Instead of a sight for sore eyes, a planned NES substation could turn Korean Veterans Boulevard into a site for eyesores 

If Metro Council approves $585 million for a new convention center, one of the first steps to clear the 15-acre site is the relocation of the NES substation at Sixth Avenue and Demonbreun Street. Remember? This is the substation that Music City Center boosters estimated would cost $1 million to move, back in 2006.

Last December, the NES board awarded the relocation contract to Atlanta's Aubrey Silvey Enterprises, contingent on the center's approval. The Metro Development and Housing Agency's convention center project manager, Mark Sturtevant, says the cost of new substation and feeder lines will now run approximately $20 million.

Bad news? It gets worse. Sturtevant says the site selected for the new substation is on Sixth Avenue north of Peabody Street, in the space currently occupied by Rocketown. "We have to acquire this property anyway for the right-of-way for [the extension of] Korean Veterans Boulevard," he explains.

The problem is that this location puts the substation on what was conceived as one of downtown's most appealing elements — a boulevard intended as a spacious, pedestrian-friendly gateway, not a canyon of bulky monoliths.

When urban design advocates fought to tame Metro's plans to run a seven-lane highway through SoBro in the 1990s, their goal, stated in the 1997 Plan for SoBro, was "a tree-lined boulevard that is a major public space, a 'great street' like Monument Avenue in Richmond or Commonwealth Avenue in Boston."

The 2005 design guidelines for what was then called Gateway Boulevard, produced by Everton Oglesby Architects in collaboration with MDHA and Metro's Planning Department, reiterate this vision of the street "as a focal point for urban activity in Nashville — a gathering space for the city's pedestrians and a meeting place of downtown's various commercial and residential ambitions. ... Well-trafficked urban streets are most often lined with activity-generating uses, such as retail stores and restaurants."

This ideal is a far cry from the impending reality if the Music City Center and the substation are built as planned. On the boulevard's north side: six blocks of an intermittently used megabox with big-truck access and a thin strip optimistically dedicated to retail or office. Across the street: the dumb box of an NES machinery shell.

Sturtevant says he's hoping for "a pretty neat enclosure" for the juice station, and points out that "there will still be some space" on the boulevard in front of the substation. "We're trying to carve out a vehicle-charging station on KVB," adds Paul Allen, vice president of engineering for NES. It's hard to imagine pedestrians magnetized by these "amenities."

According to Allen, the relocation is limited by technical considerations. "If you move too far south and/or west, it changes the area of service, which currently extends north almost to the state Capitol," Allen says. "That would mean a lot more work and expense." To minimize the move, "the original concept was to put the new substation under" the Music City Center, the engineer explains. "But that raised safety and cost issues."

An NES substation on what will be SoBro's main street, however, raises questions about just what kind of neighborhood we're going to end up with in SoBro. Growing an urban neighborhood in SoBro will be hard enough with the Music City megabox sowing salt onto potentially fertile ground. The NES substation could just rub more salt into our civic wound.

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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