Local real estate pros weigh in on future of convention center site

Prime downtown property garners attention following nixing of med mart

The death of the Nashville Medical Trade Center was hardly a surprise. Now comes the bigger question: What do you do with the space?

The exterior of the Nashville Convention Center was essentially rendered obsolete within a handful of years of its 1987 opening. As with many big-box convention facilities that opened during the ’80s and ’90s, the monolithic beast — its innards surprisingly useful, if not attractive, courtesy of a highly professional staff — was an instant eyesore to those design advocates who placed as much emphasis on aesthetics as on functionality. But, again, this was the 1980s, when city planning and architectural quality were hardly on most Nashvillians’ radar.

Many locals cheered on a cold day in February 1985 when the venerable building once home to the stately Sam Davis Hotel was imploded to make room for the convention center and its concrete anchor, the Renaissance Nashville Hotel.

The Renaissance Nashville Hotel, still quite a revenue success, will continue to operate where it is. But as for the Nashville Convention Center — its three imposing sides fronting Commerce Street, Fifth Avenue and Lower Broadway — questions remain. For now, Renaissance has a contract with Metro to use various meeting spaces in the center through June 2017. Some of that space is located within close physical proximity to the hotel and can be kept long-term. As to the main space, a Med Mart is not in the cards, but could a rumored House of Blues bring economic stimulus to the location? What about office space? Retail and/or residential? A movie theater?

Tony Giarratana, whose Giarratana Development has co-developed downtown residential towers Encore, The Cumberland and Viridian, said any development with a residential component would face challenges, particularly given the center’s proximity to Lower Broad and all the noise generated on that street.

“Not in my opinion,” Giarratana responded when asked if residential would be ideal for the site. “A prominent resident of Second Avenue once told me: ‘Everyone loves going to a party, but no one wants to live in it.’ In other words, whether you are a local returning to your home for the night or, if a visitor, to your hotel room, quiet matters.”

Giarratana said he envisions an adaptive reuse of a portion of the structure.

“It could accommodate myriad entertainment uses,” he said.

“Demolition and new construction would allow higher-density development that can accommodate both entertainment uses as well as hospitality, retail uses and associated parking,” Giarratana added, stressing the parking element. “Metro might even consider reconnecting Sixth Avenue between Commerce and Broadway.”

Interestingly, Giarratana’s Premier Parking operates various downtown garages and surface lots. However, many of those garages are aging. Various movers and shakers argue that downtown needs more high-quality structured garages.

“It could be a significant underground parking facility,” said Gary Gaston, design director for the Nashville Civic Design Center and a lecturer with the University of Tennessee College of Architecture. “A structured garage could have a ripple effect as it could lead to the development of nearby surface parking lots. Chattanooga is a good example, as it has lots of municipal parking facilities in the downtown.”

Providing parking to the Lower Broad district (currently, many of the visitors to the area park in space-wasting surface lots) would do more than alleviate some current downtown limitations. 

For example, Giarratana wants to develop his 505CST commercial office tower half a block north of the current convention center site, at the southwest corner of Fifth and Church Street. A massive development at the convention center site, combining retail, entertainment and parking — but no competing office space — would perhaps better allow Giarratana to move forward on 505.

“Fifth Avenue and Broadway is a prime corner in downtown Nashville,” he said of what could be the primary corner of a reinvented Nashville Convention Center building. “Whether the [NCC] building is adaptively reused or demolished for new construction, it may influence how we develop Fifth Avenue and Church Street.”

On the retail theme, veteran developer Jimmy Granbery said the site is prime for a reinvention.

“It’s just a great piece of real estate on a hard corner with a lot going on around it,” said Granbery, chief executive officer with H.G. Hill Realty Co., adding that Ryman Auditorium, Bridgestone Arena and the Renaissance Nashville Hotel interact with the intersection.
“Something will sort of appear that you weren’t expecting,” he said.

That ‘something will sort of appear’ scenario unfolded years ago with the Hill-owned former McClure’s store building in Brentwood. When the department store closed, Hill found itself with a custom-built 35,000-square-foot box. It had a lease ready to go with Borders, but at the last minute, a FedEx box arrived from outdoor retailer REI.

And so, if the corner of Fifth and Broad is to have a retail future, Granbery said it’s wise not to try to predict what it will look like.

“It could be a multi-story Nordstrom like they have in Indianapolis. … It could be a Saks Fifth Avenue or a Cabela’s,” he said, referring to the Nebraska-based outdoor-gear retail chain.

West on Interstate 40, Memphis found itself with a massive-but-empty civic structure in The Pyramid. After fits, starts and a lot of controversy, it eventually became, of all things, a Bass Pro Shop.

“So what we think [the convention center] might be, it might not be,” Granbery said.

But with rooftops growing downtown, the eventual completion of the Music City Center and the expansion of the Country Music Hall of Fame, plus the already existing anchors of Bridgestone Arena and the Ryman, Granbery is certain the site will get a new life.

“There are a lot of people looking at the options to backfill the old convention center space,” he said. “These are smart people,” he said. “I’m confident something will happen.”

Rob Lowe, senior managing director at the Nashville-area office of Cassidy Turley/Commercial Real Estate Services, said the site could work well for an office tower.

“If you can segregate the office user entrance, it certainly could be a potential office site,” said Lowe, a partner in the ownership group of the Service Source Building that sits at the northwest corner of Fourth Avenue and Church Street. “The essence of the Med Mart deal was an office tower in combination with the exhibit space.”

Lowe, who manages and leases various downtown office space, including in the Service Source Building (formerly the SunTrust Building), said the site could nicely accommodate a building that is solely office or mixed-use (with office and retail), but that efficient floor plates and parking must be such that the cost structure will support rental rates.

Regardless, Lowe said, there is no consensus yet as to what type of building — both in its form and function — will eventually anchor the site.

“My sense of the discussion right now is that it’s all over the board,” he said. “Most people don’t see a clear adaptive reuse of the existing property. Therefore, it has everybody scratching their heads. But somebody will come up with a good answer.”

— J.R. Lind contributed to this story.