Booking Space 

Finding room for a new library

Finding room for a new library

By Christine Kreyling

Inside Metro

Looking north from the corner of Broadway and Second Avenue, you see commerce crowned by government. The Victorian warehouses that line the avenue are evidence of Nashville’s original reason for being. “The Big French Lick” that became Nashborough was a river port, a regional center distributing agriculture and animal pelts to the outside world.

The Metro Courthouse, riding the hill’s crest, symbolizes something else again. The Courthouse’s classical styling speaks a language of stability and permanence, clarity and order. After the bustle of capitalism, the eye comes to rest on the civic institution that binds enterprising individuals into an enduring community.

For 60 years Nashville’s citizens have cherished and ignored this sightline. Now Mayor Phil Bredesen is proposing a new civic order. As part of his Metro budget presentation last week, the mayor announced a plan to place a new downtown library at the top of Second Avenue. Nashville’s master builder has plans to build again.

In Bredesen’s plan the main library would stand in front of the courthouse, separated from it by a park or plaza, with the parking underground. The library would become part of a civic campus that ultimately would include a new courthouse at the eastern edge of the square, the three buildings forming a U shape. Public learning would take equal place alongside the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of city government.

Ever since Bredesen proclaimed the obvious need for a new main library, there has been speculation about the best location for it. In his 1993 State of Metro address, the mayor favored Centennial Park, but Metro Parks director Jim Fyke later convinced him that blocking the view of the Parthenon was not a good idea.

The downtown post office was mentioned as a possible home for the library, and so was the Union Station train shed. State officials tried to snag the new building for the Bicentennial Mall. The possibility of a library somewhere on Church Street surfaced at the time when the public—horrified by the increasing blight of surface parking—clamored for a halt in that street’s deterioration.

These proposals were driven by various agendas: the need for adequate library space, the urge to save historic buildings, the crusade to kick-start new development on a former retail corridor, the desire to provide an anchor for a state park.

Shelf life

The mayor has an agenda of his own: He wants a town square for Nashville. The idea came to him when he attended the Mayor’s Institute on City Design in the spring of 1996. At the Institute, Bredesen was asked to put his finger on the center of his city, and he realized that Nashville doesn’t have one. He decided that the new library could give the city a heart. Back home in Nashville, he looked out his office window, and, in place of asphalt and magnolia trees, he envisioned a main library on the Courthouse Square.

But symbolic aptitude alone cannot determine the site for a new downtown library. According to library director Donna Mancini, the new library must offer 300,000 square feet of space if it is to serve Metro for 30 to 40 years. That’s a big building. There are 250,000 square feet in the Metro Courthouse.

To bring Nashville up to parity with other cities of its size, the new structure would house an expanded collection of books and serials, along with a children’s room, an auditorium or theater, community meeting rooms, central reference resources for the entire system, spaces in which to teach computer and research skills, and the library system’s administrative offices. Materials on regional history, now crammed into the Nashville Room of the main library, would get breathing space in a special-collections area. What Mancini calls “enterprise spaces”—a copy shop and a coffee shop where booklovers can sip and scan the latest bestseller—are also part of the plan.

Mancini says accessibility is a key consideration. The location must be central enough for pedestrians—the business researchers who rush in for a quick microfilm fix and the lunchtime crowd that stops by to scan The New York Times or check out a video. To serve non-drivers, the library will have to provide access to public transit. Suburbanites researching the family tree or attending a special event will require convenient access from the interstate. “Our survey of users indicates that people come from all over the county,” Mancini explains.

Nashvillians consider convenient parking a birthright. The proposed 400 spaces in the new library’s attached or underground garage must accommodate school buses as well as family autos. Mancini hopes to attract youngsters to free Sunday-afternoon puppet shows and ballet performances. A loading dock—where trucks can deliver the library’s main commodity, books—is sorely needed.

The library director would prefer a location that “gets something going” with other downtown institutions such as Watkins Institute, the Tennessee State Archives, the Tennessee Performing Arts Center, and Hume-Fogg Magnet School. “Energy happens in a city when people can walk from place to place,” Mancini says. Her plan brings Metro Archives in from its exile on Elm Hill Pike and houses it in what is now the Ben West Public Library. That move would make it easier for citizens to utilize the archives’ vast collections—the new library, therefore, should be within walking distance of the old one.

Of course, any discussion about the location of a new downtown library is just a parlor game if the Metro Council does not pass the budget to fund it. “Where it goes pales in comparison to how much it costs,” says Council member Ronnie Steine.

The $110 million library package includes four new branches in the suburbs and the rehab of existing branches, as well as $81 million for the main library. Bredesen is already pointing out to Council members that improving the branch system is good for their districts.

Revised editions

For months, Bredesen has been working with a map of downtown and possible library plans. The mayor originally placed the library on the river edge of the Courthouse square, sandwiched between the Woodland and Victory Memorial Bridges. He consulted with architects at Gresham, Smith and Partners, who had studied that location when then-Mayor Richard Fulton considered it as the site for a proposed Metro office building. The architects told Bredesen that a riverside library would necessitate special construction costs because the site slopes down to the Cumberland. “Faced with a large known expense, and a potential unknown one if we ran into foundation problems, I began to have second thoughts,” Bredesen says.

After talking with local architect Kem Hinton, the mayor relocated his proposed library at the top of Second Avenue. “Kem made a cogent case for why this was a better location than along the river,” says Bredesen.

A readers' guide

The Nashville Urban Design Forum is a group of design professionals and interested bystanders who meet monthly to discuss issues of urban design. At its April gathering, the group considered possible locations for a downtown library. No clear consensus was reached. Each location presented problems and opportunities that only a thorough site analysis can resolve:

Courthouse Square: Union Street and Second Avenue


♦ The city already owns the property. Funds required to buy land elsewhere could be used to build underground parking here.

♦ Courthouse Square is convenient to Nashville’s business life, yet it is accessible from the suburbs via I-65.

♦ The square has symbolic significance as the center of Metro government. It’s our best opportunity for a library-as-monument.


♦ The square is close to Second Avenue’s heavy traffic. Tourists who frequent that street seek line-dancing, not book stacks.

♦ A Courthouse Square library would not serve as an anchor for downtown redevelopment.

The mayor is not unduly bothered that placing the library on Union would eliminate the sightline of the Courthouse from Second Avenue. “The Courthouse is attractive,” he explains, “but it’s not something to design the city around. It’s not exactly the Alamo, or even the Ryman. Besides, in 50 years both the Court-house and the library will be historic buildings.”

Church Street at Fifth Avenue, site of the old Cain-Sloan department store


♦ It’s in the heart of downtown.

♦ It could serve as a catalyst for the redevelopment of Church Street.

♦ There would be no demolition costs.

♦ It’s located on Fifth Avenue, the north/south spine.


♦ The property is hemmed in, from the rear, by the Central Church of Christ, and church officials are unwilling to sell their building, which is flanked by a parking lot to the south. Bredesen maintains that the Cain-Sloan site is “too tight; you’d have to build too high.”

♦ The lot, now owned by developer Tony Giarratana, would cost approximately $9 million. If the church property were available, the cost would go up to $12 million.

♦ A centralized urban site might discourage the suburbanites.

Church Street Centre, Seventh and Church


♦ Another central location, it might be a catalyst for Church Street redevelopment

♦ There’s already a parking garage.

♦ The retail shopping mall is going nowhere.

♦ It would provide good civic symbolism, since it provides a direct sightline to the Tennessee State Capitol.


♦ The cost of buying out the current owners would be $8 million to $10 million.

♦ Demolishing a relatively new building would seem wasteful.

Church Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues


♦ It’s another possible Church Street catalyst.

♦ It’s cheaper than other Church Street locations; land acquisition is estimated at $5 million.

♦ It’s a larger site than the Cain-Sloan site.

♦ Access from I-40 for suburbanites is relatively painless.

♦ It’s just a block from the existing library, the proposed home of Metro Archives.


♦ It’s perceived as being too removed from the center of things.

♦ There will have to be massive redevelopment along Church Street before this site is tied into the city.


♦ It’s perceived as being too removed from the center of things.

♦ There will have to be massive redevelopment along Church Street before this site is tied into the city.


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