Not many American cities larger than Mayberry have low- to mid-rise Main Streets. Public officials, through zoning policies, have typically encouraged developers to proclaim the most important street in town by putting the tallest structures on or near it. Nashville’s Lower Broad, however, still retains its historic, small-town scale.
That’s in part because, until recently, Broadway marked the edge—not the center—of what was commonly considered downtown. Tall structures went to the north, where the rise in topography accentuated both their prominence and that of the business elite who occupy them. In pre-SoBro days, south of Broadway was reserved for shorter-stature, functional places—machine and auto body shops, fabric outlets, paint stores—not paramount to the city’s self-image as the Wall Street of the South. Lower Broad itself—from Fifth Avenue to the Cumberland River—was gritty honky-tonk territory on which the convention center turned its back and to which winos migrated after the Ryman’s loss of the Opry in the 1970s.
But as development and land values grow south of Broadway, Lower Broad is no longer an edge between the culture and entertainment campus and the rest of downtown; it’s a zipper. That evolution is delivering development pressures to the street.
The latest upscale push (in more ways than one) is on the south block between Second and Third avenues. That’s where the Arkansas-based Barber Group and Sage Hospitality of Denver propose to construct a Westin Hotel—designed by JG Johnson Architects, also of Denver—that would rise to 19 stories, or 201 feet. And that has Metro planners and preservationists crying foul.
Because the building site falls within two Metro Development and Housing Agency (MDHA) redevelopment districts, the project must pass through the agency’s design review process. And because some of the structures within this block are part of the Broadway National Register Historic District, the design review committee has to consider both general issues of urban design and how the development plan treats these buildings.
At a meeting of the review committee last week, the development team presented the latest version of their plan for a 350-room hotel and 38 condos (25 percent of it affordable housing), street-level retail, restaurant and music venues that front on Broadway. The upper floors of the three 19th century buildings now housing Trail West would contain condos, with the rear sections shaved off for incorporation into the hotel complex.
The current Broadway homes of Kelly’s Western Wear & Leather, Broadway Gifts and Decades would be completely bulldozed, replaced by hotel-oriented new construction of the same height as the Trail West buildings. The 1920s Richards & Richards warehouse on Third Avenue would also disappear. The structures slated for demolition weren’t included in the 1980 National Register nomination for Broadway, although Metro Historical Commission (MHC) executive director Ann Roberts says they’re Register-eligible.
Zoning in the area surrounding the central business district requires that the portions of new construction rising over 65 feet in height be set back from the property line according to a receding formula. This is meant to prevent the front wall of the building from towering over pedestrians. The farther away from the shores of Broadway, to mix metaphors, the higher the building waves can rise. The profile of the Westin complex meets the setback requirement on all but the Third Avenue side, for which the developers would have to seek a variance. Despite this compliance, however, Ann Roberts says, “It’s just too much building too close to Broadway.”
Roberts also cautions that tearing off the rear ends of the three historic buildings could cause the feds who administer the National Register—the nation’s official list of what’s preservation-worthy—to remove them from this listing because they would no longer contribute to the area’s historic character. Roberts is unsure whether this de-listing could jeopardize the Register status of the rest of the Broadway district, which goes west to Fifth Avenue. Losing this designation would strip property owners of the possibility of a 20 percent federal tax credit for historic rehab. Because of her warning, the committee has deferred a decision on the project. MDHA executive director Phil Ryan says the development team will confer further with MHC on “absolutely what is required to retain the National Register listing. The design is still developing.” Ryan hopes that a revised Westin plan can be offered b efore the committee in a week to 10 days.
David Koellein of MDHA agreed at the meeting that it’s important “to maintain the historic character of the old buildings. But he says he’s “not a bit concerned about the scale” of the new construction because the setbacks of the upper levels retain the low rise “valley of Broadway.”
What’s a valley to one is a canyon to another. Metro Planning Department executive director Rick Bernhardt compliments the good architecture. But for him the Westin site “is too critical a location for this height and massing.” When Planning developed guidelines for SoBro that permit a maximum height of 220 feet,” he explains, “we specifically left off the blocks on the south side of Broadway, because we thought the historic scale should be more controlling.”
Bernhardt presented to the committee an analysis of the profiles of recent construction near Broadway in terms of the ratio of building height to distance from the street. According to this analysis, the Westin at its highest point compares to the ratio of the BellSouth building a block farther off Broadway. He suggested that a ratio comparable to that of the Third and Commerce building or the Hilton Hotel—which would yield a maximum height for Westin of approximately eight stories—would be more appropriate.
The numbers may not work with the lower height. Brandon Rains of the Barber Group says that the development team realizes that “it’s a special location and we want high-fives from the city,” but that “certain things can’t change. The land values, the economic factors dictate the number of rooms and that dictates the height.”
It’s obvious why the Westin group wants this site. The location offers the best of both worlds, wedged between the old—Broadway and Second Avenue—and the new rising to the south. It’s also obvious why MDHA wants this project. “As long as the design is sensitive to the historic context,” Ryan says, “we always want a $100 million mixed-use development that brings life to the street in downtown.”
The question is just how sensitive we as a city want to be. Metro was less than sensitive when it rolled over on its back and spread its legs for Planet Hollywood and NASCAR Cafe to bring life to Broadway. These tourist traps left behind two buildings whose upper levels no longer work because the internal relationship between floors and windows was destroyed—along with their listing on the Register. The Richards & Richards storage warehouse, with its concrete frame infilled with brick and industrial windows, represents one of the few historic building types remaining in SoBro. Its loss would be a serious blow, whether it’s on the Register or not.
In the case of the Westin Hotel, what planners must navigate is the ambiance of our Main Street and how high you can go before that ambiance is overpowered.
“There aren’t two more important areas for defining downtown’s character than Second Avenue and Lower Broad,” Bernhardt says. “They’re what make Nashville unique. If that’s not worth preserving, what is?”