Nashville’s next big downtown development is the Cumberland River

Nashville’s urban core is on the verge of a historic blitz of riverfront development meant to hoist the city into the future with a new look and feel, laying crucial groundwork for entire new neighborhoods built to grow up and sprawl out for decades.

In the initial surge, downtown’s footprint will more than double as new bridges and other connections bring it across the river that now divides the state’s most lucrative urban tourism center.

The Cumberland River’s downtown bend is the centerpiece of the vision, which is largely shared by city leaders and developers sinking billions into a series of massive projects along the river.

In an unprecedented boom period that has seen shimmering glass office towers, high-end condo buildings and elegant hotels rise in nearly ever corner of the city, the Cumberland has remained an afterthought, skirted by industrial land traveled mostly by barges. 

Now, Nashville is turning to face the river. 

Alan Poizner / For The Tennessean

Changes will be incremental over a decade but are well underway, with many large construction projects undergoing grading and environmental remediation.

Vacant parcels, aging industrial warehouses and more than 127 acres of surface parking lots will be razed along two miles of the river’s eastern and northern banks.

Metro officials will complement the private investment with community-driven plans to renovate and install infrastructure across hundreds of acres surrounding the river. 

The future city vision seems not just grandiose — it borders on the unimaginable. 

Janet Miller, CEO of Colliers NashvilleIn some ways, the riverfront is like a clean slate.

Nearly $10 billion worth of new neighborhoods are in various planning and building stages. Architectural design renderings map out luxury office parks surrounded by services and shopping, glassy residential towers, and world-class entertainment destinations.

Plans to combat social challenges of increasing homelessness, limited affordable housing and escalating service needs are in place, though urbanization historically exacerbates these issues.

“I think everybody’s recognizing that (the river) has the ability to be a remarkable front porch for the city on the river, and that the river is a very under-utilized asset,” Mayor John Cooper said. “On homelessness, that’s going to take a long-standing commitment to funding and support. We’ve helped 2,000 people in the last year. As the need grows, our capacity has to match that.”

‘Synergy of the moment’

The face of Nashville, long represented by its historic country music haunts and, more recently, the neon strip of Broadway mega-honky-tonks, is changing.

The future focus is on two miles of the twisting Cumberland River, where a vibrant commercial trade sprouted in the 19th century — long before it grew into a global attraction that drew a record 16.1 million tourists in 2019.

“The opportunity Nashville has is unbelievably thrilling,” Cooper said. “The synergy of the moment is very great. It’s the most exciting city in the country.”

People cross Broadway in Nashville, Tenn., Friday, Sept. 24, 2021.Andrew Nelles / The Tennessean

Cooper said he is leveraging his leadership role to highlight community needs and desires as private developers descend on the high-value land governed by relatively low regulations and taxes. 

Community meetings since the summer mapped out local priorities. Top concerns were park space, affordable housing, historic architecture styles, connected hiking and biking trails and waterfront activation with water taxis, better kayak and canoe access, waterfront dining and boat docks.

City officials say riverfront development plans will focus on equity with emphasis on public parks and affordable housing. A new housing director was recently appointed to work with Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency and others on institutionalized affordable housing options, and Metro’s housing fund now tops a record $70 million.

The state does not permit local government to set down low-income-resident requirements for developers. But Cooper said public-private partnerships are the cornerstone of the effort. An underfunded MDHA renovation and expansion of old Section 8 housing into mixed-income communities could benefit from private investment, he said.

“We’re creating a structure for people to help invent a new city,” Cooper said. “By designing on the frontend, it’s easier to architect that in from the beginning.”

Cumberland River recreation: As development sprouts along the Cumberland, some eye new era of river recreation, transit

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From 18-hour city to ‘Supernova’

The confluence of positive economic and cultural trends buoy Middle Tennessee’s prospects at a crucial time. Americans are making dramatic changes in they way they live, how they shop and what they value. 

Pandemic-era cultural shifts are marked by a mass exodus from big cities including San Francisco and Los Angeles, where negative trends in population growth grew even faster in the past year, according to a California Policy Lab study.

Tennessee was the top market for inbound one-way U-Haul business in 2020. 

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Twenty years later, the transformation of a rundown railyard can guide future developments in Nashville.

In 2021, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York residents have been the largest groups, respectively, to relocate to Nashville, according to Zillow. Regional home prices jumped more than 20% during the pandemic and the rate of growth continues to rise this year. 

Twenty-eight California companies have relocated to Tennessee. 

The state is on track to take in $13 billion worth of private investment and add 34,000 jobs this year, said State Economic Development Commissioner Bobby Rolfe. 

Rolfe’s office offers cash grants in exchange for high-paying jobs, among other incentives. But local leaders have largely phased out cash incentive deals. 

“There was a shift from the old thought of providing incentive dollars,” Rolfe said. “Then the conversation became about workforce development. Now it comes down to the livability index: Does your community offer the quality of life that companies want to attract top talent?”

How developments along the Cumberland River will change Nashville

New developments are popping up along the Cumberland River as developers and Nashville officials alike attempt to turn Nashville into a “river city.”

Jeremiah O. Rhodes, Nashville Tennessean

PwC and the Urban Land Institute named Nashville the top market in the country for investors to park their cash for high returns in 2022. 

The influential 2022 Emerging Trends in Real Estate report said Nashville graduated from an “18-hour,” Tier 2 city. Now, it’s a “Supernova market,” leading a list of super-growth areas that include Raleigh/Durham, Austin and Boise, the report states. 

Population rates jumped more than four times the national average in recent years and these markets also share a high rate of white-collar jobs and economic diversity. They are candidates to become densely populated Tier 1 markets in the coming decades. 

“The Supernova markets are on a tear,” the report states. “Their defining attribute is their tremendous and sustained population and job growth, which is well above national averages. These are true magnet markets, particularly for educated millennials.”

A view of 1st Ave in downtown Nashville, Tenn., along the Cumberland River is seen on Dec. 8, 2021.Michael Clevenger and Dustin Strupp / USA TODAY Network

Janet Miller, CEO of Colliers Nashville, said Nashville’s growth is the result of a carefully planned strategy executed over two decades by local and state leaders. 

“Anyone who thinks we just woke up and this happened doesn’t understand the history behind it,” Miller said. “There was a vision related to our assets – 18 colleges and universities, a God-given location, and a publishing and music center with lots of creativity.”

Entertainment and tourism, finance, healthcare and auto industries and, increasingly, Big Tech are pillars of the economy because leaders partnered with them, she said.

“In some ways, the riverfront is like a clean slate,” Miller said. “So the city is ahead of it and truly developing a great vision so we’re not running to play catch-up with the development coming.”

Remaking a working river

Sean Parker, a Metro Council member serving District 5, said he’s seen community desire to keep the East Bank area “somewhat reflective of East Nashville” rather than create an “extension of the downtown entertainment district.”

He recalls frequent programming and events along the river when he was growing up in Nashville, something he says ultimately shifted to Broadway as the downtown entertainment district became more prominent.

“Nashville felt like more of a river city when I was a kid than it does now,” Parker said.

The downtown riverfront has increasingly been viewed as a community asset in recent decades, though it remains a working river like the Chicago River.

“When the city was founded, this area was a common hunting ground for various Native American tribes that lived in the surrounding area,” said historian Carole Bucy. “The river was the main artery of transportation. The Native Americans used it and the settlers used it.”

Steamboats brought a robust regional trading center in the mid-19th century, but the advent of railroads signaled the riverfront’s decline.

The General Jackson is docked on the Cumberland River across from downtown Nashville during the NFL Draft Experience on April 25, 2019.The General Jackson is docked on the Cumberland River across from downtown Nashville during the NFL Draft Experience on April 25, 2019.
HENRY TAYLOR/The Leaf-Chronicle

It was reinvigorated in the 1990s as a commercial and entertainment center before residential development took off in more recent years. 

But serious redevelopment talks didn’t begin until the December 25, 2020 bombing of downtown’s Second Avenue, off Broadway’s honky-tonk row. Anthony Quinn Warner built a bomb in his camper that destroyed one building and partially destroyed several others built when it was Nashville’s Market Street in the 1800s. 

“The bombing of Second Avenue really created a lot of discussion that we would have never had about what we want downtown Nashville to be,” Bucy said. “The whole Christmas Day bombing I think really has made Nashville really attuned to what do we want that part of our city to be?”

One building, 172 Second Ave., will be demolished while the other badly damaged brick warehouses will be rebuilt using materials recovered from the blast.

The gap will become a walkway to river-facing 1st Avenue. The street is hardly used because the buildings front Second Avenue, but redevelopment will connect to a riverfront park, activate the block and bring rooftop dining, among other amenities. 

A rendering of a portion of Second Avenue in downtown Nashville.A rendering of a portion of Second Avenue in downtown Nashville.
Submitted

“When the explosion happened on Second Ave., we had already begun to think deeply about what the East Bank needed to be,” Metro Planning Director Lucy Kempf said. “And in a way, as awful as that was, we used that recovery effort to help us learn from the historic heart of the city.”

The East Bank

Investors pieced together parcels of contiguous waterfront around downtown for several decades, advertising it to developers wary of the burgeoning market and lack of urban infrastructure. 

B. Edward and Tony Ewing started buying riverfront property a decade ago across from Metro Center on West Trinity Lane in North Nashville.

“I saw the vision of Nashville and I asked the question: ‘Where’s the front door?'” Ed Ewing said. “The Cumberland River could be developed into the front door. Nashville has an opportunity to be the most architecturally beautiful river city. My dream is to cause that vision to be realized.”

A view of the East Bank of the Cumberland River, where the future site of a new hub of Oracle is set to be, as seen on Thursday, June 24, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn.A view of the East Bank of the Cumberland River, where the future site of a new hub of Oracle is set to be, as seen on Thursday, June 24, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn.
Josie Norris / The Tennessean

The Ewings pitched developers on the site’s potential as they amassed a 64-acre parcel where they plan to invest $2.5 billion into a new community called Riverside. 

But it wasn’t until Oracle Corp. announced in April that it would spend $1.4 billion on a second U.S. campus on the Cumberland River’s East Bank that the vision coalesced. 

Oracle committed to paying for a pedestrian bridge to link with the west bank in Germantown, among other infrastructure upgrades promised in exchange for a property tax discount. 

Now, the Ewings are fielding calls from potential tenants for the upscale Riverside development on the riverfront’s highest bend overlooking downtown. Like most large planned developments, public green space is a priority. 

South of Riverside, the 65-acre Oracle campus will be the centerpiece of the 100-acre River North project.

A rendering of Oracle's proposed campus along the Cumberland River.A rendering of Oracle’s proposed campus along the Cumberland River.
Oracle

Between Oracle and TopGolf, MRP Realty is now building a $260 million, 13-acre development called The Landings at River North that will bring office and residential towers next to park space and shops. 

A 3.7-acre plot on the back side of The Landings near I-65 was the last section of River North to be purchased in October. GBT Realty plans to erect another mixed-use development on the site, which would face a new north-south boulevard.

“It’s incredibly positive for the business community to work in and invest in Nashville,” said Dan Biederman, an urban redevelopment expert who led the revitalization of downtown Nashville’s Church Street Park. “The country really is divided between how to treat businesses. It’s two different countries: The northeast and California make it impossible to do business.”

B. Edward Ewing, CEO of Ewing PropertiesNashville has an opportunity to be the most architecturally beautiful river city. My dream is to cause that vision to be realized.

‘A race against time’

Nissan Stadium faces the west side’s historic downtown, where the Four Seasons Nashville tower is finishing construction and First and Secod avenues reconstruction is underway. 

The Tennessee Titans are finalizing plans with Metro officials for a renovation that will cost at least $400 million to modernize the 22-year-old stadium. 

Those designs will be announced soon. Financing and infrastructure plans are now being finalized. 

Around the upgraded stadium, a new neighborhood is in the works. It is being loosely modeled on Wrigleyville, with interwoven residential and entertainment districts across about 130 acres circling Nissan Stadium. 

Nissan Stadium is seen in Nashville, Tenn., on Dec. 8, 2021.Michael Clevenger and Dustin Strupp / USA TODAY Network

Gov. Bill Lee spearheaded a legislative change creating a new stream of tax revenue from the expanded tourism district to fund stadium modernization with new tax income from the neighborhood.

The added revenue will go to Metro Sports Authority, Nissan Stadium’s landlord, to pay for at least $400 million in upgrades. That amount would not cover a new roof, which some argue a key feature for luring a Super Bowl, so the price could increase.

Several architectural firms are working with Metro leaders to form cohesive plans.

The Ewings hired SOM, the architecture firm that led the Chicago River’s revitalization, to design Riverside on West Trinity Lane. 

“That’s really important so that these river cities, engage the river in a way that’s inclusive, it’s welcoming. It’s available, it’s accessible,” said Adam Semel, SOM’s managing partner. “Even cities in the north like New York and Chicago, where the rivers freeze, have successful water-taxi programs.”

A new East Nashville boulevard is being designed as a spine for multimodal transportation – think wide lanes for buses, bike lanes and pedestrian accessibility – behind the stadium, continuing parallel to the river, past River North toward the Riverside project. 

Many connections are planned, ultimately including more bridges and water taxis, to open up the area for traffic and riverfront recreational access. 

State leaders are working with Metro to finance this ambitious plan. The city’s new Department of Transportation is also geared up to pitch the development to federal officials for additional grants. 

This Metro Nashville Planning Department design envisions a fully developed East Bank along the river. A new boulevard, sidewalks, bike lanes and walking paths add connections through an entirely new neighborhood and entertainment district.This Metro Nashville Planning Department design envisions a fully developed East Bank along the river. A new boulevard, sidewalks, bike lanes and walking paths add connections through an entirely new neighborhood and entertainment district.
Metro Nashville

The new East Nashville boulevard would include bike lanes, pedestrian access, more rapid bus service and could eventually be part of a new citywide mass-transit system, Cooper said. 

Metro is also collaborating with state transportation officials on a redesigned interchange at the Jefferson Street-Spring Street interchange by I-24. 

“We’re in a little bit of a race against time because most of the area already has commercial zoning so technically someone could pull a permit today,” East Nashville Councilman Brett Withers said. “We’re hoping to get folks to wait while we diligently do our homework so we can predict how much right-of-way we’re going to need as these streets get built out.”

Withers and other Metro leaders are emphasizing neighborhood planning and plenty of residential units. 

More growth, more problems

Richard Florida, a leading U.S. urbanist and author, said Nashville’s expansion is happening on an accelerated timeline compared to the century-long effort to build New York City. 

But he sees it as one of a few growing cities with the potential to avoid some of the staggering social problems that today plague larger metro areas.  

“One thing we say in Toronto is the city still has a neighborly feeling,” said Florida, who recently traveled to Nashville to meet with city leaders. “Growth can erode that. But part of Nashville’s appeal is its neighborliness. You have the political will and institutional capacity to set the agenda for a new round of more inclusive growth.”

Framed by the supports on the John Seigenthaler Pedestrian Bridge, cranes work on the Four Seasons Private Residences Nashville on Thursday, June 24, 2021.Framed by the supports on the John Seigenthaler Pedestrian Bridge, cranes work on the Four Seasons Private Residences Nashville on Thursday, June 24, 2021.
Josie Norris / The Tennessean

Florida named Denver and Austin as sister cities to Nashville, as they all take in waves of newcomers from larger, more expensive markets. 

Urbanization overwhelms infrastructure and service providers while exacerbating the growing wealth divide between rich and poor, Florida argues in his book “The New Urban Crisis,” which documents rising urban inequality and poverty in 2017. 

Now, many cities are working to revive downtowns neglected in favor of more affordable suburban development.

“My research showed that Nashville has done something remarkable,” Florida said. “Nashville has become a major music cluster (with) growth in that cluster greater than New York and Los Angeles combined.”

Designs for “The Riverside,” a 65-acre North Nashville development planned for a hillside overlooking downtown, include 25 acres of parks surrounding office and residential towers, entertainment and shopping areas.Designs for “The Riverside,” a 65-acre North Nashville development planned for a hillside overlooking downtown, include 25 acres of parks surrounding office and residential towers, entertainment and shopping areas.
SOM architects

Nashville’s appeal to the “creative class” is what is now driving its growth, he said, and riverfront development is the natural next frontier to be crossed before reaching top-tier status.

“Revitalization occurs in old industrial neighborhoods, not in established working-class neighborhoods,” Florida said. “In Toronto, our waterfront is a whole city.

“But you’ve got to get it right. The last thing you need is more entertainment. The pandemic accelerated these trends in a way that no one including me predicted.”

Sandy Mazza can be reached via email at smazza@tennessean.com, by calling 615-726-5962, or on Twitter @SandyMazza. 

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