Activating Public Spaces Can Attract Users, Create Community

Summer 2019 Issue
By: Angelo Carusi
The Hill Center in Brentwood, Tennessee, makes the most of open spaces to connect the retail core with the rest of the community. Phillip Spears

A Nashville-area mixed-use development illustrates the uplifting potential of landscape architecture.

Mixed-use developers are devoting premium real estate to outdoor public spaces that invite the community to linger. These communal areas are continually being repurposed and reimagined through bold and creative design strategies.

The design for dynamic, open-air gathering spaces can be as important as the design for revenue-generating real estate products. Physical spaces that promote dwell time are increasingly appreciated by tenants and end users. Outdoor “rooms” where people pause to sit with a cup of coffee, watch their children play, respond to emails and texts or enjoy casual conversations are spaces where life, community, architecture and nature come together, allowing for meaningful experiences that encourage people to return to the property.

Landscape architecture should never be an afterthought. The curation of attractive, communal and functional outdoor spaces should be an integral part of the master-planning process. This was the approach at Hill Center, a vibrant mixed-use, multiphase community situated on 16 acres in the heart of Brentwood, Tennessee’s business and retail district.

In collaboration with H.G. Hill Realty Company, Hawkins Partners and TMPartners, design firm Cooper Carry created a master plan for Hill Center, giving rise to a walkable area that successfully bridges buildings and the public realm through a new and modern Main Street serving both office users and the residents of Brentwood. The master plan was finalized in 2015. The first phase called for 236,000 square feet of office space and 67,000 square feet of retail space. The next phase is under construction now.

By combining multilayered spaces with nodes of interest, connections to the surrounding community, flexible seating and sustainable amenities, the design team created a destination that reinterprets how developers can orient an office site around an active streetscape. This included demonstrating how the spaces between buildings could be leveraged into different “moments,” some as perches looking down on the rest of the development, some more in the middle of the action.

Creating Nodes of Interest

Anchored along Franklin Road, Hill Center is adjacent to several other office parks, including Maryland Farms and CityPark, and allows pedestrians to connect to nearby amenities without having to hop in a car.

Each pathway throughout the property provides experiences and a level of connectivity that had been largely absent in Brentwood, a bedroom community about 10 miles south of downtown Nashville. A central spine buzzes with a variety of retail shops and restaurants on the street level below office spaces. A core open-park space and car valet with high visibility on Franklin Road pull people in, while cross-fingers of pathways link to other surrounding land uses such as local shopping centers, the Maryland Farms YMCA and the new Maryland Way Park greenway.

With sloping changes in topography, the site’s main challenge was figuring out ways for people to walk along the retail corridor without feeling disconnected. Hilly sites require changes in grade, which in turn require stairs, walls and other elements. But each of those create obstacles for convenient pedestrian movement, and the trick is to accommodate those grade changes in a way that is still pleasurable for pedestrians. The differences in grade provided an opportunity, as the levels offer varied perspectives and sight angles, ultimately adding elements of visual interest. Curbs were intentionally left out in order to extend the street plaza and strengthen the overall pedestrian experience, while additional space along the street edge and landscaping help define the site’s outdoor rooms.

To promote an ongoing sense of exploration and wonder, bronze wildlife statues were placed throughout the property. Additionally, the parking garage avoids utilitarian sameness by incorporating corbelled brick as an artistic element throughout the facade.

Offering Flexibility for All

Not everybody is seeking the same experience at a mixed-use development. While some people want to connect, others are seeking moments of peace and solitude. Hill Center Brentwood strives to provide both.

Flanked by restaurants, the core park transforms as days progress from morning to evening and from weekdays to weekends. With plenty of shade trees, movable furniture and Wi-Fi throughout the site, the area is activated even without formal programming such as festivals or concerts. Office users, shoppers and other visitors regularly congregate there.

With this in mind, broad platform seating was chosen to complement the overall architecture of the development. Unlike a traditional bench, a large platform encourages imagination. People might sit differently while eating ice cream than when they are on a conference call or writing a memo. Meanwhile, children can use the platform as a stage for dancing and playing.

Making Space for Sustainability

To ensure the development would endure for multiple generations, sustainability was continually prioritized in the master plan and landscape architecture. Introducing large shade trees along Maryland Way offered a compelling and attractive visual element that was important to the developer and created a sense of deep community roots. Brentwood is a mature city in a beautiful landscape defined by rolling hills, older trees and long vistas. The owner wanted to exceed the minimum landscape requirements. H.G. Hill wanted the project to appear as though it fits into this mature community by purchasing and installing larger trees throughout, but especially along the areas of major streets.

Additional sustainability features include native and adaptive planting, a green roof, the collection of rainwater for irrigation and pervious pavers. Considering the back of Hill Center is immediately adjacent to a single-family neighborhood, there was also an emphasis on creating a buffer of vegetation to manage stormwater and provide screening. Oaks, maples, redbuds and understory shrubs made up the bulk of the plantings.

The back of the development also ties into a new greenway trail. While an important part of the masterplan, the design was originally open-ended and only completed within the past few months after the greenway was approved. Residents will now be able to walk or bike to work, restaurants and shopping, creating a new element of connectivity that has been warmly received by the city of Brentwood.

At Hill Center Brentwood, the city takes a step toward capturing the endless benefits of community engagement through the integration of nature and thoughtful design. If the interaction of architecture and landscaping make a place, the collection of the many different places at Hill Center — and the people who enjoy them — offer a new idea for developing a mixed-use office community that successfully engages users and activates the streetscape through a holistic understanding of the natural built environment.

Angelo Carusi, AIA, LEED AP, CDP, CRX, is principal of Cooper Carry’s Retail Studio in Atlanta.