Local developers hope SoBro plan spurs infill construction

District will need infrastructure updates to entice new projects

Many Nashvillians want sleek hotels, public art, mixed-used buildings and pocket parks to fuel SoBro’s future.

But unlike rank-and-file locals and tourists who interact with the fast-changing area south of Broadway, it is the city’s development community that might have the most at stake in that future.

Collectively, those development pros seek a vastly overhauled SoBro infrastructure — everything from traffic light poles to overhead/underground utilities (as shown in the accompanying photo) to properly aligned streets — that they hope will spur quality infill construction.

“Making sure that there is a well-conceived plan for infrastructure is key to the SoBro master plan,” said Wood Caldwell, a principal with the Development Services Division of Southeast Venture. “It will define how the whole master plan works.”

Since March, a team led by Pittsburgh-based Urban Design Associates and including Nashville entities Civil Design Group, Hawkins Partners, Smith Gee Studio and Varallo Public Relations has been working on that master plan, courtesy of a $400,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration. The team will present a final plan by late January.

After three months of community meetings, workshops and hands-on interactive sessions with the public, a final community meeting is slated for Tuesday, Dec. 4, from 5-7 p.m. in Room 206 of the Nashville Convention Center.

Many developers and architects have attended the previous meetings. Not surprisingly, they feel a key driver of infill will be civic spaces that are welcoming, Caldwell said.

“Now is the time to plan for public spaces such as parks and hardscapes,” he said. “In the big picture, this is what will really bring value to the area — especially for future high-density residential development.”

“Layering in pocket parks and public art will create interest in the downtown area and get people excited and motivated to live downtown,” Caldwell added.

To entice developers to build in SoBro, many believe the Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency will need to offer tax increment financing incentives. Three MDHA-overseen redevelopment districts — Arts Center, Capitol Mall and Rutledge Hill — overlap segments of SoBro. Currently, MDHA has $50.3 million worth of tax increment financing (TIF) money, approved by the Metro Council, it can provide to developers doing work in those districts.

“The city has to get aggressive with TIF financing to give developers incentive to come downtown and build,” Caldwell said.

John Tirrill, managing partner with Atlanta-based SWH Residential Partners, agreed but stressed any future TIF-driven private project should be something usable by the general public, much like the under-construction Omni Nashville Hotel (which is benefiting from various Metro incentives) will be.

“Any TIF money should be spent on projects that truly benefit the public,” said Tirrill, who is working on a Rolling Mill Hill development that will need MDHA Design Review Committee approval. “I do believe that it would be good to have additional TIF money available for the Arts Center Redevelopment District and that those responsible for managing the TIF program must be good stewards of the money for the public.”

Over the years, various downtown proponents have advocated Metro constructing a viaduct to connect Division and Ash streets, in the process more effectively linking the Gulch to Rutledge Hill/Rolling Mill Hill.

“It would definitely be nice,” Tirrill said. [But] I would want to study the overall transportation plan in more detail before setting priorities.”

Aaron White, principal and co-founder of Nashville-based Evergreen Real Estate, ranked SoBro plan priorities as follows: 1. sufficient parking for future retail; 2. buildings that interact with sidewalks; 3. proper lighting to maximize pedestrian and motorist safety and security; and 4. street-level architectural standards.

He also listed improved street realignment (the awkwardly situated Lea Avenue and Peabody Street are examples of streets needing work) and structured parking as very important to driving future SoBro growth.

“If street flow and parking are not intuitive, it will hurt the area,” said White, adding he would favor TIF money only for public parking, retail and historic rehab (and not for hotels, office buildings and residential structures).

Southeast Venture’s Caldwell said Mayor Karl Dean and his administration have done “a great job” promoting downtown. He said the soon-to-be-launched Music City Center convention facility and the Omni have created a buzz among developers. Now a long-term plan is needed.

“It’s important that the SoBro master plan gives developers a clear roadmap,” he said, “specifically spelling out what they can and can’t do.”