There are several ways to make a case for saving Nashville’s Union Station train shedbut nostalgia isn’t the right one.
The most powerful fact about the shed is not its past, but its present status as a piece of magnificent architecture. Even in its current eroded condition, the skeleton encloses space of cathedral-like proportions. And the shed’s form-follows-function aestheticone that inspired the lean look of modernismcould happily shelter new architecture of contemporary design.
In addition, a group of developers and investors are prepared to implement a master plan for the Gulch that could turn the area into an urban village. If the private plan happens, the Gulch will need a public space, the kind of central gathering place that makes civic space civil. Under the circumstances, obliterating the good bones that could define such a civic space and replacing them with parking decks seems, to put it mildly, to be bad planning.
A salvation deal will be complex, involving a mixture of public and private funds for short-term repair and long-term reuse. But it’s doable if the powers that becity, state, and federal officials, and most importantly, the shed’s ownersare willing.
The way we were
The shed has become increasingly endangered in the course of my 15 years in Nashville. During that time I’ve heard many moving stories of tearful partings and happy homecomings, of soldiers who rode the rails to two world wars and rode them back (some in coffins), and of families reunited under the broad, sheltering roof. Mayor Bill Purcell has his own train shed story. In a recent conversation with the Scene, Purcell recalled his first arrival in Nashville at the train shed in 1976, when he came to check out the Vanderbilt law school.
Well, those memories are mellow, but they won’t shore up a truss. The shed’s history clearly has not been compelling enough to keep the place from falling into a sorry, sorry state.
Equally uncompelling, at least within city limits, is the Nashville train shed’s status as a National Landmark. Eleven of the train sheds that once stood by the side of every large rail station in the country survived into the final quarter of the 20th century, according to Eric DeLony, the chief of the Historic American Engineering Record for the Department of the Interior. In 1976, the Secretary of the Interior designated the seven most significant train shedsincluding Nashville’sas National Landmarks. Nashville made the national treasure list because its train shed is an engineering marvel, the longest single-span, gable-roofed structure in the United States at the time of its construction in 1900.
“Landmark designation was part of a strategy to draw the public’s attention to these structures,” DeLony explains, “as many were threatened at the time. The strategy worked. Every one of the sheds has been preserved by some form of adaptive or continued use except for the one in Nashville. I fear we find ourselves again in an 11th-hour situation.”
Try almost to 12 and counting.
With the kind of patience teachers use for slow learners, DeLony suggests possibilities for Nashville’s train shed by describing the myriad functions other historic train sheds serve: Savannah, Ga.’s, for example, houses its chamber of commerce and a city museum; Philadelphia’s serves as a conference and exhibit area to bolster its convention center; Harrisburg, Pa.’s is now an intermodal transportation facility and Amtrak station; Baltimore’s train shed has been transformed into a sculpture studio for the Maryland College of Art; Richmond, Va.’s is a retail shopping mall; and Montgomery, Ala.’s is home to an Amtrak station and farmers’ market.
Nashville has invested elsewhere for similar purposes. The Metro Development and Housing Agency (MDHA) used $6.5 million of tax increment financing (TIF) to subsidize developer Bobby Mathews’ speculative office tower at Third Avenue North and Commerce Street, now the new headquarters of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce. The Metro Transit Authority (MTA), meanwhile, used $3.7 million in federal money to build a new intermodal transportation facilitythe Clement Landportan ugly parking garage with a bus pad on top that, to add insult to injury, is within shouting distance of the shed in the railroad Gulch. Clearly Nashville isn’t into history.
If the culture of Nashville agrees with Henry Ford, who once proclaimed “history is bunk,” consider the present. As everyone who is even remotely interested in the shed’s fate knows by now, contractors working for Gateway to Nashvillethe LLC that owns the shed and includes principals Henry Sender, Noah Liff, and Eugene Sacks have applied for a permit to demolish the historic structure. Because the property is within MDHA’s Arts Center Redevelopment District, demolition requires a 90-day minimum waiting period, a public hearing, and a review by an MDHA-appointed committee.
The public hearing was in November. Now the decision is in the hands of the review committee. It will render a decision on whether to approve or deny the permit sometime between this week and when the 90-day minimum waiting period expires on Jan. 8.
At last Friday’s meeting of the review committee, Deputy Mayor Bill Phillips requested a delay until the possibility of federal aid could be more fully explored. The federal money in question is $8 million that U.S. Rep. Bob Clement secured in 1998 “to conduct the landport as a regional transportation hub.” The grant requires a 20 percent local match, and Clement recently told Metro officialsapparently for the first timethat he’d always intended the money go toward preserving the shed.
“Not until this week did anyone understand that the $8 million could be used for the shed,” Purcell says. “The underlying issue has always been the economic feasibility of saving it. Clement’s explanation, and Henry Sender’s public pledge to provide the local match of $1.7 million, changes the answer.”
The fact that Clement didn’t until recently see fit to inform Metro of his intent for the federal money must puzzle members of the mayor’s office, the Public Works Department, MTA, and the Planning Department. They’ve been meeting and consulting with Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) officials, who administer the funds, for the past eight months to figure out how to use the money. But hey, who’s going to look a gift horse in the mouth, even if what’s coming out of the horse’s mouth merits skepticism?
There are, however, strings around the federal gift that Clement will have to untie. In the spring of 1998, Sender requested some of the $8 million for the shed, according to TDOT’s Nancy Sartor. Sartor explained to Sender that the rules of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), through which the funds are funneled, say that the money can’t be used for private property or to produce private profits. FHWA also forbids introducing a transportation use, such as parking, into an historic structure unless that’s the only feasible use, a rule designed to keep roads from running roughshod over parks and historic architecture. “We told him to give us a proposal that met these conditions and never heard from him again,” Sartor says.
In support of their demolition request, the shed owners have presented engineering reports saying the shed could collapse any day. MDHA commissioned an independent study that confirmed the shaky status. The MDHA study estimates the cost of stabilization and repair to be a minimum of $2 million. Sender’s report says $5 million. The Gateway group told MDHA it is losing $43,500 per month while the shed is closed, because it is having to pay for the parking and shuttles for tenants of the adjacent Cummins Station.
The property value of the shed is a moving target. Statements MDHA has received from Gateway say the group paid CSX $250,000in back taxes and penaltiesfor the property in 1996, and that the property is currently worth $8.4 million. Metro officials point out that the real value of the property in the 1999 tax appraisal was originally set at $2.8 million, but the figure was reduced to $2.3 million after Sender complained that it was too high. Deputy Mayor Phillips confirms that in a recent meeting with the mayor, Sender and Liff offered to sell the shed and the station’s old baggage building, which the partnership recently renovated to house offices and a restaurant, for $16 million. Seems like Metro has some severely under-assessed property on its tax roles.
The figures vary, but indisputable is the fact that the shed’s tottery state is the result of years of neglect by previous owners. This neglect was compounded, Sender told the Scene in October, by a fire that damaged some of its trusses, and by the 1998 tornado. One exacerbating condition Sender did not mention was the absence of a roof. The owners necessarily removed the sorry original roof and revealed the visual strengths of the underlying structure. But the failure to replace the roof has left the support system totally exposed to the elements. Shed lovers also point out that Gateway purchased the shed two weeks after the fire, so the group should have known what it was getting into.
How to save the shed
If the short-term picture is bleak, the long-term vista is less overcast, if we can just keep the shed standing long enough to figure out a preservation plan. Getting there will require a mind-numbing journey through the byways of federal financing.
The first logical step is to transfer the $8 million in federal funds from the FHWA account to that of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA).
Nancy Sartor of TDOT, who oversees FHWA funds for the state, says such a transfer is “no problem. We’ve done it before. Someone just has to ask usCongressman Clement or Metro.”
The reason for the transfer is that FTA funds are more flexible in allowing public money to bring about private profit. Such a move could remove the need for Gateway to morph into a not-for-profit, which it understandably objects to, just to appease FHWA.
Thanks to 1998 federal legislation, FTA funds can be used to support private development that enhances the use of transit facilities. The landport is, after all, a transit facility, which means the shed below might be able to qualify for this kind of funding. FTA allows private owners to make a profit as long as the local transit agency has a legally binding agreement with the owner (such as a covenant or easement) ensuring that the property will maintain its physical or functional relation to transiteither a direct connection with a station, or within a quarter-mile of one.
The shed qualifies in another way for the federal transit money. There are also long-term plans for commuter rail travel, with the majority of those trains slated to run through the Gulch. The federal government has finally come to understand that land-use decisions are critical to the ultimate effectiveness of transit capital investments. That’s why FTA is required to consider current and planned land use around stations as a part of their evaluation criteria for any “new start” rail project proposals. Redeveloping the shed in a way that will enhance the use of new transit could strengthen Nashville’s application for the federal funds.
Transit agencies in other cities have used FTA funds to buy land to lease or sell for the development of residences and shopping opportunities within walking distance of a transit station, on the theory that such development will feed riders to the station. When the development is for nontransit but public-spirited activities such as day care and senior care, public health, safety, or security facilities, FTA will pay all the capital costs. Some transit agencies have even structured such deals to provide themselves with a percentage of the profits, making them less fare-dependent.
Mayor Purcell says the federal funds angleFHWA, FTA, or whateveris what Clement will explore. As for Metro, Purcell says, “The city is doing everything it can do. We’ve said ‘No,’ even though the shed owners have strongly requested that we expedite demolition. We are carefully utilizing every process to delay as long as possible.”
One local angle the mayor is ruling out is the use of tax increment financing to support the redevelopment of the shed, saying that Gateway’s parking plans “don’t meet the terms.”
Basically, tax increment financing is a way of getting around state law that forbids tax rebates. MDHA has the power within its redevelopment districts to give a front-end subsidy to a private development project with the idea that the project, if successful, will pay back the subsidy in the form of the higher property tax yield.
Such financing has been used to subsidize such private developments as the “Batman” buildingotherwise known as the BellSouth Towerand the renovation of the old Braid Electric building at the edge of the Gulch. The Arts Center Redevelopment currently has $13.8 million in uncommitted TIF capacity.
Preservationists have suggested the city consider taking control of the shed through municipal condemnation. But Purcell rules that out, saying it’s questionable today, since the city could have taken the structure in the 1990s for the taxes owed on it, but didn’t. The mayor also says that a specific and public purpose would be needed to justify the move. “The shed is in private hands,” Purcell says, and the plans for the land it rests on are private.
Former Mayor Phil Bredesen disagrees. “The situation is exactly the same today as it was five or 10 years ago,” he says. “We had the power of eminent domain thenfor any purpose; it doesn’t have to be a public one. The option has been used to assemble land for things like skyscrapers. I didn’t exercise that option at the time, but I knew that the city could always intervene.” It still could, although “I’m not saying I’d do that if I were mayor.”
Bredesen recalls “informal discussions in the mid-’90swe had casual feelers from CSXfor the city to take the shed for the unpaid taxes.” At the time, Bredesen says he “suspected that the taxes hadn’t been paid in hopes that the city would assume the shed, and with it the liabilityyou know, fire, the thing falls down on a homeless man. And the long industrial use suggested environmental contamination. I felt CSX should sit on the problem. The issue for me was the white elephant factorwe had no credible plan for the shed.”
For years, Nashville has suffered from a failure of imagination with regard to the shed, unable to see through the pigeon droppings to what the shed could look like as a shelter for new development. But things are not exactly the same as they were five years ago. The shed is about to fall down, if demolition doesn’t come first. It’s time to fish or cut bait. I say the owners, and the mayor, and Clement should gather around the table and go fish.
VFL, I think increasing rudeness is also related to stress, the pace of life today,…
@OMFUG: You're an IT professional? Maybe you can help me. I think my internet use…
So many songs were written in moments with and for Livia, including this one https://soundcloud.com/subroutine615/drizzle-couples-skate-first
Oh, dear sweet Livia... https://soundcloud.com/ichiromito/my-friend-rose?in=ichiromito/sets/music-for-boomboxes-2
I have said several times in the past "I wish I could do a TED…