Wednesday, February 23, 2005

"The Plan of Nashville": Whose Plan? Which Nashville?

Looking northwest across I-65 from Salemtown to Salemtown. Is the interstate
a neighborhood scar or a community wall? It depends on whose three-hundred-pound
gorilla is being gored. Photograph and mixed metaphor by S-TownMike. Posted by Hello

The northern loop of I-65/I-40 moving westward sure did a job of carving up north-by-northwest urban neighborhoods. I-40 sliced the old music district around west Jefferson Street nearly in half. I-65 seemingly lopped off a small corner of the old Salemtown neighborhood just east of Mount Vernon Gardens. The question of how to repair the neighborhoods is an important one.

In response, the Civic Design Center introduced “The Plan of Nashville,” which recommends--with much ado and media parade--converting the inner highway loop to an “urban boulevard,” essentially undoing the interstate system around the immediate Nashville neighborhoods. The Plan proposes recreating the loop as a “high street” surrounded by “medium-scale development” with the idea of re-integrating them back into the “urban fabric.”

This seems a great idea from the birds-eye view of Nashville and perhaps from the perspective of west Jefferson Street residents and merchants. But from where I live in Salemtown it does not necessarily put my concerns to bed.

The Metropolitan Planning Department’s plans put the north loop of I-65 as Salemtown’s northern border. While that may leave the four or five blocks between Dominican Dr., MetroCenter Blvd., and I-65 orphaned and nameless, it also essentially gives Salemtown a firm, unequivocal north boundary. The north urban neighborhoods do not tend to sprawl like those in the east and west ends because of such definitive boundaries.

While The Plan of Nashville provides the positives of converting I-65, it does not consider the possible problems. One possible problem is that northern Salemtown will diffuse and the northern neighborhoods will lose some of their unique and bounded character.

A second, more critical downside for Salemtown proper presents itself in the form of the three-hundred-pound gorilla that hulks to the north of I-65. That gorilla is MetroCenter, which is not locally owned. A property investor based in Dallas, Texas owns that vast commercial development.

That Dallas investor has purchased many of the available lots in that small sliver of land north of the interstate already. MetroCenter may be eating up residential property--as it becomes available--to develop it exclusively for commercial purposes. I-65 may currently stand as a barrier to MetroCenter expansion. If so, it also stands as a proverbial “city wall” for Salemtown and the other northern neighborhoods against further corporate acquisition of residential properties.

But what if the interstate is converted to an urban boulevard? What if the large footprint of land on which I-65 sits gets developed? What’s to stop the Dallas-based investors from moving farther south, buying properties, and keeping them unkempt to drive down property values of the residents who choose to continue to live in north Nashville neighborhoods?

MetroCenter does not show any interest whatsoever in encouraging residential components, as The Plan suggests they should, else they would be doing so on the historic part of Salemtown that lies north of I-65. If I were a betting man, I would wager that these outside investors have a lot of clout and enough legal savvy to exempt themselves from sanguine visions of planners and architects.

And that’s what this issue comes down to for me. "The Plan of Nashville” ignores the power formulas that are implicit in design equations. As it is, the only thing standing between Salemtown and the three-hundred-pound gorilla to the north is the interstate. Right now our neighborhood seems to need that wall to keep the ostensible beast of MetroCenter at bay.

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