It’s been two years since local developers announced a $350 million, 10- to 15-year plan to develop 30 acres of property and 3 million square feet of space in the industrial badlands known as the Gulch, the gritty space that runs along the railroad tracks adjacent to 11th Avenue South.
Two years later, the view from the car seems little changed. But things aren’t always what they appear, and the Gulch developers, collectively Nashville Urban Venture, report progressparticularly on the residential front. And they’ve just announced two new-to-Nashville restaurants and updates on existing projects.
The terrace that wraps around the uppermost floor of the former Braid Electric building, at the corner of 12th Avenue South and the western nexus of the Demonbreun Street viaduct, offers panoramic sight lines of the Gulch and the railroad tracks, warehouses, squat buildings and parking lots below. Armistead Barkley, a real estate and urban redevelopment company, bought the Braid building in 1998. And it was from the sixth floor of Braid where partners Steve Armistead and Bill Barkley first saw, looking downward to the south, a warehouse in the center of a field beside the tracks. As it turned out, the squat cinder block building was on an eight-acre land tract up for sale. Soon, they began to see other buildings and lots nearby come on the market, and the partners envisioned an entire development districta place where retail, office and residential spaces would create a 24-hour-a-day urban neighborhood.
“We put a couple of places under contract,” Barkley recalls, “but we had no idea how to close on them.” The two approached Joe Barker, a hard-driving, no-nonsense real estate attorney and managing director of MarketStreet Equities, a financial equities firm he co-founded with businessman Steve Turner (of downtown Butler’s Run fame). Barker told the duo they had a week to develop a presentation that he would take to his partner. With help from architect Manuel Zeitlin, they did it, and the money men were sold. “They got it right away,” Barkley says.
The draw seemed to be that the Gulch was a clean canvas, a place where a mixed-use neighborhood could be created with little displacement of current tenants. The four men, along with Turner’s son Jay, formed Nashville Urban Venture, to set about development. They held a charrette and started building a team of architectural firms, engineers, transportation and traffic consultants, landscape architects and a construction firm. Working from the sixth floor of the Braid building, they began outlining their plans.
First to be developed was the old Javanco building, at the triangular point where 11th and 12th avenues intersect. As a restaurant began to take shape in the old building on street level, construction began on a new apartment building named Mercury View that would rise from the old Waggoner warehouse, directly behind the Javanco building.
At the end of 2000, the restaurant 6º opened to great fanfare and a chic-to-chic crowd of black-garbed beauties. The good news was that the trendy restaurant attracted huge crowds of young professionals to its bar and dining room. The bad news was that less than a year later, it folded for good. Not exactly what the Gulch team had been hoping for.
“We feel like we stubbed our toe on that,” Barkley says. “But we also found that, given a reason, people would come to the Gulch. We still felt that we had a good game plan, and we would stick with it. It was a learning experience for us.”
They learned that any business that would open in the initial phases of the Gulch redevelopment plan would have to be well capitalized. They were confident that their next commercial tenant would have more success. In December of last year, the Hillsboro Village bakery Provence expanded, moving its bread- and pastry-making to 8,000 square feet of renovated space a few doors down from the failed restaurant. A 24-hour-a day, 7-day-a-week nonretail operation with 35 employees, the new Provence facility gave the Gulch partners a visible measure of progress.
Provence had also set aside an area of its baking facility fronting 12th Avenue with the idea of eventually opening a retail space for breads, pastries and coffees to go. Construction has begun, and co-owners Terry-Call Hall and Brent Polk say they hope to be open for business by late fall. “This was a great move for us,” Hall says. “We have been pleasantly surprised with how safe we feel, even with our night workers. Metro police stop by frequently to check on us. As potential retail tenants come to see the area, they drop by to see what we do and check out our space.”
As completion of the apartments neared, the partnership began meeting with Dallas development advisor David Levine, whose company is credited with helping to shape the downtown West End district in Dallas.
Levine had been to Nashville many times and what he saw was an underserved town. “Nashville,” he says ominously, “is suffering market leakage.” The termwhich sounds like a terrible diseasemeans that Nashvillians with money to spare are going elsewhere to spend it.
What Levine saw from the sixth floor of the Braid building was an opportunity. “I thought Nashville was a great place to do an urban project,” he says. “There is a yearning to be more of a 'city,’ and there has been such a great influence in the past decade from both coasts. Plus, there is a yearning, as we grow more transitory, for a meeting place, a gathering place, a town square, so to speak.”
In May, leasing began on the completed Mercury Loft apartments. Through an agreement with the city, 20 percent of the 32 are designated “affordable.” By the end of the summer, 21 apartments were rented, and several tenants are already settled. The one-, two- and three-bedroom lofts range from 970 to 1,630 square feet, and the regularly priced units range in cost from $1,400 to $3,000 a month. For the first time in 58 years, Barkley notes, there are permanent residents in the Gulch.
It won’t be long before they have neighbors. Nashville Urban Venture sold the vacant Patrick Electric building, at 11th Avenue and Laurel Street, to the Nashville Housing Fund (NHF), a nonprofit community development financial institution. In a design plan similar to the one used for Mercury View, the original building will be renovated, and three stories will be added above. It will become a 48-unit complex of quality, affordable one-bedroom housing lofts.
“Joe [Turner] has insisted from the start that the Gulch would have to have diversity, that it be a fair representation of Nashville with incomes across the board,” Barkley says.
Rents will range from the high $400s to low $600s. “The Gulch appeals to us, and we felt like we had a unique opportunity, “ says NHF’s executive director Loretta Owens. “It’s centrally located, and we’re just a few hundred feet from the bus stop.” As part of the plan, NHF will have its offices on the first floor.
What is being called Laurel House is slated for completion sometime next year and, by then, there will be plenty of places for Gulch residents to get a loaf of bread, have a beer and a plate of nachos or grab a California roll to go.
The partnership has announced that two new-to-market restaurants have signed leases and will operate in the refurbished space below Mercury View. The Iron Cactus Southwestern Grill and Margarita Bar opened in downtown Austin, Texas, in 1995 and later opened a second location in the same city. Now it’s coming here, leasing and renovating nearly 8,300 square feet of combined indoor and outdoor space, with plans to open in March. It serves more than 80 brands of tequila, and chef Felipe Gaytan, a native of Mexico, created its menu of regional Southwestern dishes.
Ru-San’s Japanese Sushi & Seafood is a vibrant, casual sushi and Japanese restaurant that opened in Atlanta in 1993. There are now five stores there and one in Charlotte. Since opening, the restaurant has been named “Best Sushi and Japanese” for nine years in Atlanta alternative weekly Creative Loafing’s annual Reader’s Choice Awards. The menu is enormousfive huge pages printed on both sides. The calling card for many is the $1 sushi rolls, nigiri and yakitori sticks. Ru-San’s is expected to open by December.
The former 6ö space, meanwhile, remains open, though Levine thinks not for long. “Nashville is an emerging major market,” he says. “The first group of tenants here in the Gulch will be the catalyst for bigger development. That the residential aspect is up and going is very important, because that is a big part of it. Having restaurants that are new to the market is very important in attracting people who don’t live here.” After all, there would be no reason for West End people to come to the Gulch for another O’Charley’s, or a Chili’s.
As for retail, Levine says the partnership is looking at places like Crate & Barrel, Pottery Barn, Restoration Hardware. “But you also want to fill that in with independents, unpredictables and, of course, your local, homegrown people.”
Provence’s Hall says he feels as though his business is genuinely part of an emerging neighborhood. “The other night, we came out back to the parking lot after a shift,” he says. “We were talking and someone said, 'Look,’ pointing at the Mercury View. The lights were on in several of the apartments, and on the top floor, through the window, we could see a baby grand piano. And it was all against the downtown skyline. It was beautiful. It was at that moment that I got it, and knew that what they saw could happen really was happening.”
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