An architect, partner, and owner at EOA Architects, Tracey Ford began her career straight out of grad school at Georgia Tech. Since then, she has been an integral part of shaping the look of Nashville, helping to design significant projects such as the early planning of SoBro, the Shelby Bottoms Nature Center, and the recently built BentoLiving Chestnut Hill. Unique to the Nashville market, EOA Architects is majority-women-owned and has been for several years. Though female-led firms may be on the rise, there’s no doubt that Tracey and her partners have been at the forefront of the movement. With an incredible roster of projects under her belt and many more on the horizon, Tracey is working to find creative ways to enhance the communities in which we live. Please welcome this week’s FACE of Nashville, Tracey Ford.
Tell us a bit of your EOA Architects background.
I’ve been here since 1998 — I started straight out of grad school from Georgia Tech! It was back when Nashville was super small. There wasn’t a huge design community. Luckily, I landed at EOA architects and had great mentors. A lot of my friends were like, “Come to New York!” And I told them, “Actually, Nashville is like this secret little gem. I knew that it was going to be something big. It was cool to be on the ground floor as a young architect at a cool design firm and be a part of that. Early on, we did the plan of SoBro when the Gateway Bridge was first constructed. We helped with some of the critical things that shaped Nashville. It has been great to grow up with Nashville and help it be even better.
You recently designed BentoLiving Chestnut Hill. Tell us about building the unique parking garage!
That was a really unique piece of property. It’s a triangular lot next to a railroad track with a 30-foot drop on less than an acre. They came to us and said, “We’d love to do this mixed-use development at a crazy site.” I always joke that it’s a site only an architect would love because it invites you to be creative with solving problems. One of the things needed to make it work was parking, and we knew we couldn’t park it traditionally. We looked at structured parking, which had never been done in Nashville, so we had to do a lot of homework. It was fun to have conversations with the city, codes, and fire inspectors to talk them into it. I enjoyed setting up meetings and saying, “I want to do this crazy thing in Nashville.” The folks here were like, “This is so cool; we want to help you figure this out!” We got a lot of support. I don’t think it could’ve happened in another environment, and it was fun to pull that off.
What are the challenges of developing a mixed-use project?
A project in a neighborhood that’s changing means we have a lot of conversations and public meetings. The neighborhood vibes are what’s important. As a firm, we’re interested in connecting our projects to the community and having many conversations to ensure there’s engagement. I think that’s a reason why folks come to us as opposed to outside firms — we know our neighborhoods because we live in them. We’re designing the types of things we want to have in our neighborhoods. It’s about figuring out how to create something meaningful and connected.
Do you have a favorite project that you’ve done to date?
It’s tough to pick your children! Bento is up there, but one of my favorites is Sevier Park. I’ve done a lot of work with Metro Parks throughout my career. One of my very first projects was East Park Community Center. I live in East Nashville, so that was dear to my heart, but I’ve had a long relationship with Parks, and I’ve been fortunate to do a lot of their special community and nature centers. At Sevier Park, we were able to recycle some of the prior center that was built in the ’60s. It had this gem floor with a great graphic pattern on it. We went before they tore down the old center and carved out big squares. They pulled them up for us, and we used them as mosaics on the wall — like a quilt. It was as if it continued with the fabric of the center that was there before, and I think that was really special.
We hear you have a cool story about designing the Shelby Bottoms Nature Center?
It’s in a floodplain, so we knew what the 100-year flood line was, and we raised the center by a couple of feet. I never expected the great flood of 2010, but [the building] was designed to flood. The director there called me when the flood was happening and said, ‘Tracey, I’m calling you from the center. I had to kayak two miles to get here, but everything works. I’m calling you on the landline!’ The water got within six inches of the finished floor, but the design was successful.”
What’s next in terms of your local park passion projects?
The Friends of Shelby group is revitalizing the old Naval building down at the river, which looks like the bow of a ship. They’re doing a public-private partnership with fundraising, and the city is putting in some money, too. The Center for Nonprofit Management helped us create a long-term plan to bring it back to life. There will be event space, public spaces, offices, and potentially, a restaurant. So, I’m excited to be a part of that. It’ll be called the Shelby Naval Commons, and it’ll happen in the next few years.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
“When you’re in a leadership role, think about responding first, not reacting.” Sometimes you want to respond to things quickly, but it’s always best to type out your first response. As an owner, I deal with many conflicts — it’s part of the job. Often, my instinct is to answer and fix things quickly, but it’s always best to write out the first response and sit on it. Give yourself at least an hour or two, then go back to it. I think that’s pretty solid advice.
Aside from faith, family, and friends, what are three things you cannot live without?
A great pair of shoes, a great outfit, and a latte first thing in the morning.
Read more interviews with our inspirational FACES in our archives!