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VOL. 7 | NO. 40 | Saturday, September 27, 2014

HipD: Donelson Finds Its Cool Side


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The tag “Hip Donelson” evoked plenty of snickers, eye rolls and snarky comments when it first appeared. After all, the local joke goes, Donelson’s known for hip replacements – not hipsters.

But the folks behind Hip Donelson might have the last laugh.

Robbie Williamson, left, a retired teacher in the Donelson area, purchases some goodies from vendor Carrie Jenkins, owner of The Raw-Food Warrior.

(Michelle Morrow/The Ledger)

On the theory that “you’ve got to name it to claim it,” HipD has succeeded over the past few years in connecting like-minded Donelson residents and bringing in urban amenities such as food trucks and a lively farmers market aimed at younger residents.

Its Facebook page now boasts 13,650 followers, about a third of the population.

And it’s bringing the community together to encourage and support the kinds of development that other neighborhoods in the Nashville Metro area currently enjoy.

“We knew that we needed to re-energize some engagement with Donelson and with younger people. There’s so much potential here,” says Jeff Syracuse, 38, a HipD co-founder and omnipresent community booster who is kicking off his campaign this week to represent the 15th District on the Metro Council.

Compared to Nashville’s urban core, Donelson isn’t a hot spot. Getting attention and funding for projects is difficult for first-ring communities like Donelson, which have been overlooked for years as mayors focused on downtown and surrounding neighborhoods to attract affluent young professionals.

But it’s steadily warming, and pockets of development are turning up the heat.

“We’re just waiting for the deals to happen. We just need that one developer to start it,” Syracuse explains.

Strollers, not walkers

The Cupcake Connection recently opened its second location in the former Becker’s Bakery space on busy Lebanon Pike.

(Leigh Singleton/The Ledger)

Donelson’s demographics are changing as young people looking to raise families are getting priced out of gentrifying urban neighborhoods and looking for less-dense areas that are still an easy commute.

Donelson is only eight miles to downtown via Briley Parkway/I-40 or Lebanon Pike, which goes directly to Lower Broadway.

New amenities include:

The Friday farmers market, which is the largest in Davidson County and features live bands

A community garden

A live outdoor music series at Two Rivers Mansion

A proposed 600-acre park with walking trails and kayaking along the Stones River

An abundance of new restaurants targeted at Generations X and Y.

“It’s palpable; you can see it,” says Floyd Shechter, president of SmartSpace, which has redeveloped numerous properties in the area, including the former Donelson Hospital, now headquarters for Emdeon, a health care technology and payment processing company, and corporate centers around Donelson and the Opryland area.

“You go to the farmers market on a Friday and you’ll see a lot of women pushing strollers. You walk the subdivisions on a Saturday, you’ll see a lot of baby strollers and carriages where it used to be seniors pushing walkers.

“There is an energized younger population that has moved in that wants to see services like they see in other neighborhoods.”

‘1950s déjà vu’

Donelson developed as a post-war, automobile-oriented residential community of middle-income families drawn to its proximity to Nashville and the airport.

Donelson commercial development has been hampered in the past by tepid public funding for amenities such as sidewalks and road improvements that would improve retail traffic. “Our goal is to get as much state support as we can, but they want to see a foundation first,” said State Rep. Darren Jernigan, left, who represents Donelson, Hermitage and Old Hickory. With Jernigan is co-founder of Hip Donelson, Jeff Syracuse.

(Michelle Morrow/The Ledger)

It is a major employment center, with service, blue-collar and white-collar jobs provided by Opry Mills, the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center and other hotels, the DuPont and Vought Aircraft factories, and tenants such as Cummins Inc., Bank of New York Mellon and Comcast populating what is now almost 3 million square feet of office space in the Airport North submarket.

SmartSpace owns more than 21 percent of that space, which sprang up around Elm Hill Pike after the new airport opened in 1985.

Many original homeowners have aged in place, contributing to Donelson’s reputation as an older community. Now they are being replaced by the same type of young families, says Sharon Kipp, a Realtor with Re/Max who has sold homes in the Donelson market for nearly 30 years.

“Almost without exception, when we sell those homes in Donelson, it’s the original owner or maybe the second owner selling, and the buyers are mostly young couples just starting their families, young couples with young children or young single professionals,” she adds. “It’s kind of like 1950s déjà vu.”

Kipp says housing prices have ticked upward over the past few years due to lack of affordable homes in other areas of Nashville like West Meade, Crieve Hall and Inglewood.

Homes have recently sold for $135 per square foot, and there are a few new homes under construction in the low $300,000s. A home in Donelson Hills owned by the late music executive Cecil Scaife sold for about half a million dollars.

Not East Nashville but…

Lately, Donelson has even experienced the kind of feeding frenzy common in the core neighborhoods, with multiple offers on homes and bids over asking price.

Joe and Keri Pagetta, Gen X professionals in creative fields, found their brick Tudor in the historic Bluefields neighborhood before it went on the market, thanks to a sharp-eyed broker friend. They chose to look in Donelson after encountering bidding wars in East Nashville, their first choice.

“Something happened where we decided, ‘Let’s not play that game.’ And then we decided, ‘Let’s look at Donelson,’ Joe Pagetta explains.

“For what we have here … we’re not living in East Nashville, but I have a Publix and a Kroger and I can walk to the farmers market. I can walk to the hardware store. I can bike to the greenway. It’s great.”

Restaurant options at The Crossings include Mirko Pasta and Pie Five Pizza.

(Leigh Singleton/The Ledger)

Trisha Brantley wasn’t so lucky. The singer and owner of Hip Zipper, a vintage clothing boutique in Five Points, was enamored with Donelson’s rolling hills, abundant trees, large lots and California style mid-century ranches.

“Many of these homes still belong to their original owners and haven’t been gutted or ‘renovated’ with unnecessary updates,” she notes.

“I also liked the fact that Donelson seemed to be relatively close to Five Points but far enough away from the hustle and bustle of East Nashville.”

But Brantley couldn’t find a house in Donelson despite an exhaustive search.

“I wasn’t able to buy a house in that area because I was a little late to the party,” she says. “The market over there had already begun to spike, and homes were going for way more than my budget allowed.”

Kipp said she has a list of buyers waiting for homes to come on the market in Donelson, and other Realtors asking to be notified about any new listings.

Music, food and Irish hospitality

Along with close proximity to downtown Nashville and the airport, Donelson has a Music City Star commuter rail stop, one of two public Montessori Schools in Metro, more miles of greenway than anywhere else in Nashville and plans for a new park on land Metro just purchased in the Stones River bend.

And there’s still a community feeling, supported by a large number of family-owned businesses. There’s Phat Bites, the spacious, eclectically decorated deli, which was featured on the Food Network show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, and has a vibe that is more Asheville than Nashville.

There’s the restored Two Rivers Mansion, a Metro Parks property at which a “Music at the Mansion’’ concert series brought 1,000 people this summer to hear the Nashville Symphony. That music series was initiated by Syracuse, who has worked on Music Row for 15 years and is manager of licensing operations for BMI.

At the Friday evening farmers market, vendors sell vegetables, meats, honey, jams, salsa and pumpkins to the beat of live bands.

And there’s McNamara’s, an Irish restaurant, pub and music venue that opened in February 2010 and has become one of Donelson’s most successful restaurants.

“I’m a firm believer in genetic memory,” says owner Sean McNamara of rediscovering his heritage. “I think we get that a lot in here, too. People who have any kind of Irish ancestry, they walk in here and feel at home.”

Lead singer “Markey” along with Ric Latina, left, and other band members of the Markey Blue band perform during the HIP Donelson Farmers Market.

(Michelle Morrow/The Ledger)

McNamara is a musician who spent years playing around Nashville before opening the restaurant with his Irish-born wife, Paula. She lends the menu its authentic dishes, including corned beef and cabbage, bangers and mash, and “a proper pot of hot Irish tea.”

The concept is to provide a true “public house,” and McNamara’s is geared toward the 30-plus crowd, a demographic McNamara thinks is overlooked and underrated in Nashville.

“This is a place where adults can come and they can bring their family - their parents, their kids and their grandkids. We’re the preeminent live Irish music venue in this part of the world. And that room, I would wager, sound-wise is as good as any room in town.”

Sean McNamara fronts a Celtic band three nights a week, and books top performers from around the world on a regular basis. On any night of the week, the restaurant does fill up with a range of ages, from happy hour revelers to young families with babies and grandparents tucking into a bowl of Irish stew or a shepherd’s pie.

“The success of McNamara’s cannot be overstated,” Syracuse explains.

Donelson’s downtown

McNamara’s sits near the entrance to what is considered downtown Donelson.

That’s where Syracuse envisions the kind of higher-density, mixed-use development zoned for in the Downtown Donelson Urban Design Overlay that was crafted in 2009.

And with a Music City Star commuter rail depot right across the street, it’s a natural location for the kind of transit-oriented development currently being built farther out the line in Lebanon.

“I am focused like a laser on downtown Donelson,” adds Syracuse, who served as head of the Donelson-Hermitage Chamber of Commerce and regularly checks in with current business owners and developers.

“Increasing density in the Donelson core would help attract business and keep us with that small-town feel. I think once the first person starts it with some residential down here, things will start moving along.”

One challenge for Donelson is its low-density, residential subdivisions, with many homes sitting on acre and half-acre lots. That means there are fewer “rooftops” than developers would like to see as they calculate return on investment.

Another is the number of small commercial lots and churches along Lebanon Pike, making it more difficult for a developer to assemble a site. Some businesses, such as the downscale Donelson Plaza in the downtown area, have out-of-state owners; other owners are resistant to change.

Retrofitting infrastructure is another issue. The area’s rocky foundation makes underground utilities expensive.

Send money ‘Out in the limbs’

Donelson also needs more funding for road and streetscape projects that would improve walkability and retail foot traffic.

That lack of attention and funding has long been a sore spot for the community, explains Shechter, contrasting it to Mayor Karl Dean’s push for a $18 million pedestrian bridge over the Gulch and a stream of funds going to urban neighborhoods.

“If they put a third of that kind of money out in the limbs, you’d see those centers that the city really wants to have happen mushroom all over town,” Shechter adds.

“They are not investing (in first ring communities) and you can’t expect it to just happen with private development. I don’t deny that Metro needs a strong heart. But if you let the limbs get gangrene, the heart’s going to die.”

The lack of appropriations is especially galling considering the 37214 Zip code is the largest contributor to Metro’s tax coffers, Shechter says.

Shechter’s company, SmartSpace, has purchased the Johnson Furniture Company building in a highly visible location at the intersection of Lebanon Pike and Old Lebanon Pike, and will begin renovating it this year to create a much attractive space for retail and office tenants.

“I think you’ll see that the smaller commercial developments like this one will come first,” Shechter says.

“There will be one or two others that pop up. The retailer who markets to the Middle America segment will start seeing the success of other establishments here, and that will lead the way.”

The Publix factor

Other bright spots include new restaurants such as a Papa Murphy’s location and a new Panera Bread opening off Donelson Pike in about a month. At The Crossings, a redeveloped shopping center just off Briley Parkway, Mirko Pasta and Pie Five Pizza have opened, and Yats Cajun Creole has just signed a lease.

“Restaurants do very well here,” says Grant Kinnett, retail leasing executive for the Nashville portfolio of Boyle Investment Company, which bought The Crossings in 2006 and finished its redevelopment last April.

“We felt the area was primed to improve over time and that shopping center was the best property in the market because of the location and physical qualities.”

Kinnett attributes the success of The Crossings, which also has a new Sprint store going in, to Publix, which brings in foot traffic and a higher-income demographic.

Along with the 30,000 cars a day that pass by on Lebanon Pike, the Donelson Publix also draws shoppers from outside the community due to its easy access off Briley Parkway -- it is referred to as “the East Nashville Publix” by shoppers who travel from that neighborhood.

“Anytime Publix is on your site, it just helps justify that it’s a great location. It’s proven that it can work in the area,” Kinnett adds.

“And a number of our tenants are doing very well so the market is aware of that, and I think it will help spur new development … particularly retail, but I think there’s opportunity there for some mixed-use oriented developments to occur.”

The district has finally secured some money for sidewalks and other repaving projects under current Councilman Phil Claiborne. But pushing Donelson up the next mayor’s list will be Syracuse’s main priority should he be elected to Metro Council next year. His polite-but-persistent manner and community omnipresence could put Donelson over the top.

“Energy is contagious. We’ve got the vision, we’ve got the energy and we’ve got the momentum on our side,” Syracuse says.

“Everybody calls Donelson the best-kept secret in Nashville, but that’s a double edged sword. If you want nicer things - if you want redevelopment - you’re going to have to be noticed.”

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