A Wasteland of Opportunity
Affordable housing advocates question priorities of East Bank redevelopment
By Brandon Gee
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As the dust settles at The Fairgrounds Nashville, political troops in Nashville’s perpetual redevelopment war have marched three miles north to establish a new front line on the East Bank of the Cumberland River.
The besieged land boasts prime riverfront property directly opposite downtown. But it is also segregated from its surroundings, by the Cumberland River to the west and by interstate highways to the east and south.
The tactical value of this land is as apparent as is the lack of a cohesive strategy for the roughly 340 acres, whose most notable landmarks include a juvenile courthouse, a National Football League stadium, a meal scrapyard, and mountains of mulch.
The vagueness runs deep. Is it part of downtown? Is it East Nashville? Look to the political boundaries for guidance and you’ll find even those are in flux, with the land currently split between two East Nashville districts, but slated to join a single downtown one once recently completed redistricting takes effect.
To help lift this “fog of war,” the Metro Nashville Planning Department hired consultants and is engaged in a study, “Imagine East Bank,” that may help clarify the rules of engagement, if nothing else. By defining infrastructure needs and establishing a vision for the East Bank, planners might have hoped to forestall battle. Instead, their work seems to have instigated the first skirmish.
The advocacy organization Stand Up Nashville (SUN) has zeroed in on the planning study, canvassing East Nashville neighbors, filling meetings, and holding news conferences. They hope to galvanize support around the idea that the study represents a do-or-die moment to ensure that redevelopment of the East Bank is a benefit to the existing community, and not just a bonanza for developers and Nashville’s tourism industry.
“We don’t want to see people who work in low-income jobs having to move farther away,” says East Nashville’s Martha Carroll.
Carroll, who lives about two miles north of the East Bank area on Gatewood Avenue, says redevelopment and gentrification have already transformed her neighborhood into a place that’s difficult for working families to afford.
“Little houses are gone. Tall-and-skinnies were put in their place. You used to see kids out running around,” she says. “Those people are moving as far away as other counties.”
However, SUN’s work has also antagonized people who think the group’s tactics are not constructive. Metro Councilman Brett Withers, whose district includes the southern end of the site under study, is among those annoyed by SUN’s methods and its narrative. The planning study is not the first, best, and last opportunity for the community to weigh in on East Bank redevelopment, Withers says, but merely the latest step in decades of community planning for the area, and a small step, at that.
“Time and time again, the East Nashville community has said, ‘Hey, we really think this is a wasteland of opportunity,’ ” says Withers, citing work that dates back to at least the 1996 enactment of the existing East Bank Redevelopment District. “This continuation of that work is primarily focused on correcting the street grid network and making it work, and better connections for greenways and bikeways. That is all. A whole lot of people are reading a whole lot more into this.”
Withers is particularly incensed by SUN’s contention that there hasn’t been enough input from the community, explaining that the Planning Department worked with him and other council members to create a community advisory group that includes representatives from all the neighborhood groups surrounding the study site.
“I get really upset when Stand Up Nashville swarms in and says there hasn’t been any public outreach,” Withers says. “To say their work isn’t real representation is insulting to the work that the neighborhood representatives themselves are doing. … Rather than participating as a coequal with other groups, [SUN] has decided to hold press conferences and be obstructionists, in some cases.”
Metro’s latest capital spending plan includes $50 million for a new, multimodal boulevard to run north-south through the middle of the East Bank study area, to serve as a “spine street” for additional connector streets, and to help alleviate the isolation created by the construction in the 1960s of the interstates and Ellington Parkway.
“If we do not come up with a way of redoing our street grid, they won’t have projects to work on,” Withers says, “So some of the obstructionism I’ve seen from Stand Up Nashville is a little bit self-defeating for the union membership that they purport to represent.”
SUN is emboldened by its success in the Fairgrounds battle, having secured a first-of-its-kind “community benefits agreement” with Nashville Soccer Club, which requires commitments around affordable housing, a minimum wage for stadium workers, and the inclusion of community services such as a childcare facility in conjunction with the construction of Nashville’s new Major League Soccer stadium.
There will be similarities between the two campaigns. As at the fairgrounds, the East Bank’s combatants include Metro Nashville government and politicians, union and affordable-housing advocates, developers, a major-league sports franchise, with no shortage of tangled alliances, ulterior motives, and strange bedfellows among them.
But the differences are pivotal.
Metro government owns the entirety of the 117-acre fairgrounds, but only about a third of the roughly 340 acres included in the Metro Planning Department’s “Imagine East Bank” study. Others laying claim to the territory include Carl Icahn, one of the 50 wealthiest Americans, per Forbes, who tellingly held on to the 45 acres underlying PSC Metals, the scrap-metal recycling business he sold to SA Recycling in October.
“My concern is, the city owns around 100 acres of the land. Now, they could sell it to the highest bidder, who could do whatever, or they could work with the community to ensure that land includes mixed-income housing,” says Carroll. She scoffs at Withers’ claims that to discuss affordable housing at this stage would be putting the cart before the horse. “In my mind, we have to act early. We have to consistently raise these issues.”
Regardless of when or how often the issue of affordable housing is raised, the path forward is murky on the East Bank. Private landowners would need something from the Metro government to negotiate affordable-housing requirements. Still, the downtown code that applies to the area already allows very dense mixed uses. Furthermore, leverage to demand such provisions would be hampered by the fact that there isn’t any existing housing or residents in the area threatened with displacement.
SUN officials say they want another community benefits agreement, like the one they scored at the fairgrounds. But in the context of the East Bank, it’s not clear who would be sitting on the other side of the table to negotiate such an agreement. Nashville Soccer Club was an upstart, homeless expansion franchise, and desperate to salvage a stadium deal at the fairgrounds. The Tennessee Titans are part of a much more popular and influential sports league, the NFL, with an established home on the East Bank. It’s difficult to envision a scenario in which the Titans’ political fate would be determined by their willingness to play ball with Stand Up Nashville.
The Titans — and, more specifically, the publicly owned stadium they play in — also represent the most significant domino that needs to fall before redevelopment planning can move much beyond groundwork for proposed new streets. After the likely cost for overhauling Nissan Stadium doubled from an original estimated $600 million, talks have instead turned toward the idea of constructing a brand-new football stadium, at a likely cost of $2 billion.
Metro owns Nissan Stadium, the land underneath it, and the parking lots surrounding it, with the Titans operating under a lease with the government. The parking lots east of Nissan Stadium have long been envisioned as the site to construct a new stadium, if and when the time came. So while the Titans do have to play ball with Metro, the publicly owned land would be, for years, almost entirely tied up in housing the existing stadium and a future one.
If there’s one thing the Nashville powers-that-be have demonstrated throughout the past decade, it’s a love of tall, shiny buildings, which has often come at the expense of cultural cohesiveness at the community level. Organizations like Stand Up Nashville and those for whom they advocate have their work cut out. Perhaps their biggest challenge is our transitory collective memory.
Phone messages left with the Tennessee Titans and Icahn Enterprises were not returned. Metro Council members Sean Parker and Freddie O’Connell also did not respond to interview requests.