Cool Springs is short on planning, long on pavement 

If the purpose of the American edge city is to make sure that the foot becomes as obsolete as the appendix, then Cool Springs cannot be faulted. If, however, you like to use your feet for more than stepping on the brake and gas pedals, you will want to look elsewhere for the American dream.

Take a trip out to Cool Springs and see how an edge city works. The peripheral suburban development that has emerged as a self-contained socioeconomic unit is a national phenomenon. Its residents look to their immediate surroundings, rather than to the central city, for jobs, goods, and services. Its businesses find not only the employees they need but also the specialized services. Cool Springs is our best local example.

This edge city has all the components of a small city: a major transportation corridor in I-65, mid-rise office buildings, single and multi-family housing, restaurants and retail, education and health care, a cineplex, and a chamber of commerce. But there is little that is civic about this city because there is no public space for people to gather as citizens, no center around which the pieces cohere. What defines Cool Springs is a series of work and consumer opportunities hyphenated by corridors for the single-occupancy vehicle.

A day in the life of a Cool Springs resident could begin at The Enclave at Carronbridge. This gated community of McMansions lies on a slope within walking distance of the office complex to the east of the interstate. But at 8:30 a.m., I saw no one walking. Perhaps that’s because of the stop-and-start system of sidewalks, or because the wide lanes of Cool Springs Boulevard encourage drivers to speed, which discourages most pedestrians. So commuters traveling from The Enclave to one of the six Corporate Centres probably go by car.

On the western side of the interstate lie the retail, restaurant, and entertainment components of Cool Springs. Each has its own parking geared to the maximum number of customers. (For the mall, that means the day after Thanksgiving.) Sidewalks, when they exist at all, ring rather than penetrate the parking lots. For the intrepid pedestrian, that means a hike across a sea of asphalt to reach a shopping or dining location—a harsh experience, especially when all that paving is shimmering in the heat of a Middle Tennessee July.

Even on a balmy April day, I saw no one walking at noon. I concluded that the Corporate Centre worker going out to lunch probably drives across the interstate and parks at a restaurant. And if she also wanted to shop a bit, that would require another car trip and another parking space before driving back to work. After business hours, a walk on the treadmill at the gym is another car trip and parking space. Dinner and a movie would require two more car trips, and two more parking spaces, before heading home to The Enclave. Score for the day: eight car trips and six separate parking spaces. If the office worker had a mid-morning dental appointment, or an aged parent with a doctor’s appointment, or a kid to pick up after school, the total would be even higher.

From the vantage point of my windshield, this looks nutty. The waste of land for all that car storage is also a waste of money for the developers who must provide it. All that paving increases storm water runoff and water pollution; all that driving increases air pollution. And all that driving rather than walking is a clue to why obesity is a rising epidemic in this country.

Seab Tuck has actual experience dealing with this particular edge city. The architect has lived on a hill overlooking the area since 1987, when Cool Springs was still a farm.

“When my daughters were teenagers, we were always driving them to the movies, and then driving home, and then picking them up to drive them across the street to get ice cream,” Tuck recalls. “The same was true to get them to the mall or the restaurants east of the mall. It wasn’t that it was too far to walk, but that the lack of sidewalks made walking dangerous.”

Tuck calls Cool Springs “the land of missed opportunity.” What he regrets is not so much the loss of agricultural land, but the failure to build a pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use community. “If some developer came to me and said he was going to build 50 restaurants, and a million square feet of retail, and a million square feet of offices, and 1,500 residential units, I’d say, ‘Wow, that’s a town!’ ”

What Tuck means is that taking the same assemblage of land on which Cool Springs grew, a town could have been platted next to the interstate in the manner that Nashville was once platted next to the Cumberland River. Effective planning could have yielded a grid of streets and sidewalks and an integrated mixture of land uses—rather than many segregated land uses—in a variety of building sizes. Shared nodes of parking would mean less paving—one trip and you’ve stored the car for the day. An integrated plan also could have made mass transit to a central location and a shuttle circulator more efficient.

But the zoning of Cool Springs would not have allowed for a real town plan because of the mandates for segregated land uses and separate parking for each enterprise. Each-tub-on-its-own-bottom development practices also shape the edge city.

“The system doesn’t work to make a town,” Tuck explains. “The mall started everything, and mall developers are only making a shopping center. Then they sell off the leftover land in carved-up parcels, and each strip makes its own parking and landscape buffers in between. It’s more complex to develop mixed-use, to plan it and lease it. Franklin city planners could have developed a blueprint for a town, the opportunity to make a town, but then they didn’t know Cool Springs would be such a boomtown.”

Pat Emery, regional vice-president for Crescent Resources, which developed six of the Corporate Centres (with number seven on the way), says that establishing the criteria for traditional urbanism could be risky. “City planners would have to ask themselves how much longer it would take to get development if they made such rules. Would developers want to build in a different manner or would they just go somewhere else?” he says. “To get traditional urbanism requires a buy-in from all the components—developers, lessors, consumers.”

Emery also notes that much of the infrastructure for Cool Springs—the roads with their landscaped medians, the sidewalks, the sleeves for the blessedly underground utilities—has been financed by the developers, who get a credit against their impact fees. The city is in charge of maintenance. “That’s why there’s breaks in the sidewalks along the roads, because the build-out of parcels is incomplete,” he says. “We’d all prefer that the infrastructure had been in place at the beginning, but the city of Franklin doesn’t have the capital.”

Each of Emery’s office buildings stands in its own island of parking and lacks sidewalk connectors to the others, he says, “because there’s no common services, no reason to go from building to building.”

Emery says that as more buildings are erected in Cool Springs, there will be a greater impulse to make the area more walkable. Already, Franklin city officials are developing new design guidelines for human-scale lighting and plans for better pedestrian connectors to the residential areas. Transportation planner Diane Davidson is working on a mass transit system to bring people to Cool Springs and circulate them throughout the area. But connecting the pieces of Cool Springs will be working against the grain of the place.

If I’m disappointed in what Cool Springs could have been but isn’t, there are many who aren’t, and they’re making the area one of the hottest markets in the region. And it occupies a particular niche. “I realized when Sprint went to West End instead of to Cool Springs that we serve different demographics,” Emery says. “West End is for the young, single, well-educated workforce, because of the proximity to Vanderbilt. Downtown is for people who want urban living, or who are connected to the legal and financial institutions or to government. Cool Springs employs well-educated people with families. That’s why Brentwood is our real competition.”

These families are nomads. Emery says that the typical Cool Springs employee transfers in and out every six or seven years. The transient nature of the population helps to explain the generic character of the place. Relocating to an area that looks and works like the one the migrants just left—that sells the exact same products they just bought in Charlotte or Atlanta or Louisville—supplies predictability to compensate for their geographical instability. There’s not much point in getting out of the SOV/SUV to build a real community if you’ll just be moving on again.

What the edge-city developers have built—from the pieces of America’s drive-by culture—is the chain city. Making a town is something else again.


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