By Bill Lewis
On a recent afternoon in Nashville, cranes lifted construction materials at several new buildings that are remaking the downtown skyline: a 45-story luxury residential high-rise, Bridgestone America’s new 30-story headquarters, and a 25-story mixed-use building being developed by Hines. These cranes were among the 28—more than in Denver, San Francisco, or New York City—recently counted across town by the Nashville Business Journal.
“I’ve seen this in China, but not anywhere else,” said James Callard, vice chairman of Klingbeil Capital Management. “It looks like you’re building a whole new city.”
Callard and other ULI Foundation governors visited Nashville in March to learn how this quiet, southeastern city has transformed itself into one of the most dynamic growth markets in the United States. Through the four-day retreat, governors discovered a city that has captured the imagination of developers, investors, and young people looking for an affordable and amenity-rich place to start careers and families.
“For those of us who do not know Nashville at all, the retreat provided an insider’s view of Nashville’s pattern of growth, its diversity, and its challenges,” said ULIF governor David Waite, partner at Cox, Castle, and Nicholson. “With its exciting food scene, amenities, and relative affordability, you can see why Nashville attracts so many millennials and gen-Xers.”
Nashville is one of the ten fastest-growing cities in the United States and ranks third in job growth. Over the next 20 years, the region’s population, currently 1.8 million, is expected to grow by 1 million people.
Many are, indeed, millennials either moving to the region or choosing to stay after graduating from one of Nashville’s nearly two dozen colleges and universities. Growing numbers want to live and work in the urban core, either in a downtown high-rise or one of the emerging neighborhoods nearby.
“Nashville is an example of a city that has transitioned to an upper-tier secondary market,” said ULI Foundation Chairman Stephen Quazzo, cofounder and CEO at Pearlmark Real Estate Partners. “Nashville has nailed this approach by building on its core brand.”
Nashville’s core brand—country music, the Ryman Auditorium, and honky-tonk bars—still draws crowds of tourists each year. Yet people are arriving these days not as visitors, but to set down roots. Newcomers have discovered solid job opportunities in health care management and other sectors, a strong quality of life, and unique neighborhoods.
Take historic Germantown, where the city recently opened a new baseball stadium. Or Wedgewood-Houston, a “maker” community of new residences and artisan-producers such as Corsair Distillery. Or Tech Hill, a neighborhood designed to promote entrepreneurship and collaboration.
Public transportation options have been limited in Nashville, but that could soon change. Officials are considering a $6 billion mass transit plan that incorporates light rail, bus rapid transit, and miles of pedestrian upgrades and express bus routes along highway embankments.
“Nashville’s urban core is turning into one of the most exciting destinations in the country,” said ULIF governor Mark Kehke, managing director and chief executive officer of Pacific Ventures Management.
Nashville’s built environment reflects the city’s shift away from heavy manufacturing to more sustainable industries. Dean addressed the governors at a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-certified venue situated on a site where barges were once manufactured.
Nearby, the John Seigenthaler Pedestrian Bridge—one of the longest pedestrian bridges in the world—crosses the river and leads to the SoBro (South of Broad) district, another redevelopment success story. This one-time area of warehouses and vacant lots has attracted more than $1.1 billion in investments since 2013.
In SoBro, Hines is developing 222 Second Avenue South, a 391,000-square-foot Class AA office building across the street from the amphitheater and West River Front Park. Within a short walking distance are the Bridgestone Arena, the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. These venues comfortably share the neighborhood with local cultural institutions: Tootsie’s and Robert’s Western World honky-tonks are just around the corner.
SoBro “has clearly become the center of gravity for Nashville,” says Vikram Mehra, Hines managing director. A greenway connects SoBro with Rolling Mill Hill, the former home of the city’s public hospital now repurposed as a growing neighborhood of apartments and condominiums, including affordable housing for artists. Nashville’s appeal is spurring job and population growth while also placing pressure on the housing market, making some wonder how long its affordability will last.
“Nashville is experiencing its share of growing pains,” Waite said. “Gentrification and displacement were some of the issues we heard about, but Nashville does have a degree of affordability that other cities, relatively speaking, do not have.”
Another neighborhood rising in the new Nashville is the Gulch. In the early 2000s, MarketStreet Enterprises began transforming a derelict railyard on the fringe of downtown into the first LEED-certified neighborhood in the South. The Gulch’s master plan projects a density of 4,500 residential units, half a million square feet of retail, and two million square feet of office space.
Just beyond the Gulch, other new mixed-use projects are set to open, expanding the
development momentum from downtown, including oneC1TY. The oneC1TY project lies on a stretch of Charlotte Pike that the ULI Healthy Corridors project selected as a demonstration site to transform automobile-oriented corridors into pedestrian-friendly destinations. The corridors project is just one of several initiatives ULI Nashville and Nashville’s local government have partnered on. The city will host the ULI Spring Meeting in 2019.
Said Nashville native and ULI Foundation Governor Bert Mathews: “ULI has been a foundational part of where this city has gone.”
Bill Lewis is a freelance writer in Nashville.