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Between a public squabble and a much-criticized design, all's not quiet on Nashville's west riverfront

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As the city moves forward on the west riverfront — a complex project that will transform the former thermal site, provide a long-coveted amphitheater and dictate flood mitigation strategies — it's been blog fodder for weeks that a competitor in the running for the project has publicly cried foul, claiming "the fix was in" as Mayor Karl Dean and his minions selected the winning design team.

Less noted, however, is that the team chosen to do the project has already produced a conceptual design for the amphitheater — one that has members of Nashville's design community reaching for their sick sacks.

The amphitheater design is part of the West Riverfront Master Plan, released in August. It was developed by a design team headed by Nashville landscape architects Hawkins Partners; the local Smith Gee Studio was the architectural firm on the team. Reaction from local designers has been critical, to put it mildly.

The amphitheater "looks like a tipsy box," says one Nashville architect, who requested anonymity because "I have to get along in this city." Another says, "Thermal is a major site and deserves a world-class building, which this isn't. And the outbuildings look like something from a carnival" in terms of their lack of integration into the site. One architect of a more sanguine disposition says, "It's just a concept, probably used to create a sense of excitement about the project."

Try fear and loathing. The harsh angularity of the "tipsy" wall, with its sharply pointed apex, virtually screams, "We're trying to make an icon here!" Yep, here's the description in the plan's text:

"Modest yet unmistakable the structure is both simple and iconic. A slight tilt and a subtle lean reflects [sic] music's inherent imagination, curiosity and frivolity. Unexpected and expressive, this iconic portal to Music City welcomes and celebrates diversity, creativity and dynamic expression found forever in the world of music and spotlights Nashville's inviting and hospitable culture."

This is marketing balderdash, of course. If self-labeling were all it took to create icons, every ex-cast member of Jersey Shore would have a shrine. The proof is in the design and its interaction with surrounding space. In Bilbao, Frank Gehry created a form distinct from its industrial context; at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden Visitor Center, Weiss/Manfredi architects took the opposite approach, fashioning a building that's an extension of the surrounding landscape. By contrast, all the prose in the world cannot explain how this amphitheater design relates to or reacts against the city's form, because it does neither.

And yet Metro has rewarded the team that produced this cumbersome concept not just with a contract to plan and design the amphitheater, but the west riverfront as well, all the way to Church Street.

Which brings us back to the selection process — a tangled morass of competing plans and clashing visions.

Metro's search for a west riverfront design team evolved out of the SoBro Master Plan — yes, another plan. This document of January 2013, sponsored by the Nashville Convention Center Authority and the Nashville Downtown Partnership, was funded by a $400,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce. Among the plan's "high-priority" recommendations was "repurposing the currently unused Thermal site as civic open space." The design team examining those possibilities was led by Urban Design Associates of Pittsburgh, but it included Hawkins Partners as well as Smith Gee Studio.

The Convention Center Authority took the next step of commissioning a master plan for the thermal site from the same design team, amending their contract rather than opening up the project for competitive re-bidding. The cost was $334,500. This time Hawkins Partners was the lead. The scope of work, however, included not just the thermal site but also the west bank from Korean Veterans Boulevard to Church Street. The result, completed in April, is the West Riverfront Master Plan.

But Metro already had a plan for the west riverfront, minus the thermal site itself. That plan was by a team led by landscape architect Gavin McMillan of Hargreaves Associates — the person who's crying foul now.

Back in 2007, the Hargreaves team produced something called the Nashville Riverfront Concept Plan, which covered both sides of the river from the I-65 crossing south to Shelby Bottoms. By January 2011, a McMillan-led team developed and refined this concept into yet another plan, this one titled New Riverfront Park: Schematic Design. Both plans left the thermal site out of the equation, because at that point its future had yet to be determined. Hawkins Partners served on the teams for both, but in a subsidiary capacity.

The Schematic Design document divided the riverfront makeover of the 2007 plan into 14 projects that could be built in phases, whenever Metro had the money. To that end, the design went into enough detail to garner permits for each segment from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — an exercise involving extensive fieldwork, such as hydraulic modeling. Since then, this schematic design has served as the basis for all projects subsequently built on the East Bank, including Cumberland Park.

The 2013 West Riverfront plan by Hawkins retains many elements of the 2011 plan, such as piers at Church Street, Broadway and Demonbreun. But it presents a considerable reworking of the already bought-and-paid-for Schematic Design from Broadway to Church Street.

Kim Hawkins of Hawkins Partners explains that "the thermal site coming into the picture" for performance space "offered an opportunity to reimagine the north part" containing Riverfront Park. It's true that Dean's Music Business Council didn't organize a subcommittee until 2010 to explore a new downtown amphitheater to replace the barges at Riverfront Park. But putting one on the thermal site is an idea that goes back to the Purcell administration in 2007, and has been lobbied for ever since.

McMillan says in an email that his Schematic Design team realized "there could be an amphitheater," and that the plan "was clear that [Riverfront Park] was not retained as-is. It was to be made a 'more urban park-like setting' for 'residents and downtown workers.'" Guess that's why it's called New Riverfront Park. He notes that this area was allocated $12.5 million in the designers' cost projections "so the improvements were substantial, including making sure it wasn't a dead-end for those with disabilities."

Last month, McMillan went public with his misgivings about the selection process Metro is using for the designers who will take Hawkins' West Riverfront Master Plan all the way to blueprints for the contractors. In an Oct. 21 letter to Metro Purchasing, McMillan stated that when his firm considered bidding on the project, "we were struck by the perception among other firms that the 'fix' was in." He added, "That is why there were only three responsible bidders."

Cambridge, Mass.-based Hargreaves fielded a team anyway, headed by Ennead Architects. This New York firm has designed many performing arts venues, including an open-air home for the Santa Fe Opera. "We thought putting in the lead architects with sterling experience in amphitheaters was a good tactic," McMillan says. Or not.

The Ennead/Hargreaves group lost out to the Hawkins Partners team, which by this time included, in a consulting capacity, Hodgetts + Fung, who designed the expansion of the Hollywood Bowl and the smaller Wild Beast Music Pavilion near Los Angeles. The local Littlejohn Engineering also led a squad that competed for the project.

In his letter, McMillan particularly criticizes the fact that the evaluators of the bids conducted no interviews with the competing teams before awarding the contract. To that, Metro's purchasing chief, Jeff Gossage, and mayoral spokeswoman Bonna Johnson responded in essence that the process "was too fair." Gossage also told The Tennessean, "Interviews are only conducted when there are questions or concerns about a company."

It's easy to discount McMillan's complaint as sour grapes after losing his firm's part of a contract worth $7 million. But a closer look at the evaluation process reveals anomalies.

Among the weaknesses the evaluators ascribed to Ennead/Hargreaves were "lack of historic knowledge of the project" and "very little project specific knowledge to this site." Yet Hargreaves has been working on the Nashville riverfront for seven years, as previously noted. In his letter, McMillan writes, "If there was an interview, the 'strengths & weaknesses' statements could have been clarified." He sees a contradiction, for example, in the evaluators finding a strength in his team's "good floodproofing experience" but a weakness in their "lack of depth of experience on flood-related matters."

Getting the evaluators to explain their assessments is impossible, because Metro won't release their identities. All Gossage would reveal was generic. "The Review Board represented Parks, Water Services, Finance and an independent member of the private sector," he states in an email. "Our standard practice is not to release names so that there can be no influence on the team prior to the recommendation [to the Mayor, the final arbitrator] or complaints following the award."

Yet this practice hasn't been uniform. I myself served on the advisory committee to select a design team for the 2010 Centennial Park Master Plan. Mayor Dean publicly announced the committee's makeup at the beginning of the process. I experienced no lobbying before nor complaints following the award. We also did interviews before making our recommendation.

When asked why he'd want to be on the chosen team — which stands to implement a curvilinear design much different from the rectilinear terraces of his own — McMillan replies, "If we'd had an interview, I planned to show that if Metro went back to the 2011 plan it could save a lot of time and money."

Gossage describes Metro's formal solicitation for bids for the project as "one of the most complex I've ever seen." That's because Metro was soliciting for such disparate skill sets.

For the amphitheater on the thermal site, architectural design is paramount. Then there's flood mitigation/control for downtown's riverfront, where water and environmental engineering is supreme. These professional disciplines were combined into one bid solicitation because there are lots of old utilities, particularly water and sewer infrastructure, lying under the ground of the thermal site, according to Metro Water chief Scott Potter. Making the site a home for the amphitheater could affect flood mitigation/control engineering for the rest of the riverfront.

Landscape architecture is not the dominant expertise required for either project, however. So why has Metro chosen a team headed by landscape architects? And why is Metro paying them, and paying them, to redesign a riverfront it has already paid landscape architects to design before?


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