Downtown Nashville has celebrated a series of joyful openings in the past several years, beginning with the arena (now Gaylord Entertainment Center) in 1996, and with the stadium (Adelphia Coliseum) not far behind.
These sports palaces were joined by three culture casasthe Frist Center for the Visual Arts, the Country Music Hall of Fame and the new downtown librarywhich burst like a string of firecrackers onto the city scene in the spring and early summer of 2001.
The Frist Center gives new life to a beloved landmark. The Hall of Fame is a case of country come to town in an ambitious architectural envelope. With the library, Nashville made a monument to reading and writing to which the public has responded as if half-starved. During the facility’s first three months, circulation was up 95 percent, card registration up 81 percent and visitors up 220 percent over downtown’s old Ben West library.
But this past year also saw the loss of the Union Station train shed, a National Landmark, due to a combination of owner neglect and political wrangling. And according to Ann Roberts, executive director of the Metro Historical Commission, the old Nashville Banner building at the corner of Printer’s Alley and Church Street “will in all likelihood soon become a parking lot.” The Watkins Institute looked for a new home in downtown or an inner city neighborhooda move that could have driven new retail and residential developmentand the best the city could provide was an abandoned multiplex in Metro Center. Downtown realtors admit that the past year has seen little increase in residential offerings, so crucial to making the center city an honest-to-God neighborhood rather than an office park and tourist trap.
Speaking of tourist traps, Planet Hollywood and NASCAR Cafeboth located on Lower Broadwaybit the dust, and rumors are rife that many merchants on Second Avenue are hanging on by their fingernails. The downtown office market is holding steady at a relatively high 11.5 percent vacancy rate. Developers complain that inflexible building codes make it impossible, without some form of tax breaks or subsidies, to convert the vacant empty upper floors of many historic downtown buildings into living quarters. Few complain about the lack of downtown retail, because we’ve had so little for so long that we’ve gotten accustomed to the absence. Everybody is screaming about the high rates for parking, especially short-term parking.
So is downtown engaged in a march of progress, or a dance of one step forward, one step back?
Progress, some argue. An October article in Urban Land, a national developer’s magazine, describes the state of affairs in Nashville as “a virtual renaissance within the city’s former fallow core.” In pointing out the onward and upward path, authors Jim Constantine and Hunter Gee laud the Metro Development and Housing Agency (MDHA) for enabling the District program, which has brought Dancin’ in the District to the riverfront and encouraged the restaurants and music venues on Second Avenue and Lower Broadway. They note the variety of big boxes for arts and entertainment that have brought natives and tourists alike back to city streets and sidewalks. The pair spend the majority of their prose on the redevelopment plan for The Gulch by Nashville Urban Venture, a plan to make an urban village in the old railroad corridor on the western edge of downtown.
Constantine and Gee are obviously correct in claiming that downtown Nashville is in vastly better shape than it was 10 years ago. But it’s also true that the two have professional reasons for looking on the bright side. Both are members of the Nashville architecture and planning firm of Looney Ricks Kiss (LRK), a firm whose staffers have received several commissions from MDHA (although not necessarily while working for LRK). LRK also has a vested interest in the Gulch master plan, being the lead firm in the design team that devised it. Under the circumstances, it’s understandable that the pair opt for “renaissance” rather than the more modest “reformation.”
But reforming is what we’re doing, and it’s going to take time. There are positive signs ahead on the timeline. The Nashville Symphony is scouting downtown sites for a new Music Hall, as are the backers of a new convention center. A symphony landing on the site of the fire hall, at the foot of the Shelby Bridge on Fourth Avenue, would nail down the final side of the arts-and-entertainment-platz also bounded by the arena and the Hall of Fame. A new convention center is a more ambiguous gift to our urban fabric. Sure, it would bring more bodies and dollars into downtown. But the size of the monster buildingand the fact that convention centers all look relentlessly inward and are therefore usually devoid of street interestwould drop a 15-acre (two arenas’ worth) bomb onto our already fractured grid. The best thing to do with this big box is to bury it underground or drop it in the Gulch.
But these ventures will not make an urban place without a support system of more humble contributions. Making a downtown takes the careful craft of a stained-glass window. The one in my house is composed of faceted jewels that sparkle like the stars they are, surrounded by plainer panels of colored and etched white glass, the whole held together by a sturdy infrastructure of leading. The window works as an artistic ensemble.
A strategy of downtown-making that depends too heavily on the flashy jewels of big boxes, and the dollars of touriststhe strategy we’ve relied on too heavily in the pastwill fail to add up to more than a collection of trophy buildings and T-shirt shops.
There are clues that some are starting to understand the urban craft. The Nashville Civic Design Center opened its doors in the Bennie Dillon Building this summer to provide advice and expertise on the urban design we so clearly need. The redevelopment of Rolling Mill Hill at the site of the old Metro General Hospital is starting to inch forward into the master plan stage. The mayor has announced plans to renovate the Stahlman building for residential living. As an example of worthy infill renovation, the 1890 Cohen Building on Church Street, thanks to a little help from MDHA, is to becomenot another parking lotbut office space. And investors are examining the former Acme Farm Supply for a mixed-use renovation. Keep the Purina checkerboard, please.
Mayor Bill Purcell seems to understand that big boxes do not a city make. When asked to look at the central city a decade out, Purcell told the Scene: “I think 10 years from now we can expect to see a downtown that’s balancedthat includes all manner of businesses, retail large and small, residential housing of all kinds, and entertainment that appeals to the whole city and the nationwhich hasn’t been true for much of this century. It’s that need for balance we’re most focused on here.”
Sounds good to me. Let’s march.
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