Wanted: A seamless vision for Nashville's urban core

For downtown and Midtown to fuse, a sea of dead space severing the two will need to be built upon

There are not two downtown Nashvilles.

True, the city features multiple commercial office markets, most notably Midtown.

But there is only one downtown, and the recent announcement that West End Summit is finally a go — a development that will even more dramatically render Midtown a commercial district of its own — will not change that.

Grow as the city’s other urban districts might, there should be only one downtown, lest Nashville fall victim to Atlanta’s problem of pockets of sprawling commercial growth, disjointed and connected only by 10-lane-wide interstates and bland concrete surface arteries.

Seemingly, Midtown is going to evolve more like downtown when two HCA arms, Parallon and Sarah Cannon Research Institute, occupy West End Summit.

At least, that’s the message Midtown apostles sell: The fast-changing district offers all the office space of downtown — but with the accessibility conveniences of a suburban market.

And there’s a line of reasoning that a gleaming pair of towers with a high-profile tenant mix will further accelerate the growth of Midtown independent of the more-established downtown.

But all this said, there is only one downtown. And there should be only one.

The best Nashville can hope for is not that HCA’s wresting the West End Summit project from the very literal abyss will create a second downtown — rather, that it will create one unified economic powerhouse.

West End Summit shouldn’t be a watchtower on the frontier of the Midtown market, the source from which new growth springs, thumbing its nose at downtown.

Instead, West End Summit should be a bridge between two successful commercial districts, melding them into a unified district.

After all, they aren’t all that geographically far apart, especially with the connections already made by MarketStreet’s development in the Gulch.

“It’s all very proximate, and it’s all within walking distance,” said Dirk Melton, MarketStreet development director. “That access should allow it to grow together over time.”

Nashville wants to convince the world it is gliding effortlessly like a powerboat into the deep waters of the 21st century, but the reality is that old established lines dating back centuries still define our thinking.

Midtown was once rural countryside — look at sepia-toned photos of Vanderbilt’s campus in the 19th century and see just how far out of town — downtown — it was, geographically and culturally.

There are no longer cattle grazing along West End, but those old divides informed, notably, where the interstates went. And the interstates informed where retail and light industry would go.

And thus there are four great walls blocking the merger of downtown and Midtown, born of the concrete line that marked a once-invisible one: the Beaman, Mazda and Subaru auto dealerships that front Broadway, and the Country Delite Farms facility on Church Street.

They are massive tracts with massive buildings sitting astride brutal expanses of asphalt laid to accommodate vehicles. And they’re blocking the inevitable merging of Midtown and downtown.

Take out the big imaginary pencil and erase the dairy and the dealerships from the map. Then draw West End Summit on its four acres between 16th and 17th avenues where Broadway and West End Avenue split.

Now the gap between Midtown and downtown doesn’t seem so broad. The Gulch has pushed the downtown vibe far enough west that the two districts are nearly touching as it is. But in the real world, the various on- and off-ramps servicing Interstate 40/65 — and the numerous exits — form a web of disconnect.

And there is a line of thinking that without the interstate, there would be no Midtown/downtown distinction, that such a mass of urbanity would all be part of downtown. And perhaps that’s valid. Obviously, rerouting I-40/65 would be far harder than relocating a mere four businesses, even as big and established as they are.

Nonetheless, it would be no simple matter moving Beaman, Mazda, Subaru and Country Delite. None of those four properties meets the definition of blight — even in the broadest reading, like that which Metro used in its eminent-domain claims against the properties once in the footprint of the Music City Center. Auto dealerships generate millions in revenue. “Co-locating” car lots close to one another is a long-accepted business practice, as is placing them adjacent to interstates.

The fact is that breaking down the barrier is going to be a free-market decision — which will no doubt please conservative stalwart Lee Beaman.

It will take a developer with deep pockets — plus the possibility of steady profits selling cars away from downtown — for the dealers to decamp. And that’s not an unheard-of move. For example, Lexus of Nashville recently moved from Davidson County’s thickest thicket of car dealers on Madison’s Motor Mile to a site at MetroCenter.

And if the persuasive power of co-location still drives the dealers, more will follow.

That said, and even with property values in Midtown bound to rise, Lee Beaman says he doesn’t anticipate any relocation of his Toyota dealership — or the moving of any of the others on the stretch — during the next decade.

Likewise there are options for Country Delite, whose dairy stands as a weird anachronism on Church Street. Much light industry in Nashville has long since moved out of the county, or at the very least, outside I-440. There’s no shortage of space that could house the milk operation if the dairy wants to give up its prime location.

There is a cachet for a business being located so centrally. The irony for Country Delite is that many Nashvillians — if not most of them — call the plant “the Purity dairy,” when, in fact, Purity has never operated from the site at Church and 14th. Any cachet is lost in misunderstanding.

So if those four blockades are lifted, what goes in their places?

The central business district is still just that: Most of what Nashvillians regard as downtown is dominated by commercial real estate, with only small pockets of residential and ground-floor retail. The bulk of residential space is in The Gulch — including recently added apartments at Eleven North, pushing the Gulch boundary north towards Charlotte.

The initial sugar rush and resultant crash of the condo gorge are by and large in the past. With Eleven North, the Pine Street Flats in The Gulch proper and a handful of other central-city apartment projects, the focus for residential developers has shifted. But a market still exists. Even once West End Summit is out of the ground, office space in Midtown will remain at a premium.

So if Midtown and downtown bleed together — as they should — so should the uses for the tracts at their boundary. High-density housing, small offices geared toward the flexible and high-energy businesses Nashville sets its sights on, and a dash of shopping and restaurants fitting in with the niche markets developed on the fringes of Midtown will be the seam that sews together the two worlds.

Lively, modern, big-city development at 14th between Broadway and Church Street would, in this scenario, ease effortlessly into the edges of downtown.

It would be similar to the reimagining that happened in The Gulch, which was no short process. That took a proactive mix of public pressure, private dollars and progressive but patient planning from Gulch master developer and majority property owner MarketStreet Enterprises. The MarketStreet team recognized the area as one of potential, but didn’t — and still doesn’t — feel the need to rush its development.

As in The Gulch, bridging the gap would be a decades-long project — especially if, as Beaman insists, the auto lots are in no hurry to pull up stakes.

The Gulch’s success, though, may be the model needed to create a seamless Midtown/downtown.

“The way that developed is unique to Nashville,” said MarketStreet’s Melton. “That’s the reason why you can put together a comprehensive land-use master plan. That’s the driver that ensures quality that people expect in the neighborhood. The developer has to respect the unique character of the neighborhood and utilize existing buildings where possible.”

If the blocks between Broadway and Church do end up being controlled by one entity — or at least by a group of like-minded entities willing to work together and with the city, as MarketStreet did, toward a unified vision — much of the disconnect disappears.

Even the interstate becomes less of an obstacle than it seems.

The Demonbreun viaduct is one of the main arteries into and out of the Gulch, used by pedestrians and drivers alike to move to and from downtown proper. It’s a “cultural corridor,” Melton said, and with the right development on the west side of I-40, there’s no reason why Church and Broadway can’t become the same kind of connective corridors as Demonbreun is.

The connectivity The Gulch brought between downtown and Music Row is now starting to bear fruit. Ray Hensler’s as-yet-unnamed 12th Avenue apartment project and Charlotte-based Faison Enterprise’s mixed-use project proposed for the Music Row Roundabout will further bridge the gap between the Row and downtown.

And all of that started with the reimagining of The Gulch. Similar forward thinking that will be needed to merge Midtown and downtown at Church and Broadway. To build a unified downtown, Nashville simply need look at what’s already worked.

Whether the city will take that look is a question that looms larger than the hole from which West End Summit will soon rise.