There may be uncertainty about the best name and proper identity for the slice of downtown sandwiched between the central business district and Germantown.
But there is no doubt that the sweeping land mass — variously referred to as North Capitol, the Market District and, generally, the Bicentennial Mall area — has long languished, with various large-scale civic projects proposed for its empty lots, then failing to materialize.
The result is an almost eerily people-and-building-free North Capitol.
Indeed, North Capitol — bordered by Jefferson Street on the north, the Cumberland River on the east, railroad tracks on the south and Eighth Avenue North on the west — might need a catalyst to jump-start its reinvention. Neither the Nashville Farmers’ Market (as popular as it has become with shoppers, diners and the local food movement) nor the Bicentennial Mall did so when they opened in the ’90s.
Last week, the State Building Commission approved a small change to the budget for the Tennessee State Library and Archives building, signifying a renewed interest in relocating it to a Sixth Avenue North site facing the Bicentennial Mall. The Tennessee Department of General Services also included the $76 million TSLA building in a budget request to Gov. Bill Haslam. With the building back on the drawing board, North Capitol might be poised to finally begin its long-awaited transformation.
“It’s still a diamond in the rough in terms of an urban area that has potential for development,” said Adam Leibowitz, whose Double A Development oversaw the creation of North Capitol’s District Lofts in the mid-2000s.
Until a group of private investors announced earlier this year the rehabbing of two buildings at the southeast corner of Jefferson Street and Third Avenue North, Leibowitz’s District Lofts and Craighead Development’s two-building Harrison Square and conversion of Riverfront Apartments to a condominium building essentially had been North Capitol’s only significant private development since the Bicentennial Mall opened 16 years ago.
And if private development has been modest, the construction of civic structures on the multiple acres of state-owned property within the district has been nonexistent.
Plans for the public-private $47.5 million National Museum of African American Music, now pushing 10 years in the making, seemingly have stalled indefinitely. The most recently available tax return shows the nonprofit had only about $2.57 million on hand at the end of 2010. The tax records also indicate the organization tasked with spearheading the project operated at a deficit that year.
Support for a new home for the Nashville School for the Arts magnet high school has gained minimal traction. Progress has been painfully slow on a new Tennessee State Museum building. And a Nashville Sounds baseball stadium on the old Sulphur Dell site doesn’t appear likely.
In short, NoCap has been no SoBro, the former’s bustling counterpart a mere one mile to the south.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
The state’s vision for the Bicentennial Mall area was expressed in a 1998 study, when Earl Swensson Associates and state, Metro and University of Tennessee experts developed a master plan.
That plan’s authors note it is “more than just a document,” saying rather it’s “a call to action designed to empower a neglected urban area to meet its promise.” It describes the redevelopment of the area as the making of a district that is a “place of celebration,” its identity linked with education and the arts.
The team suggested the area could be conducive to everything from a Native American museum to the aforementioned magnet arts school. But other than the mall and its historic exhibits, little has been built during the 14 years since the plan was created.
If Haslam approves the funding request for the library and archives building — the design development phase of which was approved in 2006, with funding yanked during state budget cuts in 2009 — it will be a significant step forward for redevelopment.
With its recent approval, the State Building Commission included a small revision in the TSLA building’s project budget due to “renewed interest” in moving the project forward, according to Peter Heimbach, executive director of state real estate asset management.
“When the building commission develops a master plan, that master plan is considered to move forward unless there is further motion to not,” Heimbach said.
As part of the library and archives project, the 1998 master plan also calls for the Tennessee State Museum to move from its Deaderick Street location and use the Bicentennial Mall as an “outdoor classroom” of sorts. However, the museum plan is not part of the upcoming general services budget.
The renewed focus on the TSLA building coincides with Metro revitalizing a key central business district segment of Fifth Avenue North. Even the 1998 plan recognizes the need for Fifth to feature transparent, street-level facades that extend from Bridgestone Arena in SoBro to North Capitol’s Bicentennial Mall.
Given the mall’s prime location near burgeoning Germantown, North Capitol’s state-owned land could be attractive to private developers. But if private development wants a chunk of state land, there are several significant hurdles.
“We’d have to be approached by a private entity to ask about that land,” Heimbach said. “Then it would have to go through a process to remove that land from the master plan and declare that land surplus. It would have to be publicly advertised. … That process could take a while to go all the way through.”
Though state land may not be up for grabs (likewise, Metro owns a few very small parcels on the district’s eastern fringe), the 1998 master plan calls for the redevelopment of North Capitol’s Jackson Street to serve as a corridor from the mall to a marina with green space at the Cumberland River. Here’s where private developers might step in.
Ronnie Wenzler, Tom Gibson and Allen Arender are converting the former Crescent Furniture building and an adjoining warehouse at 1009 Third Ave. N. into office space, with retail a possibility. The approximately $5 million project, part of which fronts Jefferson Street, would help fuse Germantown and the northern fringe of North Capitol.
“There is a lot of stuff going on in the area, but the state is not jump-starting it,” Wenzler said. “It’s already happening. It’s the connectivity to the central business district. There is a core of young professionals that want to eat, work and play [in Germantown and near the central business district].”
“We get the benefit of being close to the Farmers’ Market,” Wenzler added. “The energy comes from Germantown, access to the interstate and proximity to East Nashville.”
It’s difficult to predict whether construction of a TSLA building and eventually a new state museum would lead to private-sector development.
But Double A Development’s Leibowitz is optimistic.
“If the city and the state can move forward on their projects,” he said, “you’ll see the snowball effect with private development.”
And at that point, North Capitol will be much more than a blank slate with an undetermined identity.