Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Two Words, Before We Raze the Racetrack: Melrose Lanes

Posted By on Tue, Jan 18, 2011 at 10:02 AM

I have no dog in the current fight over the fate of the Tennessee State Fairgrounds, which may come to a head at tonight's Metro Council meeting. I live nearby and wasn't bothered by the racetrack noise, but I understand why it would drive some neighbors crazy. On the flip side, I never went to a race and haven't personally seen the parking lot or the grandstands full in the 15-plus years I've lived in the neighborhood, but I know people who go (or went) regularly and love the roar and lore of the track.

So like a lot of people, I don't know what I want for the fairgrounds site. But I know exactly what I don't want — and you'll find it in a festering hole on Franklin Road that used to be the Melrose Lanes.

Remember the Melrose Lanes? Opened in 1942, as part of the Franklin Road complex that housed the old Melrose Theatre and the unsinkable Melrose Billiards, it was a classic old-school bowling alley with wooden fixtures. The place contained multitudes. Soldiers en route to World War II had their send-off parties there. During its six decades in operation, it hosted everyone from punk bands to a gay bowling league, along with countless families.

But in 2005, developers announced grandiose plans for the property the bowling alley was leasing. There'd be lofts, a spacious new restaurant, retail establishments. Why, we'd even get a Starbucks! In anticipation, Melrose Lanes was forced to shutter its doors on July 4 that year, and its end of the complex was razed all the way down to the basement alleys.

Within a year, though, a tax lien scuttled the development. Where a local institution had stood, representing decades of Nashville history, neighbors now had an eyesore — a crater ringed with ugly, tattered fencing. It's still there today, a blight on the area.

It does serve a purpose, however. It serves as a warning to the cavalier way Nashville tends to treat its historic structures. The Ryman was saved from padlocked disrepair; the Tennessee Theater, one of the last Art Deco movie palaces in the country, wasn't. The gorgeous old Jacksonian apartment building on West End yielded to a Walgreens. Historic Church Street, pocked with nondescript parking lots, resembles a smile with knocked-out teeth.

Granted, what happened with the Melrose Lanes is an imperfect analogy for what's currently going on with the racetrack. Plans and contracts were in place for the bowling alley development; they just fell through. And there was no controversy over Melrose's noise or its impact on the surrounding neighborhood. But the threat remains the same: If we remove a piece of the city's legacy without a clear vision of what's going to replace it — and replace it with something better — we could end up with a big hole, literal or metaphorical.

What bothers me is the possibility of razing the racetrack without a compelling reason — and so far, nobody's offered a compelling reason. Proponents say the city needs the space to lure a more lucrative tenant capable of generating new jobs. There isn't one, as far as anyone is saying — but trust us, they say, it'll come as soon as the racetrack space is up for grabs. This sounds like trying to create the atmospheric conditions for a rainbow, in hopes that a pot of gold will magically appear.

It may be that there's a better use for the fairgrounds site than a racetrack. But can we hear what that is before we tear down the track? Once you erase decades of history from a site, you don't get it back. If you don't believe me, there's a hole on Franklin Road you should see.

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