Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Why Demolishing the Ben West Building is a Bad Idea

Posted By on Tue, Apr 30, 2013 at 12:31 PM

On April 16, the Metro Council approved on first reading the Dean administration’s proposal for a land swap with the State of Tennessee that would result in the demolition of the former Ben West library on Polk Ave. I suggest our elected representatives think long and hard before they push this pig-in-a-poke any further through the legislative sausage maker.

The terms of the swap give the state a scraped site paved for surface parking, with Metro paying an estimated $750,000 for the scraping and paving. This is a step backward to the bad old days of urban renewal. City officials should have learned by now that surface parking is toxic to downtowns. The lots erode the street wall and the pedestrian experience, bring walkers into conflict with cars accessing the lots, contribute nothing but ugliness to the streetscape and little to the tax base, even if privately owned.

The deal would obliterate a 1966 building of real architectural merit that’s ready for adaptive reuse due to recent expenditures by Metro. At the Council meeting, as Steven Hale reported in the City Paper, Metro Finance director Rich Riebeling “refuted claims from [Councilman Bo] Mitchell that the city had spent a significant amount of money rehabbing the building.” I guess it depends on what you mean by “significant.”

Since 2003 Metro has spent over $1.046 million on Ben West, a figure based on valuations of building permits for the property. Metro paid $395,000 to enable the old library to house the mayor and council during the rehab of the courthouse, according to the last Capital Plan Status Report (2007) submitted by the Purcell administration. But the report states that Metro spent more “to prepare the building for future occupants”: roof replacement, upgrades to plumbing and HVAC and asbestos removal.

As Riebeling explains in an email: “Over the past few years it is my understanding that what money was spent would be in the area of maintenance to prevent further deterioration.”

Metro gets from the swap deal the land and buildings on 28 acres of the 220-acre site of the former Tennessee Preparatory School (TPS) on Foster Avenue. Metro would therefore own, instead of lease from the state, the current home of the Nashville School of the Arts (NSA), as well as a vacant structure that it would lease to the charter school STEM Preparatory Academy.

This looks good on paper. In real space it appears less so. Admittedly, the TPS campus is green with lawns and trees and has views over rolling pastures to the west — a place for quiet contemplation, isolated from the hurlyburly of the city.

It’s questionable, however, if this context is ultimately appropriate for a school of creative arts. The NSA quarters are many miles and school bus rides from the public venues for the arts — the Frist Center, Tennessee State Museum, TPAC, Schermerhorn Center, Country Music Hall of Fame — that the students are studying. Presumably they’d benefit from easy access to examples of how the pros do it.

The TPS campus lies off Murfreesboro Rd. — turn right at Gun City — in the midst of a sea of light industry sheds on a road dominated by the semis serving them. The campus is a good hike from the nearest MTA bus stop on minimal sidewalks, and thus antithetical to mayoral initiatives to get more people to walk and use public transit.

Another think point is the demolition’s potential legal cost to Metro. In the City Paper, J.R. Lind described a deed restriction on 38 percent of the Ben West site, which requires the property be used for a free public library or else it reverts to the heirs of the donors. The reversion clause dates to 1902, when the land was given for the construction of the original Carnegie library. At the Council meeting, Metro Legal director Saul Solomon said both Metro and the state were aware of the deed restriction, but didn’t think it would be a problem. Well, it won’t be a problem for the state. In the eventuality that the heirs make a successful stink, the swap agreement allows the state to repurchase all of the TPS property before Oct. 31, 2026 for $1. 

Riebeling views the swap as “a real estate transaction” in which government entities trade surplus properties. He points out that the Ben West building “has been vacant for seven or eight years, and no one, including anyone from the Metro Historical Commission, has been knocking on my door with an idea for Metro using it.” Fair point. If preservationists really want to protect our mid-century modern architectural heritage, currently under siege all over the city, they need to do more than squawk when the wrecking balls start swinging.

Riebeling acknowledges that once construction started on the new main library, the Bredesen administration considered moving Metro Archives, and possibly the Register of Deeds, into Ben West. The idea was to centralize the city’s historical records, with the Nashville Room and the State Library and Archives a few blocks away.

“But that’s lost now,” Riebeling explains. The frequently used collections in the city’s archives are to go into the downtown library, with the rest slated for storage in what’s called Metro Southeast — the former Genesco warehouse.

So how about the Ben West building as a new home for Nashville School of the Arts?

The downtown location is within walking distance of our major public arts places. The large reading rooms seem appropriate for performance studios. The building’s size would clearly be inadequate for the current 680 students. But Ben West was constructed to support an additional four stories, according to an article in the Tennessean at the time of the opening. There’s also the surface parking lot next door that fronts on Church Street, which could be purchased by Metro to accommodate newly constructed space for NSA — and get rid of a parcel of street blight in the bargain.

But let’s say Metro’s best efforts — unseen so far — can’t find a use for Ben West. Then why not sell it? The building features views to die for and some fine materials — granite block podium, marble cladding, glass tesserae, walnut panels — in a design style that readers of Dwell magazine drool over. If legally necessary, the sale price could be split with the heirs. At least downtown would retain a solid architectural citizen rather than get another void of surface parking.

Media coverage of the proposed land swap has apparently generated some pushback on the deal. Riebeling says, “We’ve deferred the legislation and we’re talking to the state,” although he declined to describe the nature of the discussion. We can only hope that talk leads to positive action — not more asphalt.

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