Could Nashville, after decades of talks, never-realized master plans and near deals, finally be on the precipice of turning the downtown stretch of the Cumberland River into more than a mere afterthought?
One day after the Tennessee Titans unveiled plans to redevelop the Nissan Stadium campus, Nashville Mayor John Cooper announced he has reached a new agreement to revitalize the River North business district on the east bank of the Cumberland.
If those projects are successful, Cooper could find himself on the precipice of achieving what his predecessors could not: actual redevelopment of the riverfront.
To this point, the redevelopment of the Cumberland River has been piecemeal. Cumberland Park on the east bank provided nearby residents with a fun public space. The Ascend Amphitheater project has been an unmitigated success. Unfortunately those projects never spurred broader redevelopment.
The downtown side of the riverfront is barely used, despite being just yards away from one of the world’s most vibrant entertainment districts. And then there’s the white whale of Metro government: the PSC Metals scrap yard and its odd location on the east bank of the river (more on that project later).
The original sales pitch by the Houston Oilers and their Nashville backers, led by Mayor Phil Bredesen, included the critical prediction that the new stadium would trigger wider redevelopment of the east bank of the river. Unfortunately, broader redevelopment never happened. Instead, there were seedy motels, truck stops, vacant lots and a Shoney’s surrounding Nissan Stadium.
In that sense, the Titans’ ambitious redevelopment plan actually would fulfill a vision laid out more than two decades ago. Details of the financing plan still need to be spelled out, but in general terms the Titans are committing to redeveloping the parking lots around the stadium. The proposal would also alleviate the financial burden of the current lease agreement, which requires Metro to pay for stadium upgrades. That bill is already at $22 million, an unappetizing commitment for a city entering yet another tight budget year.
“There was always the anticipation that the stadium would spur more east bank development, including for me,” said Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp. President and CEO Butch Spyridon. “This anticipated plan assures that development. In all fairness, 9/11, the great recession (of 2008) and the flood (of 2010) likely slowed and redirected some of the development.”
The updated agreement at the River North development was announced with less fanfare, as new details were unveiled in an under-the-radar press release on a Saturday. But, Cooper improved the already-approved agreement with the River North developers, which will see Monroe Infrastructure, LLC. contribute more than $7.1 million in infrastructure costs as well as providing land for roads, greenways and public green spaces. Under the terms of the new deal negotiated by Cooper, Metro will be able to recoup all of its initial $13 million commitment to the developers.
It’s been openly speculated that property could be the home to Silicon Valley firm Oracle’s new office space.
In the span of just a few months, Metro could turn vacant land and blight into mixed-use development and public space, without costing taxpayers new money.
Those successes will put a bull’s eye on the PSC property. It defies logic for a scrap metal yard to be located near a popular public park, gorgeous pedestrian bridge and professional sports stadium. It isn’t hyperbole to say the PSC site may be the most desirable piece of real estate in the southeast. It’s reasonable to expect that these new projects will contain a substantial portion of affordable housing, which was a priority of Cooper’s when he ran for office in 2019.
A deal to move PSC, which must have its operation located on a river and near the interstate, was tantalizingly close under Mayor David Briley. Perhaps the River North project and approval of a new Titans stadium plan will move city leaders to relocate PSC as well, and open up that property for redevelopment and public use.
The Planning Department is also leading creation of an east bank master plan about how to link up infrastructure and connect each of those properties. It’s clear from these recent announcements that the Cooper administration is serious about evolving the river into more of a public asset.
Turning attention to the west bank of the Cumberland, perhaps it is time to loosen historic zoning regulations and allow the buildings that face First Avenue to utilize the storefronts that face the river. Under the current rules, the “back side” of those handsome buildings are restricted to have their entrances on the Second Avenue side. Those regulations have effectively closed off First Avenue to the public. But, if the property owners could have store fronts on the back side of their buildings, pedestrians would actually have a reason to stroll down First Avenue and down to the river. Imagine being able to get a cocktail at a bar on First Avenue, then walk directly down to the river to hear a songwriter night at under-utilized Riverfront Park.
It makes no sense that a vibrant city like Nashville hasn’t been able to figure out how to utilize its downtown riverfront. Optimism and progress on the riverfront have fizzled out in the past.
Between the Titans’ plans and the updated River North deal, maybe Nashville is ready to solve the Cumberland River puzzle once and for all.