Bridging the gap

Exploring a cap over a prominent part of downtown’s interstate loop

Any crosstown trip from Music Row and Midtown to downtown and The Gulch — whether on foot, by bike or in a car — is marked by the crossing of Interstate 40 buzzing below. Even though it’s been carved out of the ground, the busy highway marks a clear border and is an effective barrier to true neighborhood connectivity.

So picture this: I-40 is capped between some of western downtown’s bridges, turning the road below into a tunnel and opening up acres of real estate open to a variety of uses. Instead of the rumble of the wide freeway canyon, the sounds emanating from the area range from live music and children’s playful squeals to chatter from diners or festival attendees.

The concept is known as a land bridge and is a way to maximize the use of urban space and connect communities now severed by highways. Several cities already have taken such steps and reclaimed prime real estate. In Dallas, a public-private partnership led to the development of Klyde Warren Park — more than five acres of green space siting above a six-lane downtown highway. The $110 million project created about three city blocks that now feature a playground, a performance pavilion and a restaurant.

Officials in Columbus, Ohio, made a less ambitious but still progressive move when they built what they claim is the first retail project over a U.S. highway. The Cap at Union Station created more than 25,000 square feet of retail space over Interstate 640 when it was completed in 2004. The project, which cost $7.8 million, was partially funded by a real estate company that owned apartments just north of the site.  

Those two examples and several others have sparked nationwide interest in the land bridge concept. And it has urban planners in Nashville looking at going down that path as a way to improve the connections between Midtown and western section of downtown as well as Music Row and The Gulch — all areas without an abundance of green space.

“It’s something that’s happening more and more often in other cities,” said Gary Gaston, design director at the Nashville Civic Design Center. “The land bridge has been a huge success in [Dallas] and it helped to bridge two areas of the city separated by the interstate. That inspired us for this situation.”

The NCDC, along with students from the University of Tennessee, included the land bridge as part of a recent project called “Moving Tennessee Forward.” The main component in the Design Center’s plan is park space that includes community gardens, a sculpture garden and other public art as well as a grasslands area featuring native-to-Tennessee cedar glade trees.

“[The land bridge concept] has the creation of open space, green space and park space amenities for the city,” Gaston said. “We’re seeing that as an increasingly important concern for people and businesses ... that are trying to relocate here. Quality of life is becoming the top issue that people want in a city that they are moving to.”

Bus rapid transit also could play a role in the land bridge. The NCDC’s plans propose multiple bus rapid transit stations on what are now the Broadway and Church Street bridges, even though the only approved route is slated for Broadway.

Tennessee Department of Transportation Chief Engineer Paul Degges said that the plan may seem far-fetched, but it’s worth having a discussion about the project.

“So [the NCDC] is throwing some concepts out there that, on the surface, might seem kind of wild to some folks, but I see that it’s incumbent on the city of Nashville, TDOT and others to [consider] these,” Degges said. “I hear them saying, ‘We want connectivity.’ Interstates can be barriers to communities, and we want to see some connectivity.”

From an engineering perspective, Degges said the project wouldn’t pose too many challenges.

“It really isn’t real complicated,” he said. He pointed to Nashville’s first land bridge, some green space alongside Brightwood Avenue that runs over Interstate 440. “Unless you’re paying really close attention, you don’t feel like you’re crossing an interstate.”

However, Degges noted that the planning process for a potential interstate cap would be the biggest obstacle, one that would call for collaboration between a number of government entities and groups such as the Metropolitan Planning Organization.

“The complexity of this type of project is the interactions between local and state government and the private sector,” Degges said. “That’s where you would run into issues.”

It’s likely the public also would be involved. For that, Nashville’s leaders can look to Cincinnati, where officials have created a contest and website called “Connect the Blocks” to solicit ideas on what to do with a land bridge over Interstate 71 between the city’s CBD and riverfront districts. The contest aspect is open to architects and urban designers across the country to submit proposals.

One potential hang-up for a Nashville project could be funding. Similar projects have ranged from roughly $10 million to a $400 million option being explored by Portland, Ore. — although that project includes a number of other elements.

Degges said the idea of a land bridge in downtown Nashville is still far out into the future. Still, Gaston believes that the project is worth exploring and could be profitable over time — particularly if it goes beyond creating a green lung and becomes a driver of big developments in a high-profile area.

“The open space that’s created actually can elevate the property values that are located along that,” he said. “So when you redevelop it, you get an increased value for the land. In some ways, you could potentially try to capture some of that increased tax revenue as a form of funding.”