[Editor's note: This summer, the Nashville Civic Design Center, the nonprofit organization that seeks to inspire bolder urban planning and a more beautiful cityscape, turned its attention to one of Nashville's major eyesores: the industrial waste and scrap yard that occupies a gateway to the city, the East Bank of the Cumberland River alongside I-24.
To launch a public dialogue about this urban design challenge — how to transform this area from a scar on the landscape to an emblem of Nashville's forward thinking, creative energy and dynamic development — the Civic Design Center issued an international challenge for teams of architects and planners to submit innovative designs for the East Bank's future. In its Monday cover story, The City Paper ran some of the most striking designs from the competition, available online at nashvillecitypaper.com.
At 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 20, the winning designs will be unveiled at an outdoor exhibition along the greenway at the trolley barns on Lea Avenue at Rolling Mill Hill. The design center encourages people to come out and vote for their favorite, and to imagine the Nashville that could be. We asked longtime Scene contributor Christine Kreyling, a judge of the submitted designs, to explain the issues that shaped the challenge — and why it matters to the city.]
It's déjà vu all over again, to steal a redundancy from baseball's Yogi Berra. The first cover story I ever wrote for the Nashville Scene was "What To Do With Nashville's East Bank." The article analyzed a 1990 redevelopment plan commissioned by the Metro Development and Housing Agency (MDHA). Twenty-two years later the Scene is giving top billing to design concepts for the East Bank submitted to a competition sponsored by the Nashville Civic Design Center with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. A lot has changed in the meantime.
For starters, the Civic Design Center wasn't even a gleam in city planners' eyes then. The football team that's become the East Bank's anchor tenant was called the Oilers and played in Houston. The Shelby Bridge still carried cars. And the industrial age, if waning, still held sway in the territory between the interstate and the river.
In those days, barges were built on the East Bank. Downtown workers would gather in Riverfront Park for a launch, cheering as a newly minted flatboat slid down the ramp and landed with a loud kaploom! and a spray of water. There was little to cheer about, however, just beyond the water plumes. Fume-belching semis twisted through a maze of pockmarked streets lined with vacant lots, decrepit buildings and the aptly named Dusty Road bar. In 1990, when the Scene asked readers to name "30 Things Nashville Needs, " doing something about the riverfront across from downtown made the list.
That the East Bank has the potential to improve the general quality of Nashville life is more obvious now. The construction of the stadium and Korean Veterans Bridge de-industrialized much of the riverfront, leaving underutilized land close to the city's heart. Downtown has also evolved considerably in two decades. The river's East Side is within walking/biking distance — via the Shelby Bridge, once proposed for demolition — of the central city's entertainment, office and residential venues, as well as transit options: the commuter rail station and Music City Circuit downtown circulator bus.
Furthermore, the area is crossed by the 26-mile Music City bikeway. (If you must drive, it is also easily accessed from the interstate.) The East Bank Greenway is part of a 27-mile trail system running all the way from Percy Priest Dam to Ted Rhodes golf course near TSU. The site also offers the best views of the city skyline and features Cumberland Park, a family-oriented play space, and the rehabbed NABRICO building, a relic of the river's working past.
There are inherent challenges, however, to a big leap forward for the East Bank. Much of the area is brownfield, potentially contaminated by more than a century of industrial usage. Much of it is also floodplain, as the high waters of May 2010 conclusively proved. The giant concrete ashtray that is the Titans stadium, surrounded by acres of asphalt parking, is not exactly fine-grained urban design. And then there's PSC Metals, the scrap yard that Metro officials have longed to relocate for decades.
MDHA's 1990 concept plan was an early attempt to encourage the post-industrial age. Most of the proposed projects were never built (two 15-story office towers, a pyramidal hotel and a banjo-shaped marina) or were built elsewhere (a 15, 000-seat arena). But the plan represented a radical rethink: the East Bank as an extension of downtown rather than a ghetto for land uses unwanted on the west side.
In the intervening years, the area has been the subject of additional studies. The 2007 Nashville Riverfront Concept Plan, under the design lead of Hargreaves Association, was the most ambitious. The plan's most dramatic feature is an inland recreational waterway west of the interstate, framed by new mixed-use development integrated with open space. Implementation of phase one of the resulting $50 million master plan delivered Cumberland Park to the site between the Shelby and Koreans Veterans bridges.
The Civic Design Center's "Designing Action" competition takes up where Cumberland Park leaves off, focusing just south on the 75 acres whose wishbone shape is outlined by the eastern end of Korean Veteran Boulevard and I-24.
"Nothing was programmed for this area in Hargreaves' riverfront master plan, " explains Ron Yearwood, the center's urban designer and the competition coordinator. Yearwood notes the difficulties of the site: a brownfield containing 50 acres within the 100-year floodplain, 25 acres of which must be preserved in a natural state; seven different property owners; the wall of I-24 and the high-speed design of the eastern end of Korean Veterans Boulevard, which hamper connectivity to East Nashville.
The competition brief emphasized "infrastructure promoting active, healthy-living, " highlighting alternative sports. The designers were asked to include a minimum of five from a list encompassing everything from badminton and beach volleyball to parkour and zipline — even, in a fanciful touch, quidditch.
"Nashville is known as one of the country's top cities for sports, but we don't have facilities for emerging sports, " Yearwood says. Given that the city is becoming increasingly diverse — more than 80 languages are spoken in public schools, and more than 10 percent of residents speak a language other than English at home — "it seemed appropriate to create spaces for people who don't necessarily do baseball or football, " he explains.
The brief also stressed development sustainability, given the area's flood-prone nature and possibly toxic soils. "We suggested mixed-use if they wanted to include buildings — office, residential, entertainment, retail — but we didn't require buildings, " Yearwood says.
The response was high volume: 133 entrants from 29 countries. From these the jurors selected three winners from 17 finalists. A People's Choice award will be determined by texting vote during an exhibit of the finalists on the Rolling Mill Hill greenway beginning Thursday, Sept. 20.