H.G. Hill Realty has scoured the city for smart investments. In 12South, its vision may be bigger than neighbors can stomach. 

The Hills Have Eyes

The Hills Have Eyes

To understand H.G. Hill Realty's influence on the development of Nashville, start not with its most high-profile deals, but with what looks like one of its least. In May 2010, H.G. Hill Realty paid $950,000 for a small tract of land on Charlotte near 40th Avenue.

The tract was home to a car wash — a typical sight on Nashville's least flashy yet most utilitarian artery. You didn't miss the headlines. There weren't any. It's not the kind of property for which most development watchers would expect the city's pre-eminent real estate company to pay a 300 percent premium.

What those observers might have missed, however, is that Hill had been steadily, methodically buying adjacent parcels on Charlotte. Where others saw a negligible car wash, one of dozens across the city, Hill saw the missing piece in a puzzle gradually taking shape. With this one last purchase, Hill suddenly had ownership of the entire block.

Perhaps "suddenly" is the wrong word. Hill bought its first property on the block in 1926. For the rest, the company was willing to wait more than eight decades.

Anything else you want to know about it? Ask Jimmy Granbery, the fourth-generation CEO of Hill Realty. The great-grandson of the original H.G. Hill, the great-nephew of H.G. Hill Jr. — the H.G. everyone thinks of — Granbery can tell you the entire story of that block. How his family owned the grocery store there. How a cousin ran a warehouse nearby. How the Hill family kept an ever-watchful eye on the land, as the 20th century crept down Charlotte.

And the future? He says the company doesn't have plans — no Hill Center Charlotte — for the entire holding. At least not yet. Maybe in a few decades. Why hurry?

"It's not an urgent situation," Granbery says. But with a chess grandmaster's knowing smile, he adds, "Everything is starting to gentrify. It's playing into our hands."

That acquisition — and Granbery's knowledge of the block's history, future and potential — is a microcosm of the history and philosophy of H.G. Hill. It'll all work out. Just have a little patience.

Patience is what neighbors in the real-estate hot zone of 12South are losing, in regards to H.G. Hill's newest project: a four-story mixed-use development with 90 apartments and ground-floor retail. Opponents of the project — a joint development with fellow power player Southeast Venture — say Hill has shrugged off neighbors' concerns and jeopardized the area's future with an oversized, ill-fitting design.

The irony in this battle, however, is that unless the current neighbors have lived in 12South since the early 20th century, Hill's presence in the neighborhood likely predates even the earliest of 12South's early adopters. The same can be said in neighborhoods all across Nashville, where H.G. Hill Realty has quietly shaped the city's landscape.

Hill's holdings — more than 130 properties representing more than 2 million square feet — are valued close to $200 million. In the past 20 years, the company has developed some of Nashville's highest-profile retail projects. Throw a dart at a map of Davidson County, and it's hard to hit an area that hasn't been affected by H.G. Hill Realty.

Hillsboro Village? It's bookended by Hill's Harris Teeter at one end and the massively reworked Pancake Pantry building at the other. East Nashville? The Turnip Truck is Hill's. Green Hills? There's the eponymous Hill Center, locus of Whole Foods and Anthropologie and California Pizza Kitchen — and while you're at it, the Hill Center on Charlotte within the booming Nashville West development is theirs too.

Like a family tree, almost all these properties can be traced in one way or another back to H.G. Hill grocery stores. The first and second generation Hills saw land not just as places to put grocery stores, but also as a smart investment likely to secure their family's future security and legacy.

The history of the Hills reaches back to the 19th century. Founded in Nashville in 1896, the first H.G. Hill grocery stores were neighborhood-based, a fraction of the size of the suburban supermarkets they'd later become. But even then, the original H.G. Hill tired of landlords telling him what he could and couldn't do with his stores. So he started buying land and building his shops the way he wanted. It helped that he was on the board at Nashville Trust Co. and knew where the foreclosed and distressed properties were.

Mr. Hill's great contribution to the grocery business — and the real estate business, for that matter — was his realization that stores needed to be on the "going home side" of the road. When streetcar transport was the norm, it was easier for shoppers to hop off the trolley and walk into the store without crossing the tracks. To this day, most grocery stores follow his lead — and most of Hill's holdings still lie on the homeward-bound side of the street.

Having found the secret to location, the Hills started to monetize their savvy. When people stopped for groceries, they'd want to stop for other things: hardware, medicine and the like. So the family's holding company started buying contiguous tracts, leasing them to other shopkeepers.

"We were always buying contiguous properties. If something comes available, you buy it," Jimmy Granbery says. "And someday, there will be plans." A joke among local real estate watchers is that Hill stocked its land holdings with whatever it saw on the drive home.

H.G. Hill got out of the grocery business in the 1990s. Today, another company operates H.G. Hill Food Stores under a licensing agreement. But H.G. Hill Realty thrives, and its history mirrors that of the city. When the streetcars stopped running through town, Hill stores followed Nashvillians to the suburbs. Suddenly, grocery stores needed parking lots, and more land.

Now people are returning to the city — to shop, to walk, to live — and the focus is on walkable shopping centers and mixed-use developments. With its century of acquired land — well located due to long-ago forethought — H.G. Hill Realty is perfectly positioned for the change. Whether you consider them a civic ally or a neighborhood adversary may depend on which side of the street you live on.

The project Jimmy Granbery says he's proudest of isn't on ritzy West End or congested Hillsboro. It's on Armory Drive, home of the National Guard Armory as well as a shortcut to the Sidco Drive Cracker Barrel.

"Armory Drive was nothing but kudzu," Granbery says, welcoming a visitor. But buried under that kudzu was property Hill used as a grocery distribution center. Other real estate types called him crazy, Granbery recalls — no one would want to work in a largely industrial area out of downtown.

But he saw a space easily accessible from interstates and secondaries. Now its 11 buildings house businesses ranging from the Nashville School of Law to the corporate headquarters for Logan's Roadhouse.

In most cases, Hill Realty's big projects are in places already on their way up. But Armory Drive? Hill got there first — the reason Granbery chafes when people credit Vanderbilt with revitalizing 100 Oaks. It's also the reason that Hill is still on Armory Drive, despite all its higher-profile projects elsewhere.

Tucked away, almost hidden, in the central building is a door, marked understatedly with the familiar H.G. Hill logo. Inside are two modest chairs and a small desk with a phone, a list of extensions and instructions to dial the intended party. If that doesn't work, there's a callbox connected to a receptionist.

A short call later, she enters through a locked door and asks visitors to wait a few minutes. She returns and leads a visitor back to the nerve center.

With its paintings of various former Hill CEOs gazing down, the vestibule is almost laughably small for such a powerful entity. But when the door opens, the office space it exposes is cavernous. It's a little like being in the waiting room for the Wizard of Oz.

Granbery is known for being a prominent businessman, a Nashville native, a Hillwood High School graduate (yes, it's named for his family). He is not known for doing interviews. He prefers to let his predestined work — nearly all the leaves on the Hill family tree's branches grow into the family business — speak for itself. When that doesn't work, he's happy to let his hired PR hand Amy Gray Kovar do the talking. He rarely gives lengthy sit-downs, furthering the Oz impression of the man behind the curtain.

Yet he's affable, his classic West Side drawl evident. He's intelligent, confident. He's almost arrogant — most developers are — but it's arrogance borne of decades of personal success fortified by a century of family endeavor.

He wears a short-sleeved dress shirt and a tie, though he admits he doesn't much care for neckties. He's not a suit. Like most everyone else in the family, Granbery worked for years in the grocery business: bagging groceries, stocking produce, pretty much everything except roasting coffee, a job he said was far too hot for him. Of all the skills he honed in the grocery trade, solving problems may have been the most useful — a quality his business colleague Tom Hooper at Eakin Partners says he's seen firsthand.

When the flood hit in May 2010, Hooper recalls, the garage at the Hill Center in Belle Meade flooded, like most ground-level garages in town. Hooper, who worked the office leases at the center, arrived to check on the space. He found Granbery already in situ, manning the pumps.

That level of involvement, Hooper says, speaks to the "responsibility" Granbery feels for his family's heritage.

"He's part of a great family that's had such a wonderful history. It's an opportunity and a burden as well," Hooper says. "There's generations above and below him."

But Granbery isn't just a cautious caretaker of his family legacy. He's not afraid to take chances to get a slow-moving project rolling, or to exploit the Byzantine traps and snares of municipal zoning.

Case in point: There are apartments above the Pancake Pantry now, but when Hill started developing that project, there was no urban-district overlay zoning. As part of its streetscape-changing overhaul of the block at Wedgewood and 21st Avenue South, Hill wanted residential space above the restaurant, but under the zoning laws at the time, there was seemingly no way to get it done.

Granbery and his team found a solution both ingenious and audacious. They had the property zoned as commercial-services — a fairly common designation. Only problem: CS doesn't allow apartments. But it does allow for a hotel.

And so, throughout the development of the project, the apartments were — in the eyes of the law — hotel rooms. Only this hotel wouldn't accept reservations for fewer than 365 days.

Eventually urban-district overlay zoning became a reality in Hillsboro Village. But by that time, Jimmy Granbery didn't need it. He already had his apartments over the Pancake Pantry.

Hill also gets a lot of credit for the hard reset in Green Hills. The Hill Center filled up quickly, and despite a few setbacks — a bankruptcy at Swoozie's stationery shop is the most notable — it has stayed full.

Again, Hill was ahead of the curve there. It replaced Hill's old grocery-anchored strip mall with a new-urbanist village model that anticipated The Mall at Green Hills' high-end makeover (and the game-changing subsequent arrival of Nordstrom). While Granbery is justifiably proud of what he accomplished there, that wasn't exactly the same as clearing brush on Armory Drive.

"Green Hills is a wonderful project and it turned out great, but Green Hills is Green Hills," Granbery says.

Nonetheless, Hooper says it would have been easy to keep the existing strip center at Green Hills the way it was. "He could have left Green Hills on its own and made money, but he saw a higher and better use for it," Hooper says.

Not that the transformation was easy. There was traffic to be diverted and a road to be re-aligned, creating a straight shot from the YMCA to the Hill Center. As it turns out, a move that was good for traffic was also good for business.

"They've got 18,000 members and when they come out, they are looking at our property," Granbery says.

And they're looking at Whole Foods. Even an old grocery man like Granbery didn't understand the appeal of a high-end grocery touting organic produce and earthy-crunchy goods. But after he made a pilgrimage to Atlanta to visit all three Whole Foods locations there, he says he came back a believer. "This will really work," he remembers thinking after his trip.

Hooper says that for a company with such an entrenched legacy, it's almost antithetical for Hill to take the chances it does.

"They're a very traditional, conservative business, but they are not afraid to take on progressive ideas," Hooper explains. "They are just not afraid and step out there on something that's new for Nashville. He'll go to cities and see how it works, and they'll try to bring it back to their properties."

Granbery is unusual, too, in the way other developers perceive him. Seemingly no one in that world — often full of bombastic self-promoters and potential litigants — has a bad thing to say about him. The worst Hooper could come up with was that when he does property searches, he can't find anything to buy because Hill already owns it.

Rivalries in the world of commercial real estate are common, but Hill is different. Sure, like Hooper, other developers are jealous of Hill's holdings. But Granbery also makes his real estate colleagues a lot of money with little risk. He famously eschews speculative building projects, which probably keeps denigration down more than anything. Yet he's also a willing listener and a font of advice for newcomers and up-and-comers. And with 120 years of family history behind him, that's everyone in town.

"He's been a great friend and a mentor to me as I've conducted my career here and always takes my calls and lets me ask him things," Hooper says.

But when it comes time for Granbery to deal with neighborhood residents, he's not all smiles and glad-handing. He's no stranger to contentious projects. Even with developments that time has proved successful, Granbery says there was initially opposition from the neighbors. Ultimately, he says, most people are pleased with the changes.

"When we started the Harris Teeter at 21st and Blair, I was going to get a tarring and feathering," he says. "Now if I said I was going to take it away, I'd be on the courthouse square, strung up like the Wild Wild West."

It's been a long time, however, since Hill faced an outcry as heated as that in 12South, where neighbors have taken to the Internet and public forums to denounce Hill's latest project. And much of their dissatisfaction is with Granbery, who they say has used the same bravado that got his earlier successes rolling to brush off their concerns.

Sparks flew at a June 4 public hearing, where Granbery and the project's architects met with concerned neighbors. The meeting was a formality. By the time residents mobilized their outrage, ground had already been broken on the development, an imposing block-sized edifice that will immediately change the look of the neighborhood. In renderings, it somewhat suggests a university's massive student union complex. At four stories, it will be twice as tall as the highest existing buildings in 12South.

The ensuing battle has become a classic old vs. new Nashville dust-up, with relative newcomers regarding Hill, one of the city's longest established entities, as a virtual carpetbagger.

"If it were up to the neighborhood, you all wouldn't be here," 12South resident Doug Shaughnessy told the developers at the hearing. "You're not good neighbors. A good neighbor comes in and asks people, 'Hey, I would like to do this. What do you think?' "

The 12 South Flats development is too big, opponents say. Its 90 apartments amount to too much growth too quickly. There's no word yet on whether they'll be priced for students or for the well-to-do latecomers just discovering the area. For purists who say 12South is just six or eight blocks, turning one block into a single development is just too high a percentage of the neighborhood.

On the other side, Hill is frustrated that the neighbors — many of whom were early adopters to the revitalization of the once-moribund neighborhood — are now stubbornly opposed to what he sees as the next logical step in the neighborhood's evolution.

And where did that evolution begin? Like most of the other Hill projects, there was once an H.G. Hill grocery store at the 12South site. Well, sort of. The store was across the street, where Fish & Co. is now.

For some reason — uncharacteristically, Granbery can't quite figure this one out — the company had bought the property across 12th from the store. It changed hands a number of times before this spring, when Hill got it back.

Hill left then drug-ravaged 12South three decades ago. There were "needles in the grass" then, Granbery says. That left the hard work of raising the neighborhood's profile, reputation and property values to urban pioneers. Kim Green moved to 12South in 2000, a few years before gentrification started to take hold.

"It was a tough neighborhood, crackhouse-y, but we could afford it," says Green, a writer, WPLN reporter and occasional Scene contributor. "I grew up way out in West Nashville. I didn't like the suburban lifestyle." But in 12South, she found, there were trees and sidewalks. "I wanted to live in a city and walk and bike," she says.

Others followed. Businesses bloomed. Now that 12South is nationally feted as a boutique hangout and destination neighborhood, Hill decided to get back in a few years ago. As Granbery says, it's a much better market now.

"I think it's a result of the growth of Lipscomb and Belmont and Vandy," he says. "Students come here, they love the area and want to stay but maybe not necessarily in a student area, so they pick somewhere sort of close by: 12South."

So Granbery sees it as ripe for a mixed-use project. It's just that not everyone agrees — least of all the folks who moved there, charmed by it. Among the angriest concerns voiced by residents is what the new development will do to traffic.

David Stephens moved to 12South with his wife and young son four years ago. The bottleneck on the traffic-calmed street already leads people to cut through the side streets, he says, and he only expects more of it when the new project is complete. He doesn't much go for neighborhood meetings — he casts them as a waste of time, as grandstanding — but he wants his misgivings known.

"The traffic is increasingly becoming horrendous. They don't care about what's going on. Let's just build and build and build," Stephens says, pausing to add, "I'm all for growth. It increases taxes, but it increases other things."

"It's amazing how much people know about traffic," Granbery counters. He argues that his company uses the best traffic engineers in the country when it does its studies. Even so, Stephens can't see an end except a 12South with so much traffic that the quiet side streets become speedways.

"The floodgates were opened, and you've got residents coming in, and that's more cars," Stephens says.

It's not just traffic, though. Residents also worry what's being lost when something new comes out of the ground. Neighbors resented the loss of Rumours, a popular wine bar and gathering place, when it was bought out of its lease to make way for the Hill project.

"We did business there. We made friends there. That's where my urban tribe is," Kim Green says. With the closing of Rumours — "my favorite," she calls it — she feels her neighborhood lost a bit of its center.

In its wake, she has concerns about the kind of retail that will go in the ground floor of the Hill project. Looking at Hill's other developments, she says, it's not that she doesn't like their mix of stores, it's that she doesn't see it fitting into her neighborhood.

"I really, really care who they lease to," Green admits. "I love the Hill Center [in Green Hills] where it is, and it's a big improvement on what was there before." But the Hill Center is full of corporate chains: Anthropologie and Pei Wei and Five Guys. She doesn't want that in her neighborhood. No matter who signs the lease for the projects — and those lessees could very well share her ZIP code — they aren't local companies.

"If that spot becomes full of Five Guys or Starbucks or Pei Wei, I won't go there," she says.

Jimmy Granbery's seen all this worry about losing local businesses before too. Why, his own mother lamented the loss of Belle Meade Drugs, he says, which went away in favor of the Publix that anchors the Hill Center at Harding and White Bridge.

Now, he says, "My mother loves shopping at Publix."

You might expect a more sentimental view out of someone from a family of grocers. But as much as Nashvillians of a certain age might miss trading at H.G. Hill stores, they've grown accustomed to getting their milk and their burritos and their clothes and their outdoor gear at one of the strips that supplanted them. Or at a strategically located Hill Center. Granbery's family adjusted; why can't everyone else?

That gives the current debate in 12South a familiar sound. It wasn't long ago that a similar struggle was going on between the residents of Bells Bend and proponents of the proposed May Town Center. As more people fall in love with and reclaim sections of Nashville, the South's persistent kindling starter "Who was here first?" will undoubtedly flare up again and again.

That's the irony underlying the viewpoints currently clashing in 12South. Kim Green worries that Hill will bring in chain retailers and restaurants at the expense of local businesses. But to Jimmy Granbery, what could be more local than H.G. Hill, whose name has been synonymous with Nashville in three different centuries?

"The name on the door isn't it. It's who's running the ship," Granbery says. "We're a 120-year-old company. We want to be proud of a project. We're here, and we're always going to be here."

Perhaps that's why, when Green wrote a blog post expressing her concerns about the loss of "localness," she was surprised to find an invitation from Granbery himself in her comments thread, asking to meet and talk with her. Granted, by this point the project was already full steam ahead. But Green agreed, and she and Granbery spent 90 minutes hearing (if not hashing) out each other's differences.

Green says Hill's community standing and longevity sets it apart from beaucoup other developers — the get-it-out-of-the-ground, get-it-on-the-market, get-out-of-town crowd. Still, she says she left sensing a fundamental disconnect between Hill's definition of "local" and hers. To her, a landlord isn't what makes a neighborhood feel like a neighborhood.

"He talked about how all these neighborhoods were built around the grocery store and I appreciate that," Green says. "But I don't experience their family when I walk down my street."

Granbery, meanwhile, has resigned himself that he's not going to make everyone happy. During the sturm und drang of the pre-construction phase, that's the norm. "There's nothing I can do," he says.

But in the end, he believes, people will come around. He says they always do. "We're adding to the continued gentrification," Granbery says proudly of 12South.

"Gentrification" isn't a word you hear often as a compliment. It's often used as a slur against upwardly mobile in-movers who take advantage of low property values as a once low-income neighborhood shifts toward middle class. But Granbery uses the word a lot — and always as an unqualified good. What could be negative about a rising tide raising all boats?

Why wouldn't people want their property values to go up? Why wouldn't they want the next big thing, "better" than what was there before? Development is Darwinian. Open land is developed, tenants survive for a while, but eventually things change. New things come along — new stores, new homes, new people. A neighborhood is renewed.

His family wasn't content to just own grocery stores. Eventually they bought real estate. That was the next big thing, so the grocery stores had to go. Now they build grocery stores for other operators. And restaurants. And specialty shops. They move traffic lights and donate land to schools and YMCAs. Hill's largesse benefits numerous charities.

When things evolve, everyone benefits. In H.G. Hill Realty's longview, a neighborhood's concerns can't be assuaged until a neighborhood sees the benefit of a project. And they can't see those benefits until things are complete. For Jimmy Granbery, feeling the burden of 120 years of family legacy, that's a great motivator.

"You've got to perform," he says. "People don't like change, and I understand that."

Green said she's still forming her impression of Granbery, but she certainly appreciated that he posted on her blog and asked her to have a conversation.

"I don't know if we came to understand each other's point of view. But we sat and talked," she says.

In a sense, though, that's the kind of opposition Granbery finds "frustrating in a way." He says it like a man who's repeatedly seen that everything will be all right if people just see it his way, his family's way: a way perfected over generations, which has worked time and time again.

He expects the same will hold true in 12South. Granbery isn't surprised by the opposition — he never is — but he's confident: In the end, people will love it. They'll like him when he wins. That they don't right now doesn't worry him. If there's one thing H.G. Hill Realty knows how to do, it's wait.

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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