Want to know why closing streets is a bad way to calm trafficand how to do it right? Or how to make a town center from an amorphous collection of strip malls and subdivisions? Nashville is finally going to have a place where you can get some answers.
Next Mondayat 10 a.m. in the First Amendment Center on Vanderbilt’s Peabody campusMayor Bill Purcell will announce the birth of a not-for-profit interdisciplinary center devoted to civic design. The center will provide an independent and politically neutral ground for the development of a three-dimensional vision for Nashville.
The Nashville Civic Design Center will focus on the area within the old city limits. That’s the same geography where recent zoning modifications now permit development that is urban rather than suburban in characterbuildings set close to the street and close to each other, with on-street and shared parking, and with mixed-use structures and corner stores to minimize our dependence on cars to do our daily business. As a non-regulatory institution, the design center’s power will be as great as its ability to explain to the Nashville community how and why such principles will make a better city.
It will serve the citizens who have a vested interest in the built environment. Developers can seek advice on how to make plans that serve neighborhoods as well as their own bottom lines. Neighborhood organizations can learn planning techniques to revitalize failing commercial districts without causing traffic jams. Council members can use the center to help untie knotty planning problems in their districts. Most important, the design center will be the town meeting hall for planning and design strategies. Its staff will stage public workshops, offering academic expertise on current planning theories and defusing the emotions that so often surround development projects before they reach the stage of a shouting match at a Council meeting.
Nashville’s Civic Design Center will stand on legs crafted by educational institutions, Metro government, and the private sector. University of Tennessee College of Architecture faculty member Mark Schimmenti and a postgraduate intern are offering the design smarts for the center. Schimmenti is an architect and urban designer who headed the design team that produced “The Plan for SoBro,” published by the Scene in 1997. He also served on the master planning team for the area surrounding the Bicentennial Mall.
Vanderbilt University is adding James Sandlin to the mix. Sandlin, a former dean and Vanderbilt’s community-relations expert, will head the center’s administration and community-outreach efforts. Tennessee State University has also expressed a strong interest in participating, but the details of its role have yet to be established.
Metro will provide some financial support for the design center, as well as contribute the half-time services of Metro staff from three departments: the Planning Department, the Metro Development and Housing Agency, and Public Works. Center supporters will look to a variety of community and private sources for the rest of the funding needed to keep the doors open for an initial three years.
The Nashville Civic Design Center fulfills a Purcell campaign promise, but the concept has a grassroots pedigree. For years, this writer and other Nashvillians who favored a revival of traditional planning principles as an alternative to suburban sprawl have gazed longingly at design centers in other cities. We watched centers come on board in Louisville (1987), Birmingham (1989), Chattanooga (1990), and Lexington, Ky. (1995)and witnessed how they helped to reweave the fabric of their respective cities.
In 1995, this core group of urbanists organized the Nashville Urban Design Forum to pave the way for such a center. The forum sponsored classes, taught by Schimmenti, in basic principles of civic design. Members began to hold monthly meetings focused on design and planning issues facing the citywhere to put a new downtown library, for example, and how to turn the Franklin Corridor into a boulevard. Purcell, then with the Vanderbilt Institute for Public Policy Studies, paid his membership dues, listened, and liked what he heard.
Some operating details, such as where the center will be housed, remain undetermined. The planning team is currently exploring a location in the Gulch, as well as the old Neuhoff packing plant on the Cumberland River north of downtown, an in-process renovation venture by the McRedmond family and the home of Nashville Cultural Arts Project. The design center’s 13-member board, which will establish priorities among the many possible projects the design team could study, has yet to be named.
The design center’s big-picture thinking about Nashville’s downtown and urban neighborhoods will complement the work of other planning organizations. As the government insider, Metro’s Planning Department is part of the political process rather than outside it. And the planning staffers are, by necessity, implementers rather than visionaries. Meanwhile, a new not-for-profit supported by VanderbiltCumberland Region Tomorrowwill bring a regional perspective to the planning table, focusing on systems like transportation that bring Middle Tennessee together.
It’s taken a long pregnancy and hard labor to deliver a design center to Nashville. I for one will greet the new arrival with a cheer.
No pigtails Pink, just pig.
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