Bill Purcell is going back to school, and he’s taking Rolling Mill Hill in his book bag. From April 26 to 28, the mayor will attend the Mayors’ Institute on City Designa twice-yearly program of the National Endowment for the Artsin Charlottesville, Va. The ambiance of Thomas Jefferson’s hometown will presumably inspire the city execs to think wise thoughts about architecture and planning.
Institute administrators have asked each mayor to present a specific design issue facing his/her city. The other participating mayors, as well as design and development professionals, will then analyze each city’s project.
According to an institute handout, ”Mayors emerge from these sessions with a greater understanding of how to use the design process to develop creative solutions to complex problems, and to use their political leadership to include the rest of the community in the process.“
If the Founding Father could set the classical tone for the nation’s capital while working up Monticello and the University of Virginia on the side, surely these latter-day leaders can learn the intricacies of recycling a defunct shopping center or siting a convention center.
Purcell is putting Rolling Mill Hill on the institute’s table because the home of the old General Hospital and a collection of Metro car barns is ripe for redevelopment. Once the site of ”roller mills“ that processed grain and made Nashville the ”Minneapolis of the South“ at the turn of the last century, the Hill boasts great views of downtown and the Cumberland River. It’s within easy walking distance of the central core, yet far enough removed to become a neighborhood of human rather than skyscraper scale. And because the 35.6-acre site is owned by Metro and falls within a Metro Development and Housing Agency redevelopment district, the city can dictate the terms of development.
We’ve been around the loop on Rolling Mill Hill before. In 1996, the Nashville Downtown Partnership responded to the news of the General Hospital/Meharry merger with a plan to turn the Hill into a mixed-use neighborhood with a heavy emphasis on residential.
MDHA used the partnership’s plan as the basis for its 1997 request for redevelopment proposals for the site. Two teams responded, with Post Properties of Atlanta and the local Matthews Company getting the nod over Trammel-Crow Residential, another Atlanta-based developer. Post/Mathews subsequently bowed out, saying they couldn’t make the numbers work.
Since then, Rolling Mill Hill has been in limbo, in part because no one could figure out where to put the current occupants. ”We’d planned to move the Metro agencies still up there to the Middle Tennessee Health campus, but with the Dell deal, we lost that relocation site,“ explains MDHA director Gerald Nicely.
Purcell says that a fresh look at a redevelopment plan for Rolling Mill Hill ”is not merely a speculative or utopian exercise. Right now we have some city agencies up theresuch as Domestic Violencewhich are housed in substandard quarters, surrounded by other substandard structures, ringed by worn-out rusting autos, leavened by views of that hub of activitythe Thermal Plant. There’s a clear need to move forward.“
But the mayor has more on his agenda for Rolling Mill Hill than an isolated development package. ”When the institute offered us this opportunity for a new and outside perspective, I looked for a place to focus on that doesn’t simply solve an individual problem, but could be a model for good planning in general, for what we do in the future in other places.“
The mayor says that while many people have wrapped their minds around Rolling Mill Hill, the planning processes ”reflected a time when we did not coordinate our planning very well, when we did not engage the larger community as much as we could. That’s the record for many instances of development and planning in this city. The spotlight moves from government agency to agency, from developer to developer, but the breadth of the beam is never very wide.“
With Rolling Mill Hill, Purcell says he doesn’t ”plan to focus on the mistakes of the past, but on how we can shine a lot more light on the process. Planning, particularly the kind with lots of community engagement, can be perceived by some as an impediment to progress, as an unnecessary obstruction. I don’t think that’s true. Involving the community in the planning vision gives people a sense of ownership, of expectation and excitement about what we’re doing and whyas opposed to people sitting back, waiting for the ribbon cutting or the balloon launch.“
He points out that a passive citizenry ”may have some advantagesless debate, and therefore less perspirationbut that doesn’t mean we get a better result.“
All this sounds warm and fuzzy, and a little vague. But in putting his hands around Rolling Mill Hill and carrying it back to old Virginny, courthouse insiders say Purcell is sending a hard-edged message that Hizzoner is in charge. The message is addressed to the department head in whose hands, until now, the fate of the Hill has restedMDHA’s Nicely.
Purcell has nothing but praise for the agency and its director, even if the praise sounds faintly chilly. ”MDHA is certainly an efficient machine, and that’s a tribute, in large part, to Jerry Nicely. He and his people have been acting in good faith to complete the public policies of Nashville as they understood them at the time.“
But those policies have not necessarily carried over into the Purcell administration. The mayor points out that he’s interested in ”creating new urban environments that include affordable housing“ as part of the equation.
MDHA has not required an affordable component in previous residential developments it has subsidized downtownthe rehab of the Bennie Dillon building and the new Cumberland Towerseven though creating such housing is part of the agency’s mission. Not coincidentally, Nicely says MDHA plans to ”factor in affordable housing“ in the next Rolling Mill Hill plan.
Purcell also expects future city-sponsored development plans to go beyond the construction of individual buildings. ”We need to give a lot more thought to the infrastructure, the development that surrounds the apartment building or whatever, in order to have the critical mass that attracts people and holds them,“ he says.
One MDHA development Purcell won’t have to second-guess is a housing complex on Fourth Avenue South at the foot of the Shelby Bridge. The deal with Lincoln Property Co. of Dallas to build a five-story apartment block there recently fell through. The reason, according to Nicely, is that the developer felt ”the residential market in Nashville is not ready right now“ to pay the price for urban living.
According to architect Brad Norris, the project manager, Lincoln had planned to construct five stories with 238 units on the 2.5-acre site. That density and height requires expensive amenities like elevators and structured parkingamenities the suburban ”garden“ complex doesn’t have to provide. Players in the residential rental market say that Lincoln would have had to charge rents of close to $1.20 a square foot to make good on its investment, which is steep for Nashville.
The word on Church Street is that the slow leasing of Cumberland Towers also contributed to the spooking of Lincoln. Developer Tony Giarratana says that 87.9 percent of his units are now leased. But Giarratana put his apartments on the market in May of 1998. One residential developer calls such a long struggle toward occupancy ”painful“ to contemplate.
It’s ironic that the Cumberland, which was subsidized by MDHA with tax-increment financing to the tune of $6 million, might have scared off the prospects for another MDHA venture. When Purcell says he’s going to Charlottesville in a search for ”models of planning that avoid unintended consequences,“ he may have the one-step-forward, one-step-back dance of the Cumberland/Lincoln deals in mind.
One way to gain more control over planning is obviousfactor design into the deal. MDHA has never paid much attention to how its developments look and work in three dimensions. It has no urban- design professional on its payroll, and the design guidelines for its redevelopment districts are, to this point, so vague as to be meaningless. The ultimate proof of the agency’s lack of design values is Cumberland Towers, which is not good architecture, inside or out. Maybe design is the missing ingredient that will make the numbers crunch.
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