Reviving The Roxy
By Cat Acree
If you love this city, then you’ve likely had your heart broken by the razing of a beautiful old building. But it hasn’t been all loss. There have been survivors, such as the industrial relics of Edgehill Village. A local group of investors that has quietly targeted and preserved neighborhoods and historic properties throughout Nashville has been working for the last three years in Cleveland Park and McFerrin Park to return the neighborhood to its heyday—with the Roxy Theater back in its rightful place as a cultural node and icon.
Closed since 1959, the Roxy was listed on Historic Nashville’s 2013 list of the nine most endangered historic places. It has been owned for the last two years by a group, including active partners Elliot Kyle, Jamie Pfeffer, Rob Lowe, and McClain Towery, “preservationists at heart” who are now seeing their vision for the neighborhood play out. Other notable changes to the area: The former Ray of Hope church has been sold as a co-working space called Bond Collective; new restaurant Folk continues to gather buzz; Teresa Mason (of Mas Tacos) has breathed new life in the Wilburn Street Tavern; Sterling Sound recording studio has moved in down the street; AMAX Talent and Creative Management is in the old pharmacy; and Nikki Lane has purchased the post office. The main street is waking back up—and will be the site of Nashville Design Week’s closing block party.
So what are the ingredients for hospitable design, especially in a neighborhood like this one? The members of the investment group are classic behind-the-scenes guys, with only four members showing up for the photoshoot, and then only three of them actually agreeing to be on camera (while one stands behind the photographer, whispering modeling directions at Elliot, Jamie and Rob). For the interview, only Elliot and Jamie come forward to share their vision for community uplift, building preservation and neighborhood love.
Tell me a bit about the team. What do you each bring to the table that enables you to do this work and do it well?
Elliot: I’m sort of the vision guy in terms of, once we have these buildings, how can they be repurposed and reused in interesting ways? Jamie’s got the architecture background. McClain Towery’s got an engineer background, so he works with Jamie to solve really complicated building issues. Rob Lowe, he’s a very good ringleader with all the other pieces that are nonbuilding-related: the financial aspects, the partnership, driving the ship on a macro level. So essentially you’ve got someone who knows how to put the deal together—that’d be Rob. Somebody who knows what the building should be going forward—that’d be myself. Jamie is the one that knows how to design it and beautify it, and McClain knows how to actually get the building up and running. It’s fun to have a little band of people that have those skill sets.
Jamie: Everyone has different specialties they’ve been able to bring to the table, but at the same time, everyone goes above and beyond. Everyone has the same kind of mind, so our discussions are about how we can make something better, take it further. It’s evolved to where, in this partnership, generally where you have economic risk and economic contribution, it becomes very democratic and equal. There’s no one who stands to gain or lose more than anyone else. Interests are aligned. Risks and rewards are aligned. We’re able to look at these [projects] as labors of love because we can take the typical risk or reward off the table, spread it out, and say, let’s go do something really cool.
How did you get started on the Roxy? What’s the origin story here?
Jamie: It’s in a great period neighborhood. McFerrin Park, Cleveland Park—it’s centered around these two parks and has a tight community-neighborhood feel, with proximity to Downtown Nashville and other East Nashville neighborhoods. It also has a great neighborhood association, a strong neighborhood identity. Even though it doesn’t technically have a historic neighborhood [status], it has been preserved and protected without that. So, we have this great residential community with great characteristics, great geographic proximities, all these great elements. But we really needed this mini main street, a commercial core to make the neighborhood what it once was. I talked with Elliott and Rob and others about the neighborhood. We’d been active and involved in the Roxy in the past, and we saw the opportunity. I’ve been able to acquire several commercial properties on the street, but my friends and partners are the experts in how you make a really interesting commercial dynamic, and how you curate that commercial tenant mix to bring something back to a local identity and a strong grassroots kind of presence.
Elliot: You look at the collective ecosystem of commercial buildings, and you have your dream lineup, and then generally, reality is somewhere between the lowest common denominator—where you’re signing leases because you’re up against a wall—and your dream. Somewhere between there is where the mix shakes out. [But] we’re pretty close to achieving the absolute dream mix of businesses and operators and uses that we had envisioned over there. Between a co-op working space, cool, chef-driven restaurants—but not even stuffy chef-driven, but super-relatable, accessible chef-driven stuff. Great little dive bar in the Wilburn Street Tavern. Live music hopefully back in the Roxy. For a relatively small aggregation of commercial property, it’s going to pack a huge punch.
How do you do it right? How do not just preserve a building but a whole neighborhood’s spirit?
Elliot: If I lived a block from here, what would I want to utilize every day? What would be added to the experience of being a resident of this neighborhood? There’s not a science to it. We’ve all been at it long enough to know that everyone likes tacos. We’re not rocket scientists—we all live and breathe these neighborhoods.
Sure, but you’re in a city where neighborhoods can be endangered, and you guys have a certain mentality that maybe some developers are missing. What sets you guys apart?
Elliot: There’s a collective spirit of wanting to be proud of what we deliver, more so than what is purely economically the best scenario. Putting in an independent restaurateur and taking the associated risks is infinitely better for us than putting in a chain fast-food place. If Taco Bell wanted the building that Butcher and Bee took for $20 more per foot, we would still do the Butcher and Bee deal. For a lot of guys, economics drive the ship. We’re more about, what can we be most proud to participate in at the end of the day?
Jamie: The group is from Nashville or of Nashville, so we’re going to be here a long time.
Elliot: We’re not also what they call “merchant developers,” where as quickly as they become a stabilized asset, they exit out of it and sell it. We’re making these decisions as if our grandkids will own these buildings. There’s a longer view than just making a return.
Jamie: We’re not looking at it as a land play or a spreadsheet. So, Meridian Café we thought was a really cool mid-century building. Let’s see if we can talk to someone who will also appreciate what that building is, and not bring a whole new building but take that shell and make the most of it. That shell’s been in that neighborhood for quite a while. How can we do something with it that starts from that basis and goes from there? We need to put tenants in places who will steward the neighborhood further.
How do you define good design, and how can good developers support that concept?
Jamie: It’s about finding things that are done well and [with intention]. It starts with a unique place, a unique concept—there’s a thought or vision, and a continuing expression of a time, a place, a moment, a group of people, a singular set of circumstances. It’s not about applying some other theory or approach to a project, and applying it to every site; it’s about what is unique about this moment and this opportunity, and how do we use design as an agent for transformative change? If we can use design in that capacity, the buildings are better, neighborhoods are better, we ultimately create better places to be. Let design do that, and those are the places that still resonate… places we still go back to, even if it’s not new and fresh but have that underlying character and truth.
How would you like to see Nashville grow and change, and what do you see as your role within that?
Elliot: If I could write my own script, it’d be to take on another McFerrin and Cleveland Park-type opportunity and do them again. You know, we did Edgehill Village. I’d love to do something like that again—small projects in vibrant areas.
Jamie: Cleveland Park and McFerrin Park have an identity, as does Inglewood, as does 12 South and the Nations and Sylvan Park and so on. You identify with those spots, and then you can go and explore. Probably my favorite book of all time is Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. The idea is Marco Polo telling stories about his exploits, and at the end . . . did [he] ever leave Venice? The idea is, all these crazy stories and fanciful things were happening, but maybe he never even had to leave to do those things. That’s what I think Nashville could become, the idea that you can do all these great things and have these great experiences, but you never left.