Son of the Nashville Thermal Plant it’s not. Preliminary drawings of the new gas and electric plantknown as the District Energy System (DES)look nothing like the concrete and metal trash-burning monster it will replace. That is by design.
Instead of a giant steaming stack and walls of ribbed concrete broken only by rusting metal vents, picture a three-story brick warehouse along the lines of the old Werthan Bag factory. The exterior actually will be a roofless shell wrapping the chillers and pumps, boilers and pipeswith no visible stacks. “The whole idea is that the plant should fit into the context of the row warehouses on First and Second avenues,” project architect Gary Everton explains.
The footprint for the new $66.7 million alternative fuel plant is approximately 43,000 square feet, almost an acre. That’s a pretty big box. “The biggest design challenge is to minimize the intimidating impact of that box,” Everton says. “That means you have to articulate the walls, divide them into bays, break them up with windows and an interplay of materials.” He says that the design is still evolving, but “we intend to have some detailing of the cornice and of the brick around the windows.” The foundation, while of concrete, will be scored by deep horizontal incisions. “The base of the building [will] look like the limestone foundations of old buildings.”
Next to the plant itself will be Nashville Electric Service’s equipment yard, also screened from view by a brick wall. Metro is currently negotiating with NES to bury the power lines feeding the plant, to eliminate unsightly poles and wires. “I’m really excited that Metro is willing to make the investment of time and money to fit the plant into the urban fabric,” Everton says.
The site selected for plant and yard also reflects the desire of Mayor Bill Purcell and city planners to nestle the structure into the urban context while fulfilling practical necessities. To site the plant, the Metro Development and Housing Agency (MDHA) is purchasing 3.1 acres at the corner of Hermitage Avenue and Peabody Street, on the south flank of the future Gateway Boulevard. MDHA development director Phil Ryan expects the price “to be in the range of $2.2 million.”
Skeptics question the wisdom of Metro purchasing private land for the new plant when the city already owns so many surrounding acres: the 10-acre thermal site to the north and the 35 acres of Rolling Mill Hill to the south. But according to Ed Owens, a Gresham Smith & Partners planner who serves as a consultant on the project, there were technical and financial reasons for the choice.
For starters, the DES plant couldn’t go on the thermal site because the plant must stay operational while the new one is built. Yet a nearby location is optimal, Owens explains, “because the new plant will feed heating and cooling through the pipes now used by thermal. And the diameter of the pipes is largest near thermal, getting smaller the farther away you go.”
The site is in close proximity to the existing network of energy distribution pipes, which allows Metro to extend the network to the new plant at a controlled cost. Siting it between large Metro-owned properties scheduled for major redevelopment could also help the plant’s balance sheet. “Metro is looking at how to grow its customer base for the new energy plant,” Owens says, “to amortize the plant’s cost. The heating and cooling for new development on the thermal site and Rolling Mill Hill, as well as the Howard School complex a couple of blocks away, could be supplied by DES.”
Metro rejected a parcel it owns on the north flank of the future Gateway Boulevard because the central sector police station now stands there. “Once the bonds for the plant are issued, sometime this summer, Metro must be in a position to begin to build to make the bonds attractive to investors,” Owens says. Relocating the police in such a short time would be next to impossible. “The police station site is also smaller, only a little more than an acre,” he says. Placing the DES plant there would give it visual prominence on First Avenue.
But the goal the mayor established is to make the plant as inconspicuous as possible. Owens explains that the plan is to place the new plant at the eastern edge of the land MDHA is acquiring, away from Hermitage Avenue and toward Crockett Street, which is little more than an alley formerly used by trucks hauling trash to thermal.
MDHA will find a commercial developer for the remaining acreage at the corner of Hermitage and the future Gateway Boulevard. “The plan is to wrap the corner with a three- or four-story building for retail and offices,” Owens says, to complement the urban village concept for Rolling Mill Hill. “And the slope of the site will allow for underground parking topped by a plaza at the rear. This corner development, and future development on Rolling Mill Hill, will screen the view of the long sides of the plant from Hermitage and from the Gateway Bridge,” he says. “The plant needs to look good now, because it will stand alone originally, but ultimately only the short sides will be really visible.”
The mayor affirms that the site of the plant, and its design, reflect a juggling act between costs and benefits, present needs and future goals. “You can do anythingat a cost,” Purcell says. “You could push the pipes all the way up to the trolley barns [on Rolling Mill Hill]. You could tear down the trolley barns. I’m against that. You could build the plant on the highest point of Rolling Mill Hill. It could be the first thing that people see coming across the new bridge. But I think there will be a greater and higher use than an energy plant for such highly visible land.”
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