The Chatter Class: Convention center: a hit or a miss?

Monday, March 3, 2008 at 1:22am

Nashville stands at the edge of what could be one of its greatest architectural and development achievements or one of its greatest failures with the proposed new downtown convention center.

If talk around town is correct, the convention center at a projected cost of $635 million is the largest building program on the drawing boards in the country now. Of course, the economy is slow and development is grinding to a halt in places and perhaps the bar is lower.

Still, the city has an opportunity to make a positive, gargantuan design and development statement with the convention center. It’s not about “if” this or that happens. It’s about this should happen and the city steps out and boldly shows it is creative and has a willingness push boundaries.

There is support for going in that direction. The danger, however, is the support ends up being more talk than action as budgets get squeezed and value engineering takes root.

For years there’s been idle chatter that Nashville’s architecture leans toward the bland and the mimicry. Maybe that has to do with the conservative corporate roots in banking and insurance.

To date, the Country Music Hall of Fame is the most creative large attraction or public building downtown.

The downtown main library is nice but it’s no Seattle Central Library, which has become a tourist attraction because of its funky design.

Schermerhorn Symphony Center is quite nice, too. It’s particularly convenient to go into a place that looks like it should be in Europe without actually having to go to Europe. The exchange rate with Euro is awful right now.

So here comes the big box. Metro Planning Director Rick Bernhardt and the Nashville Civic Design Center urged wrapping the center with other types of development — retail, residential and office.

Councilman Mike Jameson wants a “green” roof.

T.K. Davis, the design center’s design director, is optimistic the building’s architecture can be great and make a statement.

“The one thing you don’t want is it value engineered down,” he said.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be some whiz-bang, futuristic design on par with the one in Pittsburgh that looks like a ship sitting in the water.

But it could be designed in such a way that someone going into a retail shop never has reason to believe that a convention is going on behind a back wall. Perhaps, a real estate developer takes charge of the large square footage on the roof as well as the wrap, treating it like a master-plan development found in urban parts of the city with various heights and a park on top.

Essentially, the center would create a tunnel with Fifth Avenue South to protect the grid. It could also help form the retail district and concentration that the Nashville Downtown Partnership’s retail study said downtown lacked.

The Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency is now in predevelopment planning and at some point a design team will be hired. There’s no doubt that there will be a lot of outside input.

Probably the biggest threat, however, is group thinking with the design and blandness becomes the result. After all, this building could end up being part of the Nashville skyline as seen from Interest 40 as drivers enter the city from the east and west.

One certainty with whatever the design becomes it probably shouldn’t come within a millimeter of the current convention center’s design. A lot of people find it just ghastly.

The Chatter Class appears Mondays in The City Paper. Comments may be sent to

Filed under: City Business
By: dnewton on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Nothing beckons the wrecking ball faster than an economic failure. Art or Architecture can not overcome the financial windstorm caused by neglect due to a lack of profitability. Seattle destroyed a sports dome that they still owed $25 million on about 8 years ago. The Pyramid in Memphis was costing the city and the county about 2 million a year and their convention center was losing 3.14 million per year in 2006. They were making $11.25 per square foot on their convention center and needed to be making $21.74 per square foot to break even on operational costs. Even if the car rental income could be taken away from their sports venues, it would cut the convention center losses down to about half of what they are now. A $635 million dollar facility would have to have a per square foot income of about $116.67 to just pay off the building in 40 years. If you add another 6% to cover operational expenses, then the yield per square foot has to be $123.67 per square foot per year to cover all costs. This project will assure that Davidson County retains its number one status as the county with the highest per capita government debt in the state. Shelby County may have the highest taxes but they are down to number 6 in the state in terms of the per capita debt. Theoretically these projects in Memphis are off the books but the city and the county write pretty big checks out of the general fund every year to keep them afloat.

By: frank brown on 12/31/69 at 6:00

This is not the time to build a Convention Center. Davidson County should concentrate on their ridiculous subsidy and debt surrounding the ice hockey team and arena.

By: Dragon on 12/31/69 at 6:00

dnewton said "A $635 million dollar facility would have to have a per square foot income of about $116.67 to just pay off the building in 40 years."If you consider that the current convention center was opened in 1987, maybe you should consider a 20-year payback.As for the author wanting the design to make a "statement

By: BigPapa on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Just another move towards making Nashville a nice place to visit but not a great place to live.

By: girliegirl on 12/31/69 at 6:00

I'll bet if you brought in some casinos (like Mirage, Mandalay Bay, Caesar's, Venecian, Luxor) to our downtown, asked THEM to fund our proposed convention center, we tax payers wouldn't have to spend a dime! LOL And our city would win EVERY time in those supposed "convention location" contests~ Heck, the biggest reason Vegas wins is because is has STUFF to do, other than be a tourist.

By: gdiafante on 12/31/69 at 6:00

You do realize you're in the bible belt girlie? How long did it take to get a lottery?

By: theplantsman on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Good idea, but you are too late. Several casinos are already within three to four hours drive and their owners have no need to relocate and dilute their current customer base simply to help Nashville. Nonetheless, none of the regional casinos is anything close to Vegas. Moreover, with Southwest flying non-stop there is no reason to drive three hours just to play a second rate casino. Besides, Kentucky’s Governor made it a campaign promise to get casinos, and since they already have several excellent Thoroughbred racetracks, it is merely a matter of voter approval.

By: girliegirl on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Hey, Plant, did you see how MANY flights there are a day????? DANG! It was like many to choose from, I got a headspin! Leaving Wednesday once all the kids are off at school, wanna come? LOL (ding, ding, ding, winner, winner, winner)

By: girliegirl on 12/31/69 at 6:00

And by the way, those casinos are N-A-S-T-Y......

By: mccullochd on 12/31/69 at 6:00

I'd rather have a baseball stadium than a convention center. What is going to happen with the old convention center when this new one is built? It's a perfect space for some cheap parking, but we all know that Central Parking would get its mitts on the property and charge $15 per night to park.

By: NewYorker1 on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Wow! What in the world will I wear to the grand opening of this new convention center?

By: JeffF on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Thank you Newton for bringing up the debt load already in place. Like it or not, this facility will go on the books as G.O. debt making all of us responsible for the rapidly approaching $billion project. The "paid for entirely by visitors" drumbeat is a lie but that drum keeps being hit. Never mind that facts that that money will not cover the debt load AND the operating cost. The only arguements for the white elephant break those into two conversations into in order for the sum never to be discussed. Of course the Nashville's new ceter will be the one out of 100 hundred that does meet it's own operating projections or costs. A even bigger dream is that the hotel and bar owners will pny up at every year-end to cover the deficits so we will nto have to.

By: Muzhik on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Local businessmen will have their Convention Center even if it breaks the back of the taxpayer. They expect the result of a new convention center is increased business with very new additional cost to them.

By: MFO on 12/31/69 at 6:00

You people complain more than anybody I've ever seen. The convention center is a fantastic idea both for those in and out of Nashville! Look 4ward to seeing it finished and to watching Nashville continue to grow in positive ways.

By: JeffF on 12/31/69 at 6:00

grow? Silly me, I thought we were talking about convention centers, not real public services or infrastructure. Boy is my face red. Read up, no city has ever "convention centered" itself into prosperity. Heck, over 90% of them have been unable to even meet their projections for even attaining sustainability. But that isn't the point is it. Downtown businessess have come to government for a handout yet again while the real neighborhoods wither.