Main in name only

East Nashville’s Main Street will need much improvement to reach full potential

Rarely is a Main Street “less main” than East Nashville’s version of the oft-romanticized and commonly found downtown commercial thoroughfare found in countless U.S. cities.

Typically, we visualize the nation’s Main Street(s) as vibrant stretches of road enlivened with people, retail shops and buildings — often of vintage stock — positioned at the sidewalks. Whether in a charming town or a bustling city, the ubiquitous Main Street often runs through the epicenter of a place and is literally one of the primary streets, if not the main street, of that place.

In contrast, Nashville’s Main Street offers multiple nondescript structures (many from the 1950s-1970s) with excessive and visible asphalt surface parking lots. Few pedestrians stroll its sidewalks and trees are not particularly common. The streetlights are towering and suggest interstate infrastructure. This Main Street does not find its way into downtown but, instead, confines itself to the fiercely independent east side.

Lastly, and of major significance, Main Street ranks among Nashville’s wider thoroughfares, with some segments spanning five lanes from shoulder to shoulder. Given that most of the buildings along Main are severed from the street by surface parking, the width of concrete and asphalt suggests a Cumberland River-wide mass of dead space. The street features only one median (located at McFerrin and so small its placement seems odd), with puny plantings providing a blip of modest greenery to an otherwise sunbaked road.

Indeed, Main Street’s form is fairly brutal, which renders noteworthy the fact that the street’s architecturally modest buildings have landed the past five to seven years interesting tenants — including, among many others, Fat Bottom Brewery, Center 615, Gym Five and Edley’s Bar-B-Que. And it begs the question: If Main can lure legitimate businesses, does it not deserve to look and function at the most attractive level possible?

“When assessing the redevelopment potential of Main Street in East Nashville, it is important to first address why the redevelopment along this street is important,” says Lisa Woodruff, director at the Nashville office of global real estate program management and construction consultancy Turner & Townsend.

Woodruff says the Cumberland River, located only about four blocks from Fifth Street, is central to Nashville's identity and could provides significant opportunity for redevelopment and revitalization of Main.

“Main Street holds the potential to not only link downtown Nashville and East Nashville, but in doing so to introduce more mixed-use developments with local shops, grocery stores, restaurants and public spaces,” Woodruff says. “Through strategic public works — i.e. improved sidewalks, bike paths, traffic control — Nashville can begin to generate development in a central part of [the city] that offers incredible opportunity to take advantage of the natural topography and beautiful views and is begging for rejuvenation.”

To achieve that rejuvenation, some harsh realities must be addressed.

Currently, only one new building is planned for the aforementioned stretch of Main: AA Development’s East Side Apartments. Until The Amp, the proposed bus rapid transit line that will traverse Main, is completed in 2016 and, thereafter, spurs infill development as expected, the changes on the street might be limited to the rehabbing and retrofitting of existing buildings and, even more modestly, some basic landscaping, signage, street light banners and pedestrian updates. Some wonder if east side residents can spearhead a grassroots adopt-a-street effort seen in other cities.

The Dallas Department of Street Services has its MOWmentumProgram, which allows citizens (and specifically street sponsoring groups) a chance to engage in the full landscaping of public rights-of-way, including medians, triangles, traffic circles and curb extensions.

Likewise, the San Francisco Department of Public Works offers its Adopt-A-Street Program.

Simply keeping the East Side’s Main Street as litter-free as possible would help. But as to large-scale changes?

“All this takes time,” says Adam Leibowitz of AA Development. “It is not done overnight. However, the city does seem to be focused on improvements.”

Indeed, following the 1998 tornado that brutalized the east side, Metro spent about $500,000 to retrofit some of Main’s intersections with pedestrian crosswalk pavers, which continue to provide nice definition and visual variety but can only do so much in softening the massing of the street.

At about the same time, and in a misstep of sorts, the city also added banners to Main’s streetlights. However, the smallish banners were out of scale with the towering poles — which hit their zenith at about 30 feet, feature outdated cobra-head light encasements and mimic the infrastructure found on high-speed highways — and were eventually removed.

“While a great gesture, it was not enough money to adequately address the streetscaping needs of such an important street as Main Street,” Gary Gaston, design director of the Nashville Civic Design Center, says of Metro’s effort. “That lack of adequate initial investment is really showing its age now.”

Leibowitz says new lights — more decorative and pedestrian scale than currently the case — are needed.

“If the city were willing to do that, it would be a nice visual element that also would create a safer environment,” he says.

On the “nice visual element” theme, some have wondered if Metro might be willing to install a large, attractive sign spanning Main at Fifth Street and reading something like “Welcome to East Nashville.”

The Little Italy district of Providence, R.I., offers such a sign at Atwells Avenue and Bradford Street.

Gaston says he strongly supports the concept of gateway signage as a way of building community identity, pride and awareness. However, he questions the practicality of a giant sign arching over Main Street.

“Maybe monumental signage could be used on either side of the street to accomplish the same effect,” he says.

Some Nashvillians assume the arrival of The AMP bus rapid transit line will spur lots of infill development. Main from Fifth to 10th has upwards of 15 empty parcels on which new buildings could be constructed and, as such, inject the street with some needed vitality. No doubt, the BRT line is expected to entice developers to make strong purchase offers to owners of underused Main Street properties. 

But by the time The Amp is unveiled, many of the nondescript buildings along Main could be home to thriving businesses with tenants making nice rent payments that might dissuade the landlords from selling. If those owners stand pat, the street will continue to look and function in a very suburban. In fact, of the approximately 60 buildings fronting Main between Fifth and 10th streets, about 40 are positioned such that asphalt severs them from the street.

At least 30 years (about the same amount of time it took for the once traditional Main to be reshaped as a vehicle-accommodating and pedestrian-unfriendly thoroughfare) would be needed to see most of those 40 structures demolished and replaced with buildings sited at the sidewalk.

In other words, Main’s improvements the next 10 years or so might be limited to the BRT line, a handful of new buildings and various cosmetic updates.

And that might not be such a bad thing.

“With a clear understanding of the importance of why the revitalization should be initiated,” says Turner & Townsend’s Woodruff, “design and development opportunities will present themselves.”