The proposed med-mart design improves the drab old convention center—but it still clashes with the rest of downtown 

No one with working eyeballs could mistake the current Nashville Convention Center for a thing of beauty. Nor is it good urban design. The center turned its back to Broadway—the city's historic main street—from the moment it opened in 1987. Back then, the reason was simple: Lower Broad was sleaze-o-rama. Nashville's tourism boosters preferred that visitors hit the banal pavement of Commerce Street rather than watch winos pass out in planters in the land of coin-op porn.

Any reworking of the 118,000-square-foot structure, therefore, doesn't have far to go to merit a "most improved real estate" award. The proposal to turn the civic eyesore into the Nashville Medical Trade Center would enliven what's now a pretty dead façade, and thus has much to recommend it.

But lurking just offsite lie some architectural old-timers that present demanding design challenges to any convention center re-treatment. Right across the street is the Ryman Auditorium, a civic icon. And lying between the proposed med mart and the Cumberland River is Lower Broad, a 19th and early 20th century stretch of low-rise buildings equally deserving of respect. Based on the limited visuals released with the med mart proposal—all from the perspective of Fifth Avenue and Broadway—the designers need to rethink their responses to these challenges.

But first, some basics. The $250 million expansion by Market Center Management—a Dallas-based company specializing in trade-show venues—would add 12 stories to the convention center and create 2 million square feet of space. The building's exhibit hall and meeting rooms would be retained for temporary displays and trade confabs, making the project more cost-effective than starting from scratch on a scraped site. The new stories on top would provide year-round showrooms for 600-1,000 tenants, hawking everything from bedpans and hospital beds to what's hot in hypothermia tech.

The developers say the project would be privately funded. City officials, however, expect to be asked for some tax increment financing or property tax breaks. The state, meanwhile, has agreed to help out with infrastructure costs.

The schematic designs by Gresham Smith and Partners, the architects of the expansion, impose plenty of snap, crackle and pop on the vastly bigger box. The facades feature aggressive cantilevers and recessed sections, as well as varying patterns of transparency. A shift from metal panel cladding to more glass, for example, enables the facade projection at Fifth and Commerce to read as a separate tower. A 40-foot-deep plaza is set back off Fifth Avenue. The most obvious eye candy is the LED multimedia box that thrusts over the escalator access at Fifth and Broadway.

The intent of all this jazz, says project designer Jeff Kuhnhenn, is "to break up the mass of the building. This will be a great big thing. We downplay the verticality and reduce the repetition" by treating the expansion "as a series of horizontal elements, to make the mass friendlier."

Kuhnhenn explains that "these kind of facilities have a lot of square footage that's typically pretty internalized." Exhibitors prefer highly controlled display spaces, rather than suffer the distractions to their sales pitches posed by views to and from the outside. "But the hospitality elements—food, lounge and entertainment—offer us the opportunity to pull these support functions to the perimeter and externalize some of the building's activity," the architect says. Thus the Fifth Avenue facade features a glassy lounge projecting over outdoor cafe space.

Up above is a more decided cantilever that could contain a restaurant recessed behind an outdoor terrace. "In making activity visible from the street," he says, "we hope to give the building some of the feel and liveliness of Lower Broad."

According to Kuhnhenn, the base will be masonry—stone or precast—to respond to "the character of the older parts of downtown. But the whole building will have a modern feel, the more so as it goes up." He points out that because they are retaining the existing exhibit hall, they must also keep a lot of doors for ingress and egress on the Broadway side, although not of the size required for boat and RV shows. The doors will be flanked by transparent ground-floor retail or second-floor office space—whichever leases out.

Kuhnhenn admits that the sheer size of the med mart will provide "a huge contrast" to what he describes as "the flattest building," the Legends emporium across Fifth Avenue. And he says that while designing with the Ryman so near "can be a little intimidating, at least we're blessed that it extends up so tall." A not-so-blessed event is the shadow that a dozen new stories immediately to the west will cast on one of Nashville's most beloved buildings.

As for the giant Blade Runner-esque multimedia screen, Kuhnhenn justifies "the super-graphic element displaying the activity of the trade center"—that's advertising to you, bub—as giving "a forward-looking vibe, the 21st century version of Lower Broad's neon." As he sees it, the med mart, with its brother big box, the arena, will serve as "bookends to the more historic entertainment district."

Here architect shifts to marketeer. And of course Kuhnhenn's schematics are just that—marketing tools—at this point. Despite all the hoopla surrounding the med mart announcement, the project is anything but a done deal. A medical trade center is new to the nation, demand is unproved, and New York and Cleveland have previously trumpeted ventures seeking to capture the same niche market, although Cleveland's is currently mired in controversy over site selection. And Market Center Management seeks to pre-lease 65 to 70 percent of the showroom space before ordering construction documents. The flashy pictures are eye-catchers for tenants, and presumably can be modified in response to market demands. That's not a bad thing, because it means there's still time to make modifications for civic purpose as well.

First suggestion: Reconsider the "super-graphic element." The building-as-billboard concept works in Las Vegas and along the nation's interstates. But this is our downtown, where we should cultivate the pedestrian experience, not traffic-slowing gawking. And Lower Broad is not Times Square, with its much more uniformly massive enclosure. A giant LED sign is more likely to out-glare Lower Broad than complement it.

Let's also consider what the screen would display. One visual released to the media shows the Titans in action on the billboard. It seems highly improbable, however, that med mart tenants are going to forego the opportunity to tout their products for the sake of supporting the home team. And a moving image of a doctor using a stethoscope—no matter how charming the child to whom the device is applied—will do little to make downtown more visually appealing.

Second suggestion: Take more care—make that much more care—with the plaza across from the Ryman. The Union Gospel Tabernacle's severe, almost vernacular style has been an oddity downtown ever since the adjacent residences were replaced with modern commerce, which makes it hard for an architect to design against.

With his setback, Kuhnhenn is working in the right direction. But his casual outdoor dining is more obviously an amenity of the med mart than a foreground for the historic auditorium. And the plaza's apparent response to the formality of the Ryman—the masonry markers that march up Fifth Avenue—look like headstones.

Kuhnhenn is to be credited for mitigating the old convention center's monolithic massing and hanging some transparency onto its facade. But his efforts swing almost too far in the opposite direction, into the realm of the hyperkinetic. Let's hope a calmer building will prevail.

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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