It’s a period of transition for Hillsboro Villagefeaturing changing tenants, heightened traffic, and escalating rentsbut the preeminent controversy right now involves a small, vacant lot near the Belcourt Theatre.
Sunset Grill owner Randy Rayburn calls the lot a “slumlord property,” though it looks more like a benign patch of grass and mud. But as it has in the past, the spot can quickly become a dumping ground for everything from half-empty whisky bottles to discarded toilets. For that reason, Rayburn says he’s thinking about taking landlords Ally Fuqua and the E. Harwell Andrews family to environmental court for continued neglect of the property.
“They have no interest in being positive contributors to the Village and their neighbors,” Rayburn says. “It’s kind of been a point of contention between me and them that they are slumlords.”
Fuqua bristled at Rayburn’s characterization, but refused comment on the neighborhood squabble. In the past, Fuqua has rivaled Vanderbilt University as the Village’s leading adversary in the public’s perception. He once talked to then-Council member Stewart Clifton about constructing a multi-level parking garage behind the building that is home to Boscos and the new Sam’s Place restaurants.
Fuqua ultimately put those plans on hold, but not before irritating many local merchants, whose aversion to a hulking garage that would sterilize an otherwise intimate atmosphere superseded a desire for more parking. Many also worried, for good reason or not, that Fuqua would tear down his own building to make room for his garage.
Of course, while Fuqua is the current neighborhood bully for jacking up rents, the once-reviled Vanderbilt University has rehabilitated its image quicker than Charlie Sheen. A few weeks ago, Vanderbilt Chancellor E. Gordon Gee took a walking tour through the Village. The chatty chancellor visited with many of the merchants, assuring them that the university and the Village are partners and that if “the neighborhood succeeds, then Vanderbilt succeeds and vice versa.”
A few years ago, Villagers would have scoffed at such a sentiment. But these days, the old 800-pound gorilla is making a commitment to the area. Officials at the university, which owns some nearby property, recently told local leaders that they have no plans to pursue any development in the area. That went a long way toward assuaging the long-held fear that the university would use some of its real estate for office space or parking garages. After all, it has a record on that front. In the 1980s, Vanderbilt often developed property with little regard for its effect on the Village.
“Vanderbilt used to make decisions about development internally and would not go into the neighborhood and say, ‘how do you feel about this?’ ” says Jayne Gordon, president of the Belmont-Hillsboro Neighbors. “But Vanderbilt’s whole attitude toward the neighborhood has changed. It’s much more of a cooperative and positive relationship. And much more symbiotic.”
On the subject of rehabilitated images, the Educators Credit Union (ECU), which has also ruffled its share of feathers with past real estate initiatives, recently announced plans for a complete renovation of its outdated 21st Avenue office building. ECU vice president Steven Coles says there are plans for a $4.1 million upgrade that will make the building “more architecturally cohesive with the rest of the Village.” The renovation includes a new brick façade on the first floor and an arching tower on the corner of the building that will, in the words of Coles, “mark a strategic gateway to the merchant area.”
Of course, not all the news emanating from Hillsboro Village is upbeat. Council member Ginger Hausser says that while the area seems “very stable, vibrant, and exciting,” a possible slowdown in the economy, coupled with the area’s already steep rents, could drive out the independent businesses that give the Village its distinct feel. “If the trend of high rents continues, it may be hard to keep independent businesses in the Village,” she says.
Which brings us back to Fuqua. Last fall, when the popular Jonathan’s sports bar closed its doors, its operators blamed their landlords, the Andrews family, along with Fuqua, for the high rentreportedly as high as $12,000 a month. It later became clear that Jonathan’s demise also was hastened by a nasty court battle over a lease dispute.
Sam Sanchez, co-partner in the new Sam’s Place that now occupies the former Jonathan’s, confirms that the $12,000 figure is “comparable to what we’re paying.” With lease renewals coming for a number of Village tenants in the next few years, that can’t be a good omen. Already, the owners of the old Honky Tonk Hardware had to close their doors citing skyrocketing rent.
And it’s telling that when the hardware store closed, Fire Finch, a funky home and gardening store, inherited its space. To some, that perfectly illustrated the Village’s continued trend toward gentrification. Another example is Jackson’s Bar & Bistro, an upscale coffeehouse/bar, which replaced a bagel shop. That’s a nice transition for some, but for others it makes the Village a more exclusive place.
Perhaps for that reason, Villagers were thrilled when Sam’s Place, and not, say, Pottery Barn, replaced Jonathan’s. But can a restaurant selling “easy, fun bar food” pay the rent in a changing Hillsboro Village? “The rent is high,” Sanchez concedes. “But we ran the numbers on what we can do in sales along with our cost projections, and we think we can make it work.”
If not, a Pottery Barn may be around the corner and a small vacant lot will be the last thing on people’s minds.
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