table that Charlotte has more potential. And what Charlotte has may be the health care corridor.

WILLIAMS: One City could be a big driver.

WHITE: One City could be a game-changer. That’s also right there at the I-440 overpass, and that’s the stretch from literally 33rd to let’s say 43rd. It’s a 10-block stretch and there’s no residential north of it. It’s all south of the street in Sylvan Heights.

HAWKINS: Well, and when you get to 40th, you go right across and you’re in The Nations, so you can start getting in again there.

WHITE: Charlotte has no cap. The future is bright.

WILLIAMS: We’ve mentioned all these districts. And there are also Woodbine, Walden and Riverside Village, etc. Can a city of Nashville’s size have too many mixed-use little nodes and pockets and then they all suffer?

HAWKINS: Those are the places [young people] want to live. They might be starting out in The Gulch. They meet somebody else in another apartment in The Gulch. It’s like,’We’re moving somewhere.’ But they don’t want to be out; they still want to be able to get here fast because this is it for them. This is the quality of development, this is the energy, the excitement, and that’s what I’m seeing.

My son is now 24 — I cannot believe that — but I started looking at houses. He’s living in a place in East Nashville and somebody said, “You guys need to just buy and let him pay you rent.” So I looked at some of these places off Charlotte. I started looking at the cost per square foot. They cost more than my house in Hillsboro-West End.

WILLIAMS: Some of those Sylvan Heights and Nations homes are pricey.

HAWKINS: But that’s who is moving into. It’s most of the people who are in our office. Most of them are under 40. And most of my employees want to bike to work.

WHITE: That graduating generation of millennials, GenY, I think it had its peak population graduation year two years ago. So those folks are renting, they’re taking starter jobs. But I remember it was fascinating when Nashville was not adding jobs, so we were dropping our employmentnumbers. We still had positive demographic numbers, peoplewere moving here, said, “I want to live in Nashville; I’m going to find a place to work.” And so that draws talent and I just think our university system has really been a driver for our city.

DE LOMBAERDE: Let me switch gears if I can. I’m interested in your take on the people doing the developing. It seems like there a lot of people coming in and doing good work that maybe don’t have the track record of the Jimmy Granberys and folks like that. We have good growth coming from a number of different players that you maybe wouldn’t have seen five, seven years ago.

WHITE: Well, we certainly have hit a point in our population and in our sales and rental activity where we are now an approved city for lots of institutional capital that previously wouldn’t come to Nashville. There’s capital for real estate developmentthat focuses on Chicago and Atlanta, and Nashville was officially approved on the map for those groups. And so that brings with it a lot of developers.

And quite frankly, Nashville wasn’t hit as hard in the recession, so peoplecame from other cities like Atlanta that had more surplus of inventory. There was a time when Nashville rents and Nashville condo prices really exceeded those in Atlanta. Atlanta has a large staple of talented, capable, well-capitalized developers, so we’ve gotten a lot of activity from that. Overall, that just means we’re an “It” city.

HAWKINS: And the number of young peoplemoving into the city is just unbelievable. The ones that I know now are all friends of my kids and one of them sent me a note Monday saying, “Here is my resume. I’m moving [to Nashville] in September. Do you know anybody who needs this?” And that’s the way they do it. It’s like it’s a cool place.

WHITE: But back to your question. As an “It City” with job growth and excitement, we’re going to be an outside investment. You’ve got to be careful, because if my company builds a bad development, I’m going to feel it when I go to rezone the next one. We live in these neighborhoods.

When we built 12th and Paris, we thought about what we wanted to walk by every day and our motivation. We had to stretch to buy that land. But another neighbor — a guy named Jim Massey that lives on Belmont — brought us that opportunity. It was a car lot with a barbed-wire fence and we wanted to eliminate the blight.

We are not nonprofit developers, but we’re trying to do the right thing in a sustainable way for our neighborhood, for our city, for the environment. That’s good long-term business. So when somebody comes to town, I’m just saying, they don’t necessarily have the same motivation. And not that those people can’t come and do good work. But over time, your reputation will follow you.

So it’s good to have a measure of design controls through historic overlays. Sometimes [specific plan] zoning is appropriate and people bemoan those extra steps. In my experience, getting a lot of other trained professionals to look at your job, it takes longer, but the job gets better. Quite frankly, the longer we work on something, the better it gets, and good developers study and evaluate and change and re-evaluate.

So those design processes give you a better result. They provide an opportunity for public input, and it’s a balance. We don’t want to be overly prescriptive. These are private developments and there’s such a thing as property rights. But I think there are important controls, checks and balances on the quality of our projects.

And I think we’ve got a great planning commission. They’ve done a good job. As we get more development pressure, they may have to expand their districts, continue to review their strategies — which is exactly what they’re doing.

HAWKINS: It’s kind of what the general plan is doing right now. Outside developers coming in happened big time in 2002 when we were going through that big growth spurt. And they tend to come in for a job or two that might get flipped and then they’re gone.

I never mind the idea of getting more good ideas. And when it’s a high-quality development, that lifts all ships. But I really agree with Aaron in working with developers and design teams who are here, who have been here, who are going to be here.

You mentioned some of the processes, going through SP, going through urban design overlays. Some of that’s complicated. Honestly, there’s some good job security with some of that because it is pretty hard just to come in and be able to figure that all out, just walking into the city. There’s a lot of thought that’s gone into the planning and zoning and the way that things are written.

WHITE: And it’s not perfect, but I think overall, it’s working. It’s improved our level of architecture and the city has a role, as with the new water park (Cumberland Park). It does bring back this question about “Are we too dispersed, too scattered?” and I think there is a positiveand negativeto that. My opinion is that sometimes a little yes. I kind of wish that park was a little bit more convenient to places to eat, chef-owned restaurants, for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

HAWKINS: If I could just drink a beer and watch my kids.

WHITE: It’s a little isolated. The split side of that is if it was all just about 12South and Hillsboro Village, if there wasn’t an East Nashville, if there wasn’t a Germantown, it would be less diverse, less interesting and more expensive. I’m not saying it’s cheap everywhere to live in Nashville. But the more [districts] we have, that overall is going to bring price points down.

HAWKINS: I tend to be a fan of downtown as the region’s living room. So I’ll always believe the idea of reinvesting in our downtown and the deficit of great open space in our downtown has been pointed out time and again. If we really are going to continue to develop our neighborhoods in and near downtown and really allow downtown to be a place that serves not just residents, but downtown workers and visitors, then we really need more focus on that.

DE LOMBAERDE: You have to be intentional about it.

HAWKINS: Just the idea that for so many years we turned away from our river. And so finally, we’re looking back to it and so many other cities have done that. I think it’s good.

DE LOMBAERDE: Aaron, you just mentioned that zoning and codes and the input from public officials is better and it’s always getting better. It seems like peoplehave a good understanding of where the development community is coming from and how they want to steer the city. What are the couple of places where you think there are still some gaps that could be addressed to make things just that little bit more efficient — a little bit more well-directed — in the next couple years?

WHITE: As areas expand outward... For example, Sevier Park has become such a focal point for the 12South neighborhood and the city has been putting a great rec center in there and upgrading the paths. So I don’t see a large deficit as much as sustaining a commitment to continuing to support.

As development pressures increase along Eighth Avenue and Charlotte, there need to be good sidewalks, street lamps and green space. I mean, downtown actually has some fantastic spots, but could use a little bit more: Courthouse Square, Bicentennial Mall is a little bit of a walk. I mean, if you’re taking your lunch break…

HAWKINS: You’re not getting to Bicentennial Mall quickly.

WHITE: Or if you do, you’re going to earn your lunch. And so we need to think about the green space in those areas. We need to make sure we’re connecting grids. There was a time when we disconnected grids. You know, you go down Music Row and we cut off 16th and 17th from those neighborhoods, and quite frankly, the neighborhoods didn’t thrive and Music Row didn’t thrive.

We’ve got to keep our grid intact, our alleys functional, not push everything to the corridors so that there’s sidewalk seating for the restaurants, there’s space to do what we need to do by dispersing the traffic.

And we must continue to promote a mix of uses. Because I want to be able to live, work and play in a zone. Right now, if I can drive to two of those and walk to the third, that’s fine. But the more we can continue to bring our employment close to residences with neighborhood retail, I think that’s going to take peopleoff the roads and it’s going to help some of those growing pains.

DE LOMBAERDE: Anything to add, Kim?

HAWKINS: I agree with the stewardship of the places that we have and to build on our strengths. Just one other thing kind of related to the open space/green space, because you were mentioning it along Charlotte or Eighth. The open spaces that we have, let’s do them right.

And the other thing is we need to do more programming. I don’t believe if you build it, they will come. I believe if you build it and you program it and you plan for peopleto be there and somebody wakes up every day thinking about that, then they’ll come.

Examples of that are Live on the Green. The Public Square needed that. There was nothing else, nobody else was programming anything at Public Square and it still needs more. Cumberland Park has the jazz series, and that needs to happen in so many of our different public spaces.

DE LOMBAERDE: That’s why we have all these beer festivals and the like now.


DE LOMBAERDE: Seems like there’s one every weekend. I say that partly in jest, but it does help bring people out.

WHITE: One other thought. You have to be very careful to let markets drive it for that reason, too. Peopleare willing to put capital at risk in an area because they know that peoplewant to live there. And so we have to be careful in encouraging and subsidizing. We don’t want to create things that aren’t sustainable, because we don’t want buildings built and empty in the wrong places. So it’s a real balance of letting the market work efficiently with some controls and channels.

DE LOMBAERDE: That’s a great point on which to end things. Thank you both very much for your time and insights.