A little more than a year ago, construction began on the Music City Center, the $585 million convention center that will become yet another SoBro landmark. And in just a few weeks, at least eight other projects will be either under construction or in development within a few blocks of the behemoth.
Construction workers and heavy equipment will dominate the streetscape south of Broadway downtown. Traffic flow — already troubled as roads have been ripped apart over the past year to accommodate new utilities and work vehicles — will be altered again and again. In some cases, streets will be changed permanently: Once all is finished, Franklin Street will have been radically reinvented as an extension of Korean Veterans Boulevard to Eighth Avenue.
Ahead are the fall opening of a new Greyhound bus terminal at Sixth Avenue South and Lafayette Street, and a June start for the Nashville Electric Service’s new substation, which will front Sixth Avenue and KVB. (The current and outdated substation, one of downtown's major eyesores, will be dismantled.) June also will see the start of construction on the 21-story, 278-foot tall Omni Nashville Hotel, with the expansion of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum to follow.
Meanwhile, the city is starting to acquire land and buildings that will be demolished for the KVB extension. The convention center’s roof will be added. Even local media celebrity Demetria Kalodimos is part of the flurry of activity, as the veteran WSMV-Channel 4 anchor’s video production building nears completion on the fringe of the future roundabout where Eighth, KVB and Lafayette meet.
And all of this change is happening within what could be called the epicenter of SoBro, a geographically modest area relative to the district as a whole and, particularly, to all of downtown. In fact, it is unlikely that any specific urban Nashville district has ever seen such a diversity of projects — and sheer number of changes to the built environment — within a three-year period.
Bordered by Demonbreun Street on the north, Lafayette Street on the south, Fourth Avenue on the east and Eighth Avenue on the west, SoBro’s midsection no doubt will garner much attention during the next 18 months.
“In two years, the area will be entirely different,” said Holly McCall, spokeswoman for the Nashville Convention Center Authority.
One could argue it will be very different in two months.
By then, onsite work will have begun on both Omni and the Hall of Fame expansion, and the Tennessee Department of Transportation should have acquired various properties to be used for extending KVB from Fourth to Eighth avenues.
But major vehicular access to Omni, as it’s planned now via Korean Veterans Boulevard, might contradict the spirit — if not the actual stipulations — of design guidelines the city established years ago related to how KVB (then Gateway Boulevard) should look and function. The eventual width of the Omni’s street-level curb cuts and landscape buffers will determine the extent of the contradiction, but those interviewed for this story said siting Omni’s facade to face KVB, though not ideal from a traffic perspective, was necessary, given that the convention center will front Demonbreun Street.
The Metro Development and Housing Agency has approved Omni design elements as the hotel will sit within the agency’s Capitol Mall redevelopment district.
“The front door for Omni is on KVB, and there is vehicle access [within the middle of the block between Fourth and Fifth avenues],” said Phil Ryan, MDHA’s executive director. “The design review committee was pleased with how they addressed that.”
Caryn Kboudi, vice president of corporate communications for Dallas-based Omni, said details for the hotel’s street-level side are being finalized. She said the hotel’s porte cochere will offer “a number of lanes” to accommodate cars and minimize potential congestion on KVB.
“Generally, we try to make the front entrance [of our hotels] grand, and we’re very aware to make sure traffic flows well,” Kboudi said. “We typically end up with [significant] landscaping and a water treatment. It’s the point of arrival, so it’s not just what we can do to make it suitable but to give it a wonderful feel.”
Michael Hayes, vice president of C.B. Ragland Co., said the city would have to “accept the reality” that KVB likely will be busier with cars (the convention center’s loading area will also be accessible via that street) than planners, developers and various city officials would have thought a decade ago.
“Some of the conditions that exist today are not terribly feasible for vertical construction, as envisioned in the Gateway Boulevard Design Guidelines,” Hayes said. “Everyone failed at the outset to fully understand the typography of the north-south streets.
“Quite frankly, the nature and the scale of the plan of the MCC, the Omni development and potential MCC expansion will require the city and property owners to revisit what the character of the street should be,” he added.
With work soon to begin on both Omni and the Hall of Fame, prospective developers will be focusing on the area even more than to date, according to Bert Mathews, president of The Mathews Company and a partner in Fifth Avenue Land Investments LLC. That entity owns a 1.1-acre parcel on the southeast corner of Fifth and KVB.
“I get a call about every three weeks, and most are for limited-service hotels,” Mathews said.
Most developers of limited-service hotels are willing to pay only $25 to $50 a square foot, and Mathews said he believes the site is worth more than $50 a square foot.
“There is a tremendous amount of interest south of KVB,” he said. “The issue is what buyers can afford to pay and what sellers expect. That will change dramatically as the convention center comes closer to opening.”
A key element in the transformation will be the KVB extension. The Tennessee Department of Transportation is handling acquisition of 32 parcels owned by 17 entities.
“Ten agreements have been reached, but the transactions are not final yet,” said B.J. Doughty, TDOT spokeswoman. “Two properties have gone into condemnation, with the rest still in negotiations.”
Doughty said records, with costs, won’t be made public until all transactions are finalized.
If all goes well, actual work on KVB will begin in late 2011, with completion planned for fall 2012. Within the next two weeks, though, the Metro Public Works Department expects to have a pre-advertisement bid meeting for construction companies interested in landing the contract.
Other streets will also see changes. Public Works will convert from one-way to two-way the stretch of Fifth Avenue South between Demonbreun and Lafayette streets. In addition, the tiny segment of Seventh Avenue South will remain accessible from where Seventh, Lafayette and Peabody Street converge but won’t provide access to KVB.
“The entire area and the development going on there represent a great opportunity for us to take a look at how to make traffic flow better,” said Gwen Hopkins-Glascock, Public Works spokeswoman. “We’re looking at not only the directional flow but at how to realign streets.”
Other modifications — including the point at which Peabody doglegs at Fourth — could be considered for the future, Hopkins-Glascock said.
Even with all the non-MCC activity, focus will remain on the convention center site. The authority’s McCall said that in the next few weeks, 280-foot-long steel trusses, which will provide the base of the ceiling of the exhibit hall, would be erected using hydraulic jacks. By late summer, the building’s full shape should become obvious to the casual observer, and the building should be topped out by spring 2012.
“We’re still slated for opening in spring 2013,” she added. “Construction is on schedule.”