By Katherine Flynn
The Frosty Morn meat packing factory in Clarksville, Tenn.—all 52,600 square feet of it—has sat vacant since 1977. “Nobody’s ever spent any money to keep the roof up,” says John Hilborn, City Project Manager at the City of Clarksville. “When it rains, it rains as much inside the building as it does outside.”
In its heyday, the Frosty Morn plant was a major employer in northern Tennessee. City officials think that, with the right renovations, the building has the potential to return to its former role as an anchor of the community—this time housing local businesses.
“The way that Clarksville is growing, that area has not evolved with the areas around it,” says Pam Powell, AIA, of the vicinity surrounding Frosty Morn. “It’s in an under-developed neighborhood, really. I think it’s a perfect location for being a catalyst for change for the people that live there.”
The building’s iconic smokestack—torn down in 2020 amid safety concerns—has a chance at rising again thanks to the 2022 Mayors Innovative Design Cohort, a partnership between the Mayors Innovation Project and The American Institute of Architects’ Blueprint for Better campaign that will revitalize Frosty Morn and two other underused sites around the country. Blueprint for Better targets mayors and civic leaders to work with architects to transform their towns into sustainable, resilient, equitable communities.
This year’s three winning sites received technical assistance from project architects, peer learning opportunities, and a stipend to help cover the costs of staff time, project management, and community engagement.
AIA Middle Tennessee is in the process of shepherding revitalization of the Frosty Morn building for the city of Clarkesville, helping city officials understand what is possible through tours of similar former industrial structures that have been repurposed, like the Neuhoff Meat Packing Plant in Nashville.
Clarksville’s Frosty Morn is in good company. In Eastpointe, Mich., members of AIA Detroit helped reimagine a former parking lot as an outdoor market and event space, and in Blacksburg, Va., the Cooks Cleaners dry-cleaning shop will be renovated—with the help of AIA Blue Ridge—into usable retail space.
Prioritizing community needs
Like many U.S. cities, Blacksburg, home of Virginia Tech, has struggled to find and retain retail tenants in its historic downtown buildings. In Blacksburg and Eastpointe, the project architects, in collaboration with their local AIA components, hosted design charettes to find out more about the community’s wants and needs for the redesigned buildings.
In the case of Cooks Cleaners, AIA Blue Ridge identified three primary goals that the redesigned building should meet: preserve and enhance the dynamic atmosphere of Blacksburg’s historic downtown; provide quality products and services to the surrounding community; and give entrepreneurs an opportunity to create and expand their businesses in a low-risk setting.
“The town saw an opportunity with the grant, but independent of the grant, they saw a niche that needed to be filled in the community,” says project architect Kevin Jones, AIA, Past President of AIA Blue Ridge who helped organize the two community design charettes and develop a work plan for the structure, which was formerly a brownfield site that has since been remediated. Jones describes the current space as an “empty shell” with no electricity or heating and cooling, but “full of potential.”
“It’s [in] a marquee location, to be a building that’s kind of forgotten,” he says. After the charette, the town had three plausible design options that meet their needs as they head toward a capital campaign.
Blacksburg Deputy Town Manager Chris Lawrence sees the Mayors Innovation Project as the perfect opportunity to utilize the skills of architects to improve Blacksburg’s historic downtown for the people who live, work and go to school nearby.
“Our downtown needs retail, and it needs help,” he says. “After COVID, many people want to create a small business. What better place for an up-and-coming retail establishment than right on Main Street?”
Blacksburg mayor Leslie Hager-Smith agrees, noting that AIA and MIP’s involvement gave the project the push it needed to get the initial design phase over the finish line.
“We went from a kind of vague concept and a need to clean up a toxic building in 2019 to the happy surprise that we could get design assistance,” she says. “It will do more than a single retail space could do because what we conceive is that it will be a home for nonprofits, including the downtown merchants—also arts organizations.”
“We have a good consensus on the way the space needs to be configured, and now we would like to add our [American Rescue Plan Act] funds to get the job done,” she continues. “So, I think we can say for sure it’s going to be done by 2026.”
In Eastpointe, Mich., the underutilized space in question was a surface parking lot, and the solution—as conceived by local residents, with the help of architects from AIA Detroit—is a farmer’s market venue and community event space along a historic commercial corridor.
The spot was initially chosen for its proximity to the pre-existing Children’s Garden and public library. “The Children’s Garden is right next to the downtown area in our city,” says Eastpointe Mayor Monique Owens. “[The project] is going to bring a lot of viability to the city, a lot of creativity. It’s going to bring more people to our community.”
The design team’s goals for the new space included prioritizing pedestrian circulation and scale, as well as enhancing the connections between the existing library and garden.
“We knew that Eastpointe had a vision of what they wanted to do,” says Najahyia Chinchilla, AIA, the 2022 past president of AIA Detroit, who worked with the city and other stakeholders on design charettes for the project. “We knew we wanted to engage [all stakeholders], but we also opened it up to community members and to the architecture community. We wanted to engage our community of architects and creative people and be able to use it as a way to generate a lot of ideas quickly, so that Eastpointe would be able to understand, ‘These are what our possibilities are.’”
For Chinchilla, the most rewarding part of working on the project was the enthusiasm and passion that the city and other stakeholders had for the project’s outcome.
“Every time we made a suggestion to them or shared some ideas with them, they were just so excited,” she says. “The idea that we could be opening up their possibilities and that this could become a reality for them was the exciting part.”
“We’ve been thrilled to work with AIA and with Clarksville, Eastpointe and Blacksburg on this project,” says Aaron Westling, senior associate at the Mayor’s Innovation Project. “Each of these mayors has made a public commitment to community-informed urban redevelopment. Nearly every city in the country has vacant and underutilized buildings like this in their community; this has been a wonderful way to move projects forward in each of these communities while sharing experiences that other cities can learn from.”