To understand H.G. Hill Realty's influence on the development of Nashville, start not with its most high-profile deals, but with what looks like one of its least. In May 2010, H.G. Hill Realty paid $950,000 for a small tract of land on Charlotte near 40th Avenue.
The tract was home to a car wash — a typical sight on Nashville's least flashy yet most utilitarian artery. You didn't miss the headlines. There weren't any. It's not the kind of property for which most development watchers would expect the city's pre-eminent real estate company to pay a 300 percent premium.
What those observers might have missed, however, is that Hill had been steadily, methodically buying adjacent parcels on Charlotte. Where others saw a negligible car wash, one of dozens across the city, Hill saw the missing piece in a puzzle gradually taking shape. With this one last purchase, Hill suddenly had ownership of the entire block.
Perhaps "suddenly" is the wrong word. Hill bought its first property on the block in 1926. For the rest, the company was willing to wait more than eight decades.
Anything else you want to know about it? Ask Jimmy Granbery, the fourth-generation CEO of Hill Realty. The great-grandson of the original H.G. Hill, the great-nephew of H.G. Hill Jr. — the H.G. everyone thinks of — Granbery can tell you the entire story of that block. How his family owned the grocery store there. How a cousin ran a warehouse nearby. How the Hill family kept an ever-watchful eye on the land, as the 20th century crept down Charlotte.
And the future? He says the company doesn't have plans — no Hill Center Charlotte — for the entire holding. At least not yet. Maybe in a few decades. Why hurry?
"It's not an urgent situation," Granbery says. But with a chess grandmaster's knowing smile, he adds, "Everything is starting to gentrify. It's playing into our hands."
That acquisition — and Granbery's knowledge of the block's history, future and potential — is a microcosm of the history and philosophy of H.G. Hill. It'll all work out. Just have a little patience.
Patience is what neighbors in the real-estate hot zone of 12South are losing, in regards to H.G. Hill's newest project: a four-story mixed-use development with 90 apartments and ground-floor retail. Opponents of the project — a joint development with fellow power player Southeast Venture — say Hill has shrugged off neighbors' concerns and jeopardized the area's future with an oversized, ill-fitting design.
The irony in this battle, however, is that unless the current neighbors have lived in 12South since the early 20th century, Hill's presence in the neighborhood likely predates even the earliest of 12South's early adopters. The same can be said in neighborhoods all across Nashville, where H.G. Hill Realty has quietly shaped the city's landscape.
Hill's holdings — more than 130 properties representing more than 2 million square feet — are valued close to $200 million. In the past 20 years, the company has developed some of Nashville's highest-profile retail projects. Throw a dart at a map of Davidson County, and it's hard to hit an area that hasn't been affected by H.G. Hill Realty.
Hillsboro Village? It's bookended by Hill's Harris Teeter at one end and the massively reworked Pancake Pantry building at the other. East Nashville? The Turnip Truck is Hill's. Green Hills? There's the eponymous Hill Center, locus of Whole Foods and Anthropologie and California Pizza Kitchen — and while you're at it, the Hill Center on Charlotte within the booming Nashville West development is theirs too.
Like a family tree, almost all these properties can be traced in one way or another back to H.G. Hill grocery stores. The first and second generation Hills saw land not just as places to put grocery stores, but also as a smart investment likely to secure their family's future security and legacy.
The history of the Hills reaches back to the 19th century. Founded in Nashville in 1896, the first H.G. Hill grocery stores were neighborhood-based, a fraction of the size of the suburban supermarkets they'd later become. But even then, the original H.G. Hill tired of landlords telling him what he could and couldn't do with his stores. So he started buying land and building his shops the way he wanted. It helped that he was on the board at Nashville Trust Co. and knew where the foreclosed and distressed properties were.
Mr. Hill's great contribution to the grocery business — and the real estate business, for that matter — was his realization that stores needed to be on the "going home side" of the road. When streetcar transport was the norm, it was easier for shoppers to hop off the trolley and walk into the store without crossing the tracks. To this day, most grocery stores follow his lead — and most of Hill's holdings still lie on the homeward-bound side of the street.
Having found the secret to location, the Hills started to monetize their savvy. When people stopped for groceries, they'd want to stop for other things: hardware, medicine and the like. So the family's holding company started buying contiguous tracts, leasing them to other shopkeepers.
"We were always buying contiguous properties. If something comes available, you buy it," Jimmy Granbery says. "And someday, there will be plans." A joke among local real estate watchers is that Hill stocked its land holdings with whatever it saw on the drive home.
H.G. Hill got out of the grocery business in the 1990s. Today, another company operates H.G. Hill Food Stores under a licensing agreement. But H.G. Hill Realty thrives, and its history mirrors that of the city. When the streetcars stopped running through town, Hill stores followed Nashvillians to the suburbs. Suddenly, grocery stores needed parking lots, and more land.
Now people are returning to the city — to shop, to walk, to live — and the focus is on walkable shopping centers and mixed-use developments. With its century of acquired land — well located due to long-ago forethought — H.G. Hill Realty is perfectly positioned for the change. Whether you consider them a civic ally or a neighborhood adversary may depend on which side of the street you live on.
The project Jimmy Granbery says he's proudest of isn't on ritzy West End or congested Hillsboro. It's on Armory Drive, home of the National Guard Armory as well as a shortcut to the Sidco Drive Cracker Barrel.
"Armory Drive was nothing but kudzu," Granbery says, welcoming a visitor. But buried under that kudzu was property Hill used as a grocery distribution center. Other real estate types called him crazy, Granbery recalls — no one would want to work in a largely industrial area out of downtown.
But he saw a space easily accessible from interstates and secondaries. Now its 11 buildings house businesses ranging from the Nashville School of Law to the corporate headquarters for Logan's Roadhouse.
In most cases, Hill Realty's big projects are in places already on their way up. But Armory Drive? Hill got there first — the reason Granbery chafes when people credit Vanderbilt with revitalizing 100 Oaks. It's also the reason that Hill is still on Armory Drive, despite all its higher-profile projects elsewhere.
Tucked away, almost hidden, in the central building is a door, marked understatedly with the familiar H.G. Hill logo. Inside are two modest chairs and a small desk with a phone, a list of extensions and instructions to dial the intended party. If that doesn't work, there's a callbox connected to a receptionist.
A short call later, she enters through a locked door and asks visitors to wait a few minutes. She returns and leads a visitor back to the nerve center.
With its paintings of various former Hill CEOs gazing down, the vestibule is almost laughably small for such a powerful entity. But when the door opens, the office space it exposes is cavernous. It's a little like being in the waiting room for the Wizard of Oz.
Granbery is known for being a prominent businessman, a Nashville native, a Hillwood High School graduate (yes, it's named for his family). He is not known for doing interviews. He prefers to let his predestined work — nearly all the leaves on the Hill family tree's branches grow into the family business — speak for itself. When that doesn't work, he's happy to let his hired PR hand Amy Gray Kovar do the talking. He rarely gives lengthy sit-downs, furthering the Oz impression of the man behind the curtain.
Yet he's affable, his classic West Side drawl evident. He's intelligent, confident. He's almost arrogant — most developers are — but it's arrogance borne of decades of personal success fortified by a century of family endeavor.
He wears a short-sleeved dress shirt and a tie, though he admits he doesn't much care for neckties. He's not a suit. Like most everyone else in the family, Granbery worked for years in the grocery business: bagging groceries, stocking produce, pretty much everything except roasting coffee, a job he said was far too hot for him. Of all the skills he honed in the grocery trade, solving problems may have been the most useful — a quality his business colleague Tom Hooper at Eakin Partners says he's seen firsthand.
When the flood hit in May 2010, Hooper recalls, the garage at the Hill Center in Belle Meade flooded, like most ground-level garages in town. Hooper, who worked the office leases at the center, arrived to check on the space. He found Granbery already in situ, manning the pumps.
That level of involvement, Hooper says, speaks to the "responsibility" Granbery feels for his family's heritage.
"He's part of a great family that's had such a wonderful history. It's an opportunity and a burden as well," Hooper says. "There's generations above and below him."
But Granbery isn't just a cautious caretaker of his family legacy. He's not afraid to take chances to get a slow-moving project rolling, or to exploit the Byzantine traps and snares of municipal zoning.
Case in point: There are apartments above the Pancake Pantry now, but when Hill started developing that project, there was no urban-district overlay zoning. As part of its streetscape-changing overhaul of the block at Wedgewood and 21st Avenue South, Hill wanted residential space above the restaurant, but under the zoning laws at the time, there was seemingly no way to get it done.
Granbery and his team found a solution both ingenious and audacious. They had the property zoned as commercial-services — a fairly common designation. Only problem: CS doesn't allow apartments. But it does allow for a hotel.
And so, throughout the development of the project, the apartments were — in the eyes of the law — hotel rooms. Only this hotel wouldn't accept reservations for fewer than 365 days.
Eventually urban-district overlay zoning became a reality in Hillsboro Village. But by that time, Jimmy Granbery didn't need it. He already had his apartments over the Pancake Pantry.