Peter Cory is a frustrated man. The Atlanta developer says he wants to save The Jacksonian, Nashville’s most notoriously endangered apartment building, and make it part of an upscale hotel development. But Cory says John Rochford, the Nashville point man on any deal involving The Jacksonian, won’t give him the time of day.
As much of Nashville knows by now, developer Russell Morris III of Eakin & Smith Realty plans to demolish the 1917 neo-Georgian apartment building at 3010 West End Ave. to make room for a Walgreen drugstore. The historic building is owned by the heirs of the late John Cobb, and Rochford, who heads a local construction and realty company, has served as their representative in the negotiations. Rochford’s wife, Carol, one of the Cobb heirs, has passed her interest in the property along to her children.
Cory says he has told John Rochford he will “beat any Walgreen offer,” up to and beyond the $3 million Morris has reportedly offered for the property on behalf of the drugstore chain. Cory says his plan is to integrate The Jacksonian into a 200-to-350-room hotel, combining the apartment building with new construction on the site directly behind it. That property is now occupied by a Holiday-Inn-style apartment building, which also houses a beauty salon.
According to Cory, Rochford has known about the Atlanta developer’s interest in The Jacksonian since early May. Cory says that’s when he met with Rochford and Morris to propose an adaptive reuse of The Jacksonian. Also present at the May meeting, according to Cory, were David Smith, who owns the property behind The Jacksonian, and the head of development for ERE/Yarmouth, the largest real estate asset management company in the U.S.
At that meeting, Cory says, Smith made it clear that he was willing to lease his property to Cory for the hotel deal. The Yarmouth representative was on hand as the financial muscle for Cory’s plan. With that backing, Cory says, “[Rochford] has to know I’m for real.”
As a result of the May meeting, Cory says, Rochford indicated that he was willing to entertain a more detailed proposal. Cory hired the local design firm of Gresham Smith & Partners to work with him on developing a plan. “We considered site and zoning issues,” said Gresham Smith marketer Steve Kulinski. “We looked at making The Jacksonian the entrance into a hotel, with a higher-rise development behind” on the Smith property.
Kulinski says he and other Gresham Smith staffers were “impressed” with Cory. “He clearly has the wherewithal to do a big deal,” Kulinski said.
Cory’s firm, LenCor Corporation, developed the Century Center, a million-square-foot office and hotel complex in northeast Atlanta, as well as the two-million-square-foot Piedmont Center in Buckhead.
Three weeks ago, Cory says, he sent a 60-page financial and site feasibility study to Rochford, but he has received no reply. “I have two large hotel operations which have told me, ‘Get control of the property. We’re willing to pay more than Walgreen,’ ” Cory said. “But I can’t get Rochford to return my calls.”
War of attrition
For months, Mayor Phil Bredesen has been working behind the scenes in an attempt to save The Jacksonian. But earlier this week the mayor said he had not heard of the Cory plan.
“I facilitated a meeting between Rochford and a local developer who is still working on putting together all his financing,” Bredesen said. “If there’s another viable development package out there, I’d be delighted to do what I can to help, but ultimately it comes down to what the owners want to do. I was more optimistic a month-and-a-half ago than I am now. It’s getting late. It may not be 11:59, but it’s at least 11:30.”
Since the controversy over The Jacksonian erupted, current residents of the building say the occupancy rate has fallen to 50 percent as a result of uncertainty over the building’s fate. Five apartments have been vacated in the past month. Many of the tenants are on month-to-month leases, and several residents claim that maintenance has ground to a halt.
Tom White, the attorney representing developer Morris, describes the current state of affairs in the Jacksonian battle as “all quiet on the West End front.” White says he hasn’t spoken to Morris recently, but predicts that “the last tenants will be out by the end of November. Demolition will probably begin in January.”
Morris must still go before Metro’s Traffic and Parking Commission to request approval of a traffic circulation plan for the proposed drugstore. But White said he did not know when that hearing would be scheduled. “The traffic and parking thing can be done at any time. It may be after the building comes down,” White said.
If Morris doesn’t request the commission’s authorization until after The Jacksonian has been razed, he will be virtually guaranteed of an uneventful hearing before Traffic and Parking. The wrecker ball will essentially still the voices of the hundreds of Nashvillians who have written letters and signed petitions in hopes of forestalling The Jacksonian’s demise.
But Morris and White must also have another day in court before they can deliver the Jacksonian site to the Walgreen chain. On June 25, attorney Mike Lawson filed a lawsuit in Sixth Circuit Court contesting a Metro Board of Zoning Appeals decision to grant Morris a variance that would further pave the way for the arrival of the drugstore chain. If upheld, that variance would allow Walgreen to build its drugstore closer to the street than is permitted by current Metro zoning.
The lead petitioner in the lawsuit is The Jacksonian Foundation Inc., a not-for-profit organization established to save the apartment building. The list of petitioners also includes the Hillsboro-West End and Richland-West End Neighborhood Associations, Houston’s Restaurants Inc., Tin Angel restaurant, Vandyland Inc., Compton’s Inc., and other businesses in the building’s immediate vicinity. Although Walgreen’s reported $3 million bid for the Jacksonian site might increase the going price for commercial property in the neighborhood, many nearby property owners are opposed to razing the building to make room for a chain drugstore.
The “Save Jack” forces are challenging the zoning board’s decision on the grounds that Morris and White failed to demonstrate that existing zoning restrictions create an undue hardship for any developer who might seek to use the property for commercial purposes.
Judge Thomas Brothers is scheduled to hear the case, but he must wait for the staff of zoning administrator Sonny West to assemble the necessary documentation, which includes a complete transcript of the May 21 zoning board hearing. Lawyers for the petitioners say that process could take months.
By that time, Brothers could be listening to arguments about a vacant site. The Jacksonian can legally be demolished at any time after the last tenant turns out the lights.
West End Avenue is not the only territory being invaded by Walgreen. The chain is conducting what amounts to a pharmaceutical blitzkrieg of West Nashville. Walgreen recently opened a new store at 2244 Murfreesboro Rd. and has five additional stores under construction. According to the corporation’s communications office, a Walgreen store is scheduled to open near the Mall at Green Hills on Hillsboro Road in mid-September. The chain also plans to open stores on Franklin Road at Kirkwood Lane, on Charlotte Pike, and on Edmondson Pike at Old Hickory Boulevard in early spring of 1999. A store on Mallory Lane at Cool Springs will fill its first prescription next summer. The former Pargo’s on Harding Road has been partially demolished to make room for yet another Walgreen’s.
A spray-on concrete Walgreen with Styrofoam columns and a drive-through window can do little damage to streetscapes that have already been trashed by strip malls and big-box retail. But the case of The Jacksonian is different. At a time when Nashville’s General Plan and Subarea Plans call for mixed-use development with a strong component of residential use along our major transit routes, Nashvillians are being asked to accept the loss of an architecturally significant structure that already does just what’s called for in those plans.
And The Jacksonian is not the only old-style apartment building that’s under threat inside the I-440 loop. The 1920s-vintage Blakemore, which stands behind the Educators’ Credit Union in Hillsboro Village, may soon become a parking lot with a drive-through window. The site of the 1940s-era Forest Hills apartment complex, on Hillsboro Road at the edge of I-440, is reportedly up for sale, and possible demolition. It’s hard to swallow the rationale that the loss of Nashville’s few remaining examples of urban residential living must simply be accepted as business as usual.
The Jacksonian furor has stirred up some proactive preservationist planning. Metro Historical Commission executive director Ann Reynolds says her agency is working on a definitive list of historic buildings in Davidson County. From that list, the MHC will identify the buildings most endangered by pressure from developers. Then the agency will work with the owners of the buildings to help them gain the protection of local landmark status for their properties. Reynolds says her office, along with the Planning Commission, is also setting up a task force to explore financial incentives that would encourage preservation.
Nevertheless, Reynolds said, “It would be a mistake to think that preservationists will ever have the dollars to compete head-to-head with a Walgreen. We need the carrot of incentives such as tax credits and revolving loans funds. But we also need the stick of some sort of regulation.”
At the same time, Nashville needs what Reynolds calls a “preservation ethic.” Our city has always been relentlessly New South, the sort of place that prides itself on eagerly striding into the future while taking refuge in bad replicas of the past. A better option is to build on the history of our citynot necessarily a sentimental vision of red brick and coach lampsbut the part of our past that actually worked.
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