Lease on Life 

Distant thunder from the rental boom

As a sometimes weary homeowner, I grow nostalgic when I recall my days as an apartment dweller. I remember the days when I watched termites swarm in the garage at Bulldog Estates in Starkville, Miss., and I feel grateful that I did not actually own the place. When plaster began to flake from my ceiling in upstate New York, I made one call to the landlord, not a multitude of appeals to the workman-who-will-not-come.

Now, however, the pipe leaking into the basement of my owner-occupied home in East Nashville declares with every drip that I have lost, probably forever, my personal and financial freedom.

In feeling that loss of liberty, I am no better or worse than any other citizen of the U. S. of A. We are a country of nomads, people who have repeatedly pulled up stakes and headed out for the better land, the better job or the better deal just over the horizon. The architectural evidence of that tendency to move on is the apartment complex.

A lone ranger can wheel into any city in the nation, and, with the help of a classified-ad section, hang his or her hat in a place remarkably like the one left behind in Atlanta or Abilene. The vinyl siding and aluminum windows, the balconies stuffed with “lawn” furniture, the barbecue grills and house plant overflow and the rings of surface parking provide a comforting familiarity on the road to the promised land.

The generic stopover, however, offers no true promise of rest. After a hard day of rampant individualism on the interstate, the cookie-cutter refuge of the average apartment complex reminds us that we have only paused in a place that does not provide real connections between who we are and where we are.

Two Atlanta-inspired entries into Nashville’s apartment market seek to mitigate the effects of the perpetual motion machine that is America. These projects attempt to make “somewhere” out of what author James Kunstler calls our current “geography of nowhere.”

Post Green Hills, at the corner of Hillsboro Road and Woodmont Boulevard, employs a strategy best described as “plants with roots for people without them.” Meanwhile, an outfit known as the Urban Partnership has plans to develop the Werthan factories in Germantown as “a building with a sense of permanence for people in need of it.”

Different missions

You remember Post Green Hills. It is the two-complex development that pushed the outer limits of Nashville’s tree ordinance, demonstrating that it is possible to clear-cut within the law. One section of the development is now open for business at the corner of Woodmont Boulevard; the other section is still under construction at Stokes Lane.

With an irony that can be appreciated by anyone with a short-term memory, the press release touting the new developments stresses that Post Properties “takes great pride in the preservation of the environment” and has “adopted the most aggressive native tree reservation program of any real estate developer.” Flacks for the U.S. cavalry probably said similar things about the aggressive program that replanted Native Americans in Oklahoma.

The two Nashville complexes join the 41 other Post apartment communities in the environs of Atlanta, Tampa, Orlando, and Fairfax, Va. The complexes include a total of 14,476 units, with 2,500 more on the way. It is difficult to be site-specific when you’re all over the Sunbelt, and the development at the corner of Woodmont reveals the weaknesses inherent in trying to be somewhere everywhere.

The architecture of Post Green Hills offers the usual gabled roofs, tan vinyl siding and non-working shutters, only slightly enhanced by brick veneer and porches with a faint touch of Seaside, the architecturally revered beach-front project in Florida. Surface parking wraps around a mix of what are referred to as “garden apartments” and “carriage homes.” Everything except the visitor parking area is enclosed behind tall iron fencing and guarded by “controlled access entry gates.” The mechanical arms that distinguish between insiders and outsiders are listed among the complex’s amenities, right along with the designer kitchens and fitness centers. Meanwhile, the “us vs. them” mentality denies any real sense of neighborliness beyond the palings.

Environmental correctness puts in an appearance with the energy efficiency of the apartments’ heating and cooling systems, the recycling centers and compost piles—admirable features all. The environment that sets Post Properties off from the competition, however, is a “marketing through landscaping” approach. A Post Landscape division of approximately 100 workers makes the developer “the largest importer of tulip bulbs in the U.S.,” according to spokeswoman Janie Maddox.

Well, tulips do not a neighborhood make. Post Green Hills is a drive-by disaster. Its Great Wall (a massive rock buffer between the complex and Hillsboro Road) and limestone pseudo-outcroppings place it high in the rankings of recent architectural crimes.

As you would expect from any other fortress built with a siege mentality, things do get better once you’re inside the compound. The decor of the central enclosure includes a gazebo surrounded by a variety of annuals and perennials, trees and shrubs. At the rear of the property, Post hopes to develop urban vegetable gardens to give residents a chance to become active gardeners. “We try to have a balanced landscape that works year-round,” says senior vice president Todd Tibbitts. “We want to extend the living environment beyond the apartment walls to draw residents outdoors and give them a sense of community within the grounds.”

One local horticulturist admits that, from the street, Post Green Hills has demonstrated “a generic quality” but points out that the view from the car may be short-sighted. “Nashville does not have a great reputation for quality landscaping; with Post we’re at least heading in the right direction.”

Not fast enough. Sure, the spindly trees will eventually offer some shade, the Boston ivy will gradually creep over the retaining wall, and the flora will spread to soften the harsh newness that is today’s Post Green Hills. But the fauna will be long gone before the walled compound is much more than a landscape-encrusted temporary storage container with easy access to the interstates.

Enter Werthan

We cannot feel rooted in soil that does not offer us the nutrients of history and community. Green Hills seems to have forgotten that lesson. But it is one that Germantown may teach us yet.

The Urban Partnership, a year-old Atlanta-based architecture and development company specializing in urban revitalization projects, has laid plans to purchase the 19th-century Werthan Packaging factory at the corner of Eighth Avenue North and Hume Street for conversion into 90 loft apartments, with an option to acquire the larger mill down the road on Eighth Avenue for an additional 140 units. The properties have been rezoned for mixed-use, allowing for a restaurant as part of the Phase I development and additional commercial and office space in Phase II.

The thrust of the Urban Partnership’s plan is to preserve the factories’ architectural and historical distinctiveness, while adapting the spaces of 19th-century manufacturing to the needs of late-20th-century residents. According to partner Rob Seldon, the sooty brown brick of the exterior will only be given a simple clean-up. Otherwise, it will not be tampered with. The multipaned windows, tree-sized wooden support columns, and solid-masonry walls of the interior will be incorporated into the new lofts.

To separate Werthan’s existing football-field-sized spaces into apartments, Seldon says, “We’ll do the minimum that we can.” The marketing concept is that there are amenities beyond pool and trash compactor. Seldon argues that some renters will prefer the sight of the limestone block of the Capitol at sunset to just another evening with the 5 o’clock news.

While it offers the close-by interstate ramps that seem to be de rigueur for Nashville apartment developments, the Werthan factory’s location may make the pedestrian experience more than just a dream. “We want to emphasize the pedestrian link available through Germantown to the new Bicentennial Mall,” Seldon says. “Having the three things working together should make all of them work better.”

This philosophy of looking outward for interdependence is a far cry from the community-within-the-walls mindset of Post Green Hills. The Werthan project represents an urban attitude that sees civilization as a mixture of functions that complement each other and classes that talk to each other. Post Green Hills projects a suburban-think that sees life as a collection of enclaves in which the only discernable variety is in the plant materials.

No Rooms

Post Properties and the Urban Partnership illustrate two of the limited options that Nashville provides for those who want freedom from home repair. Both are phenomena of a tight-as-a-tick rental market in which those desperately seeking a vacancy have pushed the occupancy rate to 97 percent.

The influx of newcomers to Nashville is only one of the factors creating the tight supply of apartment spaces. Rentable single-family houses are scarce, and there has also been a jump in purchase prices for starter homes. “For many, it’s prohibitive to make that first step into home ownership,” says local real estate agent Nancy Ray. Couples and new families, she says, “are renting because they can’t afford to do anything else.” Gwen Kellam, Ray’s colleague at Shirley Zeitlin & Co., also points out that because “the condo sales market has come back with a vengeance in 1995,” fewer are available to rent.

With 8,000 new units in the construction pipeline to respond to the demand, Jim Gortmaker of the Nashville Apartment Association says that owners of complexes present and future “see now as an important time to improve quality, to establish a market niche to prepare for the competition.”

Here’s hoping that the current demand for rental space will supply Nashville with a sense of place for people in flux and that we will recycle the city’s past into some connective tissue with our future. Apartments, after all, can be homes too.

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