When William Butler Yeats wrote, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” he might have been describing Nashville’s Church Street. The street, once downtown Nashville’s main thoroughfare, connected the office buildings to the east and the retail district to the west. Now, however, the State of Tennessee is migrating north toward the Bicentennial Mall, and Metro is pulling south toward the arena and the “Gateway” redevelopment area beyond. Church Street, once the heartline of downtown Nashville, is now the fault line between these seismic shifts.
Meanwhile, what remains of downtown Nashville’s historic architecture is toppling into the widening fissure. Central Parking plans to demolish the terra cotta-encrusted South Central Bell building at Third Avenue and Church, as well as the old Harvey’s department store on Church between Sixth Avenue and Capitol Boulevard. Surface parking lots will take the place of these landmarks, just as they have taken over the sites once occupied by the Tennessee Theater/Sudekum building, the Crescent Theater, Cain-Sloan and five demolished structures in Church Street’s 700 block.
The buildings left standing on the street aren’t doing too well either. Castner-Knott recently announced plans to abandon its downtown location after Feb. 3. The Doctors’ Building, on the north side of Church Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, has stood empty since state government abandoned it and moved into the former American General tower. The Bennie Dillon Building next door has stood vacant, an easy target for vandalism, for at least five years. With the departure of Castner’s, Church Street Centre’s future as a retail outpost is uncertain. A recent fire in two turn-of-the-century buildings at the corner of Church and Sixth Avenue is a troubling reminder of the dangers that can beset neglected buildings.
Nashvillians have been worrying about Church Street for years. A history of the mayoral and Chamber of Commerce committees devoted to the subject would fill a volume. Vague worries have evolved into acute anxiety of late because of the quickening pace of the demolition. We had gotten used to the street’s gradual decay, just as we had gotten used to the decline of Second Avenue before the Gaylord gold rush. Destruction, however, is another matter; it is dramatic and irrevocable. Nashvillians still haven’t recovered from the 1990 demolition of Church Street’s Art Deco Sudekum tower. In Nashville’s Life’s recent best/worst contest, this structure won hands down in the “I wish they hadn’t torn it down” category. Next year that distinction might go to the whole street.
Wide open spaces
To encourage positive thinking, the Metro Development and Housing Agency has commissioned a Church Street master plan from Economic Research Associates (ERA) of Washington, D.C., and RTKL Associates, the Dallas-based planning and design firm that consulted on the Subarea 9 Plan for downtown. These firms are working in partnership with a team of locals: Seab Tuck of Tuck Hinton Architects, Philip Walker of Community Planning and Research, and Steve Tocknell, a transportation planner. They expect to complete a master plan by early May.
The team’s initial task of physical and economic analysis has been complicated by the rapidly changing face of the street itself. Mapping the existing site is tough on erasers. “We think we’ve got it,” says Seab Tuck, “and then the next day we read in the paper that another building is coming down or there’s a fire.”
In this volatile climate, public opinion has become polarized: Either the captains of parking are shrewd businessmen doing the dirty work necessary for redevelopment, or they are greedy bloodsuckers draining the life of the city. Central Parking and Allright Parking, while certainly the instigators of Church Street’s demise, are definitely squabbling over the rubble. The signs marking their respective paved parking areas look like tombstones on Boot Hill.
Monroe Carell, Central Parking’s CEO, is frank in defending his company’s use of the bulldozer. “In an urban area, surface parking is a last use,” he says. “Typically, the buildings we demolish have been vacant for some time. The present owners of the Harvey’s building have had it for five years with no income. And they have had to pay the note, taxes and liability insurance.”
“We don’t want the Harvey’s property to stay a parking lot,” Carell insists. “The parking business is unique in that we are in business to hold property on an interim basis. The average is five to six years.” The revenue from a surface lot pays the note and the taxes. Profit comes when the property is resold for redevelopment. “What we do is warehouse land,” Carell says. “I believe that assemblage enhances the value of property because it creates a large block of land with no hold-outs. We used the principle of assemblage for the South Central Bell tower, for a large part of where the arena is, for the Stouffer’s Hotel, for Church Street Centre.”
Park and lock
No one disagrees with Carell’s assessment that a lot paved with asphalt is more attractive to developers than a lot occupied by an old, empty building. A clean slate doesn’t obstruct images of new development. A sight that is sexy to developers, however, may not seem quite so attractive to consumers, or to the investors who want their business.
“A surface parking lot in one place, or even two or three, is probably not a major disincentive to future investment,” says Seab Tuck. “But on Church Street there’s so much parking that it’s starting to look suburban, which is not what cities do well. McDonald’s built on a parking lot on Second Avenue because all around were buildings already generating activity. They didn’t have to be pioneers.”
Pioneering is what is called for on Church Street now. According to Carell, tax-increment financing and the other incentives provided by the redevelopment district that includes part of Church Street may not be enough to bring in the settlers. “The city may have to go further, with some sort of tax abatement or rebate for designated uses, such as housing. If state law doesn’t allow such things now, we may have to change it,” Carell says.
Legislating a future for Church Street will require more subtle urban planning than Nashville has practiced in the past. The street is virtually paved with well-intentioned mistakes. In our desperation we turned it into a bad imitation of a Ye Olde Village Lanecurvy streets and sidewalks paved with brick, metal light standards topped with pseudo-gaslights and concrete aggregate planters. We replaced vacant department stores with a shopping mall. We sponsored murals on unused buildings, art exhibits in empty windows. In hopes of turning things around, we attempted to disguise failure with fake history. We were wrong. The net result of the streetside improvements has been debilitating: impromptu games of bumper cars with drivers who can’t figure out how to meander in tandem, murals whose faded and peeling paint advertises despair, vagrants relieving themselves in the tulips.
Like so many other American cities, Nashville failed to understand the steps that led to the exodus from the city: First, residential moves from the city to more distant locations; then retail follows. The city tried to infuse new life into downtown retail without doing much to maintain the old urban neighborhoods or to construct new ones that could supply a customer base. We have not invested in a good transit system to feed the center city. We pay for our lack of comprehension with a downtown that, except for The District’s world-o-tourists, is not much more than an office park with a twist: You must pay to stash your car.
One more time
The team working on the master plan is learning from past mistakes. Tom Lavash of ERA knows that “traditional department stores just won’t work. And the 14-15 percent vacancy rate in the downtown core for Class A office space suggests that new office construction may be a long time coming. We see real opportunities for two types of developmentresidential and cultural.”
The planning team is well aware of Tony Giarratana’s design to build a high-density residential tower to replace the Sudekum building, and preliminary studies indicate that a market could exist for additional living space in smaller developments. Culture comes in as the Watkins Institute’s film school makes plans to move into the former site of Woolworth’s, a project now in the fund-raising stage. Other possibilities are a new main library or even a new Cumberland Science Museum. “Right now, we’re looking at various sites on the street for all these major possibilities,” says Tuck. “Then we’ll begin to plan for the activities and structures that support them, for amenities like a park or a plaza.”
Existing buildings may have a supporting role to play in this scenario, says Tuck. Low-rise structures could make good locations for additional apartments, for the dry cleaner, grocery stores and banks that supply the everyday needs of the resident, and for the poster stores, restaurants and art-movie houses that nourish the culture crowd.
The old buildings can also provide a context for what is to come. “As planners, our concern with demolition is that you lose the fabric, the historic identity of the street,” says Tom Lavash. “This is especially bad if the uses that supplant the history aren’t attractive. A high-rise building with a windswept plaza can’t replace the comfort level of a four-story historic structure.”
Philip Walker, another member of the planning team, explains that “a street is an outdoor room, and people feel comfortable in a room if it has walls. Open parking lots don’t encourage pedestrians. Walking in the Green Hills shopping area makes you feel like an indigent.”
According to Carell, however, Walker and those who share his view are “living in utopia.”
“Church Street has declined,” Carell says. “If we don’t clear the old Harvey’s building, then nothing else can and will happen.”
This debate sounds familiar to Ann Reynolds, executive director of the Metro Historical Commission. “The primary argument used to demolish historic buildings is always an economic onethat they are obsolete, too expensive to rehab,” she says. “I can’t tell you the number of times it was saidabout the Ryman, about Second Avenue, about East Nashvillethat they just wouldn’t work. Fortunately, that viewpoint didn’t prevail.”
If we had not had the patience to wait on the Ryman or Second Avenue, we would not have had the elements that are now helping to reknit the city fabric. Surface parking may be transitional, but so are empty old buildings. Parking lots generate revenue immediately if minimally, while empty buildings don’t make any money at all. Nevertheless, such buildings, even if empty, are a key factor that differentiates downtowns from suburban office parks.
Nashville should not be eliminating options while a master plan for Church Street is still in the works. Many cities forbid the demolition of downtown structures for surface parking, and many permit surface parking as a conditional use, setting a time limit for the transition to redevelopment and requiring that a plan for the future be in place before existing structures are destroyed.
Nashville’s zoning ordinance of 1974 originally allowed surface parking in the central core under similar conditions. It required a review by the Board of Zoning Appeals and set a five-year limit on parking-lot permits. That ordinance was amended in 1989, under pressure from developers who found the original requirements too stringent. This slackening has not produced improved downtown development, or even more of it.
Taken as a group, the buildings on Church Street do not have the architectural significance of those on Second Avenue. But the ones that remain may establish a scale and a look for the ones that will follow them. If Church Street becomes a place that combines residence and commerce, it will be déjà-vu all over again.
In the days before the demolition of buildings to make way for Church Street Centre, I had the chance to explore some of the structures scheduled for the wrecking ball. On the upper story of one building, I found the remains of a turn-of-the century apartment, complete with vintage wall paper, a beaded-wood kitchen, and large windows opening out onto the street. For a moment, I had a physical sense of what it was like to live in a city, sit near the window after work with a beer in hand, and watch the people bustle along below. It is ironic that the master plan team is thinking of reinventing a tradition that we as a city destroyed. Let’s not compound the irony by destroying still more of the very life we may find ourselves trying to rebuild.
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