Look west, young man
by Matt Edens
Commenting on the prospects of a new office tower on downtown’s skyline, downtown booster Sam Furrow sounded downright bullish the other day in the daily paper. Citing the trickle down effect of booming markets and rising costs in neighboring cities such as Atlanta and Nashville, Furrow seems to feel it is only a matter of time before Knoxville lands the prize that all big-time real estate developers covet: a new corporate headquarters. The trick, according to Furrow, is being ready when the opportunity presents itself, rather than selling ourselves short as an also-ran second or third tier market. “We have to keep thinking big,” he says.
Bold words from a guy whose option to buy downtown’s biggest empty building recently lapsed for want of a tenant to fill it. Of course the TVA East tower did have some drawbacks when it came to attracting a corporate tenant looking for a signature space, namely how signature can your building be if there’s another one just like it right next door?
Personally, I think Furrow’s right. Knoxville does need to think big. But that doesn’t necessarily mean I think we should be thinking about big office buildings, partly because their future seems far from certain as a general proposition. It’s worth noting that, while Nashville’s office market is hot and its downtown booming, it’s been more than a decade since the last office tower was added to its skyline: BellSouth’s “Batman” building, constructed in 1994. And, while downtown Nashville currently has four towers of twenty or more stories either under construction or on the drawing boards— The Viridian, Signature and twin “Symphony” towers—all are predominantly residential. When built out, the condo towers are projected to add more than 1,200 units to downtown Nashville’s housing stock. (The Viridian will also add that most sought-after urban amenity, a grocery store, at ground level.) Yet downtown Nashville’s white-hot housing market hasn’t helped land it any new big name corporate tenants. Nissan North America’s recently announced relocation from California to Middle Tennessee, for instance, won’t give downtown Nashville an answer to New York’s Chrysler Building. Instead the car maker will park their new corporate headquarters out in Cool Springs, an upscale suburban shopping enclave south of Nashville (and actually in Williamson County).
Now in Knoxville, I suspect a major corporate tenant passing on downtown in favor of the suburbs would be cited, in some quarters, as further proof that downtown is dead. But, as best as I can Google, the Nissan announcement has generated no such response in Nashville, perhaps because all those multi-million dollar condo towers coming out of the ground—each as big or bigger than Nissan’s estimated $17 million investment—are pretty hard to ignore.
Which brings me back to Sam Furrow’s bit about thinking big. That’s where I think Nashville has us beat, even without a big new office building going up on the skyline. While a significant chunk of metro Knoxville’s population would still apparently prefer to pretend that downtown doesn’t exist, Nashville has moved far ahead of us in figuring out how a healthy downtown and center-city helps the regional economy as a whole. And I’m not just talking about the colossal condominiums going up downtown or investments such as the Frist Center or the new Metro Library on Church Street. I’m also talking about the funkier feel of SoBro, the incredible growth among the overpasses and rail yards of The Gulch and the urban gentry of Edgefield and Lockeland Springs in East Nashville. In all of these instances, Nashville has stepped outside the old narrowly defined notion of downtown as simply the central business district to adopt a broader identity for downtown that embraces more than merely the office buildings inside the interstate loop. The city has also steered away from a development strategy centered around shaking down tourists on Second Avenue to one that sees downtown as the thriving center of an increasingly sophisticated and cosmopolitan city.
Kind of makes me wonder: While the cost of doing business no doubt sealed the deal, would the Nissan bigwigs have been so big on the move to Nashville if they felt they were heading for Hicksville?