The Heritage Foundation of Williamson County is embarking on one of its “most ambitious” projects to date in downtown Franklin, and some neighbors, while all for preservation, have reservations about certain elements they believe will lead to traffic issues.
The Heritage Foundation closed on the former O’More College of Design property, which holds historic memories dating back to the early 1800s, in early 2019 and has been working on a site plan for the renamed Franklin Grove Estate & Gardens ever since. Just recently, in June, the Heritage Foundation opened one of its first elements of the campus, in partnership with Williamson, Inc.: the Franklin Innovation Center inside the Calvin LeHew Mansion.
The organization has several elements planned for the nearly 5.2-acre parcel — the relocation and preservation of Spring Hill’s historic Lee-Buckner Schoolhouse, an art museum inside the Winstead House, public programming inside the Summer House, gardens throughout the property and more.
“I see this as the ultimate project. It’s the most ambitious project ever undertaken by the foundation, and I’m confident that it will be the best project as well,” said Cyril Stewart, the primary architect for the project.
The feature drawing the most concern from local residents is a 8,800-square-foot conservatory to be used as an event venue.
Many Franklin residents, particularly neighbors of the Franklin Grove property, gathered at a neighborhood meeting at Franklin City Hall on Thursday to learn more about the project and share their thoughts. First to speak was Walt Green, a leader of a group called Concerned Neighbors of Franklin Grove.
“I’ll make it really clear that the neighborhood group is not anti-development. It’s not anti-growth, anti-Franklin-Grove, anti-Heritage-Foundation,” Green said. “We are anti-event-venues.”
Far and away, the majority of neighbors who expressed concerns about the project did not want the project to come to a complete halt; they shared their support for the idea of the “estate and gardens” and asked the Heritage Foundation to reconsider the conservatory as currently planned.
According to the proposed plan, the conservatory would have space for about 192 seats at tables, but some residents worried that the building could host events for upwards of 400 guests. The plan includes about 90 parking spots onsite and requests the foundation be able to shuttle guests between the campus and the parking lot of the Old, Old Jail, which has an additional 54 spots.
Stewart told the Herald that the guest capacity for events that would be hosted in the conservatory would be limited by parking availability.
Another area of concern for residents is the infrastructure around the campus, as some noted that, with the main entrance opening on Lewisburg Pike just about a dozen car-lengths from the intersection at Lewisburg and South Margin Street, big events could cause traffic jams, noise pollution, and an increased risk for car accidents.
Stewart shared that the foundation’s plan contains $250,000 to “fix the intersection” in accordance with its engineers’ recommendations. The team is also still conducting a traffic study for the project, taking into account how traffic flow may be impacted by the pandemic. Stewart conveyed confidence that, if the plan doesn’t work, the city won’t approve it. Some of the neighbors were not so sure.
“We’re talking about what future traffic issues will be. Traffic today doesn’t work downtown,” said Franklin resident Bob Ravener.
To the applause of many in the room, Franklin Ward 4 Alderman Margaret Martin voiced her opinion that preservation of the property is important, but she believes the commercial element of an event venue is unnecessary to the heart of the project.
“You don’t need the venue to preserve and protect this piece of property,” she said. “You might need the venue to make the money. … So, it’s a questions of do you want to preserve it, or do you want to make a commercial business out of it in our neighborhood?”
While the organization plans to run the property partially with revenue from memberships, like Cheekwood Estate & Gardens in Nashville, Heritage Foundation CEO Bari Beasley shared that the conservatory is a critical piece in the feasibility of the project, saying that creating “something wonderful for the community” has always been the focus.
“We continue to listen to feedback from neighbors, and we’re going through a whole process here,” she said. “In order to be able to provide to the community public gardens and a museum of art and an opportunity to be education within an African American schoolhouse, … we also have to be able to have a sustainable model. So, being able to have events in a beautiful conservatory is part of the whole vision of this property.”
The project is still in its early phases. While the team has fleshed out a plan, there are still many moving pieces as the foundation begins to move through the approval process, so details could change. The city expects the project to have to pass through the Historic Zoning Commission, Board of Zoning Appeals (likely for a zoning variance determination), Franklin Municipal Planning Commission, and finally Board of Mayor and Aldermen — a process expected to run through April with several opportunities for public comment.
To learn more about the project, visit www.WilliamsonHeritage.org/FranklinGrove.