Like most other metropolitan regions that grew up along with the car culture, Nashville doesn’t do urban neighborhoods. Boston, San Francisco, New Orleans, and Charleston all have downtown areas where people live, work, and shop, places where the sidewalks are lined with a continuous architectural fabric. These towns became cities when streets were outdoor living rooms and when mass transit was the only alternative to shoe leather. Nashville specializes in acre lots and strip malls strung together by arterials and interstates.
This isn’t necessarily the Nashville Mayor Phil Bredesen wants to see. “Nashville is a wonderful place,” he says, “but one thing I don’t like about [the city’s] architecture is all the little housing enclaves. I think Nashville would be a better community if there were more houses built on streets with sidewalks, as opposed to cul de sacs where the residents walk in the road because there’s no traffic on it.”
The mayor sees SoBro, the area south of Broadway, as a possible setting for a dense, outward-facing neighborhood. SoBro is a landscape in transition, with restaurants and entertainment creeping south from The District. Acres of surface parking lie waiting to be replaced by buildings. And, because Metro owns the General Hospital site as well as the arena campus, local government can exert some influence on what happens south of Broadway.
Until recently, SoBro has been the turf of urban idealists. Architects, planners, and landscape architects have developed a vision there of a neighborhood structured along urban rather than suburban lines. Now those who pride themselves on pragmatism are weighing in.
In mid-August the Metro Development and Housing Agency (MDHA) will issue a request for proposals to redevelop Rolling Mill Hillthe current site of General Hospitalfor mixed-use with a heavy emphasis on residential development. And Bredesen is currently seeking advice from Metro planners, as well as outside experts, on how to make urban designers’ pretty pictures fit the tough topography of SoBro.
As mayor, Bredesen has devoted a considerable portion of his energies to making downtown work after 5 p.m. He jawboned an arena onto Broadway and slipped a stadium onto the East Bank. He is searching for a new main library site in the central city. Creating a resident population near the city’s core could encourage a street life that is not just the result of special events.
Bredesen recognizes that building an urban neighborhood is very different from master-building big projects. “In the case of an arena or a library,” he says, “you’re identifying a site, designing, accumulating the money and the support for a singular project. With SoBro you’re trying to figure out how to establish the plowed and fertilized ground in which [urban development] can grow of its own accord. That’s a much harder problem to solve.”
Compare and contrast
The mayor says he’s “almost concluded” that looking backward is not the answer. “A neighborhood like [Boston’s] Back Bay in Nashville south of downtown is a very seductive vision,” he admits. But he notes that “those kinds of districts were all built at the turn of the century, when there was an enormous premium on living close to where one worked.”
Bredesen also points out that all the cities with neighborhoods like Back Bay are much more densely populated than Nashville. Boston has 11,300 people per square mile, and San Francisco has 15,000; Nashville by contrast has 2,300. Boston has 16 bus routes per square mile; Nashville has less than one. “Our city has developed differently,” the mayor says. “But just because we don’t have attached brownstones doesn’t mean we can’t have a nice residential area close to downtown. I just don’t know how to get from here to there.”
Bredesen has asked Jeff Browning, executive director of the Metro Planning Commission, to tell him what a brand-new urban neighborhood would look like. Part of Browning’s charge is to suggest specific strategies Metro government can use to encourage mixed-use, predominantly residential development in SoBro. The mayor also wants to know about similar developments that have succeeded in other parts of the country.
Bredesen suggests there are several avenues Metro can take in charting SoBro’s future. “We have possession of a large, beautiful piece of property where General Hospital stands,” he says. “The terms and conditions the city sets for redevelopmentlarger multifamily units or a mixture of smaller structureswill have an impact.” Bredesen also insists that zoningwhether it’s base zoning or an urban design overlaywill strongly affect development patterns. And he explains that “what infrastructure you put in placeand the issue of the Franklin Corridor falls in that categorywill have a great deal to do with how SoBro develops.”
Through it all
The Franklin Corridor is the most controversial element in any plan for SoBro. The Metro Planning Commission and the Public Works Department propose building a seven-lane road connecting a new bridge over the Cumberland with a new viaduct over the Gulch south of Cummins Station. That requires the demolition of the Demonbreun viaduct. Meanwhile, critics of the corridor argue that such a wide throughway will create a barrier between downtown and the residential neighborhoods that might develop south of Franklin. They also claim that the corridor will encourage motorists to avoid the city rather than enter it.
The corridor conflict has generated tension between Browning and members of a team hired by MDHA to prepare an update of the Subarea 9 Plan. That plan includes Metro’s vision for SoBro and the proposed corridor. On July 24, the Planning Commission held a public hearing on an incomplete draft of the Subarea 9 Plan. Although the draft was prepared by a group of consultants, they were silent throughout the hearing. When Gary Everton, who led the group, was asked why he made no presentation, his response was, “I was asked not to by Jeff Browning.”
Browning says he put the quietus on the consultants because he “had no idea what we might hear if Gary Everton spoke. In my experience, we meet with the team, think we’ve achieved a consensus, then at the next meeting there is no consensus. There’s been a lot of intransigence.”
One thing the Planning Commission might have heard was the consultant team’s recommended alternative to the corridor. Instead of a throughway, the team proposes a tree-lined boulevard terminating in a public square at Eighth Avenue. In that plan, the Demonbreun viaduct would be repaired or replaced as a connector to Music Row.
Browning disagrees with the team. He argues that SoBro “is a very commercial area that could take more intense development.” And he inists that “we need a major arterial there, because we can accomplish more with a through street.” In Browning’s view, those who want to “moderate” the corridor ignore history. “We’ve tried that planning approach for the last 20 years, and it hasn’t worked. Look at downtown Church Street.”
What didn’t work on Church Street was turning a city street into a curvy lane with brick paving, aggregate planters, faux-traditional light fixtures, and an indoor mall. Church Street’s boarded-up storefronts and vacant lots are mute testimony that suburban design doesn’t work downtown. In places where Metro has reinforced traditional urban design values, we have seen more success. Second Avenue is not a through street, but its wide sidewalks, two-way traffic, and on-street parking have encouraged more street life than downtown has witnessed in decades.
Get off the street
At the Subarea 9 hearing, nobody from the public spoke up in favor of the corridor plan, but several people spoke against it. Developer Pat Emery pointed out that the Gulch Group, a coalition of property owners, supports the boulevard alternative. At the July 24 hearing, several other individuals complained that the public could not intelligently comment on a plan with so many gaps and no illustrations. In response, the Planning Commission voted to keep the public hearing open until a final version of the plan is complete.
Bredesen says he has asked the Planning Commission “not to take Subarea 9 to a conclusion” until late September, so that the plan “can correspond to what we actually decide to do down there.” Meanwhile, he is dismayed by the fact that “the whole issue of SoBro has been cast as the question of how to design the Franklin Corridor.” Developing an urban neighborhood in SoBro, he says, “is not as simple as trees and pedestrian bulbs on Franklin.”
The mayor admits, with a sigh, that it was he who first mentioned the concept of transforming Franklin Street into a boulevard“probably to my detriment.” His idea was, if Metro was going to spend millions of dollars, “let’s do something special.”
Now Bredesen says he is more concerned about how large an urban neighborhood should be attempted in SoBro. Jeff Browning has told the mayor that the area could accommodate 4,800 multifamily residential units. “That’s more capacity than anyone has reason to build,” Bredesen says. “The underlying strategy we’ve used downtown is one of compression, I think successfully. The same principle applies to doing residential. We don’t want to bite off more than we can chew.”
Bredesen explains that, in the case of Second Avenue and Lower Broadway, the city made a commitment to build the arena and then lobbied the private sector to jump on board. “What we do in SoBro will probably have some of that character,” he says. “Maybe the city builds a park, and then we jawbone a developer” to do a complementary project.
SoBro won’t be built in a day, but then Back Bay wasn’t either. That trendy multifamily neighborhood began as single-family houses for the nouveaux riches. Many of Back Bay’s lots, formed by fill dirt dredged from Boston Harbor, stood vacant for a decade or two. And the trees that now shade the wide boulevard of Commonwealth Avenue barely cast a shadow when the neighborhood was born. Back Bay has achieved its present density and mixture of residential and retail uses because its 19th-century urban structure could accommodate late-20th-century patterns of urban living.
Today’s urban designers are looking behind the façades of historic architecture to the bones of urban neighborhoodsto zoning that calls for low and mid-rise structures built to the sidewalk, and an infrastructure of pedestrian-friendly public streets and parks. More and more, urban plannersand maybe even urban observers like the mayorare realizing that urbanity is not just a pretty face.
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