Creating Places: A Citizen Observer's Look at Nashville's Built Environment

Writer's Note: William Williams' interest in the manmade environment dates to 1970, at which point the then-young Williams started a collection of postcards of city skylines. The collection now numbers 1,000-plus cards. Among the writer's specific interests are exterior building design, city district planning, demographics, signage, mixed-use development, mass transit and green/sustainable construction and living. Williams began his Creating Places column with The City Paper in February 2005. The column in its original form was discontinued in September 2008 and reinvented via this blog in November 2008. Creating Places can be found on the home page of the website of The City Paper, at which Williams has worked in various capacities since October 2000.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Outfitting Urban Outfitters

Building signage is one of the most overlooked — yet important — elements of a building's exterior. On this note, I offer a commendation to MarketStreet Equities and Urban Outfitters for opting for the attractive and prominent metal sign on the facade of the former's Gulch building housing the latter's just-opened "bohemian-hipster" clothing store. Word on the street is that the Metro Housing and Development Authority was a bit taken aback when MarketStreet and U-Outfitters proposed the eye-catching, and somewhat envelope-pushing, sign. Fortunately, the fine folks at MDHA, which must approve any architectural designs and features for those buildings within the entity's redevelopment districts (including The Gulch), summoned what is likely a modest level of inner coolness (and I write this with all due respect) and OK'd the sign.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Velocity Takes Shape

The still-under-construction Velocity is now giving us a taste of its final look, as the the futuristic caps topping the Gulch building's two entrance columns are lit at night. Very attractive.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Dean could Blow Riverfront Effort

Mayor Karl Dean and MDHA are poised to make a horrendous mistake related to Cumberland riverfront redevelopment. That possible blunder would be such from both a practical perspective as it relates to the sequencing and citizen usage of the riverfront master plan and a political perspective, as Dean might cost himself a re-election in 2011.

In short, Dean has all but ordered MDHA to implement the riverfront redevelopment plan "out of sequence" compared to the originally agreed upon sequencing of improvements as recommended by Hargreaves Associates (the lead consultant for the program) and embraced by those East Nashville residents who are passionate about community and understand built and natural environment issues. If Dean succeeds, the Riverfront Adventure Park (to be located between the East Bank ramps of the Shelby and Gateway bridges) and an accompanying urban forest pilot effort (essentially a lush grass and tree parking lot) would not be the first effort for Phase I. Rather, updates along the East Bank between the Shelby Street Pedestrian Bridge ramp on the south and the Woodland Street Bride on the north would be addressed first.

Let's put this bluntly: The Riverfront Adventure Park (with nine components) is the ONLY of the planned 20 riverfront improvements that would be a "big-ticket item" with star quality. It would be the type destination location that could — much like Coolidge Park in Chattanooga — provide Nashville a level of regional notoriety. Furthermore, work on both RAP and the urban forest would not require approval of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

In contrast, none of the other approximately 18 elements within the five-year, roughly $50 million program (to include the East and West Bank downtown riverfront corridor between the Interstate 24 river bridge and the James Robertson Parkway Bridge) will offer such pop. These elements — including recreational boat docking facilities, waterfront features, boardwalks, overlooks and piers — are, though worthy of creation, simply not as sexy as the Adventure Park. (The one exception for hard-core vintage building fans (this writer included) might be the rehabbing of the NABRICO Building.)

Also of note, the Corps will have to give approval for the other 18 elements, a process that can consume months, if not more than a year.

Hargreaves recommended the Riverfront Adventure Park and its adjacent urban forest pilot be undertaken first. No Corps approval is needed. The site, a brownfield, will be remediated. East Nashvillians overwhelmingly want this sequence. And, most importantly, the park will be a huge draw for both locals and tourists alike.

Perhaps most disturbing about this entire matter, Dean and MDHA were going to quietly make this change in sequencing without any public input but were thwarted only because of the passionate effort by a determined Metro Councilman Mike Jameson, in whose District 6 sits the riverfront property to be transformed.

MDHA and the Dean Administration, citing possible excess expense in starting the effort with RAP and the urban forest pilot, claim there is a cost element driving the proposed change in sequencing. Yes there will be a cost, one to be paid in a loss of credibility for both the agency and the mayor.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Roadless in Nashville

Sylvan Park offers some wonderfully attractive homes with huge shade trees.

Sadly, these otherwise tasteful S-Park properties are often marred by horrific streetscapes. Most roads in the historic residential neighborhood have no curbs, much less sidewalks and stormwater management systems. Battered mailboxes litter these Sylvan Park streets, their asphalt-crumbling shoulders bleeding into eroding land (you can often see tire tracks from postal carrier vehicles).

Sylvan Park is not the only old-school residential district with such hideous streetscapes.

Given the condition of the shoulders and the adjacent grounds of many curbless roads in Nashville neighborhoods, I continue to be baffled why the Metro Public Works Department doesn't simply paint white stripes on either side of all these streets.

In addition to giving the roads a more defined and attractive appearance, such white lines (I've talked to various "built environment pros" about this) can subtly psychologically spur motorists to reduce their speed a bit. In addition, the white lines are very helpful (in terms of safety and visibility) for night drivers.

In fairness, Public Works has painted white lines on either shoulder of various residential streets. For example, Public Works recently repaved the segment of Graybar Lane from Leland Lane to Granny White Pike. Though it required more time than would have been expected, the department recently gave the street the "white-line painting treatment." The result is quite attractive.

Painting streets with white outer lines seems a very inexpensive way (compared to overhauling these streets with proper sidewalk, curb and stormwater streetscape infrastructure) to improve the city's secondary and tertiary residential streets. But does Public Works agree? I talked to a Public Works official about this topic a few years ago and found his unenthusiastic response very disappointing.

Similarly, a number of well-traveled segments of key streets (including the stretch of Granny White from Harding to Otter Creek, Hillsboro Road between I-440 and Woodmont, and a stretch of Estes Road just south of the Woodmont/Estes intersection) essentially have no shoulders and are perilously elevated. These streets are striped (fortunately) but there is minimal room for a slight miscalculation. Steer a few inches to the right and your car is flying off the elevated road and into a deep ditch. At night, the hazardous conditions are likely magnified three-fold.

The Estes section I reference involves the road being elevated at some points (as if on a platform) at least three feet above ground level. And there is no more than two inches from the painted outer stripe to the edge of the asphalt shoulder. From that point, the drop is steep. Erosion (I would assume) has contributed to the problem.

I’ve visited countless American cities and driven extensively throughout these places. Nashville ranks among the worst for street conditions and streetscape attractiveness. Immediate attention is needed.