Efforts to reinvent city’s urban core show mixed results

Tuesday, April 1, 2008 at 2:13am

March Madness concludes with a crescendo.

Much like a basketball-crazed fan straining to function properly due to excessive NCAA Tournament consumption, Nashville faces the daunting task of reclaiming its urban core.

It will not be easy.

Many doubt Nashville’s center (follow the conjoined Briley Parkway/Thompson Lane/Woodmont Boulevard as they encircle the city’s street-gridded gut) can offer a building-dense environment teeming with pedestrian energy and heavily used mass transit.

Other cities in the South are also struggling to reinvent their long-suburban selves.

In fact, Charleston, Miami, Louisville, Richmond and New Orleans are the region’s only nationally significant places strongly characterized by the type density and mixed-use buildings commonly found in the country’s older and/or more cosmopolitan cities.

The South’s “Big Four” of Atlanta, Dallas, Houston and Miami, collectively, compare woefully to the Northeast quartet of Boston, New York City, Philadelphia and Washington D.C. The Big Four hang with, but only modestly, the Midwest grouping of Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and St. Louis, and the West Coast foursome of Los Angeles, Portland, San Francisco and Seattle.

Known more for its passion for commercial country music lyrics a simpleton could write than an interest in urban design and planning, the South has cities butchered by excessive surface parking, bad street design, and tacky single-use buildings. Many older residential districts ringing the downtowns of these cities have little, if any, corner commercial spaces, a trait that would raise the eyebrows of residents of old-school enclaves in, say, Providence or Milwaukee.

Last week’s Creating Places column compared the built environments of Music City and eight similar-sized Southern locales. Encouragingly, some readers emailed to offer feedback regarding often overlooked or underappreciated aspects of Nashville’s manmade environment. Let’s take a look.

The Excruciating

Most influential cities have a respectable collection of small, connected buildings sited at the street. Not Nashville. Here, surface-parking-marred freestanding structures dominate. Gaps between buildings are more glaring than the ego of MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann. Even downtown lacks a fine-grained built fabric.

The Disheartening

And what about the decision-making process of Metro officials? Bafflingly, our government commendably approved the architecturally-handsome Nashville Fire Department administration building in Rolling Mill Hill while, almost simultaneously, OK’ing the bland design for its nearby engine station on Peabody Street.

On the bureaucratic-bumbling theme, does Metro not realize that you simply shouldn’t diminish the cool pop-art-themed banners for the Country Music Hall of Fame exhibit Family Tradition: The Williams Family Legacy by loosely attaching them to streetlight fixtures? Along comes a strong wind — and a visual mess.

The Encouraging

Citywide, business signage is slowly improving. Also, religious leaders are showing better tastes with church architecture — both additions and new construction. And don’t discount the significance of developers increasingly willing to construct buildings at the sidewalk and/or with environmentally friendly features.

The Exciting

Nashville is quickly developing a respected regional reputation for its boutique architecture companies that showcase rising young talent.

Kudos to Vanderbilt University for incorporating a bold palette of design styles for its campus, with the new buildings creating a dense and vertical “city within a city.”

And lastly, let’s give props to Edgehill Village, a superb adaptive reuse project that deserves much more credit, and usage, than it gets.

William Williams is a citizen observer of Nashville’s manmade environment. Contact him at bill37206@yahoo.com

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

For Metro Officials you say,"And what about the decision-making process of Metro officials? Bafflingly, our government commendably approved the architecturally-handsome Nashville Fire Department administration building in Rolling Mill Hill while, almost simultaneously, OK’ing the bland design for its nearby engine station on Peabody Street.But for Vanderbilt you say,"Kudos to Vanderbilt you say,"Vanderbilt University for incorporating a bold palette of design styles for its campus, with the new buildings creating a dense and vertical “city within a city.” "Variety is OK for Vanderbilt but a no-no for Metro.

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

I am thinking the new fire station is on Lea not Peobody.Edgehill Village is wonderful and hopefully will succeed - currently almost completely occupied - nobody in Metro has noticed.

By: Time for Truth on 12/31/69 at 6:00

The Second Avenue/Broadway area that includes the arena, Symphony Hall and Hall of Fame as well as a concentration of the city's restaurants is an example of a walkable area that has improved greatly over the last ten years. Much of Nashville remains as cars-only sprawl, however.

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

I'm still convinced the creative class that pervades the city is one of its more appealing distinctions. Built environment not withstanding, and sometimes built environment be damned; I'm having a problem with the use of the term, "simpletons." Your "hip and trendy" wouldn't be so without them.

By: Time for Truth on 12/31/69 at 6:00

I wonder at Miami being cited as a good and bad example. Personally, I find Miami to be the armpit of the nation, aside from its beaches and warm weather.

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

I know first hand, (they have asked to remain private) what happened to the Fire Station. Let me be ... ahmmm.... blunt. ADA and the bean counters is exactly what happened to the Fire Station.