Call it pre-fireworks pyromania. The headlines flared across the front pages of the dailies the day before the glorious Fourth. The Tennessean screamed that the mayor was “cool” to the Church Street master plan, which had been unveiled to the Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday. Not to be outdone, the headline in the Nashville Banner blazed: “Preservation director draws fire.”
The Banner’s report concerned the petition being circulated by developer Jerry Free to oust Metro Historical Commission director Ann Reynolds. Free claims that Reynolds “wants to run the whole city. Would she rather have Planet Hollywood, or the vacant Alamo building? We need a modern historian, not someone who’s been there for 12 years frustrating the developers. We’re trying to get chain companies to come here and spend millions renovating older buildings.”
Free and his clients may have spent millions, but they didn’t exactly spend their money on “renovation.” This is the guy who demolished buildings on Second Avenue South to make room for the Crab House restaurant. This is also the guy whose Rhea Station project on Second Avenue North failed to qualify for federal tax credits granted to rehab properties in National Register districts. Rhea Station, particularly its contemporary-style windows, flunked the Secretary of the Interior’s standards for appropriate historical renovation.
Free is aiming at the wrong target. The Metro Historical Commission does not have the authority to determine who does or does not receive a tax credit from the feds. Free should be circulating a petition to impeach Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.
Especially ludicrous is Free’s implication that Nashville could have a lot more chain stores in The District if Reynolds would just take a walk. It is hard to imagine how. Second Avenue North is already clogged with Hooter’s, McDonald’s, Laser Quest, The Melting Pot, Wendy’s, the Spaghetti Factory, O’Charley’s, Baskin Robbins, and Hard Rock Cafe. Broadway now has the Big River Brewery and Planet Hollywood, along with rumors that Landry’s Steakhouse, Pat O’Brien’s, and NASCAR Cafe are on the way.
Ironically, Free’s attack on Reynolds has helped the public understand that the Metro Historical Commission staff is in the untenable position having to safeguard preservation by means of a complex negotiation process. The commission must wheedle and cajole without the legal support of historic zoning. The resulting situation demonizes developer and preservationist alike.
Clear guidelines about what can and cannot be done in The District would enable developers to decide between renovating a historic building or starting from scratch in a location where a giant globe would not be a problemsay, on Nolensville Road. Firm guidelines would also give the Historical Commission some muscle.
Mayor Phil Bredesen has been paying lip service to the goal of historic zoning for Second Avenue since 1993, when he expressed his support for the concept in an interview with the Scene. We’re still waiting.
In the meantime, Free should thank the Lord that, in the wake of his petition, his effigy wasn’t toasted on the Woodland Street Bridge as part of the Independence Day celebration. And Reynolds is advised to start planning her own canonization.
Searching for the center
The designers of the Church Street master plan probably wish that Jerry Free would attack them. All-out warfare would be preferable to the confusion that’s resulted from Mayor Bredesen’s lack of enthusiasm for their efforts.
Bredesen is “cool” to two aspects of the Church Street plan: repaving to straighten out the street and make traffic two-way and the location of a new main branch of Nashville’s public library at the western end of downtown Church Street.
Anyone searching for clues to the mayor’s lack of enthusiasm for repaving Church Street need look no further than The Tennessean’s article accompanying the main story on the plan. Headlined “Traffic plan would undo a 1970s solution,” the article featured a photograph of 1970s Mayor Richard Fulton. The silver-haired Fulton, as Nashville’s senior statesman, remains very popular. Political junkies citywide are betting that Fulton will run for mayor in 1999, provided Bredesen can’t and doesn’t enter the race.
Our current mayor may have grown up as a businessman, but he is now a politician. Insiders at the courthouse say Bredesen does not want to advocate undoing what his predecessor spent $1.5 million to accomplish two decades ago. It’s a question of mayoral etiquette.
Meanwhile, it’s the mayor’s planning philosophy that leads him to be less than enthusiastic about building a new public library across from the Doctors’ and Bennie Dillon buildings. Bredesen came away from the Mayor’s Institute on City Design, held in April at Harvard, with two realizations: 1. that Nashville did not have a true town center; and 2. that a “Library Square” could create one.
The institute also confirmed Bredesen’s long-held belief in urban planning by concentration, in pinpointing areas ripe for redevelopment, and beginning public works projects to serve as catalysts. That’s what he has done with the arena, and it’s what he wants to do with the stadium and a new library.
No one can deny that the arena has driven the revitalization of The District, or that its flying-saucer profile has inspired visions of a new city south of Broadway. But urban places are a mixture of anchors and infill, of big boxes carefully knit into a supporting fabric. The mayor seems to think that if you build an anchor at a central place, then the infill will automatically follow.
Modern retail does not work this way. Any shopping mall planner knows that you must carefully concoct the distribution of anchors and infill to achieve a successful blend. Mall planners place department stores at either end of a climate-controlled pedway to draw people through the entire stretch of consumer possibilities. The in-between space, down to the potted plants and the concrete benches, is laid out with almost scientific precision.
Cities cannot be planned this rigorously, because no one developer controls a downtown. To take the place of a controlling owner, progressive cities are establishing specific zoning and design guidelines in hopes of reducing the potential for failure.
The Church Street master plan is a step in that direction. The design team for the plan has tried to fine-tune the mix of anchors and infill. Previous efforts to revive the street have taken a more scattershot approacha Church Street Centre here, new sidewalks thereand they have flopped.
According to design team member architect Seab Tuck, the group situated a possible library as the anchor for the western end of Church Street in order to accommodate the library’s driving as well as walking patrons. “If the library is close to the interstate, it means that drivers don’t have to negotiate as much downtown traffic. The users will not be tourists, so there’s no reason to put the library in the heart of the tourist area. We also want to pull the walkers the length of the street.”
Tuck admits that the mayor prefers to locate the library on the courthouse parking lot or on the former site of the Cain-Sloan department store. But he insists that the courthouse lot is “tight” and he questions whether “the Cain-Sloan lot is big enough. There’s no room for a plaza, which seems to me to be a necessary part of a town square.”
Nashville once had a town square surrounding the Courthouse, but we destroyed it early in the 1970s. A “Library Square” is an admirable concept, a way to create some citizen involvement in a downtown awash with tourists. The linkage of Nashville’s two worlds is OK, if it’s not taken too literally. Maybe we should sacrifice the abstract concept of a town center for the specifics of a Church Street that works.
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