'Public infrastructure makes private-sector projects possible'

Design Center's Gaston sees city's civic projects spurring infill

Gary Gaston serves as design director of the Nashville Civic Design Center and as a lecturer with the University of Tennessee College of Architecture and Design.

Post Managing Editor William Williams recently chatted with Gaston to gauge his take, specifically, on how civic projects planned to starts this year might aid private-sector development and, in general, various aspects of Nashville’s built environment.

We expect to see this year the addition of five major civic projects within the city’s downtown core: the Nashville Sounds ballpark, Sticks (the large-scale art piece on the Music City Center Roundabout), the pedestrian bridge connecting SoBro and The Gulch, the Division Street extension and continued riverfront redevelopment, which will include an amphitheater. How will these projects spur private development?

When the city takes a lead on these types of infrastructure projects, it builds confidence within the private development community that their investments will be successful. More public amenities add to the attractiveness of these areas as pedestrian-oriented, walkable, safe neighborhoods. In particular, the Sulphur Dell area (in North Capitol) and Lafayette Street (in SoBro) will be the most transformative because very few residential units currently exist.

The construction of Korean Veterans Boulevard, the roundabout, the new pedestrian bridge connection to The Gulch and the Division Street extension are being accompanied by numerous private-sector development announcements in the area south of Broadway (for example, City Winery is headed to a warehouse on Ewing Street while SWH currently is developing on Rolling Mill Hill CityView Apartments for Des Moines, Iowa-based Principal Global Real Estate Investors.)

One common denominator of all these projects is that they address The Plan of Nashville’s 10 principles to guide development and improve the city, including the integration of public art, increased connectivity, an economically viable downtown and an enhanced pedestrian realm. Nashville is already benefitting from private development in response to public investment. The Gulch and Rolling Mill Hill are two new neighborhoods that showcase this.

Do you feel Nashville is seeing a nice blend of government-driven civic projects and private-sector growth.

Nashville’s leadership over the past several administrations has set a high bar for quality growth, and the new developments, jobs, residents and tourists are flowing in at a pace envied by many cities in America. It is exciting to watch which projects are being taken on by the private sector and which are addressed by the public sector.

Transportation is a good example. The growth has spanned new private- sector businesses in car share, car and limo service, taxis and bus service. And they are working in tandem with the public-sector improvements in mass transit, bicycle and pedestrian solutions to address Nashville’s increasing transportation demands. For instance, Amplify on Main (the 74-unit residential development under construction on Main Street in East Nashville) specifically references the planned Amp BRT (bus rapid transit) as a critical asset to future residents.

What becomes of the Lower Broad site that had been planned for a Hyatt Regency?

It seems it will currently stay the same until the existing buildings are renovated or another developer comes along with plans that are economically feasible.

Is there a part of town that has the same opportunities as, say Germantown, 12South and Five Point, but is being somewhat neglected?

Honestly, most urban areas in Nashville have the potential to transform similarly to these neighborhoods. In fact, the process seems to be rapidly increasing. Look at all the development that has happened in Salemtown, Maxwell Heights, Cleveland Park, The Nations and Chestnut Hill — to name a few — in just the past five years.

A great opportunity lies in creating a more urban form in some of our suburban areas. Madison, Bellevue and Antioch are three communities that have been seeking the addition of place-making principles, with initial city investments that are helping make that happen — community centers, libraries, police stations, parks, greenways, sidewalks, etc., that help connect people from their homes to jobs and amenities.

The true challenge will be the ability of the city and neighborhood groups to plan for this change — to ensure the affordability and diversity for existing residents while also accommodating the new. If we are not careful, our urban neighborhoods could become enclaves of wealth without low- and middle-income affordability, and our suburban areas could continue to grow without the unifying elements residents are now earnestly requesting. Germantown, 12South and Five Points, therefore, could be viewed as the harbingers of not planning for affordability. 

A concern I often hear is how it will be very difficult to connect downtown with Midtown, given the inner-interstate loop severs the two and how there are lots of low-density properties running between 13th and 16th avenues on Charlotte Avenue, Church Street and Broadway. The key street in this connectivity effort might be Demonbreun Street, which is seeing unfold — courtesy of the private sector — some strong infill development that is helping link the two districts. What is your view of this?

Gulch Crossing (which Marketstreet Enterprises is developing in The Gulch) incorporates a public stair, so that will give people on the Demonbreun Viaduct access to 11th Avenue and vice versa. In essence, that helps reduce the length of the bridge. That is an example of developers incorporating infrastructure that is open to the public and contributes to pedestrian usage.

UT College of Architecture professor TK Davis, in partnership with NCDC, has done studies with his students in this area on how to bridge the east and west sides of the railroad Gulch. In fact, his studio first proposed the concept of a pedestrian bridge connecting The Gulch. He has done proposals for the Clement Landport, and the parking lots behind Union Station and adjacent to Cummings Station. In the summer 2013, UT students did a study (see here) for "microhousing" along the edge of the CSX railroad tracks fronting the Demonbreun Viaduct.

What public project of the past five years or so has done more than any other to spur private-sector development and new businesses? I suppose it would be very tempting to say the Music City Center/KVB projects. But some folks will point to the Rolling Mill Hill/Rutledge Hill area and note that Metro’s work with the Trolley Barns, Fulton Complex and RMH residential buildings has been equally impressive in its on way. Thoughts? 

As an urban designer, it's the public infrastructure that makes private-sector projects possible. So I say it's Korean Veterans Boulevard. Gateway Boulevard (as it was initially known) and the roundabout, conceived in the 1997 SoBro Charrette (read here), was a truly brilliant urban design concept. It envisioned a future shift in downtown development to the disjointed area south of Broadway — with the proposal of a grand boulevard that would be the center of a vibrant mixed-use new neighborhood. It also galvanized the design community into action to fight the proposed six-lane highway-like initial designs that had been proposed; it was a decisive victory for proponents of pedestrian friendly "complete streets."

The realization of KVB as a beautifully designed urban boulevard is what allows a building as massive as the Music City Center to function at that location. The boulevard and roundabout will be the future home to many new large-scale projects. It marks a shift in major development activity in SoBro, which will last for many years to come and hopefully deliver to the downtown core the types of amenities that we don't currently have — movie theaters, an elementary school, mainstream retail shopping, etc., and, of course, more high-density residential.

 

 
A 2005 UT College of Architecture Studio study led by TK Davis focused on development along KVB. Of note, the study was done prior to the Music City Center's site selection. This image shows a range of scale of building sizes and programs fronting both sides of the boulevard and leading to the MCC Roundabout.

 
A 2009 master plan study of an "Arts Center" located between the railroad tracks and Eighth Avenue south of Demonbreun Street, (undertaken by UT students and led by TK Davis) first proposed the concept of a pedestrian bridge connection from the anticipated MCC Roundabout to The Gulch.

 

 
An example of a microhousing residential building located on the Demonbreun Street Viaduct. (Courtesy of the UT College of Architecture Studio)