About a half-block southwest of Bailey and Cato soul food restaurant in Inglewood, where McGavock Pike and Maxey Lane converge sharply, sits an unassuming plot of land. Shaped like a giant arrowhead aimed in the general direction of Gallatin Pike, this modest tract may not look like much. But to the founders of Urban Green Lab — the state-of-the-art structure that, if all goes according to plan, will occupy this unusually pointy corner by the end of 2012 — it looks like the future.
Pulling together initiatives from like-minded programs around the world — like a tool-lending library, an urban garden and electric vehicle charging stations — and integrating them in one location with educational programs, research partnerships with local universities and functioning models of sustainable use built into the premises itself, Urban Green Lab hopes to be a whole new kind of community center: one dedicated to sustainable living. But don't expect a bunch of lectures and brochures — there'll be fun stuff, too.
"People might not even know it's a sustainability center," Urban Green Lab president Dan Heller says. "Other people might be members, at $25, $50 a year — and get half off movies or plays or musical performances. ... We will have an indoor/outdoor amphitheatre, but it won't be so big it overwhelms the neighborhood. It will be community-accessible."
The building itself will be certified LEED platinum (the highest standard), and what Heller calls "a living building, the first in Tennessee — a style of building that will be generating electricity."
If that sounds expensive in addition to sounding awesome, it will be. But Nissan North America recently gave the nascent project a shot in the arm by becoming a founding sponsor — contributing $100,000 and committing up to $375,000 total. And Nissan will play host at a fundraiser this Friday to help garner donations: the Nashville premiere of Revenge of the Electric Car. Director Chris Paine, who has been driving electric cars himself for 12 years, will attend the after-party at Cabana.
On its face, this might appear to be little more than a red carpet photo op for Nissan's all-electric LEAF, which stars in Revenge alongside impossibly sleek Tesla roadsters and the gas-optional Chevy Volt. (Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn also appears in the film, as do line workers at Nissan's Smyrna plant where the LEAF is manufactured.) But while it may well be a marketing move — and $375,000 isn't all that serious a commitment for a corporation that posted roughly $7 billion in operating profit for 2010 — Nissan's backing of Urban Green Lab isn't only a marketing move. According to Mark Perry, Nissan's director of product and advanced planning, it also reflects an entrenched philosophy.
"The sustainability part of our [corporate] culture has been in place for eight years," Perry says. "We have commitments, ones that are measurable — not just 'we're gonna try real hard.' Part of our annual statement has key indicators around sustainability, available to shareholders." Perry says the chance to help establish a place like Urban Green Lab is "just a perfect match."
The feeling is mutual. UGL vice president Greg O'Loughlin says he and Heller have been impressed with Nissan's "strong philosophical enthusiasm" for Urban Green Lab and long view of sustainability. "It's not just flipping a switch, and they get that. ... This is the new vision." You could even say that Urban Green Lab has taken some cues from Nissan's headquarters in Franklin, which uses solar power to help reduce its energy use.
All of which makes Revenge of the Electric Car a fitting film to kick off the project. Director Chris Paine says he hopes the documentary "becomes a centerpiece for lots of discussion, as a catalyst for change" — which the Nashville premiere aims to be.
"It's a film about momentum," Paine says. "Changing things takes an incredible amount of work." He sees projects like Urban Green Lab as an important part of that labor. And given the fact that Paine's last film, Who Killed the Electric Car?, was a detailed autopsy of amp-power autos, the fact that Tennessee is now a manufacturing base for a mass-market all-electric car makes it "a natural place" to premiere its sequel. Moreover, as Paine says, "This helps break the cliché that change only comes out of California, or from the coasts."
Mayor Karl Dean has said he wants to make Nashville the "greenest city in the Southeast." For his part, Urban Green Lab's Heller says, "I don't think anyone thinks this will happen overnight." More important, he says, is "getting the train moving." As for the community center he sees one day occupying the equilateral slice of land at McGavock and Maxey, that's a feat he and his team will need some help with.
"Nissan has provided capital, which is significant," he says, "but we have a lot of money to raise. ... Every dollar someone donates, Nissan will match, up to $100,000."
But no matter how much they're able to raise Friday night, Heller knows that a sustainable planet is a bigger and longer task than any of us can see.
"This is a project that we're building to outlive us," he says. The job now is to get started.
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