Franklin eyes new City Hall building

The Harpeth Mall opened in the mid-1970s and closed in 1980. (Courtesy Rick Warwick Collection)
The Harpeth Mall opened in the mid-1970s and closed in 1980. (Courtesy Rick Warwick Collection)

The Harpeth Mall opened in the mid-1970s and closed in 1980. (Courtesy Rick Warwick Collection)

Since the 1980s, the city of Franklin has conducted day-to-day business at City Hall, located downtown on Third Avenue in the Public Square. Longtime Franklin residents who have frequented the building might recognize its wide hallways, spread-out departments and lack of external windows.

However, newer residents may be surprised to know that building was never meant to be a city hall at all, according to city officials. Before it hosted Franklin Board of Mayor and Aldermen meetings and public hearings, the space was home to the Harpeth Mall, a block-sized shopping center with department stores and shops.

This year, the city of Franklin will begin work toward designing a new City Hall—one city officials said they hope will be more functional and fit better with the surrounding buildings on the square.

“It has outlived its building life span,” said Kelly Dannenfelser, assistant director of planning and sustainability for Franklin. “It has a leaky roof, it is really failing and it doesn’t function efficiently as office space. We’ve done the best we could over time to make it work for us, but we want it to be much more functional and collaborative and more of a modern office space that works efficiently for our departments.”

In October, the city approved spending $859,000 to begin designing a new building, which is budgeted to cost at least $24.1 million. Opportunities for public input will take place this spring. Dannenfelser said the city expects to develop a master plan due to the high-profile nature of the project.

“We’re undertaking a very thorough design process because we understand the importance of the site on the square in historic downtown, but we also know that this building and the office space inside need to stand the test of time for the long term,” she said.

From mall to hall

While the city has worked from the Third Avenue location for 40 years, its previous location was a few blocks over on West Main Street and Sixth Avenue, across from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, according to Williamson County Historian Rick Warwick.

The existing building on Third Avenue was built as Harpeth Mall in 1973 by developer Ronald Ligon, Warwick said. Prior to that, a number of buildings on the site, including shops and an auction barn, were demolished in 1968, according to newspaper articles from the now-defunct Franklin Review-Appeal.

The mall featured a Sears & Roebuck as well as some smaller boutiques, but it never quite took off with shoppers and stayed open for only a few years, according to Warwick.

“It failed because the population was [not] large enough to keep the store profitable,” Warwick said.

The city purchased the mall from Ligon in 1980 for $1.64 million, according to James A. Crutchfield and Robert Holladay’s history book, “Franklin: Tennessee’s Handsomest Town.” At the time, the city had just over 100 employees, and the mall building allowed for more room to accommodate services for a growing population.

After some improvements to the space were made, the city moved into the building in 1981 and has been there ever since. However, after four decades, many believe it is time for the city to move on.

“It has served its purpose, but it is time for it to go,” Warwick said. “It was an ugly building when built, and it remains one.”

Future needs

Historians agreed the building never quite fit in with the appearance of downtown Franklin, as most buildings on the Public Square, including the historic Williamson County Courthouse across the street, are two to three stories tall, whereas the hall is only one.

Some residents and officials said they believe this could be an opportunity for the area to finally achieve a more cohesive look.

“Of course, [the city] did the best they could when using it, but it’s not conducive to turn a mall into a city hall, and it’s never been the right design,” said, Lynne McAlister, president of the Franklin Downtown Neighborhood Association, a resident group for homeowners in downtown Franklin. “Third Avenue coming in is the primary entrance to our historic downtown, and it’s not pretty. You’ve got the wall with no windows and those little doors that are all blocked off—it’s not a pretty entry to what you’re about to see.”

Dannenfelser said that in addition to greater aesthetic appeal, she hopes the new building will have more function for the 221 people who are employed there. Over the past few months, the city has been working with a consultant to interview employees on needs for the new building. While the design is not yet complete, she said she hopes to see more collaborative meeting spaces for employees and members of the public as well as more natural light.

“Increasing the daylight in the building has been an important theme from employees in the information gathering stage,” she said. “The old mall has very few, very small windows, making the majority of the inside spaces windowless.”

The city is also researching LEED certification, a global recognition program for sustainability and energy efficiency, Dannenfelser said.

Additionally, McAlister said she and other residents hope to see more parking added to the footprint of the building.

“That’s greatly needed,” she said. “When you think about the additional opportunity to have parking, plus the functionality of having a purpose-built space for offices, I just think it’s a tremendous improvement. I think people will be really happy it’s done,” she said.

While the existing City Hall would be torn down, the existing parking structure of Second Avenue South would stay in place, Dannenfelser said.

Design process

Funding for the project is included in the city’s capital improvements program and is budgeted to cost $24.1 million over the next five years, according to the latest draft of the city’s 2019-28 plan, although that number is subject to change depending on plan revisions and construction bids.

It will also likely be some time before residents will step foot inside a new City Hall. Dannenfelser said conservative estimates place construction completion in about five years.

A conceptual master plan is slated to be presented to BOMA in fall or winter, she said. If the plan is approved, the city will move forward with schematic and construction plans before it sends the project out to bid for construction.

In the meantime, the city is working to gather input on what a new hall could look like. In addition to gathering employee feedback, the city is also planning to engage residents on what they would hope to see. Dannenfelser said more information is expected in the coming weeks on opportunities for input, from meetings to online surveys.

Preliminary work is also underway regarding how a new building could be constructed. In January, BOMA discussed an additional $26,000 contract for environmental testing to ensure any future building on the site would be stable.

“This is some very preliminary due diligence that we need to have this information going forward,” Assistant City Administrator Vernon Gerth said during a Jan. 12 BOMA meeting.

Construction of a new City Hall building would no doubt be a large undertaking with the potential to limit access to some of downtown. However, McAlister said that while she believes the construction process could be an inconvenience for residents and surrounding businesses, that would be a small trade-off for a larger reward in the future.

“I believe that even though we all might grumble from time to time, the truth is I believe most of us look at the long view and know that it’s just a short-term sacrifice for a long-term improvement,” she said.
By Wendy Sturges
A Houston native and graduate of St. Edward's University in Austin, Wendy Sturges has worked as a community journalist covering local government, health care, business and development since 2011. She has worked with Community Impact since 2015 as a reporter and editor and moved to Tennessee in 2019.


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