Ready for its close-up?

Monday, January 5, 2009 at 1:02am
Landowner Shelby Smith says the planned Music City Center will need a strong south façade to help spur growth beyond Korean Veterans Boulevard. Matthew Williams/The City Paper

With all due respect to Greyhound Lines Inc., its nondescript downtown Nashville bus terminal building should not rank among the best-recognized landmarks south of Broadway.

Yet only 10 years ago, the Greyhound facility, along with a former Nashville Fire Department station and the since-demolished gritty cave containing 328 Performance Hall, were perhaps the most identifiable buildings not facing Broadway and within the district now called SoBro.

“Think of it this way: what was SoBro 10 or 15 years ago?” asked Rick Bernhardt, executive director of the Metro Planning Department.

In short, a wasteland.

A mere decade later, the 14-block area from First Avenue to and Eighth Avenue and Broadway to Korean Veterans Boulevard/Franklin Street is home to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, the Encore condominium tower, Hall of Fame Park, a Hilton hotel, and the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. The buildings home to, among others, Hastings Architecture Associates, Broadway Brewhouse and Past Perfect underwent tasteful renovations while the diminutive Liggett Building and Shelby Street Bridge were handsomely rehabbed. Today, work continues on the striking Pinnacle at Symphony Place.

To bolster these eye-catching additions, construction is slated to begin by late 2009 on what will be SoBro’s dominant component, the Music City Center. An anchor hotel, potentially on land behind the Hall of Fame building, will accompany the 1.2 million-square-feet convention facility, which is expected to cost $635 million.

Just as the work being done on Rolling Mill Hill and Metro’s Richard Fulton Complex is driving other projects in the eastern part of the area south of the Central Business District, the Music City Center will focus developers’ eyes on the mass of property from an extended Korean Veterans Boulevard to the interstate loop to the south.

This “Lower SoBro” district contains a few architectural gems and some successful businesses. It also has seen a few small construction projects in the form of Nashville Fire Department Station 9, the underrated Peabody Food Court building and the tasteful Amerisite Sixth Avenue Storage renovation. But overall, the district’s vibe is ramshackle and outdated.

Music City Center proponents expect the facility to change that vibe when it opens in about four years. The ideal scenario calls for a vibrant convention center to deliver thousands of visitors to retailers and restaurateurs along Korean Veterans. Those businesses would help seed the ground for office and residential projects that would spread development south along the area’s other arteries, Lafayette Street and Fourth Avenue South.

However, time may not be the only obstacle to reaching that goal. The Music City Center’s main entrance is planned for the center’s northeast corner, catty-corner from Hall of Fame Park. Its south face, the wall addressing Korean Veterans, will accommodate a loading dock entrance and retail space.

If the MCC struggles to lure retail, the facility might not draw development south of Korean Veterans as effectively as if it, for example, offered a main entrance along the boulevard or even at its intersection with Fifth Avenue.

“The problem is the designers and promoters of the facility are specifically not designing features into the facility to draw people to the south side,” said Shelby Smith, whose family has owned property near Lafayette Street since 1975. “Obviously, there will be plenty of reason to go north, but with little additional development opportunity. Contrast this with the development opportunities to the south. But I've seen nothing in the design to embrace the south.”

Cliff Lippard, a volunteer with grass-roots organization Music City Center Project, is cautiously optimistic the north-oriented center will be “properly wrapped” and spur development south toward the interstate.

“The economy we have now may not be the economy we have then,” Lippard, a downtown resident who also volunteers with Transit Now Nashville, said of Music City Center drawing retailers.

Former Nashvillian Nathaniel Walker, a Providence, R.I.-based architectural historian who spearheads Music City Center Project with Lippard, originally called for the main entrance to face Fifth Avenue in the mid-section of the center’s east wall. Lippard agrees that design would have helped future southward development.

But Planning’s Bernhardt is sunny with his predictions, noting, “The community has been clear on what they envision: a building that spurs new development by being a good neighbor. Not a building that squelches development because it is monolithic and mundane.”

Gary Gaston, design director for the Nashville Civic Design Center, is equally optimistic. He said it’s “critical” that the south side of the convention center interact with the street.

“The idea to make it an independent mixed-use liner building is good. If done thoughtfully, I think this could potentially make the KVB side of the building the most interesting and active façade,” he said.

Seab Tuck, a partner at Tuck-Hinton Architects, which is co-designing the MCC with Atlanta-based Thompson, Ventulett, Stainback & Associates and the Nashville office of Moody Nolan Inc., promises an attractive south façade.

“The city and the MCC design team is committed to [KVB] and its positive development,” Tuck said. “We believe KVB will be built out as a major core street in 15 years.”

But even a Korean Veterans Boulevard that is fully activated on both sides does not guarantee an attractive Lafayette Street, slated for a roundabout where it hits Eighth. Nor does it ensure a bustling Fifth, a realigned Peabody Street or an activated Ash Street.

For Tuck, the stakes are high. In addition to helping design a massive convention center that could strengthen his company’s reputation — or, with a horrendous architectural behemoth, forever sully it — he co-owns properties just south of Korean Veterans/Franklin, including the former church building from which his architecture firm operates.

Others are not as hopeful. Beyond the future center’s orientation, they note that Lower SoBro’s redevelopment challenges include outdated infrastructure, poorly aligned streets and the presence of social service entities that attract the disenfranchised. In addition, randomly spaced and individually owned parcels could hamper larger-scale development because assembling a number of small lots can be tortuous at best.

Michael Hayes, vice president of C.B. Ragland and a major SoBro landholder and booster, said the district suffers from multiple storm sewers crossing beneath properties, horrible soil conditions and underground flowing water.

But perhaps more than anything else, concerned citizens note that less “urban adventurous” Nashvillians — assuming they’re even familiar with the district — would prefer spending an hour in the dentist’s chair than to venture south of Demonbreun Street. That more than anything may slow the area’s redevelopment.

“The perception is that [the area is] distant and a little daunting,” Bernhardt admitted. But he added the MDHA-led redevelopment of Rolling Mill Hill will greatly help “change this perception and spark new interest in these under-appreciated neighborhoods.”

Hayes said the Gulch and MDHA’s Rolling Mill Hill, both basically sandwiching Lower SoBro, also provide development competition.

“MDHA can offer incentives for development, low land costs for sale to developers [and to] compete against the private sector, and has a better site with a very well conceived plan,” he said of Rolling Mill Hill. “One-off projects in what is now a seedy neighborhood cannot compete.”

Veteran local commercial real estate man Bert Mathews owns an acre of land fronting the southwest corner of Fourth and Korean Veterans/Franklin. He said many Lower SoBro landowners are “long-term,” with some having held, perhaps, unrealistic expectations for their properties’ future values.

“One of the impediments to getting development [in the area] is the price of land (which can range from $20 to $30 a foot),” Mathews said, adding that the brutalized economy might force both Lower SoBro landowners and prospective developers to take a more sober perspective.

Another impediment, many note, is the location of both the Nashville Rescue Mission and The Campus for Human Development.

“I'm cautiously optimistic about the redevelopment potential because it's a very convenient area to many parts of Nashville,” said Mike Borum, who has operated Chromatics Photo Imaging from his Fogg Street location for 29 years. “But it will probably take 10 to 15 more years to get the Nashville Rescue Mission and The Campus for Human Development relocated so the area can live up to its potential.”

Shelby Smith agreed, noting, “The ‘Mission Impact District’ can be likened to a pasture that has gone fallow. It's lost its vitality and all that's left is scrub and a tremendous force repelling fertility.”

Cliff Tredway, Rescue Mission director of public relations and marketing, acknowledged the concerns but said moving the mission is not realistic.

“We are always looking for ways to be a good neighbor in regards to the appearance of our property,” Tredway said. “But even more important is helping transition the poor and hurting off the streets and back into society as productive, tax-paying citizens. That version of development looks pretty good from where I sit.”

The number of private businesses within this geographic footprint is not easily determined. However, Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce information reveals only 35 of those businesses are chamber members. For his part, Smith can rattle of the operations that have closed shop during the past few years without being backfilled.

“What has replaced these businesses are locked and blocked doors and windows,” Smith said. “The traffic count on Lafayette is the lowest since I've been keeping up since the early ’90s. Businesses locate where there is vibrancy — not where rent is cheap.”

Whether a Music City Center oriented primarily to the north will bring vibrancy to Lower SoBro may require many years — and some government help — to determine.

“Absent a major public-private or public project — like a school, Greyhound bus station, soccer field, park or AAA baseball field — it will be at least a decade, maybe two, before this area sees wholesale change,” Hayes said.

Filed under: City Business
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By: nashbeck on 12/31/69 at 7:00

I think the Music City Center and hotel will definitely spur more development than the surface parking lots there now. We need to make sure it is street friendly and is welcoming to the south as the article says.What I'd like to see is more of the old brick architecture seen in parts around south of the site. The brick church at the intersetion of 4th ave and KVB is a great example. More Boston low rises instead of vacant warehouses can add a lot to a neighborhood.

By: Time for Truth on 12/31/69 at 7:00

It is time for city leaders to face reality and ditch this project. Even in a good economy, the convention business is going the way of Betamax and Studebaker.If it does continue, maybe they should look for corporate sponsors as some cities have done. Sharpie might be a good candidate as they already have lots of experience working with red ink.

By: girliegirl on 12/31/69 at 7:00

Yeah, Time, I'd like a fancy new expensive SUV, but my budget is severely lacking, much like the city's budget in comparison. It's time EVERYONE lived within their/its budget, the city included. This project smells of PORK. If Shelby Smith wants it so bad, HE should pay for it. Maybe Central Parking could pony up for part of it.

By: slzy on 12/31/69 at 7:00

328 has not been replaced.the mayor and ronnie swein et.al.,are against the English First because they know they can't make the convention center work without illegal aliens.if they build it anyway,it can be used as an annex of the union mission for women and children,eventually.

By: JeffF on 12/31/69 at 7:00

Convention centers do not bring in offices and residences. They at most bring in hotels (providing taxpayers pay for them) and other low paying tourism industries. SoBro shouldbe developed as an true economic engine, not as just another city's quaint attempt at forced revitalization by the tourism non-industry.Luckily for all of us that this will have to be back-burnered because of the muni-bond market collapse. Since the tourism overlords generally do not like to foot the bill for their own toys this means there will be no money for at least a year. Planning for this monster will be mothballed in about a month or two.

By: shinestx on 12/31/69 at 7:00

If you want an iconic landmark for SoBro, you guys need a very tall hotel to anchor that convention center. Don't give us anymore of this 20-30 story c-r-a-p! Go up to 50 stories!

By: producer2 on 12/31/69 at 7:00

same 6 complainers as usual...

By: NewYorker1 on 12/31/69 at 7:00

What am I going to wear to the groundbreaking ceremony? Hummmm.... if it's still cold, I can wear my winter-white suit with my 100% rabbit fur coat with matching hat and my VERSACE boots. A little bling, not too much, but just enough. My mug will be snatched to the heavens and my body sculptured like a Greek God.

By: nashbeck on 12/31/69 at 7:00

NewYoker are you one of the sculptures at the Music Row roundabout? Maybe we could sculpt you at the roundabout next to the center..

By: airvols on 12/31/69 at 7:00

Progress is hard to take for dwellers of the past. I'm sure some of you would rather have the beautiful strip clubs and homeless shelters there. Maybe you can pay higher taxes to support that.

By: Time for Truth on 12/31/69 at 7:00

Thankfully the strip clubs are mostly gone. But conventioneers tend to make them more profitable, the ones still around won't be going anywhere if the MCC is built. But a commercial/residential streetscape there likely would put pressure on them to close up shop. Those thinking that the convention business as it exists today will remain viable are the ones living in the past. Watch CNN for an hour and count the commercials for virtual convention services. The MCC will be a giant empty building in ten years if it is built.

By: producer2 on 12/31/69 at 7:00

TFT,Sometimes we agree, sometimes we do not. The one thing that I will assure you that is a constant is Association meetings. They differ greatly from Corporate meetings in that they must actually gather for a meeting by their charters. May of these groups have held uninterrupted meetings for over 75 years and Nashville is a HUGE Association destination because of it's location and relative low cost. No one really knows what will happen to the corporate market, but I doubt it totally goes away. Nashville is not vying for the huge industry trade shows so in essence they are going after the exact market they should be and one that will remain strong for decades to come. Rest assured that the people working for this project have done their homework and have already booked over 100,000 room nights into the new facility without even a diagram. The cost of travel is back down and many experts feel the economy will turn by summer. This will not last forever and thank goodness those in leadership roles have the fortitude to push this through so we are not yet again left behind...

By: nashbeck on 12/31/69 at 7:00

GREAT analysis producer2