Unheavenly Highway 

Building a road to nowhere

Building a road to nowhere

Nashville has trouble doing streets. What we do well are highways, preferably big ones. We tell ourselves that, if we get our own pro football team, we will have made the big time. But what we really want is a road with at least 10 lanes, just like in Atlanta.

Highways are for cars. Those who design them provide stoplights and turn lanes so that drivers can have easy access to strip malls and shopping centers. People are allowed on highways only if they are driving. Usually, they are alone in their vehicles; frequently, they are cursing as they attempt to navigate through their rush “hour” of choice: morning, lunchtime, the schoolday’s end or the end of the workday.

Streets are for cars too, but they are more like democracies in which automobiles are not the sole dictators. The boulevards of our dreams are engineered primarily for people—people crossing the street and walking on the sidewalks, people shopping in continuous rows of buildings. Streets are designed for use by pedestrians. A good street is not necessarily one that allows drivers to go as fast as they please.

Nashville has trouble understanding these definitions. Witness the latest drawings for the Franklin Street corridor. Stretching south of Broadway between the railroad gulch and a new bridge over the Cumberland, this proposed thoroughfare used to be called the Shelby-Demonbreun corridor. That was before a route along Franklin Street became the preferred option.

The new corridor is intended to improve the traffic flow between the East Bank and Music Row, a route now blocked by the arena and confused by downtown’s not-quite-grid of one-way streets. It is also supposed to provide better downtown access from the south and to provide for transportation linkages to anticipated development south of Demonbreun. Studies conducted by private consultants in tandem with the Tennessee Department of Transportation and Metro’s Department of Public Works determined in 1994 that seven lanes, costing $52.7 million, will be required to accommodate projected automobile traffic for the next 50 years.

As the news of a seven-lane highway hit the grapevine, various groups of interested citizens—preservationists, architects, urban planners, greenway lovers—rose up in arms. They argued that a seven-lane highway would create a concrete barrier between downtown and Rutledge Hill. They maintained that downtown Nashville’s attempts to develop nearby residential areas would only be subverted if would-be neighbors were asked to cross a hazardous seven-lane boundary. They insisted that the corridor should not merely carry car traffic between east and west. In addition, they said, it should accommodate walkers, joggers and bikers traveling between the greenway formed by Shelby Bottoms, Shelby Park, Shelby Walk, and future greenways to the west. They said that seven lanes would hopelessly suburbanize the area south of Broadway, a redevelopment district where Nashville has its first chance to create a low-rise, mixed-use, downtown urban neighborhood.

Mayor Bredesen voiced his own concerns about a seven-lane expanse of asphalt. He asked Public Works to come up with a design that would transform the highway into a boulevard. Bredesen cited the example of Commonwealth Avenue, the park-like street in Boston’s Back Bay. There, a wide median of grass and trees divides the lanes of traffic, making them seem less overwhelming. Tree-shaded sidewalks line the road, and on-street parking slows the traffic and acts as a buffer between pedestrians and moving cars.

No middle ground

In September 1995, The Tennessean published illustrations of a corridor that seemed to incorporate the mayor’s suggestions. The visuals showed a 40-foot-wide tree-covered median flanked on each side by two lanes of traffic and a lane for on-street parking. Lining the road was a 10-foot-wide buffer of streetside trees flanked by 10-foot-wide sidewalks.

Since then, there has been some slippage. In the latest conceptual drawings, presented by Ted Kniazewycz of Public Works at a recent meeting of the Greenways Commission, the linear park has shifted from the median to the north side of the street. The shrunken median now contains no trees—only bushes, a turn lane, and aptly named “pedestrian refuges.” There are no bicycle lanes, and no on-street parking is indicated.

Apparently, the car is once more gaining the ascendancy. According to Kniazewycz, trees were axed from the median “because trees block the visibility of businesses and other attractions to people driving by in their cars.” In the suburbs, big signs on big boxes advertise “attractions” to high-speed motorists, but, in a downtown, signage is supposed to be targeting pedestrians on the sidewalk and low-speed drivers creeping along while they hunt for a parking place. Tree trunks don’t block the view from this lower vantage point.

Cars are also the reason that the linear park has been moved to the roadside. “A wider median,” Kniazewycz says, “is difficult for cars to navigate around. If they’re making a U-turn, drivers will be confused by the traffic lights on the cross streets. Besides, the blocks are only 200 feet in this area. Therefore, the turn lanes are short. A 40-foot median does not provide enough room for cars waiting to turn into cross streets.”

The advantage to a wide, tree-lined median is that it bisects the seven-lane flow of traffic. As a result, the street wouldn’t look so much like a raging river; it might even resemble a stream that somebody could safely wade through. When the park is moved to the roadside, and eroded by turn lanes, the expanse of automobiles is concentrated. The road looks like a car space, not a people space.

According to architect Seab Tuck, a seven-lane road with a thin median (a road like James Robertson Parkway, for example) gives a visual impression that is different from the one created by a road with a wider median. Tuck says a wider median can make the highway “seem like two smaller roads.” Meanwhile, he notes, “trees in a decent median create the impression of two smaller roads. That’s more pedestrian friendly, and that’s the standard by which all downtown streets should be evaluated.”

A roadside park “could be quite nice after 10 or 15 years of redevelopment,” says Tuck, if that park is backed by low-rise buildings housing restaurants, cafes and other user-friendly retail. But what happens before the land surrounding the corridor is redeveloped? What happens if the new development is of a sort that doesn’t attract pedestrians? If those things happen, the park becomes a haven for pedestrians who don’t belong anywhere else—the homeless—and it takes on a blighted aura that discourages the kind of development that’s needed.

Kniazewycz points out that TDOT has yet to select a team to develop construction drawings for the corridor. He says that on-street parallel parking, at least during non-peak hours, may still be incorporated into the plan. He says that, while it would be too expensive to include bike lanes as part of the roadway, they could be added as part of the sidewalk through the linear park. According to Kniazewycz, his current plans are “just conceptual drawings. All this stuff is not cast in concrete.”

That’s the good news. The bad news is that Metro Public Works and TDOT are both in the business of traffic engineering, the moving of so many vehicles-per-second along roads. Other forms of transportation, such as bicycles and old-fashioned feet, simply do not enter into their engineering equations. When required to design streets, as opposed to highways, traffic engineers do so unwillingly, halfheartedly, like a student who’s been assigned punitive homework.

Divided, we stall

The fault is not with the traffic engineers, who are just doing their jobs, but with the planning process of Nashville itself. There is no real city planner in charge.

Currently, the big picture south of Broadway features a successful Cummins Station, a post office wanting to be recycled as an arts center, and an arena in the making. The Metro Development and Housing Agency is desperately in need of redeveloping the 17 acres of land it owns between Broadway and the Franklin corridor. The city also owns the MTA bus lots and the General Hospital site. Thus, Metro has enormous power when it comes to redeveloping the area. Nevertheless, because the city’s planning structure is so fragmented, that power is dispersed, not concentrated.

The private Gateway Group—composed of developer R.C.H. Mathews, parking magnate Monroe Carell, and representatives of Gaylord Entertainment—is now fine-tuning a master plan for the future development of the MDHA property. Rene Jackson of Metro’s Public Works Department is currently working with the firm of Gresham Smith and Partners to come up with traffic and street improvements for Second and Third Avenues south of Broadway. The Franklin corridor team is composed of Public Works’ Kniazewycz, plus TDOT, plus a still-to-be-named consultant. This sort of structure is not urban design; it’s urban mayhem.

Nashville’s myopia about designing a city—as opposed to a suburb—is not a localized phenomenon. It reaches from Metro to the highest levels of state government. The Nashville Banner recently quoted Gov. Sundquist’s boast that “in 1995 [Tennessee] set a record with an annual letting of $600 million in highway projects. With milestones like this, we can continue the process of building the best transportation system in the country.”

With “milestones” like this, the whole state will soon be one big strip mall. The governor—and, more seriously, TDOT, which briefs him on these issues—doesn’t seem to understand the difference between a transportation system and a highway system. There are many modes of transportation: airplanes, light and heavy rail, buses and cars, bikes and feet. Each can serve its own purpose. The decision as to which mode gets priority is a matter of government policy, not an unintentional accident of laissez faire.

In the Banner article, the state trumpeted the widening of Lebanon Road, along with new freeway construction in Williamson and Rutherford Counties, as examples of our tax dollars being put to work. Such boasting reflects a misunderstanding of what wide roads actually do: They serve as corridors for the sort of development that brings increased traffic. Does anyone seriously think that the state’s much touted goal of widening—from two lanes to five—all of Hillsboro Road from Franklin to Green Hills is going to ease the rush for commuters? It will just mean that more cars will be traveling from Franklin to Green Hills. Lucky Green Hills.

In the area south of Broadway, Nashville has a chance to go state-of-the-art. We could end up with streets where people actually want to walk, work and even live. Instead, we seem to be reinventing the wheel, and, inevitably, it’s attached to a car.

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