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VOL. 37 | NO. 6 | Friday, February 08, 2013

Bridging the gap from Gulch to SoBro

Design plan performed in tandem with master plan for west riverfront

By Joe Morris

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The proposed structure would have to dodge historic downtown buildings, including Cummins Station. It would help move pedestrians to proposed redevelopment along the west riverbank.

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Even before Metro dynamited its tower, downtown boosters have been offering new uses for the former Thermal Plant site. Not far away, the continued growth in the Gulch and SoBro developments has also continued to invite helpful suggestions.

With the recent announcement of two projects, it would seem that Mayor Karl Dean and his planners are ready to move on both fronts.

The Nashville Convention Center Authority has voted to spend $339,000 for a West Riverfront Master Plan that will encompass the 11-acre Thermal Plant site. It also opened the spigot for a $193,000 plan that will map out a pedestrian bridge connecting the SoBro area south of the new Music City Center to the Gulch.

Urban Design Associates, which already has a contract with the convention center for a larger master plan covering all of SoBro, will provide both.

Valuable space for city

The riverfront property briefly was in play when the Nashville Sounds were considering it for a new baseball stadium, and it has also been pitched as an outdoor amphitheater.

The city has opened it as an overflow area for July 4 fireworks and other large-scale events, and the new master plan is said to utilize it for park space and also perhaps an outdoor amphitheater.

Given the success of the recently opened Cumberland Park, just across the Cumberland River from the site, it’s obvious the area can draw people, and so a plan that involves more green space than anything is seen as a positive move.

“We think that area is an asset for the city as open space, and also think it can be used for programming,” says Gary Gaston, design director at the Nashville Civic Design Center.

“That type of space is really valuable in a growing city, and we think that leaving it open vs. the types of development that has been proposed in the past is a really good direction.”

New bridge, historic buildings

As for the Gulch bridge, that too is something that has been long-sought and eagerly anticipated even by those who want to ensure that historic structures remain intact.

“It’s early in the planning, and so we’re not heavily involved yet, but I do know that we’re not talking about tearing down any old brick warehouses or other structures,” says Tim Walker, executive director of the Metro Historical Commission.

“Nothing can touch Cummins Station, as it is in an arts and redevelopment district, but it does make perfect sense to add more pedestrian access to that area.”

In fact, Walker says, it had been hoped that when the Demonbreun viaduct was being rebuilt it would include a walking/biking component, but that did not come to pass.

“They actually did away with pedestrian access down to 11th Avenue because they demolished a set of stairs that led down from the bridge,” he says.

“Now people have to walk down to 12th Avenue and then back down into the Gulch. If this goes in properly, then it will not touch any historic structures and provide a positive way to link downtown to that area.”

The bridge project is also being watched by Historic Nashville Inc., which works to ensure the continued preservation and viability of the area’s historic buildings and sites.

“We’re definitely keeping an eye on the bridge and the thermal site, but we only see nothing but good coming from those,” says Robbie Jones, president.

“We really hope they build an outdoor amphitheater at the Thermal Plant site, which would be good for downtown. The bridge just has too many unknowns right now, because there are a lot of historic properties in the area, but we’ll be getting more engaged once the location is selected and talking with the city and everyone else on the project.”

‘Fingers on the pulse’

For now, Historic Nashville is more concerned about hotel development on Lower Broadway, in particular the corner of Second Avenue and Broadway that has been an on-again, off-again hotel development site for years.

“The proposals that have come up involve putting a hotel in on what is now surface parking, and wrapping it around some existing, two-story historic buildings,” Jones says.

“Yes, they would be restored, but they’d also have a multistory hotel looming over them. We’re just keeping our fingers on the pulse of the whole area, because there’s a lot of good redevelopment going on but everyone needs to be really careful.”

‘Iconic piece of design’

The Nashville Civic Design Center, for its part, had already been working on a pedestrian bridge concept through its partnership with the University of Tennessee, Gaston says, so he’s hopeful that those efforts may be incorporated into the new strategy.

“We had a study done about three years ago that did some urban design planning for the area east of the Gulch, and south of the Frist Center and 8th Avenue down to the railroad tracks, and south of Demonbreun Street,” he says.

“We think it’s a fantastic idea, because those areas need to be connected.

“Properly designed, it could be an iconic piece of design for Nashville. There are a lot of issues that need to be dealt with, but we think there’s an opportunity for a beautifully designed and engineered structure to be put into place.”

While there’s no timeline for either development to be complete, the mayor’s office has said it would like to see both finished by the end of Dean’s second term in 2015.

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