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VOL. 36 | NO. 44 | Friday, November 2, 2012

SoBro developers find ‘religion’

First Baptist looking at options, including a convention hotel, while Methodists giving way to creative business district

By Linda Bryant

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The SoBro area south of downtown Nashville has long been touted by city leaders and developers as the next new thing. Its clout has grown as high-profile projects have come online over the years, including the Country Music Hall of Fame, Schermerhorn Symphony Center, the Pinnacle at Symphony Place office tower and Encore condominiums.

Now the area is growing even hotter with construction of the $600 million Music City Center, the new convention center slated to open in late 2013. Hundreds of millions of dollars in new business growth and infrastructure improvements are expected in coming years.

So what’s next, and how might it change the landscape and ambiance of the area?

Two properties – First Baptist Church’s 5-plus acres between Broadway and Demonbreun, across from the new convention center, and United Methodist Publishing’s 7.5 acres across Eighth Avenue from the center – hold the key.

First Baptist’s options include “possibly a convention hotel,” according to Hugh Sloan, chairman of First Baptist’s master plan implementation committee, a 15-member group formed to “review all development opportunities with strategic partners that will improve and update our campus, increase our ministries and outreach, and be an active good neighbor to SoBro and Music City Center activities.”

The church, which has been located at Broadway and Seventh since 1886, also has taken an active role in recent public meetings co-sponsored by Urban Design Associates, Smith Gee Studio, Hawkins Partners, and the Civic Design Center.

“We are very excited about SoBro and look forward to being an integral part of that growth,” Sloan says. “We are at the crossroads of the Renaissance of Downtown Nashville.”

Sloan says the church “has no plans” to move from its historic location.

“We feel that the development of SoBro and the convention center has brought more opportunities to our doorsteps to expand our ministries to the community,” Sloan adds. “From the SoBro studies, our current facilities and any future facilities lend themselves to offering added parking, green space and possibly a convention hotel location.”

The church might need to move quickly to stay ahead of the competition.

Just this week, for example, there were reports that a Denver developer, Swerdling Associates, plans to build a luxury hotel on Broadway between Second and Third avenues.

Dick Fleming, principal and broker with Cushman & Wakefield/Cornerstone Commercial Real Estate Services, says he expects First Baptist to make a deal that would benefit the commercial development of the area.

Sloan says the church will “review and analyze all development opportunities” and favor ones that are in synch with the church’s values.

The church is particularly excited, he adds, about its ability to bring something to the table when it comes to parking and green spaces that will “lead to more urban lifestyle connectivity and will play a major role as we develop and expand our campus.”

Another church-owned property, a 7.5-acre parcel owned by the United Methodist Publishing Co., is under contract with Nashville-based development company McIntyre Ventures. The parcel, across Eighth Avenue from the new Music City Center, includes Cokesbury bookstore, three parking lots and the publishing house’s headquarters. It is bounded by Eighth Avenue South, Tenth Avenue South, Demonbreun Street and Lea Street.

McIntyre Ventures is planning Pantheon Park, a campus of offices, performance spaces, production and recording studios, and a business incubator for members of the “creative class” – performers, writers, coders, digital gamers, music and entertainment producers, videographers and artists.

No decision has been made about where to relocate the bookstore and church offices, says Neil Alexander, president and publisher of the United Methodist Publishing House. Alexander, however, vows to find an alternate location close to home.

“The only locale under consideration will be options in and around Nashville, but no specific decision will be made about relocating our offices until the sale of the current property is completely assured,” Alexander says.

The church sees the move as a positive development.

“The prospect of relocating to facilities even better scaled and suited to the needs of our publishing and retailing ministry is a wonderful opportunity,” he adds. “We are eager to step into our future filled with high expectations.”

More than ‘honky-tonks, T-shirts’

Architect Hunter Gee of Nashville-based Hunter Gee Studio says the rapid growth of SoBro and the ripple effect of the Music City Center will likely jumpstart new growth in several parts of SoBro, including one area that’s within three blocks of the Music City Center – Lafayette Street.

“The overall framework (of development and planning) is now putting pressure on the area surrounding Lafayette Street, and now there’s an opportunity to shape it,” Gee says. The neighborhood has long been a hodgepodge of businesses and organizations, including the Union Rescue Mission.

Gee, who is a member of the design team for the South of Broadway Strategic Plan, says stakeholders, including business owners, residents, non-profits and city leaders, are showing a strong desire to influence the area’s growth.

“Part of our job is to help the city and citizens of Nashville visualize what they want SoBro to be and then to understand what it’s going to take to realize these goals,” Gee says. “We’re hearing that (stakeholders) don’t want just, “Anywhere USA.’ People want more than honky-tonks and T-shirts.”

Gee says stakeholders want a district that’s a balance of activities and offerings, not a hotel-only district. Some have expressed a desire for an entertainment district on Second and Third avenues. Gee says such a district is a strong possibility because interest is so high.

Vulnerable to Flooding

Stakeholders are also expressing major concerns, including the lack of green space and mismatched streets that don’t align.

Flooding is a critical issue because of the area’s proximity to the Cumberland River and the quantity of parking lots and concrete surfaces in the area. Storm water runoff and proper drainage can become problematic, as was witnessed during the flood of 2010. Increased green space, it’s been pointed out, might help alleviate that problem.

Fleming says the secret to the future of SoBro’s growth is making it easy for visitors, residents and business owners to get from place to place. He also thinks the selection and mix of businesses, residences and activities is critical.

“The future of Nashville is south of Broadway, but at the same time the types of developments that occur are very important,” Fleming says. “You don’t want strip clubs, adult stores or cheap hotels. You want things that appeal to convention center visitors and their families, but you also want restaurants, retail, residential developments and offices that serve local residents.

Gee’s team will present a draft of a proposed strategic plan in December. He says he expects the plan to contain suggested solutions to many of the problems expressed by stakeholders.

“The plan can offer a blueprint for future development,” Gee says. “But ultimately it’s up to city leaders and the public and private sector and their will to invest.”

A smaller version of Grant Park

The area covered by the South of Broadway Strategic Plan includes the area from Broadway on the north to I-40 on the south, and from the river on the east to a western terminus at 10th Avenue. Fleming says one of the big challenges is to integrate the various sub-neighborhoods.

“We have a great opportunity to bring some disparate neighborhood cultures together to make decisions about the area,” he says, adding south of Broadway doesn’t only refer to the area immediately surrounding the new convention center, but also connecting neighborhoods such as the Gulch, Rolling Mill Hill and Rutledge Hill.

Curt Wallen, SoBro resident and president of the Urban Residents Association, downtown’s primary neighborhood group, agrees.

“There’s no doubt that the Music City Center is the biggest economic stimulus the area has had to date,” he says. “As we get closer and closer to its opening, you can really see the beginning of another growth spurt for the area, probably the biggest we’ve had yet.

“It’s not going to happen overnight, and it will take a cohesive plan for SoBro to grow in the optimal way,” Wallen adds. “But there’s a lot of buy-in, a lot of interest from stakeholders.”

Wallen says he envisions SoBro transforming into a smaller version of Chicago’s Grant Park with green space, logical connectivity between sub-zones and neighborhoods, and a wide mix of retail and residential.

‘Reinventing Nashville’

Tod Roadarmel, director of sales and marketing for Omni Nashville, says development is going to move quickly.

“Music City Center is the second largest project in the state’s history. There’s a lot of buzz about it all over the country,” Roadarmel says. “Everywhere I go, people ask me about it. I’m talking about New York, Dallas, and Chicago. I don’t know of any other city in the country reinventing itself like Nashville is doing right now. We are in the process of creating a brand new destination.”

The 800-room, $273 million Omni Hotel, slated to open in 2013, has already booked more than 100,000 group nights. The Music City Center has conventions on the books until 2021.

A typical convention could bring in 20,000 visitors.

“The pressure and demand for more hotel rooms, more services and business is a very real thing,” says Gee.

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