True Grid 

Don't plan a real downtown; it's illegal

Don't plan a real downtown; it's illegal

The Cityscape

To be urban or suburban: that is the question. In the past Nashville’s single-minded answer has been suburban sprawl. We have invested in new infrastructure that encourages big-lot subdivisions, shopping centers, and strip malls. We have built new roads or widened old ones to accommodate the cars drawn to that sort of development.

Now our city has a chance to experiment with a different version of city life. South of Broadway inside the interstate loop, between the Cumberland River and the railroad gulch, downtown Nashville might finally realize its potential as a truly urban neighborhood. This is the area we are calling “Gateway,” a name that suggests new beginnings, a road to somewhere.

Unfortunately, the planners, developers, and city officials currently focusing on SoBro (the abbreviated sobriquet for “South of Broadway”) are heading simultaneously in both urban and suburban directions, and they’re getting nowhere. We have honed our suburban skills so relentlessly that when we try to think city, we come up with plans for sort-of-city. We have forgotten how to build in an urban way.

A city is a mixture of buildings and streets, with land uses and patterns of development determined by zoning. To reinvent true urbanness requires a coordinated plan of buildings and streets pointing toward the same citified destination, with a legal structure in place to see that it happens. What Nashville offers for SoBro are fragments of a plan that fail to mesh.

The buildings

The mayor located his $120 million-and-counting arena at the corner of Broadway and Fifth Avenue as an anchor for urban redevelopment. Bredesen has consistently made it clear that his philosophy of urban planning is one of concentration, and his major public works projects are a three-dimensional demonstration of that principle. The stadium and the new main branch of the public library are also destined for sites inside the interstate loop, where they can encourage complementary redevelopment to surround them.

So far, the arena has drawn the Country Music Hall of Fame into its sphere of influence—albeit with strong financial assistance from the Metro Development and Housing Agency. Now it appears that the Hall of Fame—to be located right across Fifth Avenue from the arena and next to a block-sized city park—may soon have a neighbor.

Stan Hardaway, of the Hardaway Development Group, says his company is drawing plans for a music theater complex adjacent to the Hall of Fame. The complex will feature regularly scheduled live performances in its main concert hall. “It’s not a done deal yet,” says Hardaway, “but if it happens, we would serve as developer/contractor, and possibly as owner.” The approximately 40,000-square foot building would be designed by the architectural firm of Johnson, Johnson, and Crabtree.

Unfortunately, the rest of the arena campus, specifically the surrounding 17 acres owned by MDHA, is governed by the Gateway Plan. Created for MDHA by developer R. C. H. Mathews, Central Parking, and Gaylord Inc., the plan, with its single-minded emphasis on big-box development, is a tired rehash of urban renewal theories of the 1960s and ’70s. Urban renewal—dubbed by one local architect as “the planning equivalent of the nuclear bomb”—tried to import the car culture of the suburbs into downtown. It failed because cities don’t work like suburbs.

Urban places are a mixture of anchors and infill, of big boxes carefully knit into the supporting, less-bulky fabric. We need some Second Avenues to tie our courthouses into the life of the street. The Gateway Plan lacks specific design guidelines that would encourage Second Avenue-style development in parts of the arena campus. This omission implies that the mayor and MDHA think that, if you build a central anchor, the infill will automatically follow.

The plan for Rolling Mill Hill

Nashville has at least one group of citizens who don’t take infill for granted. They have crafted a plan for a new urban neighborhood along the Cumberland River. Called “Rolling Mill Hill,” after the flour and grist mills that operated on the bluffs south of the city in the 19th and early-20th centuries, the plan outlines a mixed-use community with a heavy residential component. The neighborhood is bounded, roughly, by the river and Second Avenue South, the Franklin Street corridor and I-40. It is centered at the intersection of Hermitage Avenue and Middleton Street.

The plan emerged not from a government agency, but from the Nashville Downtown Partnership. A subcommittee of this Chamber of Commerce offshoot, chaired by David Minnigan of Earl Swensson Associates, has prepared a slim booklet that focuses on the redevelopment of Metro-owned property on the flanks of Rutledge Hill. The linchpin is the Metro General Hospital site, which will be available once that institution moves to the Meharry campus in late 1997.

“Metro owns a lot of land in that area,” says architect Gary Everton, an ex-officio member of the subcommittee. “In addition to General Hospital, there’s the MTA bus barns, the Metro vehicle service sheds, and the whole Howard School complex. You’ve already got the assemblage of property that is always so crucial for redevelopment.”

The plan envisions a collection of low-rise commercial and community service structures built right up to the sidewalks along Hermitage Avenue, with parking behind, à la Hillsboro Village. This strip of stores would be backed by a mixture of medium- and high-density multi-family residential areas, interwoven with greenspace. A highlight of the plan is the concept of turning the WPA-era brick sheds, which currently service Metro vehicles, into something called “The Guild,” an artists’ community with a mixture of living, working, and retail spaces.

“The overriding idea is that people could walk to work and play downtown,” explains Everton. “We all know by now that close-in living space is the key to bringing back the center city. And we think that Howard School could eventually be returned to educational purposes as a magnet school, making walking to school also a possibility.”

The subcommittee expects to spend another year developing specific design guidelines for the implementation of the plan. But they will have to do more than that if Rolling Mill Hill is to become a reality.

The mandatory off-street parking requirements of Nashville’s current zoning ordinance make it illegal to build a neighborhood like Rolling Mill Hill. The new zoning ordinance, currently working its labored way through the Planning Commission’s public hearings, also requires more off-street parking than can be supplied by a neighborhood built along pre-car culture patterns.

The Rolling Mill Hill Plan calls for 1,600 new residential units, as well as 180,000 square feet of office and commercial space. Parking is to be provided by a 400-space garage, as well as small surface lots and as many on-street spaces as possible.

According to John Reid of the Planning Commission, the new zoning ordinance mandates one off-street parking space for each bedroom of a two-bedroom unit. The minimum number of spaces required, if each apartment had only one bedroom, is 1,600. Add to that the off-street parking prescribed for the commercial and office uses, and it becomes clear that a 400-car garage is not enough to appease the god of parking.

Reid explains that “off-street parking requirements are mandated by land use, no matter what zone you are in.” What he means is that same-size restaurants in Cool Springs and on Rutledge Hill must have the same amounts of asphalt. The Rolling Mill Hill group dreams of Georgetown near D.C. and Back Bay in Boston. Nashville’s zoning laws tell them, “You can’t get there from here.”

The street vs. the road

If our present and future zoning laws undermine the urban ideal south of Broadway, so does the street plan that the Metro Public Works Department is implementing in the area.

The road is seen in only one dimension, as a way to move vehicles. Seen this way, a successful road moves the maximum number of vehicles as easily as possible and as fast as is safely possible.

In SoBro, the Franklin Street Corridor is the most obvious example of car-culture thinking. The road was originally envisioned as a seven-lane arterial with wide turning radii and few concessions to pedestrians trying to cross an asphalt barrier. But changes have been made. Mayor Bredesen’s desire for a boulevard feel for the street, the constant lobbying by architects, planners, and concerned citizens, and the concerns expressed by Council members Leo Waters and David Kleinfelter have led Public Works to make concessions on the design goals for the corridor.

In the corridor Public Works has agreed to try to implement:

♦ a four-lane street with a parallel parking lane on each side wide enough to accommodate bicycles;

♦ a 20- to 25-foot median, lined with rows of trees, beginning at Fourth Avenue and heading west;

♦ 20-foot bands along each side containing wide sidewalks separated from the street by grass and trees.

These design goals will help turn a wide road into a city street. However, Public Works is headed on a determinedly anti-urban course, as result of two other initiatives: the plan to build a diagonal connector to shuttle traffic from Second Avenue to Third Avenue between Franklin and Molloy Streets, and the plan to demolish the Demonbreun Street viaduct.

The diagonal connector between Second Avenue and Third Avenue South is termed a “cross-over,” according to a “Transportation Needs Study for the Nashville Central Business District” prepared by Gresham, Smith and Partners, at the behest of Public Works.

According to Mickey Sullivan, a former Public Works staffer who is now employed by Gresham, Smith, the rationale for the cross-over is “to get the heavy flow of commuter traffic heading into town from I-40 to use Third Avenue north of Broadway rather than Second.” This sort of flow is desirable, Sullivan says, because Second is now two-way and congested with District traffic, while Third is now one-way north.

Some of us might think that a sign at the corner of Molloy and Second, in which drivers would be told to turn left to Third, would accomplish this without carving up an entire block of downtown real estate. But such simple logic only proves that we are not traffic engineers.

Sullivan claims that the cross-over is necessary “for efficiency purposes. You can move more cars in a given period, and they can go faster if they don’t have to stop and make a left turn.” Never mind that faster cars on diagonal connectors suggest a suburban traffic pattern imported into an urban context. It is also hostile to pedestrians, in an area where we are supposedly encouraging walking.

Sullivan freely admits that such a cross-over “definitely defeats the grid. But sometimes you have two good objectives—urban planning and traffic planning—that get crossways with each other.” What he cannot explain is why Nashville is always on the side of the cars.

The decision to demolish the Demonbreun viaduct over the railroad gulch is not yet final, but economics seems to make it inevitable. Part of the Franklin Street corridor project assumes a new viaduct over the gulch south of Cummins Station. The city can pay for 80 percent of the cost of the new viaduct with monies known as Federal Bridge Replacement Funds. The catch is that, to get the funds, we must demolish the old bridge—the Demonbreun viaduct—that we are replacing.

One result of the demolition is that we will concentrate traffic rather than disperse it. The beauty of the urban grid is that it may not be fast, but it keeps moving. If one route is blocked, there are other options.

Under the proposed plan, if there is an accident on the Franklin corridor, drivers heading west will have no alternative route. They’ll have to sit and boil while the traffic helicopters hover overhead and report yet another “delay.”

Demolishing the Demonbreun viaduct is also anti-pedestrian. Future tourists staying at the Shoney’s Inn, for example—in town for an event at the arena or a visit to the new downtown arts center—will be required to walk down to Broadway to get across the gulch. Under such circumstances, many of the less hardy may decide to drive. Central Parking executives might be pleased by this scenario; committed urbanists are not.

Metro needs to decide just what it is doing south of Broadway. The mayor and MDHA apparently envision an exciting new urban development. This is an admirable vision, but they had better clue in the Gateway Partnership, the Public Works Department, and the zoning types at the Planning Commission. Otherwise, we’ll end up with a half-assed version of a suburban office park. If that’s what happens, we all might just as well stay home and throw another tuna steak on the backyard grill.

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