‘They don’t know my Madison’

A growing city pushes north, rediscovering a forgotten gem

Friday, June 17, 2022, Vol. 46, No. 24
By Hollie Deese

Sometimes all it takes is a few people to see things not just as they were, but what they could be. To have reverence for the past while guiding growth in the future.

Nancy VanReece is one of those people. She moved to Nashville in 1986 to start her own radio promotion and marketing agency out of college in Texas. Soon she was in publishing, started a small label and sold it to her partners after two years. She then joined the performing rights organization BMI, where she ended up working for 10 years in business and health care licensing.

VanReece and her wife bought their first home in Madison in 1990 and their current home in 2010. She made the move to the nonprofit sector, including as executive director of the Nashville Shakespeare Festival for three seasons, then on staff at the Nashville Symphony as their social strategist and website designer before running for Metro Council.

Today, VanReece represents District 8 and has been at the forefront of Madison’s re-emergence as a musical and creative enclave, honoring its rich musical heritage while ushering the area into a development renaissance that plays up its strengths and shines a spotlight on a part of Nashville that is seeing a resurgence unlike any in recent years.

“My phrase is development for us and not to us,” she says.

Metro Council member Nancy VanReece has seen and driven much change in Madison in 36 years.

-- Photo By Chad Mcclarnon

As the first openly gay person elected to a legislative body in the state of Tennessee, VanReece says it shocked many people that a gay woman could win in Madison.

“But they don’t know my Madison,” she says. “And I think that we’ve done a lot of really cool things in the last seven years to not just change, but also communicate, who we are.”

Some of those cool things include hundreds of new street lights, zoning changes to allow for more diverse development, sidewalk additions, rooftop dining and even a few new music venues.

Madison has spent the last half-decade being looked at as “the next big thing” in terms of destinations for both population movement and renewed development activity. Yazoo Brewing Company spent the first 16 years of its existence as a Midtown staple before taking a chance on new construction in Madison for its 6.5-acre, 30,000-square-foot production facility and taproom on River Bluff Drive near Myatt Drive that opened in the summer of 2019.

One of the people driving Madison’s reinvigorated development is Keith Samaroo, a Hendersonville resident by way of New York. There, his family real estate business Samaroo Development Group, owns apartment buildings, a portfolio that his parents started small in the ’90s.

“And we’ve kept everything,” Samaroo says. “Every single building that we purchased, we never sold anything.”

Looking to expand his family’s company business beyond the East Coast, Samaroo looked at south Florida, San Antonio and Austin before settling on Middle Tennessee. Both his children were here, one a Vanderbilt student, and his wife’s family was nearby.

Plus, rezoning in Nashville takes, on average, six-to-nine months, while in New York it can take more than six years.

“When you look at the cost, to carry a property during a rezone, several years really adds up the cost to develop, and there’s no guarantee of success on a rezone,” he says. “So it’s a tremendous blow to go through all of those years, get turned down, and have nothing to show for it. Things have gotten a little tougher here in Nashville, but nowhere near as crazy as New York.”

Samaroo’s first project, a 10-unit development, dissolved before it began, but the same day that contract was canceled he saw the site for what is now – Creative Way Village, across from Nossi College of Art.

“I fell in love with the site grade location, and the proximity to downtown was amazing,” Samaroo says. “It’s right off Ellington Parkway, and that’s what people want, at least the target market that I’m chasing. They want to be outside of the urban core, but they also want to be within close proximity to downtown so they can enjoy the restaurants and the bars and the cultural events happening, but they want to live in a little more quiet place. So, Madison was amazing.”

Madison’s musical heritage also appealed to Samaroo.

“It was heavily focused on the arts and artists, as they made it big in downtown Nashville, actually moved out to Madison,” Samaroo says. “The more I’m involved in Madison and hear about all of these stories, the more I love the history and the character. And that’s something that you can’t build.”

To honor Madison’s history as a retreat for musicians, he leans on design to make his builds special and filled with character, adding touches of brick and architectural styles to his mixed-use developments that form their own little communities within a larger setting, and are not really typical of Nashville.

“I think the challenge that Nashville had in the past, a lot of builders grew up here in Nashville, so their influence is biased towards what they’ve been doing in the past,” Samaroo says. “Because Nashville is becoming this melting pot of amazing developers from all over the country, from Florida and Atlanta and California and Texas, we are experiencing a tremendous renaissance, especially in Madison.”

Artist John Paul Kesling moved to Madison about five years ago, sight unseen, when he and his girlfriend were priced out of their Brooklyn apartment and his art studio.

“We knew we couldn’t afford anything in East (Nashville), and they were doing these open houses just to get a rental,” he says. “So we would love a place, be filling out the application in the car and it would already be taken. So it was almost harder to find a place here than in New York.”

They wanted a house instead of an apartment, and to find one with an artist studio space was nearly impossible.

“There were only a few options online or through word-of-mouth, and they were all like 20-30 minutes away,” he says. When they found their current rental, they didn’t even care what the house looked like once they saw the garage that could be used for his art.

“We didn’t really know the neighborhood, and we had to put six months down, but we got it,” he says.

And once there, they realized just how lucky they were to find a spot so convenient to Nashville, but also close enough to Kentucky that he can visit his family in 30 minutes.

“There is all the stuff off of Gallatin (Pike) if we need it, but we’re only two blocks away and it’s like a whole different vibe over here,” he says. “We like having the yard. And there is a farmers market nearby. And it’s just super convenient – you can be in Five Points in 15 minutes. I don’t know why people would want to live in East, honestly.”

His most recent development, The Hub at 607, in on Due West next to the Goodpasture Christian School campus. Samaroo says a number of units will be set aside for a discounted rent voucher program created to appeal to teachers already priced out of the Nashville market. The complex also will include intergenerational housing.

“We’re trying to create live/work residences, where we’re actually building small office pods within the apartment building so that residents can have their own little office space,” he says. “They can rent it monthly or by the day so that if they have a meeting they can have it in the privacy of their own space. Because telework is becoming such an important factor in our world.”

As for what Madison needs next, Samaroo would like more public transit options and is optimistic the mayor’s recent hiring of an outside firm to come up with a visioning plan is a step in the right direction.

“We need to look at solutions,” says Samaroo, who also serves on the board of the Madison and Rivergate Chamber of Commerce, is an investor in Timberhawk Hall and says he is hoping to work with an area church to help assist homeless Madison residents.

Timberhawk Hall, scheduled to open in early 2023, will feature a concert hall, a beer garden and adjacent two-story green room where artists and crew can relax before and after performances.

-- Photo By Ed Rode

“One of the most immediate things is getting retail and lifestyle services back in Madison,” he says. “And because there’s a new influx of people coming to Madison, they’re going to require their own choices of retail.”

To have music venues like Eastside Bowl and Timberhawk Hall bring music to Madison has been one of VanReece’s biggest goals.

“That energy started with Dee’s Country Cocktail Lounge, which is our Bluebird,” she says.

The people behind the development of Timberhawk Hall are aiming to embrace the music history of the area while offering an elevated live music experience that gets people talking about – and traveling to – Madison.

Scheduled to open in early 2023, the concert hall will have a world-class sound system, well-designed artist and crew spaces and longtime Nashville talent buyer, Santo Pullella, booking its schedule.

“The intention we have at Timberhawk Hall is to create a dynamic playground for established and emerging artists, where the whole community feels welcome and can share in this live creation with the artists,” Pullella said in a press release. “We hope the fans feel inspired by their experience and take that energy home with them.”

A passion project through and through, Timberhawk Hall is led by brothers Fred, Duncan and Patrick Kennedy, lifelong music lovers who had a say in every detail during the design and construction processes.

Yazoo Brewing Compamy made the move from Midtown to Madison in 2019.

-- Photograph Provided

The venue features reclaimed timbers from Montana’s Big Timberworks, custom artwork and installations from Nashville artisans and makers, and even colored art-glass windows designed by artist Katherine E. Bash of London and produced from Germany’s internationally renowned glass and mosaic studio Mayer of Munich.

The campus design, led by local firm Centric Architecture, also boasts a beer garden and adjacent two-story green room where artists and crew can relax before and after performances.

The main hall and its surrounding campus were designed to recall other notable buildings in the Madison area, employing hand-hewn stonework that mirrors the town’s many stone buildings, as well as art and design details that connect Timberhawk to the area’s history as a rail hub.

“The most rewarding part of working Timberhawk has been seeing how a project can have the opportunity and the potential to affect the community, and be a part of that community,” president and co-founder Fred Kennedy said in a release. “It’s amazing to see how important that is to the community, and how much they care.”

VanReece says she couldn’t have imagined in 1990 what today’s Madison would look like. But by 2010, she absolutely could see what was ahead.

“I think all of us who were around and experienced the flood, and the energy of how people helped each other, that community experience happened from the grassroots, on up,” she says. “It gave me faith that, as things grew, it could actually happen in a way that made sense for people.”

There is now a town center around the amenities of Amqui Station and the library, and VanReece was instrumental in getting approval for rooftop dining. Now, VanReece is focused on affordable housing and creating spaces and neighborhoods with mixed income levels, strategically developed much like Samaroo has done with Creative Way Village and The Hub at 607.

“I understand the need for density, and we have lots of room for it on Gallatin and Dickerson Pikes,” VanReece says.

But when it comes to pockets off the corridor, VanReece has been vigilant about protecting larger lots in neighborhoods off the main arteries, maintaining the appeal of Madison as an escape from the city while it begins to offer more of the services that appeal to all residents.

“It’s part of this attitude of this area to be sort of an oasis for musicians, those who travel but love living here because when they are home, they can relax,” she says. “It’s like having a cabin in the woods, but you’re not in the woods - you’re just a quarter mile from Gallatin Pike.”

There is even talk of connecting a greenway from Goodpasture school to a possible new park at Madison Station, and incorporating smaller pocket parks as preserving green space comes to the forefront as a growing challenge among all the development.

“Being in the midst of that change can sometimes be daunting, but it’s thrilling at the same time,” says VanReece.