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.”
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).”
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.”