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 But overall, the district’s vibe is ramshackle and outdated.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.