The vision thing

Plan for Nashville’s East Bank envisions a city eager to avoid its problems and repeat its mistakes.

September 6, 2022 6:00 am
Rendering from Metro Nashville's "imagine eastbank" draft document. (Metro Nashville Planning Department)

Rendering from Metro Nashville’s “imagine eastbank” draft document. (Metro Nashville Planning Department)

Am I the only one who finds all the hoo-ha over the recently released vision plan for the future of Nashville’s East Bank to be just a wee bit (by which I mean rather seriously) overblown? A 135-page report titled “imagine eastbank” (all lower case with the “eastbank” portmanteau for that perfect dose of stylish urban edginess) lays it all out, with lots of pretty color renderings that help us imagine a future where happy people kick soccer balls in sun dappled green plazas and sip lattes at sidewalk cafes surrounded by spiffy new buildings. I want to go there! But look more closely at the thing and one is left with the sneaking suspicion that there isn’t very much that is all that new or interesting—or visionary.

After spending some serious quality time with the glossy vision document (I will refer below to a few elements by page number) I come away with three main impressions. One: there are talented professionals in the Metro Planning Department who put a lot of time and effort into this, and they deserve plaudits for going deep into the area’s history, ecology, and zoning as backdrop for the visioning process. Two: the East Bank is, as the report observes, underutilized and insufficiently connected to the rest of central Nashville, making the effort to imagine its future a worthy one. And (but) three: the so-called vision ultimately put forth here is distinctly underwhelming because it isn’t all that forward looking in its approach to urban planning, and because it neglects to seriously consider the broader social, civic, and political context of the rest of Nashville. 

Here’s how the Tennessean’s metro reporter Cassandra Stephenson encapsulated the thing: “The draft presents broad ideas for what [Mayor John] Cooper dubbed ‘Nashville’s next great neighborhood,’ incorporating opportunities for affordable housing, expanded multimodal transit options and more green space.” Such a perfect unitary sentence corralling essential tropes of neoliberal patois: Neighborhoods! Affordable housing! Multimodal transit! Green space! 

The East Bank will be our “next great neighborhood”?  Actually what the plan envisions (p. 100-101)  is four mixed-use walkable urban neighborhoods with an adorable two-word name conjured out of whole cloth for each.

“imagine eastbank,” Metro Nashville Planning Department, Aug. 22, 2022, p. 101.
“imagine eastbank,” Metro Nashville Planning Department, Aug. 22, 2022, p. 101.

Love the verbal inventiveness, but honestly it’s quite a stretch to envision these envisioned neighborhoods as actual neighborhoods. The one called Central Waterfront is basically a gargantuan stadium and some public space in front of it (more on the stadium in a bit). Jefferson-Spring is foreshadowed mainly as a “key intersection that connects the East Bank to River North.” Capitol Crossings has some potential around the Main Street corridor, but by itself is a tiny area hemmed in by a stadium and an interstate. And the report concedes that Shelby’s Bend is a pipe dream — unlikely to happen anytime remotely soon “given…current conditions and common ownership.”

We’re told these will be neighborhoods rife with affordable housing. Don’t get me started on “affordable housing.” Ok, do. Look, I’m all for it, and odds are so are you. So is everybody. No politician has yet run for office campaigning on the need for more “unaffordable housing.” But the problem is that the phrase has become a verbal public policy talisman — trotted out any time anything having anything to do with anything related to economic development, cost-of-living woes, poverty, crime, whatever is involved. It’s as if merely uttering the phrase is the equivalent of actually creating some of it. Look at the lovely rendering in the plan (p. 109) of the proposed new boulevard that would be the mobility backbone of the East Bank plan. Do you see anything that looks remotely like affordable housing? What I see is Gulch 2.0. 

Let’s talk transit. “Multimodal” is the buzzword of the moment, used relentlessly throughout the vision document (more than 50 times and yes I counted) to evoke an image of seamless movement via multiple interlaced forms of transportation through a utopian urban dreamscape of wide sidewalks, verdant parks, lightly traveled streets, and groovy low-to-medium rise buildings. The pictures are pretty but let’s not delude ourselves: this is about little more than basics: cars, buses, sidewalks, and bike lanes, configured in ways that other cities have been doing for decades. The East Bank plan exalts them as though it is futuristic to think about how they work together within a high-density urban core. The idea of an East Bank “transit hub” (fancy term for what would be essentially a bus transfer point) isn’t insane as a way to connect this area with the rest of the city — except nobody is doing any serious thinking about how transit in the rest of the city and region moves beyond the mid-twentieth century model we have now.

The elephant in the room — a new stadium for the NFL’s Tennessee Titans professional football team — is mentioned but not featured in renderings.

A noteworthy (by which I mean mystifying) aspect of the plan is its pretense that the Titans stadium is somehow not the elephant in the room. Certainly the stadium does not go unmentioned in the document, but it is mysteriously absent from all the pretty drawings of future Eastbankistan, and left unlabeled on many of the maps. It’s as if the planners want us to think the new neighborhood will be so urban cool that nobody will catch sight of the elephant. This excerpt from the plan (p. 101) is priceless:

 “In either scenario [existing stadium location or new stadium closer to the interstate], the public face of the stadium should be integrated with the surrounding neighborhood — in scale, mass and character. Stadium parking should be distributed as evenly as possible throughout the neighborhood in underground parking structures. However, the East Bank’s new urban street grid and connected multimodal transportation networks will allow stadium-goers to get to the East Bank in modes of transportation that do not require parking garages.” 

The idea that a seventy-thousand seat stadium will be integrated with this or any “neighborhood in scale, mass and character” is delusional. The plan juices this fantasy (p. 122) with the concept of a “stadium village” (because it takes a village to tame a wild elephant) and offers as an example a nice photo (p. 123) of the small grassy knoll at Wrigley Field across from the Hotel Zachary on North Clark Street in Chicago. The notion that a forty-thousand seat ballpark built into an existing neighborhood over a century ago says something about our ability to integrate the mass and scale of an NFL-scale behemoth into a surrounding authentic, walkable neighborhood (the plans’ words, not mine) seems comical. 

Equally peculiar is the projection that “connected multimodal transportation networks” mean little need for parking other than what might be distributed around in underground structures. Currently Nissan stadium goers fill up 7,500 spaces on site plus who knows how many more in nearby private lots and garages. There is nothing in this or any other plan that will seriously address, much less upgrade, public transit in the metro area. Do the visionaries imagine that in the dreamy imagine-eastbank future all Titans fans not perched in downtown hotels will live in East Nashville? Because virtually everyone else will still be driving to the damn game.

Asking the crowd that enshrines and profits off of the civic embarrassment that is downtown’s festival of tourist intoxication to envision Nashville’s future as an enlightened metropolis is like letting U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn teach a college course on climate science.

This retrograde approach to planning the east side is playing out against a disappointing backdrop of  confused thinking about the present and future state of Nashville’s tourism maelstrom. For locals, much of downtown right now is little more than a second-rate theme park, albeit a rather profitable one for the hotels and honky tonks that leech off of it. The problem is that those who profiteer off a downtown that few who live here want anything to do with think they should be the ones to steer us forward.

Just last month the Nashville Business Journal breathlessly celebrated Ryman Hospitality CEO Colin Reed as one of the city’s “most influential players” who has “high ambitions for the future of Music City tourism.” Reed’s approach to the city center’s future is alarmingly off, but it does have the fortunate side effect of revealing the fiction in all this East Bank “neighborhood” twaddle. From the NBJ story: “The planning process for the restoration of Second Avenue and development of the East Bank are crucial, Reed said, as Nashville continues to capitalize on its visitor demand.” Yeah, because when I think about what makes a great new urban neighborhood the first thing that comes to mind is capitalizing on “visitor demand.” 

Reed and his pal Butch Spyridon, who heads the Convention and Visitors Corp and regards hotel room night occupancy as the only metric of urban health that matters, are convening what NBJ calls a “powerhouse hospitality committee” to craft plans to solve all of our problems—“safety and security, cleanliness, affordable housing, homelessness, public transportation/traffic and public schools.” God help us. Asking the crowd that enshrines and profits off of the civic embarrassment that is downtown’s festival of tourist intoxication to envision Nashville’s future as an enlightened metropolis is like letting U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn teach a college course on climate science. (Or on anything for that matter.)

We can agree that the East Bank is a blank canvas whose river and downtown proximity invites reinvention, and projecting its future is a worthwhile civic undertaking. But what this vision plan lacks are clear headed connections with the present-day reality from which the future springs — a reality where decline in office demand means the future of city-center work spaces and associated retail is in significant question; where needs for transit alternatives throughout city and region are insufficiently addressed; where the health, education, and economic well-being of Nashville’s children trails most of the state; and where the city’s crime rate lands it among the worst five state capitals. 

In this reality, a jazzy set of colorful plans for Gulch 2.0 is less a vision than a distraction.

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Bruce Barry
Bruce Barry

Bruce Barry is a professor of management at Vanderbilt University who teaches and writes about ethics, conflict, rights, politics, policy, and other things that pop into his head.