Silent Partners

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August 2011

Silence reigns in the community room of Porter East, the hybrid retail-residential development in East Nashville. Above cozy overstuffed sofas, a muted flat-screen television broadcasts the national news, while a tenant video chats voicelessly through her laptop. Few words travel through the hushed space, but the design of the noiseless environment clearly communicates the fact that someone is listening to the needs of its deaf and hard-of-hearing residents.

One of a handful of facilities nationwide catering to individuals with hearing difficulties, Porter East opened this spring in the former Cornelia House nursing home, at the intersection of Porter Road and Eastland Avenue. The mixed-use strip is the brainchild of local nonprofit Urban Housing Solutions (UHS), which provides affordable rental housing to low-income residents. In the first phase of renovation, UHS has created 20 one-bedroom units for residents who are deaf or hard of hearing and who earn between 50 and 80 percent of the median income.

When entrepreneur Forrest Preston donated the 44,000-square-foot nursing home to Urban Housing Solutions in 2008, the nonprofit partnered with Bridges (formerly the League for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing and the EAR Foundation) to design a facility unlike anything in Nashville. While the majority of deaf housing focuses on seniors, Porter East is an all-ages community. In the model unit, staged by Prix de Solde with playful colors and whimsical designs, the look is contemporary and chic. A half-wall between sleeping and common areas lends a modern flow to the floorplan, but the open design is about more than stylish architecture. “Openness is important to people who are deaf, because they need to be able to communicate visually,” explains project manager Brent Elrod.

Local architect John TeSelle worked with John Dickinson, a deaf architect from Boulder, Colo., to address the unique needs of the residents. For example, extra wide corridors allow residents to walk two abreast to maintain visual contact. Half-walls, which articulate the space in both private and common areas, allow strobe lights to pass between rooms, alerting residents of door signals, smoke alarms and other visual messages. Closed-circuit television will offer views of the communal areas, so residents can see when guests arrive, and property managers are currently working on a strobe system that will alert residents about weather warnings.

“Community space is key to the project,” Elrod explains, adding that many residents have come to Porter East from environments in which they lived with family, “mostly isolated in a hearing world.” In the community room, a computer terminal provided by Purple Communications allows residents to communicate in sign language to non-signing speakers, via a relay that translates sign to voice. In the back yard of the property, community food advocate Sizwe Herring, along with volunteers from Bridges and U.S. Bank, helped install a row of garden plots for residents to tend.

While traditional retail-residential developments tend to situate business and living areas on different levels in an effort to minimize noise disturbance, such conflicts are unlikely at Porter East, even when the patio of anchor tenant Cooper’s on Porter restaurant overflows late at night. In fact, retail flow can benefit a deaf community, where residents can be susceptible to crime. “Commercial activity means extra traffic, extra eyes and security,” Elrod says.

In addition to Cooper’s, Porter East is currently home to The Almond Tree bakery, J and HP boutique, Montessori East, BMerin Salon, Melted Memory gifts, Massage East and Sloss Fine Woodworking. As UHS embarks on the next phase of renovating the former nursing home, more retail, office and residential spaces will become available.

Meanwhile, as the population of Porter East grows, UHS is working to foster a sense of community among residents. Elrod cites a survey of hard-of-hearing Nashvillians that showed a widespread desire to live near Bridges, which hosts events for the deaf community. Elrod hopes to create a similar draw at Porter East. “We’re building a schedule of recurring events, such as poker nights, potluck suppers, game nights and movie screenings,” he says. “We’re hoping this will become another center of gravity in the local deaf universe.” 

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