Real estate pros say SoBro plan effectively recommends connectivity

Parking plans, open spaces, street grid changes catch the eye

The recommendations involving improved connectivity of both SoBro’s many oddly aligned streets and the fast-changing district’s various nodes — broadly including the Gulch and Rolling Mill Hill — and how that could spur development and improve quality of life are the highlights of a recently released master plan, according to local commercial real estate professionals.

“The emphasis on connectivity of neighborhoods via pedestrian bridges, greenways and complete streets,” Vickie Saito, broker and
senior associate with the Nashville office of Colliers International, said when asked what she likes most about the plan.

Starting last 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 worked on the master plan, courtesy of a $400,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration. The team presented its findings last week.

“The report is a road map for the SoBro area and we are very appreciative of the public’s participation over the last six months,” Barry Long, UDA CEO, said in a release. “Our team feels the recommendations are dead on in terms of the catalytic initiatives that will make SoBro even more successful than it is today.”

One of the aforementioned connectors is a proposed pedestrian bridge that would fuse the Gulch with the mini-district that is dominated by Cummins Station and Cannery Row and is expected to see infill spurred by the recently opened Music City Center Roundabout.

“I believe this to be critical as a connector of urban neighborhoods,” Saito said of the bridge. “Otherwise, the roundabout will be perceived — and will become — a barrier for pedestrians, cyclists and future mixed-use development.

In addition to the ped bridge, the master plan’s high-priority planning recommendations include the following:

• Repurpose the former Thermal Transfer Plant site as civic open space that will include flood mitigation measures
• Connect Division Street to Second and Fourth avenues
• Implement complete streets. 

High-priority policy recommendations include the following:

• Commission a comprehensive downtown traffic and parking study
• Refine MDHA’s redevelopment districts design guidelines, the
 Downtown Code, and the Major and Collector Street Plan
• Explore the creation of a parking authority or similar body
• Incentivize on-site stormwater management and the creation of open space
• Study the impact of making the so-called Lafayette neighborhood a redevelopment area.

Stan Snipes, president of XMi Commercial Real Estate, said the parking authority recommendation is a “fantastic idea.”

“Parking is the largest single issue in the downtown core, and you can’t add more people, buildings, parks or amenities without first solving the parking need,” he said.

Snipes echoed Saito’s remark’s regarding connectivity.

“Our downtown area is very spread out and somewhat disjointed,” he said. “The topography of the downtown area contributes to this perception. If we can find a way to bridge or connect these areas, it will create a more fluid downtown core. It appears [the plan’s creators] are trying to achieve this through the [recommended] creation of several green spaces interconnected by strategic walkways. The location of key amenities or activities between and around these green spaces will be very important to its success.”

Michael Hayes, president of C.B. Ragland Co. (which owns numerous SoBro properties), said the possible creation of a parking authority could carry a challenge.

“This is complicated, as the only publicly owned land is the Thermal Site and Rolling Mill Hill, both a bit far out for parking garages,” Hayes said. “So likely instead of an authority and condemnation, perhaps the city will consider public/private partnerships to create parking within private developments.”

The study recommends rerouting various streets, closing streets, connecting Division and Ash streets, and converting one-way streets to two-way. Asked how realistic these moves might be, Hayes said some of them will be easy, but the city will have to play a financial role in others.

“It would be incredibly beneficial if the city would acquire land to make these recommendations a reality,” he said. “The investment would pay dividends for generations to come.”

Though the plan — read here for what some developers originally wanted — is thorough and potentially effective if properly implemented, it does not come without flaws, Hayes said.

“The study should have better addressed the streetscape on Korean Veterans Boulevard, particularly the sidewalk width and landscaping along each section and the fact that they do not match,” he said. “Interestingly, the area that could have the most development and foot traffic (First to Fourth avenues) has the narrowest sidewalks, while the back side of the MCC — where little foot traffic is expected — has the widest. Granted, along the MCC, the sidewalk scale is correct.”

Saito said she would have preferred the plan to study “office demand and a changing urban office user” that might suggest alternative types of work space.

“The success of the Trolley Barns and the growing interest of technology companies and other creative-type businesses seeking space in the urban environment should be telling of what could spur redevelopment if land prices stabilize and incentives are available for such types of low-rise campus development,” she said.

Mark Woolwine, vice president of Colliers International and Saito’s colleague, described the plan as exhaustive and comprehensive. Although he finds much to like about the study, Woolwine said a “real-world” cost-benefit analysis and realistic timeline are lacking.

“It is realistic, but at what cost?” he said of the recommendations regarding improved streets. “I know this has been done in other cities and supposedly it has worked, but the cost-benefit concern will dictate the actual reality.”