After months of public speculation and a summer-long controversy, it appears that Metro’s new central library will be built on the site now occupied by Church Street Centre. On Tuesday, consultants proposed the Church Street location to the Metro Library Board as their first among three choices. A site at the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and Church Street came in second, while the highly controversial option of building the library on the Metro Courthouse parking lot came in third.
The board quickly voted to present the consultants’ recommendation to Mayor Phil Bredesen, with the caveat that, should the Church Street property prove too expensive, the board would reconsider the remaining two options.
The site selection process began in September, when the team of planners, architects, and engineers selected eight possible library sites, all of them within the area bounded by Charlotte Avenue, the Gulch, Broadway, and the Cumberland River. The mayor added his own suggestions to the mix; Bredesen’s list included Union Station and the train shed, the Customs House, and the General Hospital site. Each location was analyzed for factors such as square footage, accessibility and parking, cost, visibility and symbolic presence, and the role it might play in upgrading downtown, both in terms of economic development and in terms of urban design.
Last month, the team reduced the list to six. The second-phase report issued this week puts Church Street Centre alone in a first tier. The Fifth and Church site, along with the Courthouse option, make up the second tier, although consultant team leader Philip Walker, of Community Planning & Research Inc., concluded his presentation by reminding the Library Board that “any of the top three could serve well for a new library.”
The three other semi-finalists, now reduced to also-ran status, were the historic Customs House on Broadway, the parking lot next to the Ryman Auditorium on the south side of Commerce Street, and the south side of Church Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues.
In addition to heading the consultant team, Walker also worked as a consultant on last year’s Church Street Master Plan and headed the team that recently completed a redevelopment plan for the Music Row area. The library site review team also included representatives of Bauer Longmire Butler Architects, Littlejohn Engineering, transportation planners from RPM & Associates, and economic analysts from Clarion Associates.
Balancing the books
Here are the pros and cons of each of the top three sites:
Church Street Centre
A new library here would require the demolition of Church Street Centre. The shopping center can’t be adapted for library use because of the incredible weight of books. “Libraries require a load-bearing capacity of 125 pounds per square foot,” explains consultant Tom Bauer. “Church Street Centre has a capacity of 75 to 100 pounds per square foot.” The existing parking garage would be salvaged, but expanded loading docks and a covered pull-off for school buses would be added.
* a central location; good pedestrian access
* close proximity to Tony Giarratana’s new residential tower and the proposed living quarters in the Bennie Dillon building
* a potential to serve as a Church Street catalyst
* the existing parking garage
* a locale with civic pizzazz and a direct sightline to the Tennessee State Capitol.
* the seemingly wasteful demolition of a building that only opened to the public in 1989.
Fifth and Church
Many still think this corner lot is the best site because it would place the library in the absolute heart of downtown. Maybe this location would be great for a commercial building, but it’s not right for the library. It lacks the civic presence offered by Church Street Centre or the Courthouse square.
* good pedestrian access
* good potential as a catalyst for Church Street redevelopment
* proximity to the new residential tower and the Bennie Dillon building
* no demolition costs
* its location on Fifth Avenue, downtown’s north/south spine
* a corner lot, which means high visibility.
* a site hemmed in by Central Church of Christ to the rear, and McKendree Methodist to the side. Bredesen says the site is “too tight; you’d have to build too high,” and plaza space would be restricted.
* a perception that this site would be a traffic nightmare, thus discouraging its use by suburbanites.
The Courthouse parking lot
Bredesen initially favored building the library on Courthouse square, but many have objected to that proposal, saying it would block the view of the Courthouse itself from Second Avenue. The consultants’ recommendation for the treatment of this site removes that problem by placing the library at the corner of Third Avenue and Union Street.
Under this scenario, Union Street would be narrowed, but a new street would connect the Woodland Street Bridge with Deaderick Street. This is the most complex of the three site schemes, but it does the most to heal the downtown grid.
* Metro already owns the property; that means more available money for relocating utilities and constructing underground parking.
* The square has symbolic significance as the center of Metro Government.
* The library would help anchor the square as Metro’s equivalent to Legislative Plaza.
* The square is within walking distance of Nashville’s business life, but it’s also accessible from the suburbs via I-65.
* It’s close to the Deaderick Street transit mall.
* It’s close to Second Avenue’s heavy traffic, and tourists seek line-dancing, not reading material.
* It would have little effect on economic redevelopment.
* Library patrons might fear for their safety in an underground parking garage located so near the criminal courts.
* The site seems to be inaccessible to traffic traveling the downtown grid, especially motorists arriving from the southwest.
Now for the also-rans:
The Customs House
The attraction of this building is that it would make the library an instant landmark on a major arterial into downtown. But it would require pedestrians from the central core to make quite a hike, and then they would still have to play “Chicken” when crossing Broadway. The consultants also say that retrofitting a large reading room into the Customs House would massacre the interior.
Church Street, south side between Seventh and Eighth Avenues
This site admirably fulfills some of the new library’s basic needs: It’s accessible from I-40, it has plenty of room for parking and future expansion, and it’s close to the Ben West library, the future home of Metro Archives. This location also has great potential as a catalyst for Church Street redevelopment. It could lead to increased pedestrian traffic all along the street.
The downside is that many perceive this site as too far to the edge of the central city. Bredesen, in fact, is of that opinion. This property would never be tied into the city unless there was major redevelopment all along Church Street.
Commerce Street, south side between Fourth and Fifth Avenues
The consultants say this site’s primary negative is the nature of Commerce Street.
“It’s an arterial that goes nowhere,” says Tom Bauer. “Commerce Street is not pedestrian-friendly because there’s little on it that’s interesting to walk by, and it is wide to cross.” What’s more, a new major monument standing next to an old onethe Ryman Auditoriumwould help neither building.
These days Mayor Bredesen has good things to say about the Church Street Centre location, in part because the current plan requires building a new building, not retrofitting a mall. “I never favored converting the existing Church Street Centre,” the mayor says. “We’d end up spending as much as we would somewhere else and get half the library. The epiphany for me was realizing that Tony Giarratana’s [Fifth and Church] site cost $10 million. That’s awfully close to the money needed to buy and tear down Church Street Centreand you’d already have a parking garage.”
Undoubtedly, Bredesen also recognizes that politics may prevent him from building a library on the spot he prefers, the Courthouse parking lot. Metro Council members say the proposal to build a downtown library there probably wouldn’t survive a Council vote. “I think it would be very difficult to convince the Council to put the library on the Courthouse site,” says Council member-at-large Ronnie Steine, who notes that Council is the ultimate approval authority. Council must pass a bond resolution for the project, and, if Council members don’t like the proposed site, they could simply decline to pass the resolution, Steine says.
Since the summer, when Bredesen announced the major initiatives he wanted to fund in the new fiscal year, Metro Council and the community at large have roundly rejected the idea of building a new library facing the Courthouse. “I said it was a great site,” Bredesen recalls, “and I discovered very quickly that I was probably the only person in Nashville who thought it was a great site.”
Opposition was so great, in fact, that talk of a Courthouse square library threatened the rest of Bredesen’s budget package, which also included a proposed 73-cent property tax increase for schools and pay raises for Metro employees. Knowing that all his plans for a new downtown library might collapse, Bredesen managed a rare moment of compromise, notifying concerned Council members that he was willing to bring consultants in to study sites other than the Courthouse parking lot. The mayor’s willingness to negotiate on the location issue may have very well saved the library funding.
In the end, Bredesen only got 54 cents of his requested tax increase, but when Council slashed the mayor’s budget, it was Metro schools that bled the worst, not the library. Still, opposition to the Courthouse site is alive and well.
“I think for a variety of reasons, people just can’t embrace the [Courthouse site],” Steine says. Acknowledging that some of the reasons for the opposition are “irrational,” he recognizes that it is still a passionate issue that “has taken on a life of its own.”
For his part, Steine prefers one of the two proposed sites on Church Street. “We’ve got to do something to revitalize Church Street,” he says, “and I’d just as soon this be it.”
Steine’s fellow Council members-at-large, Chris Ferrell and Leo Waters, agree. “I just don’t know how much is gained by putting [the library] on the Courthouse site,” Ferrell says. “I certainly think that would be controversial. Church Street is an area that could really use an anchor-type attraction.”
While some don’t like the idea of tearing down Church Street Centre, a building that is still structurally sound, Waters says the shopping center’s existing parking garage and the development of a nearby urban park make it an attractive option. “With the view up toward the Capitol and Legislative Plaza, that’s the one [site] I’m leaning toward right now,” Waters says, adding that, if Bredesen and the Metro Library Board had chosen the Courthouse site, Council would then have to “fight a battle we don’t need to fight.”
The site review team used objective criteria to analyze the various potential library locations, but the strong hand of the mayor is still in evidence. Bredesen freely admits that it was he who instructed the consultants to give heavy weight to the site’s visibility, its presence within the downtown grid, and its capacity to create a heart for the city.
The Church Street Centre and Metro Court-house sites are finalists in part because of these mayoral priorities. Each of these sites is located at the end of a prominent downtown sightline. Church Street Centre opens onto Capitol Boulevard, leading up to the State Capitol; Courthouse square is at the foot of Deaderick Street, which provides an unobstructed view of the War Memorial Building. Constructing a library at either location would say that education and erudition are every bit as important as our state legislative institutions.
“A library is much more than a warehouse for books,” Bredesen says. “The way a city expresses itself in its physical facilities comes back to the way the city thinks about itself. Nashville is still affected by the presence of the Parthenon. Many times in the past six years we have used, as a reason for doing something, that we’re the ‘Athens of the South.’ ”
For similar reasons, the mayor says, he supports locating a visual arts center in the downtown post office. “It’s real important that we say there are other pieces to Nashville besides sports and entertainment,” Bredesen says, “that we value learning and academic excellence too.”
Bredesen is determined that the new library have a monumental presence, and he wants that sense of civic space to be carried over into its interior design as well. “I believe the new library should have a large reading room that people can walk into, look around, and feel proud that they live in Nashville,” he says. Bredesen cites the central reading rooms in the British Museum, the New York Public Library, and the Widener Library at Harvard (his alma mater), as examples of the effect he wants. “Rooms like these engender a sense of community because they are interesting and exciting spaces that belong to all of us,” Bredesen explains. “They are public statements of our values.”
Some Nashvillians may be skeptical of the Mayor’s symbol-making, since large municipal libraries are not typical Southern institutions. The rural nature of so much Southern history, and the general poverty after the Civil War, limited the region’s ability to build centers of learning and culture. Books and magazines were, to a large extent, for those who could afford to buy them. Even today, many newcomers to Nashville are struck by the fact that Davis-Kidd Booksellers seems to function as a main library for Nashville in a way that the downtown public library never could.
When Thomas Jefferson willed his personal library to the nation as the core collection for the Library of Congress, he did so because he felt that the establishment of a civilization required first and foremost an educated citizenry, a citizenry whose education was not dependent on private wealth. Jefferson may have been a flawed thinker about some things, notably slavery. But his gift to the nation of the books that he loved set an example that any city, even Nashville, would do well to emulate.
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