MCC: The big box effect

Sunday, January 10, 2010 at 11:45pm

While Music City Center would be the largest financial investment in Tennessee’s history, its ability to spur future downtown growth and development — and turn the underutilized SoBro neighborhood into a vibrant community — is debatable.

From day one, the case from Mayor Karl Dean has been clear: Invest $585 million in a new convention center, watch thousands of new visitors come to Nashville, and create an economic engine for the city — a $135 million annual boost by 2017 if projections hold true. Seeds would be planted for Nashville’s downtown revival, logic follows, with Music City Center naturally attracting development south of Demonbreun Street and a new Medical Trade Center — slated to replace the existing Nashville Convention Center at Commerce Street — boosting activity to the north.

“I think it will have a dramatic impact,” Dean said. “We do whatever we can to encourage business investment in Nashville, and that would be part of it, but I think a lot of it will occur on its own just by the excitement that’s created by the number of people who will be in the south of Broadway area.”

The promise of expensive municipal projects becoming driving forces for growth and development is nothing new. Dean likes to say the construction of the Nashville Convention Center in 1987 played at least some role in transforming Lower Broadway from a strip of “peep shows and adult entertainment” to the profitable stretch of honky-tonks and bars it is today. “The new convention center will have sort of the same effect of encouraging more activity downtown,” he said.

Others remember how then-Mayor Phil Bredesen in the late 1990s touted a new Tennessee Oilers stadium as a vehicle for growth along the Cumberland River’s east bank. While Dean calls the LP Field effect “overwhelmingly positive on the downtown community,” the immediate area remains unchanged.

“We were promised a renovated east bank would result, and to this day you see there’s nothing but industrial blight surrounding LP Field,” said Councilman Mike Jameson, whose district includes parts of downtown and East Nashville. “You can point to example after example of not only developments that don’t spur economic development, but also projects that act as an almost carcinogen to immediate development.”

Not what Plan of Nashville had in mind

Plopping a 1.2 million-square-foot convention center on top of six city blocks seems a sharp veer from the 1997 Plan for SoBro, which called for a true “urban neighborhood” that would become “the living quarter of Nashville’s downtown.” Planners built on that vision in 2005 when drafting the Plan of Nashville, a set of community-inspired principles for the city’s urban core.

“The big difference is that you didn’t have a footprint like the convention center,” said Gary Gaston, design studio director of the Nashville Civic Design Center. “Just making sure that the fabric of the area, the street grid, is built out over time, I think that’s what we want to strive for.”

Tuck-Hinton Architects, the local firm that helped design Music City Center, made a concerted effort to avoid creating a suffocating “widescraper,” so to speak. Plans aim to create a pedestrian-friendly, breathable facility, with all sides addressed — retail space lines its exterior; a city park occupies an adjacent lot; Sixth Avenue would allow pedestrian and vehicular traffic to go literally through the facility; and an extended Korean Veterans Boulevard leads to a roundabout at Eighth Avenue.

Similar design accommodations, however, were part of the 2003 construction of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center built in Washington, D.C., whose architects — Atlanta-based Thompson, Ventulett, Stainback and Associates — are also part of the Music City Center’s design team. The D.C. convention center project has produced a mixed bag of results in terms of growth and development.

On a Metro Council trip to D.C. three years ago, Jameson watched as a neighborhood tour guide explained how the convention center hadn’t spurred development beyond its envelope, as leaders had promised. Retail spaces built into the convention center were “the proverbial boarded-up shops,” Jameson recalled.

A 2008 report conducted by Economic Research Associates affirms that observation. It cites the D.C. convention center’s retail vacancies, low-quality tenants and unmet goals reinvigorating retail across the street. Applying lessons learned to SoBro, the report concluded, “It is challenging to create a retail environment amidst hotels, convention centers, office buildings, parking lots and large-scale entertainment buildings (i.e. Sommet Center, Country Music Hall of Fame and the Schermerhorn).”

Not all area landowners agree

But not everyone subscribes to a gloomy forecast. Veteran developer Bert Mathews of The Mathews Company, who owns a parcel at Fifth Avenue and Franklin Street that borders the convention center’s footprint, said Music City Center would have “an absolutely incredible impact” on future development.

Mathews said even before plans for a convention center materialized, his development firm had eyed a mixed-use project for their SoBro parcel, though it’s tentatively on the back burner because of the economic downturn. He points to the widened Korean Veterans Boulevard as a stretch poised specifically for large buildings and high density while the rest of SoBro is ideal for residential and other uses.

“Ultimately, buildings get built because there’s a demand from a private standpoint,” Mathews said, adding that SoBro’s numerous public venues — including Music City Center — should help spark that demand. “Development will start happening in order to meet the anticipated opening [of Music City Center].”

On the other hand, Shelby Smith — whose family owns four acres at Sixth Avenue and Peabody Street near the convention center’s footprint –– said there’s “not evidence” a new convention center would lure future development, calling Music City Center a “one-sided building” because public circulation would exist only near the building’s entrance at the corner of Fifth and Demonbreun. “What does that mean for the other three corners?” he asked. “That building, the way it’s designed, could be backed up against the interstate and it wouldn’t make any difference. The plan doesn’t embrace opportunities south of [Korean Veterans Boulevard].”

Smith also worries about the relocation of the Nashville Electric Service substation, which according to Metro Finance Director Richard Riebeling is slated to go where Rocketown currently sits off Sixth Avenue — right next to Smith’s property. Unlike the substation’s current appearance, Riebeling said it would be enclosed by a façade.

“My concern is that if they put an NES substation fronting Sixth Avenue and [Korean Veterans Boulevard], no matter how they clothed it … it still screws up opportunities to draw people into the area. I want to see every street in downtown Nashville active,” Smith said.

Michael Hayes, vice president of C.B. Ragland, a commercial real estate company that owns a number of SoBro properties, believes a new convention center won’t jump-start immediate development, though it could make ground-level retail a more viable option over the next 15 to 20 years — but only as long as the former thermal site along the riverfront is developed as an attraction to bring Nashvillians downtown year-round.

“The convention center itself alone will not spur a tremendous amount of additional development,” Hayes said, adding that future growth is also dependent on a significant civic investment to fix the street grid and utilities throughout SoBro, similar to the recent transformation of Church Street. “Private dollars follow public dollars.”

7 Comments on this post:

By: taxed2much on 1/11/10 at 9:32

"Demand from a private standpoint," and not politicians in search of personal grandeur, should be the driving force for a project as immense as the Music City Center. There is no such demand for the MCC, and none is likely to develop; because of many transformations in our country's economy the glory days of huge convention centers are in the past.

The Metro Council should listen to the people and abandon the MCC.

taxed2much

By: BigPapa on 1/11/10 at 11:23

Yes, look at LP, a friend of mine and I made the exact same conclusion the last time we went to a titans game. That stadium has been there for 10 yrs and there hasnt been one change to the east side. Still crappy hotels, truck stops, salvation army, and of course the ever present dump.

I know Dean is going to build this, but for the life of me I wish the citizens of Nashville would get a chance to vote on it, and not leave it up to our bought and paid for Council.

By: NotDaveCooley on 1/11/10 at 12:01

I can't say anything more than what this article has said here (well, I can, but I'll spare you). I will add, however, that there is an online petition gaining traction for those opposed to the MCC, you can sign it here:

http://www.gopetition.com/online/32923.html

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By: nvestnbna on 1/11/10 at 12:03

I think the most troubling issue is the lack of comprehensive vision for the city. As noted in the story, this obliterates the Plan of Nashville concepts. Dean seems to be cognizant of some issues but when it comes to the execution of this project, it's like he's a neanderthal - what gives?

It's also disheartening that the local design folks, folks that were instrumental in stopping Gateway ten years ago over neighborhood busting issues, are now perfectly willing to trash it with a poor design today.

Good story on important issues, but remember it's Gateway as in the 'Gateway to our City" and SoBro.

By: OpposedToMorons on 1/11/10 at 1:08

Jameson is narrow minded as is anyone who makes statements about the effect the stadium has had on that side of the river. It's remained industrial on one part because Carl Icahn owns that scrapyard and would be very expensive to develop. Additionally, I can't think of a football stadium that has actually meant a great deal of development right next to it. The impact was on the downtown side of the river as well as in the recruitment of new corporate employers to Nashville. Some of the HQs Nashville has landed came in part because the city is a professional sports town. Shelby Smith has been whining about the CC for a long time because his property isn't being bought.

By: JeffF on 1/11/10 at 1:23

I would love to see a list of the headquarters and development that are in downtown (or anywhere in Nashville) because of the football stadium. Right now I am seeing a bunch of bars and restaurants who supposedly cannot live with just a stadium being built for them even thought it was supposed to be "the engine" that would boost downtown. Where was the prosperity that was supposed to occur with the Arena, stadium, downtown library, streetscape, landport, the Star, the MCC, and every other thing built and supported by taxpayers to benefit downtown? Seems like each thing that gets built is flushed for the next item on the list as soon as it opens.

I supported the stadium by the way. I even support the arena. But this downtown building spree on the backs and full faith and credit of Nashvillians has to stop and soon. The neighborhoods full of actual Nashvillians being ignored can't take anymore of this downtown prosperity from the tourism industry and neourbanists.

By: nvestnbna on 1/11/10 at 2:48

responding to: OpposedToMorons

Maybe you'd like to try and buy Mr. Smith's property since he's so anxious to sell, and this project is going to be so great for surrounding property owners. Give him a call and see what's for sale.

Maybe you'd like to share with us all the positive development around the current center - a center whose loading docks are on Broadway, and across from the Ryman. Who's entrance has turned Commerce Street into a ghost town - btw can you name a single open business between 5th and 8th other than the hotel on Commerce? Who owns the deadest corner at 5th and Broadway? Is that what we have to look forward to on Gateway? Or will this benefit property owners 'across the river'?