Transit: Hamilton Springs developer hopes to market mixed-use project to builders this fall

by Matt Anderson for The Tennessean

With ridership growing on the Music City Star, a new development on Lebanon’s western edge could attract more commuters, a sixth stop and a more urban character to an otherwise suburban area.

The plan resembles a traditional, pre-automobile town square where, in theory, you could catch a train to Nashville for work, walk to nearby shops and never step into a car.

Lebanon-based developer Jack Bell said the community would cater to younger professionals who prefer walkability to large yards and to older residents looking to simplify. Those demographics are continuing to grow but are underserved in Middle Tennessee, Bell said.

“I think the days of the McMansion are over,” he said.

If developed as planned over the next 10 years, the 220-acre Hamilton Springs would have an urban-style, mixed-use area, where people live above ground-level shops and offices in the quarter-mile radius around a proposed Music City Star stop. Up to 40 dwellings per acre are allowed in that area, and buildings could reach as high as four to seven stories.

Bell said he had financing in place to start this fall on an entranceway from Highway 70 across from Saratoga Drive and to begin developing the village center portion. At that point, he could start marketing the development to builders. Zoning for the project was approved in March.

“Before the advent of the car, this was how people designed cities,” said Mike Wrye, vice president of Lose & Associates, the design firm that developed the Hamilton Springs plan.

Density decreases in the areas farther from the stop, with more traditional retail fronting Highway 70 and traditional suburban homes at the edges, where the density drops to seven to 12 dwellings per acre. Hamilton Place, an existing residential development on the west side of the property, will eventually connect to Hamilton Springs.

The area was once home to the Hamilton Springs Resort, a remote vacation spot that opened in 1898 but burned down in 1932.

Transit investment

The concept of a transit-oriented development is driven by the existing rail but can drive further investment in the transit system, said Ed Cole, executive director of the Transit Alliance of Middle Tennessee, a nonprofit that encourages investment in mass transit. Similar zoning exists elsewhere in Middle Tennessee, but Hamilton Springs would be the first to come to fruition.

“You can consider this kind of a chicken-and-the-egg situation,” he said. “That pushes us in our planning where we see permanent transit investments. The market can then respond and say there’s economic advantage in providing development close to those locations.”

The Regional Transportation Authority’s board is expected to consider the new stop at its June meeting, said Lora Balsir, RTA general manager.

“I don’t anticipate any problems with that,” Baulsir said. “It’s a good location.”

In Lebanon’s core, opportunities exist to integrate the existing train station with the more established parts of town. Lebanon’s square, Cumberland University and neighborhoods with the traditional urban street grid are within a half mile of Lebanon’s Music City Star stop.

The Mill at Lebanon, which eventually could include residential living mixed with existing retail, is also within walking distance.

“If we can take their concept and apply it to downtown, it’ll be a huge benefit to the city,” Lebanon Planning Director Will Hager said.

Region ranks low

The development comes at a time when Nashville and its suburbs have been found among the worst in the nation at using mass transit to link people with jobs.

The Brookings Institution study analyzed 371 transit systems in the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas — Nashville-Murfreesboro-Franklin ranked 88th. Researchers found that while two-thirds of people can get to public transit, transit can reach only about a third of available jobs.

Less than a third of Nashville-area residents are within three-quarters of a mile of a bus or train stop. Only 27 percent of jobs are accessible by transit.

Suburban residents in places like Wilson County have almost no mass transit access — only 4 percent of them have access, and only 12 percent of jobs can be reached by transit.

Ridership for the Music City Star was up 30 percent in March compared to the same month last year.

There were 19,419 riders in March 2010, compared to 25,321 in March 2011. The March 2011 total broke the previous record, set the previous month. In addition, the Star set a new single-day ridership record on April 19 with 1,374 passenger trips.


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