Why yet another plan of Nashville? That was my question when architect Seab Tuck, as chair of the board of the Nashville Civic Design Center (NCDC), asked me to serve on the plan’s steering committee. My skepticism was earned through years in the trenches of Nashville’s urban design scene. A long shelf in my office is packed with old plans with less than compelling titles: Concept 2010: the General Plan, Mobility 2010, Transportation 2015, Area CBD (Central Business District) Access Study, Gateway Plan, Fifth Avenue of the Arts Plan, Church Street Master Plan, Bicentennial North Nashville Master Plan, all 14 subarea plans. The Scene itself added to my library with The Plan for SoBro. Since Nashville became Metro, there have been more than 80 plans that dealt with some aspect of the central city. Why add another dust catcher to the shelf?
Well, for starters, because of who, what and where.
WHO: The Plan of Nashville is conceived and orchestrated by the NCDC, the new kid on the planning block. Grass-roots activists founded the center a year ago, with financial support from Metro, the University of Tennessee, Vanderbilt University, local foundations and firms active in the building of downtown. The center is committed to the practice of urban design, a three-dimensional discipline that seeks to integrate streets and buildings, land use and transportation. This is a new approach for Nashville.
As a private nonprofit, NCDC listens with independent ears, sees with independent eyes and speaks with an independent voice. Many previous plans by Metro departments and their consultants were constrained by politics and patronage. We’ve had plans to take advantage of federal funding, such as for interstates and urban renewal. We’ve had plans as prelude to a big development, or as a response to disgruntled property owners complaining about failing businesses. Some plans were designed to solve specific problems: what to do about a Church Street at rock bottom, or a Fifth Avenue with great buildings and few tenants.
WHAT: The Plan for Nashville will be painted on a broader canvas, and with a broader brush. This highly ambitious, 18-month project will develop a community-based vision of how the urban core should look and work, and principles of urban design to guide the area’s future. The point is to help the community realize what choices are before us, what directions we want to take and what tools will help us get there.
“It’s not top down,” says John Houghton, NCDC executive director. “What we at the design center are doing is organizing the process of listening to the community. It’s not what we say should happen, but what the community says.”
WHERE: A significant difference from previous planning efforts is the area of study. The Plan of Nashville will not be bound by the noose of the interstate loop. This plan will consider, in addition to downtown, the frame areasGermantown and East Nashville, west side and south sideas well as the spoke roads that are the historic entries into the central city. According to NCDC design director Mark Schimmenti, “This is the first plan since 1962 that will look at the entire urban core.”
“This will not be just another plan for the central business district,” Houghton adds. “We need to get away from the island concept, and emphasize the links between the surrounding neighborhoods and the core.” Accentuating connections that transcend the interstate barrier could, for example, enable merchants to discover retail and service possibilities for downtown that would find customers in the frame areas, as well as make downtown living more attractive.
Ultimately, the plan will help Nashville reimagine itself as an urban entity. “If you study the rhetoric about Nashville ever since the consolidation of Nashville and Davidson County,” Houghton says, “we talk about Metro Nashville, about the CBD, about individual neighborhoods. We seem to have lost the ability to think about the city of Nashville, even though it’s still out there. This plan will think about the city.”
Nashville began when a small group of white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant land speculators decided that a site combining river access with game to hunt and a long growing season was a good investment. The founders’ intent to rationalize a wilderness is evident in the city’s first town plan. In 1794, before Tennessee was even a state, surveyor Thomas Molly laid out Nashville-in-embryo in 200 one-acre lots, with a four-acre public square on the bluffs above the Cumberland as its center.
From this grid Nashvillians have cultivated a network of spoke and ring roads, lined with neighborhoods and subdivisions, strip malls and big boxeseverything from a Hillsboro Village to a Cool Springs. Today we are sprawling beyond the horizon all the way to the Highland Rim, and the question is whether the center that begot all this will hold.
Downtown Nashville has made great strides since the days of boarded-up storefronts and winos passed out in planters. But land use is still too restricted to 8-to-5 offices and special events. And the decline of tourism along with a stagnant office market have made us more conscious of the vulnerability of the central city to quick fixes. The absence of retail and residents, the ubiquity of surface parking and the fact that most recent downtown projects were either built by Metro or subsidized by government, leaves open the central question about whether Nashville’s central city is marching forward into the future or staggering in a dance of one step forward, one step back.
The purpose of the Plan of Nashville is to help the central city hold its place in civic life. Schimmenti says that in planning for Nashville, it’s logical to start at the center and work outward, mimicking the way the city grew.
“Everyone in the region is a stakeholder in the central city. When you make it better, you make something better for all the citizens. It’s the place where the community comes together, whether it’s to see the Titans or The Magic Flute.”
Since its founding, NCDC has engaged many fragments of the cityscapeeverything from which colors we should paint our bridges to what should happen on the East Bank. The staff have conducted planning sessions in many of the neighborhoods that frame the core: Rutledge Hill, Salemtown, Buena Vista, Germantown and Cameron-Trimble. They have staged workshops on the public square and downtown housing, sites for a symphony hall, a new federal courthouse and a new convention center.
Now it’s time to think big picture. “We’ve been doing helter skelter,” Houghton says. “We need something to test and measure individual projects against.”
The concept of “something to test and measure against” was inspired by the 1909 Plan of Chicago. This benchmark book was developed by architects Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett at the behest of the local Commercial Club. After Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition, which launched the City Beautiful movement in America, “Everybody in Chicago felt that the city was destined for great things,” Schimmenti explains. “The Commercial Club wanted a specific vision for greatness, in part to make outside interests feel comfortable investing in the city.”
The club hired a PR firm to distribute 165,000 copies of the plan, covering 10 percent of the population, and set up a commission to implement it. They developed the Wacker Manual to teach the plan to high school studentsa civics lesson in what it meant to live in a great city.
The citizens of Chicago looked at the drawings, and they saw not just buildings and streets, but systems: a network of parks, transportation systems for people and goods, a series of view corridors and major avenues, the freight yards relocated out of the central city, the lakefront area as a whole. These visionary drawings allowed the community to measure the worth of individual projects against the collective good.
For example, say someone wanted to build a skyscraper on a site that the plan had designated for a park, or a civic building or a sightline to a major monument. By comparing proposal with plan, Chicagoans could see what they were giving up for the future, not just the present. From the published plan potential investors could see not just what the city was, but what it wanted to be.
“Right now in Nashville, when a project is proposed for a certain sitea courthouse or ballpark or convention centerall we know we’re giving up is what’s there now: the thermal plant, surface parking,” Schimmenti explains. “All outside investors have to go on is the way we are. We all know that Nashville can be great, but we don’t have a vision of what form that greatness could take.” Schimmenti feels that the Bicentennial Mall, as a massive and aspirational public works project, has for Nashville the significance that the Centennial Exposition had for Chicago. “The Plan of Nashville is the logical next step.”
The first step toward a plan was looking backward. That’s because, as Adlai Stevenson once claimed in a speech, “We can chart our future clearly and wisely only when we know the path that has led to the present.”
Last June, 10 volunteer teamsled by local designers, planners and developersbegan researching the city’s history from a variety of perspectives. Each team had a topic: natural history and topography; economics; cultural, social and political history; and themes relating directly to the built environment, such as transportation, urban form, previous plans, existing land use and regulations. Team members dug through archives and history books, interviewed the experts, pored over maps and charts, walked and drove along every street. Their research will form the platform on which a plan can be built.
Phase II will start in late September, when the teams shift to actual design. The entire study area has been divided into districts, one to a team. The basic lines of demarcation are the historic pikes, such as Fourth Avenue/Nolensville Road, Eighth Avenue/Franklin Road. “But the lines are fuzzy,” Schimmenti says, “and we’re asking each team to consider both sides of these arterials. Historically, neighborhoods shared the big streets, even if these streets were class dividers.” Care has been taken not to fracture distinctive neighborhoods, and to include both sides of the river within a district, to consider the banks as complementary. Team leaders are seeking volunteersresidents, business owners, anyone with knowledge of a specific areato help devise each district’s plan.
On Nov. 21, each team will present its plan at a public meeting. Then Phase III, the synthesis, begins. The NCDC staff will look at all the plans and pull them together into a cohesive whole. They’ll resolve issues of duplicationmore than one team may think its district is the right place for a baseball stadium or an elementary school. They’ll consider the systemssuch as transportation, parks, utilitiesthat link the districts.
The staff will not work in isolation. “We’ll have a big jury,” Houghton says. The team leaders, as well as a steering committee composed of NCDC board members, academics, planners and designers, will meet regularly with the staff to critique the evolving plan. The work in progress will also be presented to the public several times for comment and criticism. Sometime in April all the interested parties will sign off on a final version at yet another public meeting.
Das Book, the publication of the Plan of Nashville, is Phase IV. The goal is to produce the book in December 2003. NCDC is seeking funding sufficient to publish the plan itself and a booklet for high school studentsa la Chicago’s Wacker Manualto educate the citizens of the future on the need to plan for Nashville.
The Plan of Nashville will be a visionary, forward-looking document. But it will be constructed with building blocks of the past. The research teams have not focused merely on assembling the facts of history. They are interpreting data to discover Nashville’s characterwhat ways our city is distinctive, as well as what it has in common with other American cities. Raising the collective consciousness of the choices made by citizens of the past in shaping the city, and why they made them, will help participants in the design phase make more intelligent choices for the future.
While the reports by the research teams are not yet final, information the members have turned up already suggests themes that can be used to guide the shape of the plan’s components and implementation strategies. Some examples:
Nashville’s topography offers fine sightlines, but past city planners have done little to protect or enhance them. “The view into town from Lafayette Street is a major visual avenue into the city we’ve not taken advantage of, which is also true of the approach from the Woodland Street bridge, the view from Church Street as the land terraces down to the west and the view from the east porch of the State Capitol,” says architect and topography co-chair Gary Everton. “And of course, the first thing you see coming into town on I-40 from the east is [Myers] carpet warehouse. We’re mapping these view corridors so that the design teams can realize the possibilities.”
Landscape architect Ben Crenshaw, who co-chairs this team, has found that “Nashville has never been particularly dense in its development patterns. Nor has the city ever done a lot of development that integrated a mixture of uses vertically,” like living over the shop. Even before the automobile enabled us to sprawl, densities in Nashville never reached the degree of compactness of the northeast’s urban neighborhoods. This insight might lead a design team plotting residential infill to utilize a low- or mid-rise model rather than high-rise towers.
The central city is underdeveloped. “Just about everything north of the Capitol to I-40, and south of Broadway to the interstate, is zoned for four to five stories,” says planner and co-chair Keith Covington. “But there are almost no historic examples of four or five story buildings in SoBro, for example, and there are lots of vacant lots and surface parking, and many one-story metal structures. That seems like a ton of underutilized property.”
The team questions whether there’s a lack of demand for more intense development or whether the high-rise zoning in the heart of the city has sucked the development potential from the frame. It will be up to the design teams working on these frame areas to determine what intensity of development is appropriate and realistic.
Gillian Fischbach, a transportation planner and co-chair of this team, says it’s important to distinguish between trade transportation and personal transportation when charting the city’s history. “For trade, one mode has tended to replace another, from horse to steamship to train, and now we have trucks,” she explains. “Personal travel tells a different story. We once had several modes simultaneouslytrolley and train overlapped bus and carbut we did away with the options. Without a doubt we need to provide more modes. But planners have been so busy just keeping up with growth day by day that it’s been hard to come up with a plan.”
Fischbach points out that Nashville is at the junction of three interstates, which may be good for trade, but it’s lousy for air quality. “This situation makes trucks the key component of highway design. And we can sprawl along six corridors instead of just two or four. There are no geographical boundaries to sprawling, like an ocean or mountains. The challenge is not uncommonPortland took it head on years agobut it’s a hard wave to ride. We have to be willing to make some tough decisions.”
Nashville’s tradition as a diverse economy with a lack of dependence on heavy industry has made the city ready and able to reap the benefits of the nation’s shift to a service economy. Team member and Vanderbilt professor William Collins also points out how federal funding has been central to the post-WWII “evolution of U.S. cities, including Nashville, financing, among other things, interstate highways, urban renewal programs and hospital expansions.” The rapid decline in federal funds for cities is a factor the designers must consider in mapping strategies.
Preliminary reports by team members note that while plenty of people still work downtown, the loss of residents in the central city has definitely hurt. But downtown residential won’t be easy to develop until the area takes on more of the characteristics of a traditional neighborhood. “What’s drawing people back to the city are places like Sylvan Park and Hillsboro Village,” says team member Ray Friedman, on the faculty at Vanderbilt’s Owen Graduate School of Management.
“There aren’t enough of them,” Friedman continues. “But if you live downtown, you still have to drive” to get to the retail necessities and amenities such neighborhoods provide.
The team researching cultural historyled by landscape architect Gary Hawkins and developer Bert Mathewsseems to have had the most fun, perhaps because they conducted lengthy interviews with good storytellers such as author John Egerton and Bill Ivey. The team has traced the theme of the Athens of the South through the city’s historic foundations for higher education. They note how the theme of Music City U.S.A. reflects Nashville’s creative and entrepreneurial aspects. They point out the city’s reputation for racial moderation, hospitalitythe incredible politeness of beingand a certain provinciality.
So what does all this have to do with urban design? “With Metro Government, Nashville came up with a creative solution to the city’s funding problems,” Hawkins explains. “This creative and entrepreneurial character can be harnessed to address current problems with our growth patternssprawlif we just think before we build, build, build. But the solutions should take into account our conservative tastes. We may need to employ a traditional architectural vocabulary to make urban infill attractive to Nashville.”
History of plans
Randy Hutcheson, the planning department staffer who works with NCDC, has spent the past month or two boning up on the multitude of previous Nashville plansapproximately 100 since the first, a thoroughfare plan of 1933. His research leads him to strike a cautionary note. “We hired good planners,” he says, “but we didn’t really follow what they produced.” The plans have sat on the shelf, in some cases, because “they were co-opted by special interests, or used, if used at all, to back specific agendas.” Hutcheson thinks that the fate of the Plan of Nashville can be different. “The key is that the mayor and council be strong in their support, that they allow the plan to serve as a gatekeeper for the individual project. And we must sustain the momentum, go out and sell it to the whole city.”
The major impact of The Plan of Chicago on the average citizen was through its illustrations. Chicagoans looked at the pictures, and they saw how beautiful a city could be if streets and buildings were organized into a visual hierarchy. Nashville has a lovely topography, but it’s not been very good at visual planning. Sure, the state sited the Capitol on the tallest hill in downtown to symbolize the government’s predominance. But we have obscured all but the view from the north to the state’s acropolis with other buildings. The public square, with its successive city halls and courthouses, occupies a visually strong site on the riverfront. But its front yard is a parking lot. Broadway is lined with major monuments, and the back door of the convention center. Metro built the arena, and then subsidized the construction of the Hilton Hotel, which blocks the best sightlinefrom the eastto the arena. Billboards and chain link clutter the avenues of approach into the city, announcing that a visitor has arrived, not somewhere, but anywhere.
Nashville has some lovely neighborhoods and fine buildings, but the fragments of beauty are hyphenated by ugliness that casts a pall over the city as thick as a summer smog. Part of the purpose behind the Plan of Nashville is to educate citizens about the visual possibilities inherent in daily life.
The art of civic design is not primarily the art of the thing itself, but the effect of structure on the human spirit. “Design is all about people’s priorities: economically, socially, culturally, quality of lifestyle,” Houghton says. “Those priorities take visual form in the way a city is shaped. The point behind the Plan of Nashville is to give all citizens a clear understanding of what we value.”
Christine Kreyling is a member of the steering committee for The Plan of Nashville.
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