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20 years of Nashville's landscape: Music City still can't decide between green and unclean

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What we build—and what we don't—reveals a people's concept of the good life as projected in its urban form. In the last two decades, Nashville has made some nice moves, and avoided some real clunkers, in city shaping. But in assessing the progress the city's made over the past 20 years, consider that in 1989 the whole idea of what it takes to make an urban culture was up for grabs.

The convention center, funded with $39.5 million in bonds, was 2 years old. The dumb box turned its back to Broadway to discourage meeting-goers from getting a good look at Swinger's World and other sleaze shops. "Doing something about downtown" meant painting murals to disguise vacant storefronts. The Ryman was padlocked shut except for token tours. The zoning code forbade residential building in the central core. Metro's planners spent their days platting subdivisions.

Back then the Metro Development and Housing Agency was still touting the virtues of urban renewal. Staffers presented slide shows featuring "before" and "after" images of Deaderick Street without irony. Pre-renewal: a frieze of storefronts. Renewed: the concrete canyon Metro's currently spending $4.5 million to enliven.

The downtown tourist mecca didn't exist, apart from Tootsie's. That area was ceded to adventurous locals, who dined on sprouts and multigrains at Windows on the Cumberland on Second Avenue. Other venues included a bookstore, a plant shop, an architectural salvage emporium and Phillips & Quarles hardware. At the end of Broadway, Acme Farm Supply offered free dog dips on Saturday. People gathered in Riverfront Park to watch barge launchings on the East Bank.

Across the river, you could buy a big house for $100,000—for good reason. This writer shared a block in East End with winos and biker thugs. Near East dining options were geared to the homeless. Five Points was dominated by Bill Bailey's wrecker shed. Not that the rest of the city was thinking much more about urban planning. No one used the term "mixed-use" or drove on a "roundabout." A "green roof" was weathered copper, or maybe just mold.

The chief urban consciousness-raiser happened in the 1990s, with the battle over what was called the Franklin corridor (in what became SoBro). The fight pitted Metro and state traffic engineers against urban-design activists. The engineers planned to demolish the historic Shelby Bridge and Demonbreun viaduct, replacing them with a six-lane highway. The activists decried this Berlin Wall approach to infrastructure.

The Scene pitched into the debate in 1997 with the SoBro Charrette, a three-day intensive planning session led by design experts from all over the country. The resulting Plan for SoBro envisioned a boulevard rather than a corridor and greenspace along the Cumberland River flanked by a fine-grained urban neighborhood.

Phil Bredesen pulled the corridor plug when, in one of his last mayoral acts, he declined to put Metro moneys into the highway's construction. The incoming mayor, Bill Purcell, commissioned design guidelines to tame the corridor into the four-lane boulevard we see today. Unfortunately, no one tamed the six lanes of the new bridge into SoBro, but at least we as a city saved Shelby for bike and pedestrian traffic, preserving one of downtown's most stunning views.

Perhaps most importantly, from the corridor's ashes rose the Nashville Urban Design Forum and the Nashville Civic Design Center—both founded to advocate for the city as destination rather than drive-thru. And over the years, a halting economy did some of the preservationists' work for them, curbing somewhat the city's appetite for development.

To wit: The environmentalists' prime battleground, the garbage-burning thermal plant, closed in 2004. A plan for a new Sounds ballpark on the site fell through; the 11 acres of prime riverfront real estate remain vacant. Also vacant is the southwest corner of Second Avenue and Broadway. Remember when Metro Council approved a high-rise Westin hotel for the site, over strong objections from preservationists concerned about its impact on Broadway's already imperiled historic scale and character? Those objections couldn't kill the deal. But market forces could, and did.

Other losses were heartbreaking. The Sudekum building on Church Street that housed the Tennessee Theatre, one of the nation's few remaining Art Deco movie palaces, was detonated in 1992. It was replaced with the Cumberland Apartments, in an architectural style best described as East Berlin before the wall came down. The Union Station train shed, a national landmark, fell in 2001. The historic Jacksonian apartment building is now a Walgreen's.

Nashville still has a tendency to think that tall buildings a city make, as witness the Batman building, a glut of condo towers and the Pinnacle currently rearing its sleek head in SoBro.

But the city has diversified its urban options. Condos came not just in towers, but also to historic structures after residential zoning returned to downtown. Music returned to the Ryman. The arena (now Sommet Center) landed on Broadway like a flying saucer; the Titans appeared in their concrete ashtray on the East Bank. The Country Music Hall of Fame, the Frist Center for the Visual Arts and the main-branch Nashville Public Library exploded onto the downtown scene like a string of firecrackers in a single year. The Schermerhorn Symphony Center brought classical kitsch to SoBro.

We also tended our civic spaces. The restored public square replaced a parking lot. The Bicentennial Mall celebrates our history and preserves our sightline to the State Capitol. The new Farmers Market celebrates our plants and produce.

Perhaps more significant than any lone structure for the overall life of the city are the greenways, Nashville's new emerald necklace, which include more than 37 miles of trails that provide alternative transportation corridors as well as recreation.

The 21st century city is a very different place than the one we saw in 1989, or imagined in our future. There are more people on downtown sidewalks for more hours than the old 9-to-5 Nashville. Our traditional neighborhoods are no longer viewed as tear-down locales but as some of the most desirable places to live.

We have learned how to do urban—up to a point. SoBro is happening, but with a lot of big boxes. The biggest is currently grinding its way through Metro Council. The proposed $635 million Music City Center would be built on 15 acres, stretching from Fifth to Eighth avenues and from Demonbreun to Korean Veteran Parkway.

And we're still gobbling up green fields at an alarming rate. May Town Center would eat up 500 acres of the most pristine land in rural Bells Bend, one of the county's final holdouts against the encroachment of sprawl. But that's a story still unraveling. Stay tuned.

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