Some of the best brains in Nashville have been stumped by the problem of how to market Church Street. Once the city’s retail center, the streetnow a depressing mix of vacant buildings, peeling murals and surface parking lotsis looking for a new identity.
There are signs of life: Witness the plans to rehab the former J.C. Bradford building at Fourth Avenue and Church as a Marriott Hotel, and the commencement of construction work for The Cumberland, Tony Giarratana’s 23-story apartment tower at Sixth Avenue and Church. This good news is undercut by Central Parking’s intention to bulldoze the terra-cotta-encrusted BellSouth building at Third Avenue and Church to make room for yet another asphalt lot. And the moratorium on the same parking company’s demolition of the old Harvey’s department store expired at the end of May.
In an effort to salvage what’s left and pump some new energy into the street, the Metro Development and Housing Agency commissioned a Church Street master plan from marketing specialists at Economic Research Associates (ERA) of Washington, D.C., and RTKL, the Dallas-based planning and architecture firm that consulted on the Subarea 9 plan for downtown. These firms worked with a team of locals: Seab Tuck of Tuck Hinton Architects, transportation planner Steve Tocknell, and Philip Walker of Community Planning and Research. The release of the plan was delayed by MDHA head Gerald Nicely’s recent bout with hepatitis, but it is due out any day now.
Members of the planning team say they faced head-on the facts of a soft downtown office market and a retail market that is positively squishy. Castner-Knott’s downtown store went belly-up in February, and Church Street Centre is clearly in its death throes. The brown-papered windows and vending stands in the mall have a distinctly Third World look.
The team is advocating new investment in residential and institutional uses, an expansion of tourist activity up the street from Second Avenue to Printers’ Alley, and the amenity of some green space on the street.
The Cumberland tower is one giant step into the housing market. MDHA has guaranteed the project up to $6 million in tax-increment financing, to be repaid from property taxes on the completed building. The team recommends complementary low-rise housingin the form of loft apartments with light retail at the ground level to serve the tenantsat the western end of the street, in the Doctors’ and Bennie Dillon Buildings. Another residential/retail possibility is the Harvey’s building, if it lasts that long. This concentration of live-in spaces would create a sufficient customer base for the groceries, dry cleaners and banks that are a necessary component of 24-hour urban life.
The planning team recommends a new main branch of the public library as the institutional anchor for Church Street. A suggested location is what is now a maze of parking lots across from the Doctors’ and Dillon Buildings. The team envisions further civic space in the form of a city park at the intersection of Capitol Boulevard and Church.
Church Street’s still-to-be-discovered cultural identity could begin to take shape if the Watkins Institute’s film school expands into the former site of Woolworth’s, a project now in the fund-raising stage. Another cultural option that the planning team has thrown around is a new Cumberland Science Museum in Church Street Centre. The museum’s president, Robert Sullivan, says that a new location is still in the long-range planning phase, but he admits that Church Street Centre is one of several options his crew is considering.
A full evaluation of the Church Street plan must wait for the release of a final document. Another test will be the document’s success or failure in generating redevelopment. Any master plan is merely a two-dimensional black-and-white outline of a dream waiting for the living color of architecture in three dimensions. To demolish still more of the architecture that might establish guidelines for the street-to-be is surely counterproductive.
Central Parking’s Monroe Carell is correct when he points out that demolition and the subsequent assemblage of land brought about the Nashville Convention Center, the BellSouth tower, the Stouffer Renaissance hotel, and Church Street Centre. Big-box development alone, however, will not work for the mixture of residence and commerce that the planning team advocates on Church Street. The stand-alone structure is not the final solution for a thoroughfare we are trying to knit back into the fabric of a street.
The Church Street master plan team apparently knows this. If our developers will only listen, Church Street may still have a fighting chance.
For a while there, it seemed everybody was complaining about Nashville’s glaring absence of urban residential. Now everyone’s talking downtown housing. In addition to the scenario that would bring live-ins to Church Street, another plan recommends residential development inside the interstate loop.
The official revelation of the plan for the General Hospital site, prepared by a subcommittee of the Nashville Downtown Partnership, has been delayed from June 18 to July 9 due to scheduling difficultiesPartnership chair Monroe Carell had to make a quick trip to Malaysia. Insiders say, however, that a key aspect of the report advocates new residential development on the bluffs overlooking the Cumberland.
The Downtown Partnership’s executive director, Kym Gerlock, says that the General Hospital subcommittee is just one of several devoted to redevelopment plans, while others focus on the East Bank and Printers Alley. “Because the General Hospital plan is the most far-reaching of the three,” she explains, “I expect the Partnership to play the role of a facilitator rather than an implementer. Once the board gives the official sign-off on the plan, it will be referred to MDHA to do something.”
Lady of the streets
When Ann Reynolds started working for the Metro Historical Commission on June 14, 1976, the Ryman Auditorium was standing vacant, the only guests at Union Station were pigeons, and Second Avenue was a leaky-roofed hideaway for urban pioneers. Twenty years later, there’s music in the Ryman, there’s a hotel in Union Station, and the mayor and the Metro Traffic Commission are at war over what to do about the traffic jams on Second Avenue. Reynolds, now MHC’s executive director, certainly would not claim full credit for the renewed life on our downtown streets, but her doggedly polite determination to save the architectural fabric of Nashville has contributed much to these success stories.
Over champagne and pretzels last Friday at MHC’s new digs in Cummins Station, Reynolds remembered some of the struggles of the past two decades. “I started at the Historical Commission as the coordinator of publicity, publications and special projects, which meant doing everything that wasn’t clearly someone else’s job. I shared an office in the Stahlman Building with two other people. We had one phone and one typewriter.” In the years since, MHC has occupied six other office sites, and Reynolds has become an expert at doing business the nomad’s way.
Some of the special projects Reynolds worked on in the early days were the first Edgefield Home Tour and an open house at the Customs House. Both events were staged to call attention to neglected architecture in need of some TLC. “To get the Customs House ready, we cleaned all the bathrooms, and we shoveled out a lot of dead pigeons. May Dean Eberling [then MHC’s executive director] was a great lady with a shovel.”
According to Reynolds’ recollection, publicity for the open house consisted of “a big banner on the front of the building.” Many of the unexpected hundreds who came were elderly people who returned to reminisce. She saw and heard creaking limbs slowly climbing up creaking stairs, “and I just prayed that nothing would collapse until after the party. But the huge turnout made us realize that Nashville cared about its historic buildings.”
Since this realization, Reynolds and her staff have spearheaded the successful blockage of the infamous Algernon-Blair 21-story office tower on Second Avenue. They have danced the intricate dance of preservation-by-negotiation in The District, because they lack the legal support of historic zoning. They continue to worry over the Union Station train shed.
What Reynolds remembers as the highlight of her 20 years, however, is not the Algernon-Blair triumph, but a more private victory. “An article on the possible gentrification of Broadway appeared in the Scene,” she says, “and I was quoted as saying that a too-spruced-up Tootsie’s just wouldn’t be Tootsie’s.”
On the day that the article appeared, Reynolds was doing an inventory of Broadway buildings, escorted by then-Council member Ludye Wallace. “We went into Tootsie’s, and Ludye introduced me to the manager as Ann Reynolds of the Historical Commission. Everyone in the bar started applauding this lady in a suit and pumps. I felt I had really arrived.”
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