It's no secret that Nashville is struggling to get a grip on the future of its fairgrounds. Or that Mayor Karl Dean has fumbled a few forward passes in the process. Even The New York Times recently featured a story about the battle over "the gloomy asphalt hill."
But the raucous debate over the fairgrounds' fate may finally take on tones of reasoned discourse. On Tuesday the Metro Council passed on third reading a bill to commission a master plan for the 117-acre site. Council members chose the plan approach as a less inflammatory alternative to a final decision on whether or not to demolish the fairgrounds racetrack.
The master-plan territory is not only the fairgrounds proper, but includes the surrounding area bounded by Lafayette Street/Murfreesboro Pike to the north and the interstates east, west and south. The plan will provide for the restoration of Brown's Creek and a public park, as well as assess best uses for the fairgrounds from the standpoint of economic viability and neighborhood livability.
The planners are to propose which current facilities, such as the racetrack, should stay and which disappear, as well as what infrastructure is needed to encourage private investment.
"Infrastructure doesn't stop at the fairgrounds property line," explains Councilman Jason Holleman, who sponsored the master-plan alternative. "That's why we need a comprehensive plan for the whole corridor. For example, Metro also owns the Greer Stadium site, which may be redeveloped in the near future."
The big master plan trumps a mini-plan that was in the works for the 40 acres of fairgrounds that are largely floodplain. In mid-December, Metro Parks issued a request for proposals for a plan for creek remediation and a park that assumed the racetrack's demolition. A month later a review committee selected five design teams as finalists.
Now that a plan for the whole fairgrounds is in the offing, however, Tim Netch, Metro Parks' planning superintendent, confirms, "We will not proceed with the current park design."
This is good news, because the prospectus for the park-only plan could have produced a questionable result. For starters, the budget for design and construction was $2 million. That works out to 87 cents per square foot — a laughably low sum.
In addition, designers would have had to start planning while lacking key site information. No environmental, archaeological or geotechnical subsurface studies, no soil analyses, no searches for hazardous materials have been conducted for the property.
Under these circumstances, the joke circulating within the local design community was that the finalist firms should pray they'd lose.
All of this raises the question: Why didn't Mayor Dean initiate a master plan for the entire fairgrounds himself, rather than wait for Metro Council to do so?
Last February, the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit that encourages excellence in land-use decision-making, convened a panel in Nashville that focused on the Fourth and Eighth Avenue South corridors. The panel identified a wide variety of redevelopment options for the fairgrounds: park/open space, cultural or educational institution, corporate offices, retail, entertainment, residential, mixed-use town center. Among the initial steps the ULI panel recommended: "Create [a] redevelopment plan for fairground area."
This advice was reiterated in September. After a series of public meetings, the Nashville Civic Design Center, in collaboration with the Fairgrounds Task Force appointed by Mayor Dean, issued a report on future fairgrounds use. The two key recommendations:
• "Conduct an economic feasibility study that evaluates the mix of proposed uses for the site . . ."
• "Hire a professional planning firm to create a master plan for the site that utilizes ideas from the public input process and the economic feasibility study . . ."
So why didn't Hizzoner follow this advice?
"I thought we had a plan after the ULI effort," Dean says, "but clearly there wasn't a consensus. We were in no position to move forward, so I called for a time-out. I think the master-plan process could be a real benefit, and I hope a consensus on the fairgrounds does emerge. But ultimately you have to make some decisions about what you're going to do there."
Exactly. And wouldn't it be nice for the Decider to have some objective basis for his decisions? The belief that scraping a site and starting over will necessarily produce positive results was the faith of urban renewal. Cities across America are still trying to recover from its effects.
This isn't rocket science. You hire experts to examine the economic value of current uses as well as the financial feasibility of the myriad uses proposed for the fairgrounds. Lack of economic feasibility will eliminate some proposed uses. Then your planners evaluate those still on the table, based on environmental, social and economic sustainability over the long haul, and come up with a site plan.
But if Mayor Dean prefers the rocket science route, a famous line from Apollo 13 might come in handy:
"Let's work the problem, people. Let's not make things worse by guessing."