Chief's art

Chief's

The owner of Lower Broadway’s so-called Cotton-Eyed Joe Building is suing the city related to signage it had planned for the old-school masonry structure.

Nashville-based AJ Capital Partners is seeking to reinvent the building, with an address of 200 Broadway, with a live music venue, bar and BBQ restaurant related to country-rock singer-songwriter Eric Church. To be led by James Beard Award-winning restaurateur Rodney Scott, the venue is slated to open in 2023 and be called Chief’s.

The lawsuit is spurred by the Metro Historic Zoning Commission’s having denied, by a 4-1 vote, on March 16 AJ Capital’s application for a preservation permit that would have allowed construction of a marquee with signage on the front of the building and a projecting sign to be placed on its southeast corner.

In its lawsuit, filed in Davidson County Chancery Court, AJ Capital contends the MHZC vote was “arbitrary and capricious.” AJ Capital argues the MHZC denied the application despite the Metro Historical Commission staff’s recommendation “to approve the application with conditions (related to light bulbs), multiple statements of support for the project (including a letter from the Metro Planning Department) and the absence of any public opposition.”

In addition, the lawsuit notes Metro Councilman Freddie O’Connell, in whose District 19 the property sits, supported the signage, as did the Nashville Downtown Partnership.

The local office of Austin-based STG is handling architectural work for AJ Capital. The lawsuit notes the marquee sign was designed “as a nod to historic (and former) Nashville theaters like the Crescent, the Paramount and the Roxy."

The lawsuit references the MHZC having voiced concerns that 1) approving the marquee sign would set a precedent, thus potentially leading to similar applications from other area businesses; 2) the sign itself would be a distraction due to its size; and 3) marquee signage is not addressed in the commission’s guidelines. The plaintiff counters by noting the commission's 4-1 decision “was not supported by material evidence” and is asking the court to rule the MHZC vote was without merit.

Commissioner Elizabeth Mayhall voted to approve the signage. Commissioners Menié Bell (chair), David Price, Mina Johnson and Kaitlyn Jones voted to disapprove. Price questioned if the marquee was necessary for the business to succeed, according to the minutes of the meeting.

AJ Capital, which paid $24.5 million for the building in October 2021 (read here), says in the lawsuit updating the building will cost $55 million (though it is unclear if that figure is in addition to the purchase price).

The building has been given a "tourist-oriented business" designation, the lawsuit reads, thus making its reinvention noteworthy.

Pablo David, AJ Capital vice president, government affairs and community relations, emailed the Post the following:

"Chief’s … is going to deliver a different experience with a seated music venue on Lower Broadway that will showcase local Nashville musicians. Our signage design reflects that and we are continuing to work with our friends and partners at Metro Historic to come up with a solution that everyone can be proud of. The filing is merely the best path available in the appeal process. We are absolutely committed to preserving this important historic property with appropriate first-class signage.”

The Metro Law Department declined to comment.

AJ Capital is represented by the local office of Bradley Arant Boult Cummings.

AJ (Adventurous Journeys) Capital has undertaken multiple projects in Nashville, including The Graduate Hotel in Midtown, Nashville Warehouse in Chestnut Hill and May Hosier Co-op in Wedgewood-Houston.

My Nashville Post role has evolved since 2000 when I joined the now-defunct The City Paper. TCP became a Post sister publication in 2008 (when I began doing some Post work) and folded in 2013. I have been managing editor of the Post since late 2011.