Q&A: Kim Hawkins and Aaron White on building a better city

Local pros discuss smart growth, the importance of The Amp and ‘the heart of who we are’

At the turn of the 21st century, Nashville’s built environment began to undergo dramatic change. Since then, cranes have constantly dotted the sky, city planners have crafted detailed blueprints for urbanization and the topic of mass transit has become more than an afterthought. Through it all, Kim Hartley Hawkins and Aaron White have been involved in the process. Hawkins is founding principal of Hawkins Partners Inc., a planning and landscape architecture company, while White serves as principal and co-founder of Evergreen Real Estate, a boutique development company. Both firms are based in Nashville.

Hawkins and White recently met with Nashville Post Editor Geert De Lombaerde and Managing Editor William Williams to discuss the changes to Nashville’s manmade landscape and what awaits.

DE LOMBAERDE: Kim, let’s start by talking about your company’s work on civic spaces. Fifth Avenue has maybe some of the things that I’m thinking about. How has that influenced what you’ve done with those spaces?

HAWKINS: I think we’ve come a long way as a city with that. Bicentennial Mall, which the state did, was a big step forward in civic spaces. For the city, it was probably really the Public Square. That kind of raised the bar with what was going to happen. Anytime that we can use our civic spaces to tell Nashville’s story, I think, is really valuable. The Shelby Street Bridge — you guys probably remember how hard that was and how critical that was to our city to save that. Some of the new work that’s being planned right now at Centennial Park. Centennial Park is a jewel in our city. Being able to really reinvest in that legacy and the stewardship of that [is great].

WILLIAMS: Was that a Seattle company?

HAWKINS: Actually, no, it’s Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects out of Charlottesville, and they’re working with Gustafson’s office (Gustafson Guthrie Nichol) out of Seattle, which did the master plan. But Nelson Byrd Woltz is doing the phase one with Hodgson & Douglas. Reinvestment in the city is great, but the other thing, and I think this is just as important, are the streetscapes.

The Complete Streets policy was passed in 2010 and that has huge ramifications for the way that Public Works looks at streetscapes now as really being a part of the civic experience. It’s not just a place for cars to go down. We doubled our on-road bike infrastructure from 2009 to 2012. All of those things are critical for when you talk about civic space, because those are the places where you stop and talk, you bump into somebody that you know. Those are the places that are beautiful in cities, that you think about walking down the streets of Paris or London. It’s the streets that really kind of pull it together.

So we’re really excited about that idea of the Complete Streets, like the 28th/31st Avenue Connector, and Deaderick Street. But it’s also green streets, and the idea that our public rights of way need to accomplish multiple goals. They cannot be singular. They’re no longer just about cars; they’re about cars, people, bikes, stormwater infrastructure, public art. I mean, they’re multi-use spaces.

DE LOMBAERDE: And people are talking and thinking about these things more. They are looking at this going, “Why do we need six lanes of just cars when we can do what’s been done over here?”

HAWKINS: And that doesn’t even get into the demographic changes that you’re dealing with in multi-family right now. The fact that so many more of our under-thirties, that creative class of millennials that we’re trying to attract here, don’t have cars, don’t want cars. They want to find another way to get around, and so I think everything builds towards the urban, the infill, that residential, that healthy mix of uses, the streets, the bikes.
WILLIAMS: On that theme, do both of you support The Amp?

HAWKINS: If you’re after sustainability, The Amp is the most sustainable thing that can be done in this city.

WILLIAMS: That’s a bold comment.

HAWKINS: And I believe it. It’s about the idea of supporting the density of development, being able to support a mix of uses. It’s our only real hope to start moving away from a car-centric [culture]. We can’t do it until it becomes a whole network, but I think The Amp is absolutely critical and our biggest step.

WHITE: You know, we’re not planners at our company. We are kind of trying to fill in the fabric, and right now, as of today, Nashville’s still very car-centric. It’s who we are, and I think that you’ve got to look beyond that in your planning and investments and say, “OK, what kind of city are we going to be in 10 years, 20 years, 30 years? What size are we going to be?” And growth rate is a very important consideration to that. If you look at a lot of master plans, they go so dense. Well, if we have growth, then you’re going to need that level of density. However, if you don’t have growth or the growth is less and you’re replacing a fair amount of existing stock, if you go too dense, then you end up with pockets, and they’re not connected.

DE LOMBAERDE: There’s no flow.

WHITE: If I put up a 300-unit tower, that’s great, but 300 units in three- and four- and five-story historic buildings could revitalize several blocks instead of a three-acre site. And so I think right now, indications are Nashville is a boomtown. We want to grow smart, and with this kind of growth rate and if it continues and accelerates, we’re going to have to really move toward mass transit and have the infrastructure for that.

In the interim, though, I think that neighborhoods like 12South and Five Points are kind of the heart of who we are. I certainly see there’s going to be a dense central business district, a dense Gulch, some density in Midtown. But there’s another story that’s a little bit more car-centric and it’s a blend. Take the key places you go: school, church, family, work, retail, or friends. You might be able to knock out two of those in a pedestrian format and you’re getting into a car for the other three. That’s where we are today. It’s a little bit more forward-thinking, but it’s not impacting the broad demographic that we have to appeal [to] to get our places sold and rented. Yet.

DE LOMBAERDE: And the underlying assumption with The Amp is that we will build it out on a network, that we continue the growth and that there is enough density across large parts of the city to sustain it.

WHITE: The key is the network.

HAWKINS: To really work, The Amp can’t be simply that seven-mile stretch and that’s all that ever happens.

WHITE: I don’t want to take my car four miles to the station, ride, get there and have to walk a mile and catch a bus for another [stretch]. But you’ve got to start somewhere. So it’s the right thing to do. And how much, how quickly — those are tough questions. You’ve got to really study our growth.

DE LOMBAERDE: I was reminded of this a couple of months ago. I went to Vienna for a high school reunion. Vienna started building its streetcar system in the 1860s. They didn’t get to their subways until the 1970s, the density from the buses and the streetcars was already there, so it was just a matter of thinking, “OK, what’s the smartest way to put the subway system in place?” They’re still building it out and now it’s almost the flipside. Now they’re using it to promote and develop outlying areas, to create hubs on the outside.

HAWKINS: Because it’s accessible through the transit.

DE LOMBAERDE: Yeah, the bones of it are already there.

HAWKINS: Well, honestly, somewhere in there is where I think we are with 12South. The master plan was done in ’97, and it is a wondrous thing for me to think about how amazing the success of 12South has been. In 1997, if you’d told Mark Deutschmann and Joel Solomon that there was going to be a parking problem on 12South in 15 years, they would have thought you had lost your mind. 12South is one of those [districts] where a very small amount of public infrastructure has resulted in incredible private development dollars.

I so believe in the idea of infill and building along our urban commercial corridors and the idea of providing those mixed-use nodes, so that you really do get that mix where infrastructure already exists. You say infrastructure and so many people think you’re talking about the roads and the water pipes and the sewer lines. But we’re also talking about libraries and schools and police and fire that are already in place.

WHITE: And the building stock, I mean, the building stock in those neighborhoods. It is great, and you know what? There are some protections now in place with the historical overlay. But it’s not complete and as development pressure increases, I think more controls are appropriate. Because 12South is fortunate. We’ve had some people involved that conserved some of those historic buildings. The handful of historic buildings left in 12South can be bought and torn down right now, and you’ve got to think about that.

WILLIAMS: Hill Realty and Southeast Venture’s 12 South Flats is a great experiment. It’s going to be tremendously successful for many reasons. I know some people who live in 12South might disagree with me.

WILLIAMS: There are some empty lots on 12th that could accommodate a building of that size. Is 12South going to get two or three more of those type buildings?

WHITE: There are not a lot of lots that have the depth to do that [type building], but I think you’ll get a few more.

HAWKINS: And zoning allows it.

WHITE: I think it’ll feel different than it does today.

WILLIAMS: Vastly different?

WHITE: When you have something that is your home ­— and 12South is my neighborhood, where my wife and I are raising our kids — change is scary. The key to 12 South Flats is that it looks good. It is thoughtful, tasteful architecture. The massing and scale are very important, but also equally important is just the look and feel of the building — the nuances, the details. That building looks good and I have observed my neighbors being won over by the architecture and commitment to retail.

HAWKINS: Great retail. Great retail.

WILLIAMS: Getting Miranda [Whitcomb Pontes] right off the bat was a huge success for Jimmy [Granbery of developer H.G. Hill Realty].

WHITE: That’s a big one, too. It’s funny how heroes emerge for these districts and what Miranda did with Burger Up.

WILLIAMS: That’s good, but does 12South have the future of a Five Points or a Germantown, where there’s a street grid and intersections zoned for commercial? I think Germantown has vastly more potential than 12South.

HAWKINS: It does, but they’re vastly different. Germantown is a district and 12South is an urban commercial corridor.

WILLIAMS: It’s a commercial corridor, yeah. So maybe it’s not fair to compare them in that respect.


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. But it seems like not only do we have good growth across the city geographically, but we have it coming from a number of different players that you maybe wouldn’t have seen five, seven years ago.

WHITE: As an “It City” with job growth and excitement, we’re going to get outside investment. But you’ve got to be careful. 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 do we want to walk by every day and our motivation. We had to stretch to buy that land. A neighbor — a guy named Jim Massey who lives on Belmont — brought us the opportunity. It was a car lot with a barbed-wire fence, and we wanted to eliminate the blight. And so that was a for-profit development. 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 [an outsider] comes to town to develop, they don’t necessarily have the same motivation. And not that those people can’t come and do good work and, over time, have their reputation follow. But it’s good to have a measure of design controls through historic overlays. Sometimes SP [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 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 slow things down, 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 those are important controls, checks and balances on the quality of our projects. 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 and 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. When it’s a high-quality development, that lifts all ships. But I really agree with Aaron in working with people, with developers who are here, who have been here, who are going to be here. And with design teams who are here, are going to be here and who will be here.