Trajectory of Greatness
By Stacie Standifer
There aren’t many places where you’ll find a group of tough competitors gathering around the dinner table sharing secrets on their latest projects, but that is exactly what happened just before I got a chance to sit down with Tony Giarratana for a visit. He’d just finished hosting a dozen of the area’s most successful and influential developers—think trailblazers like Jim Caden and John Eakin—for an unstructured meeting of the minds in his recently completed penthouse at the top of the 505 Building. With sweeping views of downtown, the river and beyond, they swapped stories, offered insights and discussed ongoing issues. Being openminded and forward-thinking, the host has no qualms about what might seem atypical to others. “A rising tide truly does lift all ships,” he says. “I’ve always been entirely open to anyone and everyone doing quality work in the city and believe in the importance of supporting each other.”
There’s no doubt that even his secretly envious contemporaries are grateful for his efforts in uniting those with similar goals. Of course, when I say similar, I don’t mean exactly the same. When I first met Tony years ago while starting my previous city magazine company, it was evident there was something intriguing and unique about him. I was quite young and unfamiliar with the mover-and-shaker landscape downtown, showing up for our meeting at the Nashville City Club in well-worn jeans (a big no-no, as I found out). Instead of
causing me to feel uncomfortable, he used his accepting persona and charm to make me feel welcome and at ease, making our visit one of the most memorable of my early career. Fastforward 17-plus years and his demeanor hasn’t changed. Well-dressed but approachable, he’s still just as authentic and hospitable when we sit down to catch up in his sprawling home in the sky. The views are captivating, and so is our conversation.
If you haven’t heard of Tony, either you abstain from keeping up with local news or you’re a complete newcomer to the market. It’s hard to pick up a paper or browse a news site without seeing something about his latest projects. There has been ongoing reporting about the unwarranted opposition concerning what he has planned next, which he seems to take in stride. With complete faith in his vision based on experience, consumer feedback and official input—not to mention his naturally forwardlooking personality—he’s sure that every hurdle is worth it. “Each project we work through raises the bar for what’s next. We’re learning from what we did yesterday and constantly improving on it,” he tells me. There’s a twinkle in his eye as he reveals details on his next adventure as well as when we take a stroll down memory lane to reveal how he came to this point.
Not unlike other self-made success stories, Tony’s background starts with humble beginnings. Raised in Clearwater, FL, where his father was a barber, the family didn’t have the money for adventures or travel. That meant making the fivemile trek to the beach an almost daily occurrence for entertainment. Here, he discovered a love for sailing and charting a course. After high school he worked nights at a grocery store while studying at the University of South Florida. “I was in class one day when the professor asked us what our career plans were,” he recalls. “It seemed like nearly all of the students wanted to be in banking. I kept thinking about it, and later that day when at the beach, I was looking up at the high-rise condominiums and thought it would be fun to be involved, so I got my real estate license. Six months passed and I didn’t sell a single thing. Not even a house. Then by a fluke I sold an office building and made more money than I’d ever seen in my life. So I decided that from that point on, I was going to focus on commercial buildings.” Soon after, he read about the downtown boom in Denver, CO, and connected with a friend and former schoolmate who worked at the top leasing firm there. An open position for head of leasing was what prompted him to head west. “I had zero experience in leasing, but of course I said that I did during the job interviews, and it worked,” he remembers. “Two weeks later I was living at the Fairmont Hotel in downtown Denver before eventually buying an apartment in a high-rise.” That’s when he fell instantly in love with the urban living concept. “Those two years changed my life. I never had a car and literally walked everywhere. So, when I relocated to Nashville, I naturally gravitated toward the high-rise living that was available.” But, of course, at that time there wasn’t much. That’s when Giarratana saw a void that need to be filled.
His development of the Cumberland Apartments high-rise was the start of a long run of notable residential projects and it was his constant communication with so many loyal renters that led to his next venture, The Viridian. “We had so many professionals that loved the location and convenience of living downtown but who also wanted to invest in their own home as an investment for the future, so we gave them just that,” he recalls. “We considered every comment, suggestion and movement in the way that these people lived in crafting The Viridian’s design. It’s a practice our team will never stop, because it’s these thousands of conversations over the years that help us to build offerings that suit the needs of the residents, which has proven to be a solid model in planning.”
Going above and beyond individual residences, he raised the bar on common spaces and amenities and sought out innovative ways to create a vibrant urban lifestyle. After continually hearing comments about the lack of grocery options nearby, he solicited H.G. Hills to open a location on the ground floor, paying for the build-out and offering free rent for an extended period of time. “There’s something truly funny about that,” he says, chuckling at the memory. “We’re doing this multi-million-dollar project and once Hill was on board, the newspaper published an article with a huge headline that read ‘FIRST DOWNTOWN GROCERY SINCE 1967,’ with a small tagline below stating simply, ‘condos to be built above store.’”
This pattern of filling voids continued to build upon itself, resulting in bigger, better and more customized spaces as the years passed and the city grew. But while the structures are constantly evolving, one thing has remained constant, and that is Tony’s love for Church Street. “It truly is the heart of Nashville,” he says. “There’s no place like it. You can walk to any of the professional sports facilities, venues such as TPAC, and the dozens of shopping and dining destinations that now take up most of the retail space in the area. Sixty percent of the cultural offerings in the city are also nearby, not to mention the offices where the professionals we serve are employed.” The grocery shortage is also a thing of the past with the arrival of Publix and Whole Foods locations in the vicinity. In fact, Church Street is where we’re chatting right now, where 505 rises tall with a combination of upscale condominiums and apartment living complimented by an adjacent boutique hotel. “We have the best amenity deck in the city,” he contends, and I agree. Nothing can come close to the expansive pool decks and gathering spaces overlooking the skyline and river. Church will also be home to his next project, The Paramount. If all goes according to plan—and his entire network is working around the clock to make it happen—it will be the most luxurious and desirable downtown residential option to date.
The Paramount units are quite a bit larger and more expensive than the bulk of the units in 505. Where the latest project has been appealing to a younger professional buyer seeking less personal space and more access to amenities and nearby attractions, the new building is being curated to suit the needs of more mature buyers relocating from established homes with their own collections, furnishings and expectations. The living spaces are modeled after Tony’s own 505 penthouse, although not all will be as large. There is a very limited number of one-bedroom units; the bulk of the floor plans are dedicated to more spacious living quarters that meet the needs of those who want to entertain and can accommodate the type of furniture and décor that may be coming from a large home in one of Nashville’s upscale neighborhoods. “Whenever we start planning a project, we don’t seek out what people are looking to buy today, but what their needs will be tomorrow,” Giarratana says. “It’s like football. When the quarterback drops back to pass the ball, he doesn’t throw it to where the running back is, but to where he’s going to be when it’s received.”
It’s an analogy that makes perfect sense, and it explains why the development group never stops moving or looking ahead. It’s sort of a “build it and they will come” philosophy, which always comes with a certain amount of risk. And yet Giarratana seems to thrive on it, much to the delight of the countless residents happy in their well-suited urban environments. Those who opt to buy in on one of his sites also enjoy a strong and consistently increasing return on their investment, a sure sign of any project’s real worth.
Not only will The Paramount’s literally sky-scraping 60 stories be the answer to the prayers of those seeking to eliminate their commute by moving downtown from their affluent suburb, Giarratana’s also making sure that the neighborhood is only impacted in a positive way. “Because the library is set so close to the street, the last thing we wanted to do was crowd it or to make the street feel closed in,” he notes. In conjunction with the building designers Goettsch Partners, they came up with a solution that includes a completely open space at street level by using supportive columns. This gives pedestrians and building dwellers alike a more attractive and spacious vibe while also enhancing the entire neighborhood’s curb appeal. Even so, getting this project off the ground has been no easy task and has been met with vigorous opposition from those interested in preserving the small park that currently occupies the site. “It may be a public space, but it’s a failed public space that hasn’t been used for enjoyment,” Giarratana argues. “What we’re doing is so much better for the city. We’re investing $2 million in a park space above the garage, which will generate around $120,000 net income annually for Metro. We’re also spending an estimate of $5 million to redevelop Ann Dallas Dudley Blvd., due to Paramount’s close proximity to the street.”
For anyone who has truly studied the facts beyond the various opinions from those who I would describe as “not getting it,” The Paramount is exactly what downtown needs. Not only will it provide additional tax dollars (an estimated $3 million in property taxes) for other government improvements, it will also immeasurably enhance the area. Affluent, educated residents tend to spend more locally, supporting their neighborhood businesses and also involving themselves in community projects. The street will be more impressive both in architecture and in those committed to keeping it clean, beautiful and updated.
The value being offered at the cost of the developer is tremendous, and what most would consider well above and beyond what’s necessary. It’s the kind of project that not only requires millions of dollars and a strong appetite for risk but also an unimaginable amount of patience. “Every development project that I’ve done is a multi-year commitment before even breaking ground,” Giarratana says. In fact, he lists so many governmental and municipal layers to work through it makes my head spin. There’s the not-so-small task of acquiring the land, the getting of countless approvals at every turn and, of course, the everyday reality of working directly with officials from start to finish to keep everyone happy and informed. “Doing something like this requires five years if it’s a day, and the likelihood of seven years isn’t unusual,” he confides, without seeming to be bothered by the timeline as I consider that kind of a wait. “It’s the devotion of all of us, being dedicated to baby steps every day where we never stop working,” he explains. “It requires all hands on deck around the clock to pull something like this off, even if the span of years to completion may sound lengthy to outsiders. To do this you have to love it, believe in the people at your side and never lose faith when challenges arrive. We learn by going through them. Since starting to develop, I’ve worked with seven different mayors and have enjoyed collaborating and cooperating with each administration. I do believe that it was Phil Bredesen who should be recognized as the visionary behind the true opportunities for downtown. So much of what he started is what the city is enjoying today.”
I feel like the same thing could be said about Tony—he’s never wavered when it comes to filling voids, giving back to the community and bringing a sense of style and metropolitan flair to the landscape. Impeccable taste is something I noticed about him years ago, and he continues to be one of the most impressive business personalities I’ve met to date. It’s obvious in the way that he speaks and presents himself and in the well-mannered way he interacts with the world. His taste is also apparent in the penthouse he shares with his wife, where every possible detail has been tweaked in order to create the ultimate urban space. They live most of the time on their horse farm, but plan on spending more and more time in their downtown unit now that it’s complete. With the help of interior designer Frank Ponterio of Chicago (who’s opening a local satellite office in June), they fashioned the ideal environment for both entertaining larger groups and enjoying intimate spaces. There are so many details, in fact, you’ll have to read about them in a separate feature on the interior plan and concepts on NashvilleEdit.com. For now, just imagine hidden touches like heated floors, space for catering and storage, acousticsensitive applications and the most beautiful modern finishes. In the Giarratana condo, the design also includes a representation of their outside passion projects such as his wife and daughter’s love of horses and his passion for sailing. In fact, shortly after we go to press, he’s headed east to pick up his boat in Rhode Island where he’ll participate in a Regatta-style race to Bermuda.
“There’s an adrenaline that comes just prior to the race’s start that continues through to the destination,” he says with visible enthusiasm. “Four days on your own away from land makes you realize that, really, anything can happen. I feel the same way about developing. Like sailing and the ocean the tide is constantly shifting, but it’s exhilarating to put everything into navigating through the rough spots with the dream of reaching the end point.”