Seven months have passed since I last sat down with Buzz Goss and talked about his signature downtown project. Seven months is a long time in the development world in one regard: things can change very quickly. On the other hand, it’s also a business in which patience is required because, generally, projects or proposed projects move at a very deliberate pace. Marble Alley is one of those projects. But the end – or maybe the beginning is in sight.
Buzz, a fast talker with a ready smile and a warm manner arrived just a few minutes late to our meeting. After apologizing for being delayed, he launched quickly into talking about what has been a passion for him for the last several years. While the original grand plans had to be scaled back for now, due to the fact that this economy isn’t the one that gave birth to the project, one solid piece of the vision appears on the cusp of becoming reality.
The plans have shifted a bit – there will be more parking that originally conceived – but the basic idea of a large residential unit on the space bounded by Commerce and Central, sitting across from the dog park appears to be on the brink of reality. It’s a small portion of the original plans, but it is a portion and situated in that spot, residents will have an easy walk in either direction to the Old City or to Uptown.
As currently envisioned, the plan calls for two hundred forty apartments with three hundred seventy parking spaces in a five-story structure. Recent approvals for a tax incentive moved the project forward and this past week he won approval from the Downtown Design Review Board. That’s not to say everyone is completely happy. One issue is the fact that he wants the name of the project in large letters facing James White Parkway. Some people feel the letters are too big, though he insists they are scaled to the building.
The bigger controversy being talked about around downtown is the fact that the latest version of the structure does not include retail at street level, but would have residential spaces fronting the street. As little as I know about Urban Design (approximately nothing), I know that the preference in an urban environment is for retail on the street. From what I understood during our conversation, Buzz would agree with that and would like to have a retail presence in the project. So why not do it? Financing. The bank has to believe that the builder can get a sufficient return on their investment. If the bank doesn’t believe you can rent the space to a retailer, they will not loan the money. It’s hard to convince banks to loan money right now in any case, but to convince them that shoppers will line the streets on Central, outside the Old City, is very difficult.
There is the possibility of a small retail presence near the corner across from the dog park – perhaps a related pet business of some sort would work. Buzz has been requested to make the first floor units in such a way that they could be converted to retail at a later time if the market shifted. He also has expressed a long-term interest in the possibility of retail at the corner of Union and State, but that will have to wait for another phase.
We talked about population and what comes first; residents or retail. As for downtown population, he says it had dropped to around 150 in 1990 and that the current population is just under 2000. He feels that the growth exhibited by the city, so far, has been good, but it’s not the explosion he feels will happen. Sensing we are near a tipping point which will lead to that explosion.
As for the conversation about what needs to come first, its a conversation that’s been circulating in downtown since long before I moved to the city. I remember when I arrived the discussion around a downtown grocery store centered on whether people would be willing to move downtown in the absence of a grocery store or would a grocery store be willing to open in the absence of a larger population. Buzz says the conversation ended years ago for developers who understand that residents must come first and that retail will naturally follow.
Jeff Speck when he spoke in Knoxville said the same thing. He held up Vancouver as the prime example of that philosophy. It does seem better to wait on retail rather than have it sooner and then have it fail due to lack of a customer base. While I, and I think many people, would love to see a hardware store, pharmacy, computer store and more, the support needs to be there for it to work. And when the population reaches a certain point, potential retailers will notice. The concern is that if the streets are lined with residences they will have few options for location, which is a real concern.
So, what will happen next? He hopes to submit the request for a construction permit before the end of the year and to have construction begin around late February to early March. Residents should start moving in sometime in 2015. Once construction starts, his primary function in making it happen will diminish somewhat. So what will he do with his time? Well, he has a meeting with some Nashville Investors about a project for the gulch beside Mast General Store. He’s not ready to say just what the project would entail.
So, there you have it. The new structure will include little or no retail, which is a disappointment. On the other hand, this single project will increase the downtown population by ten to fifteen percent in and of itself. It is probably the largest residential project in many, many years. It also stands to be the first surface parking lot to be turned into a structure in a very long time and that feels like a pretty positive turning point.