Already a regional corporate hub, a roster of approved development plans for mixed-use projects are set to transform Cool Springs in the area near East McEwen Drive and Carothers Parkway.

On the southwest corner of the intersection, the developers of Aureum, Brentwood-based SouthStarLLC, are aiming for an early 2023 start on construction of 350 units of multifamily housing. The units will be split between an 11-story building with a rooftop terrace and a five-story building with a pool courtyard. The buildings would also have an outdoor promenade for pedestrians to cut between Aureum Drive and Aureum Trail.

Glenn McGehee, owner of SouthStarLLC, said the firm is negotiating with prospects to occupy commercial space to provide dining, entertainment and other services.

“We’re kicking things off in a very thoughtful and intentional way to accomplish some of the goals we set out to do,” McGehee said. “It is the overworked cliche of ‘live, work, play,’ but we want to create a sense of place that is where everyone wants to be.”

After a decade plus of surging office development in Cool Springs, a pocket of nearly-finished and planned future developments, such as Aureum, Ovation Park and Franklin Summit east of I-65 is set to
expand the area’s status as a regional economic hub.

Regardless of when work might start, developers said they are focusing on building new roads, utilities and trails that will benefit all the projects.

“We worked on almost every one of these developments and with the owners of these developments to make this [area] its own community,” said Ralph Knauss, SouthStarLLC’s executive vice president. “There are connections of multimodal networks, trails and sidewalks, which will make this bikeable, walkable and drivable.”

Envision Franklin

The area is classified in the city’s land use master plan Envision Franklin as suitable for “major employment centers and revenue generators,” that are valuable to the community.

The Envision Franklin guidelines, an overarching framework to guide land use adopted in 2017, considers the land along East McEwen Drive and Carothers Parkway, and south to Liberty Pike as a regional commerce design concept suited to high-activity centers.

“There is a lot of density at the intersection, but Envision Franklin says this is where it belongs, near the freeway,” said Amy Diaz-Barriga, planning supervisor for the city of Franklin, during the city’s Board of Mayor & Aldermen late January work session.

Regulations permit greater building heights near I-65 and main thoroughfares that gradually taper down approaching residential areas, according to Diaz-Barriga.

In evaluating developments, such as Aureum and the potential Ovation Park just east of Aureum, Diaz-Barriga said pedestrian connectivity and creating vibrant neighborhoods are priorities.

In the case of Aureum’s plan revisions approved in January, amendments—such as substituting underground parking for an above-ground structure and creating an outdoor promenade between two streets—were responsive to those concepts, Diaz-Barriga said.

“The principles of connectivity and vibrant neighborhoods trickle down to be the cornerstone of almost any development coming through the city,” Diaz-Barriga said.

Additionally, City Engineer Paul Holzen said in the district, transportation planners work with developers during development and site plan approvals to identify necessary improvements to road or pedestrian networks.

With the potential for more projects starting up, he said the city would help tailor changes to accommodate extra traffic both on- and off-site.

“We will continue to look at pedestrian connectivity and traffic on arterial roads as the area develops,” Holzen said.

A changing market

Despite recent high office vacancy rates for SouthStarLLC and Highwoods Properties—the prospective developer of the long-deferred Ovation Park—those firms have expressed an ongoing commitment to follow through.

The vacancy rate for the Cool Springs market in the first quarter of this year for office space was 23.9% overall and 27.2% for Class A office space, according to research from Avison Young, a commercial real estate research firm.

In the case of Aureum, SouthStar halted their planned first phase for a 250,000-square-foot office building and two hotels in 2020 after COVID-19 emptied workplaces and led to a surplus of available offices nearby. On Jan. 27, the Franklin Municipal Planning Commission approved the developer’s plan to build multi-family housing first.

“The office market has changed a great deal,” Knauss said. “It doesn’t mean it will never come back, but there is a question of when it will come back.”

Knauss said continued office vacancies in Cool Springs reflect corporations still view purchasing or leasing office space as somewhat of a gamble.

“We still very much believe in the mixed-use aspect of what we’re doing and had active conversations with office-users, but nobody has been ready to pull the trigger, so to speak,” Knauss said.

Calls to Raleigh, North Carolina-based Highwoods Properties, Goldberg Companies Inc. and other developers of projects in the area were not returned as of press time.

However, Highwoods Properties executives have indicated in public comments they plan to revamp plans for Ovation Park, a sprawling mixed-use project approved in 2014 that is on the southwest corner of East McEwen and Carothers.

“Their development plan is essentially valid until they want to propose something different,” Diaz-Barriga said.

The project stalled in 2017 after development partner Stan Thomas’ Thomas Ovation LLC filed for bankruptcy, according to press reports. Last October, Highwoods bought out Thomas’ share of the project for $57.8 million, according to the company.

“Once we’ve established the updated mixed-use master plan ... we anticipate working to realize the tremendous potential of this live-work-play property, while retaining full control of the office development sites,” Highwoods CEO Ted Klinck said in a statement in October.

As initially conceived, the project also included 950 residential units, 480,000 square feet of commercial space and 450 hotel rooms.

On April 26, speaking during an earning call, Highwoods Chief Operating Officer Brian Leary said the company was weighing a changed, “more integrated” plan.

“As a master developer, we are re-envisioning a more integrated mixed-use plan and will be working with the city and best-in-class third-party retail and residential developers to advance the mixed-use town center,” Leary said.

Farther south on Carothers Parkway, Goldberg has started Huffines Ridge, which according to site plans will eventually include 426 units of residential housing, office space and a 170-room hotel.

One of two other SouthStar developments, Carothers Crossing East is nearly complete and includes a 43,500-square-foot office building, a Lifetime Fitness and various other retail stores. Directly across from Carothers Crossing East on the northwest corner of Liberty Pike and Carothers, Carothers Crossing West SouthStar has partnered with San Antonio-based Embrey Realty, with the Texas firm building 332 residential units. “We have local, regional and national components already and lots of undeveloped land to add to what has already happened,” McGehee said.

Preserving area character

Along with granting capacity for more intensive developments, the regional commerce design concept also recommends new buildings in the area should be designed to fit the architectural context of the corridor and have coordinated access with road networks and amenities.

Ward 1 Alderperson Beverly Burger, who represents the Cool Springs area, said she supports more urbanization, though more involvement from city leaders, and planning and sustainability staff will be important to assure the projects built are knit together well.

“I am concerned that we all come together to make sure everyone is talking, including the city,” Burger said.

Burger said it is important for the city to be involved where necessary on architectural looks, pedestrian connectivity and planned uses.

“It is part of Cool Springs, but I think everything from I-65 East to Route 96 needs to have its own master plan,” she said. “We don’t have to lose the quality that defines Franklin.”

Knauss said a loop road linking Aureum Drive, Tower Circle and Ovation Parkway will facilitate connection between different developments.

Knauss said all the developers are keen to find the right mix of business, residential and other uses so they mutually benefit from growth in the area.

“This area is really the golden piece of Franklin’s regional commerce for sure,” Knauss said. “I’d like to believe, if we do our job well enough, that we will have a vision that meets everything the city asks for.”