The Gallatin Road Conundrum

The Evolution of East Nashville’s Main Street

East Nashville is on a roll, receiving accolades from across the country for its historic neighborhoods, locally owned restaurants, unique shops, quirkiness, volunteerism, vibrant music scene, urban infill development, popular parks, you name it. Drawing members of the creative class like moths to the flame, residents are proud of the progress that has taken place and root each other on.
     But if there’s one area of contention, it’s Gallatin Road. The mere mention of Gallatin Road more often than not brings a wince from most folks. While the rest of East Nashville is evolving at a dizzying pace, the neighborhood’s spine lags far behind.
     If Gallatin Road is East Nashville’s front porch, why is it such a mess?
     Gallatin Road bisects East Nashville, connecting with Briley Parkway to the north and the downtown central business district to the south. In true Nashville fashion, the 172-year-old transportation corridor goes by several names: “Gallatin Pike” at the northern end, “Gallatin Road” and “Gallatin Avenue” along the center, and “Main Street” at the southern end. Before Ellington Parkway was constructed in the 1960s, it also carried the designation of U.S. Highway 31E and State Route 6. For the most part, local residents refer to the corridor as Gallatin Road.
     “I’ve lived in East Nashville for seven years and love its historic homes and pedestrian friendliness,” David Price, former president of Historic Nashville, Inc., says. “I can walk five minutes one way and reach a corner market or pub, and five minutes the other way and be in Shelby Park. Gallatin Road on the other hand is designed for cars and the modern drive-thru culture, which is not friendly to people on bikes or on foot, nor is it attractive.”
     For better or worse, most people associate Gallatin Road with gas stations, liquor stores, fast food restaurants, drug stores, auto part stores, banks, pawn shops, car washes and laundromats.
     Not long ago, plans for a new upscale Publix grocery store along Gallatin Road were canned, bringing jeers from just about everyone, especially the foodies who grow tired of having to drive across town to Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. Meanwhile, commercial chains like Family Dollar, Save-a-Lot, and Popeye’s Chicken are popping up like mushrooms after a midsummer rain. Moreover, the corridor is lined with shiny new banks, while older bank buildings sit vacant. Beloved historic homes with bucolic names like “Evergreen,” “Silverdene” and “Sunny Gables” have been bulldozed. Others sit empty and on the market, awaiting a similar fate.
     With so much positive energy flowing in and out of East Nashville, why does Gallatin Road continue to be an albatross? How did we get here? More importantly, what can be done so East Nashville’s front porch is something to be proud of instead of something to avoid?
     The short answer: it’s complicated. There are several forces at work; unfortunately not always together. Developers have their agenda, as do planners, elected officials and property owners.
     “As it is now, the Metro Planning Department is holding property owners hostage,” says Chad Baker, who recently butted heads with city officials while renovating a porn shop into a doggie daycare. “In my opinion, city planners refuse to compromise or allow developers to take steps in the right direction, they want all or nothing, and I am afraid that attitude will simply not encourage development.”
     The result can best be described as the “Gallatin Road Conundrum.” In order to have a better understanding of this head scratcher, we need to peel away some layers, like the proverbial onion.

Transportation
     First and foremost, Gallatin Road is an urban, four-lane, multi-modal roadway with a center turn lane, flanked by wide shoulders and pedestrian sidewalks. Since this is a medium-speed arterial thoroughfare, there are no bicycle lanes, although this doesn’t stop bikers from sharing the road, albeit at their own risk.
     According to a recent city planning study, the corridor carries over 23,000 cars per day, a decrease of some four percent from 2000-2006. At the same time, traffic along Ellington Parkway increased 16 percent. Gallatin Road is also the most popular mass transit route in Nashville, carrying 10 percent of the city’s bus traffic, along local fixed bus routes and express bus routes connecting downtown with the suburban communities of Madison and Hendersonville.
     It may not look like it, but Gallatin Road is an old road, first laid out in 1839-1840 as a turnpike following the route of even older stagecoach routes connecting Nashville to Louisville, Ky., by way of Goodlettsville, Gallatin, and Bowling Green. Travelers had to pay tolls about every eight miles to use the turnpikes, which were public-private ventures until being “freed” when taken over by municipalities.
     In the early 19th century, turnpikes radiated from Nashville to surrounding rural towns — Franklin, Murfreesboro, Springfield, Lebanon, Nolensville, Ashland City — forming spokes to a giant wheel that drove the regional economy. In the late 19th century, these same pikes were upgraded to serve as multi-modal corridors, carrying street railways that allowed Nashvillians to commute from the downtown business district to fashionable new streetcar suburbs in places like Germantown, Sylvan Park, Belmont, Edgefield, Inglewood and West End.
     Streetcars were initially powered by mules, then steam engines, before switching to all-electric in 1889. Gallatin Road carried electric streetcars for a half century, roughly 1890-1940, as well as an interurban electric commuter rail route to Gallatin from 1913-1932 — one of only two true interurban lines in the entire state; the other connected Nashville with Franklin. In fact, around the turn of the century, Nashville boasted one of the most extensive electric streetcar systems in the South.
     By World War II, however, the city had replaced streetcars with buses, which have been the predominant form of mass transit ever since. In recent years, the city established a commuter rail line to Lebanon and planners have commissioned studies on introducing other forms of urban mass transit, including light rail, rapid bus transit and the return of electric streetcars.
     Currently, the city is considering options for building a mass transit line connecting East and West Nashville. A federally-funded study recommended the preferred alternative as a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line running along a dedicated route down the center of Gallatin Road from Five Points to downtown, then along the Broadway/West End/ Harding Road corridor to Belle Meade and White Bridge Road. A return of electric streetcars is more expensive, would take longer to implement, and is less likely to receive federal funding. The city hopes to have the BRT up and running by 2014.

Housing
     A century ago, property along the streetcar routes was highly sought after, since it enabled residents to conveniently walk to their streetcar stop for the commute downtown where they could transfer to a streetcar leading to just about anywhere in Nashville. This continued the pattern of larger and more fashionable homes being built along the major corridors from the turnpike era. One only needs to drive down Franklin Road or Hillsboro Pike for evidence. In East Nashville, most of the original housing stock along Gallatin Road has been razed or hidden under layers of modern day “improvements,” but remnants remain here and there, particularly in Inglewood.
     “After World War II when cars became the dominant form of transportation, Gallatin Road underwent a dramatic transformation,” Carol Norton, longtime resident of East Nashville, explains. “Grand old homes were carved up for rental units; roadside motels, service stations, repair shops, diners and shops catering to tourists replaced urban housing.”
     Urban renewal in the 1960s widened Gallatin Road, further encroaching on existing businesses and encouraging higher speeds. By the 1970s, residents of East Nashville had turned their backs to Gallatin Road, which was no longer fashionable. Today, housing along Gallatin Road is nearly nonexistent, having been replaced with commercial businesses and strip malls. The few remaining homes have been converted into other uses, such as offices for white collar professionals like attorneys and dentists, daycare centers or commercial businesses. It is no longer desirable to live along Gallatin Road.

Zoning & land-use planning
     During the Progressive Era of the 1920s, American cities began introducing methods to plan their growth with tools such as zoning, which designated land uses. For example, factories could not be built on properties zoned residential and apartment complexes could not be constructed on land zoned for farming. This allowed city leaders and residents to shape their cities into more desirable places to live, work, and play, not unlike the popular video game SimCity. This makes perfectly good sense to most people.
     Enter the Gallatin Road Conundrum. In recent years, city zoning became more sophisticated, complicated and perplexing to just about everyone, even those who work in the planning field. Environmental laws require regulation of certain types of properties involving hazardous materials such as underground tanks at gas stations, floodplains, storm water and so forth. Laws were also initiated to protect cultural resources such as parks, historic landmarks and archaeological sites.
     In the 1990s, planners began introducing the concept of “New Urbanism,” which envisioned reverting urban areas that had evolved into blighted concrete wastelands back into dynamic urban neighborhoods. New Urbanism is based on pedestrianoriented development with mixed uses as opposed to car-oriented development so that people can live near where they work, shop and play. Since the 1990s, the Nashville Civic Design Center has promoted New Urbanism through a litany of public meetings, brainstorming sessions and design projects, leading to publication in 2005 of the “Plan of Nashville,” which offers guidance on how to “heal the pikes.”
     “New Urbanism has been well-received in progressive cities like Nashville,” Alan Hayes, an East Nashville architect and planner, says. “However, it was the 1998 tornado, which hit East Nashville hard, which spurred local planners to develop a new vision for Gallatin Road.” This led to the creation of a local chapter of the Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team or R/UDAT and the “Plan of East Nashville,” which guided a new “Specific Plan” or SP. An SP is a special set of guidelines for development individually tailored for areas like East Nashville.
     Created by the city’s planning department, the Gallatin Pike SP has been a point of contention ever since former Metro Council members Mike Jameson and Eric Cole led its implementation in 2007. With the goal of balancing community-driven development with aesthetics, which planners argue drives market values up, the SP set standards for landscaping, parking, signage, design and building setbacks from the street.
     “This SP zoning ordinance is intended as a proactive SP designed to achieve a vision of a better Gallatin Pike over a long period of time,” Rick Bernhardt, director of the Metro Planning Department, explains. “It covers approximately 264 acres of land and more that 540 properties fronting on Gallatin Pike under very diverse ownership. The SP prohibits new businesses such as check-cashing facilities, title loan operators and pawn shops.
     Nevertheless, the topic of redevelopment remains divisive since to some the SP is simply too rigid, applying the same “special design guidelines” to the entire Gallatin Road corridor although the urban character of 19th century Main Street is very different than that of the streetcar suburb of Inglewood.
     “Prior to its implementation, Gallatin Pike had minimal new construction,” Bernhardt says. “Since the SP was put into effect, there have been significant permits for new construction or major rehab within the district. This redevelopment opportunity preserves in-town residential neighborhoods, supports mass transit and utilizes existing infrastructure investments already made by the taxpayers.”
     According to Bernhardt, one of the “outstanding examples of successful development consistent with the SP” was the U.S. Bank built in 2010 in Inglewood — a “context sensitive” and “green” bank that required demolition of the existing 80-year old Sunny Gables, a beloved neighborhood landmark.
     In 2011, Publix abandoned plans to open a new supermarket near Douglas Corner, due to SP permitting issues related to an existing payday loan store. More recently, doggie daycare owner Chad Baker was sentenced to five days in jail for opening his business in a renovated porn shop, which was controversial when it first opened in 2007, for operating without a required permit variance related to parking and landscaping.
     “The development situation along Gallatin Pike evolved over more than 100 years,” Bernhardt says. “To expect an immediate and complete facelift is unreasonable especially in this time of expected instant gratification.”
     Nevertheless, residents are frustrated and their patience is growing thin. “In my situation the subjectivity of the SP really hurt me since I was required to ‘further the goals and objectives of the SP,’ but no one could tell me which of the goals or how many I had to comply with,” Baker says. “I believe most people would agree that the transformation from an adult video store to a doggie daycare furthered the goals and objectives of the SP.”
     Other Metro development plans along the Gallatin Road Corridor include the Nashville Auto-Diesel College Master Development Plan, adopted in 2005. This 19-acre campus has operated in East Nashville since 1932, when the antebellum “Renraw” estate was purchased from Trevecca College, which had acquired it in 1918. Percy Warner grew up at Renraw, which is Warner spelled backwards, before moving to Belle Meade.

Historic preservation
     As mentioned previously, development pressures have resulted in the demolition of numerous historic landmarks along Gallatin Road, especially in Inglewood where the 1950 Inglewood Theater was replaced in 1998 with an Eckerd drug store; the 200- year old Evergreen estate was replaced in 2005 with a Home Depot; and the 1920s Sunny Gables house, where nationally acclaimed residential designer Albert L. Hadley grew up, was replaced in 2010 with a U.S. Bank. These demolitions outraged many residents, leading to a grassroots campaign by members of the Inglewood Neighborhood Association to complete a survey of over 1,000 buildings and begin documentation of two historic districts containing some 400 homes. (For more see “Inglewood: Nashville’s Newest Preservation Battleground” in the January- February 2011 issue of The East Nashvillian).
     “In 2011, Historic Nashville, Inc. included 13 homes along the Inglewood section of Gallatin Road, as well as the historic Gallatin Road Fire Hall next to Wal-Mart on its annual Nashville Nine list of the city’s most threatened historic properties,” board secretary and Inglewood resident Holly Barnett says. “Our members have expressed concern for these historic properties due to the ongoing threat of suburban-type, modern commercial development that they feel is inappropriate for such a unique and historic section of the city.”
     In early December, the vacant Gallatin Road Fire Hall was heavily damaged by a suspicious fire, leading to renewed concerns about the future of the 80-year-old landmark.
     In recent months, the National Trust for Historic Preservation initiated preliminary discussions with various groups about the possibility of including Main Street, the southern terminus of Gallatin Road, in its Main Street program, which would offer incentives and other assistance for businesses to renovate and open in historic buildings. The section that would potentially qualify for this program stretches generally from Fifth and Main to Five Points.
     The city, through the Metro Historic Zoning Commission, also offers two types of historic preservation zoning overlays. Unlike the Gallatin Pike SP, historic overlays protect buildings from demolition and inappropriate exterior alterations.
     “Neighborhoods along Gallatin Road that have implemented historic preservation zoning included Edgefield, Eastwood, Greenwood, Lockeland Springs-East End and Maxwell Heights,” Tim Walker, executive director of the Metro Historical Zoning Commission, says. “In addition, several individual buildings along Gallatin Road have been designated Local Landmarks, including Gallatin Road Fire Hall for Engine Company 18, East Branch Carnegie Library and East Literature Magnet School.”
     “Residential preservation began one house at a time, which eventually created a chain reaction into neighborhoods,” Norton says. “Just as we have planning and design tools for residential areas, we have the SP to guide positive change along our commercial corridor. It will happen when individual owners do the right thing for its viable use again by neighbors, visitors and the environment, and safety of everyone that uses it.”
     The Gallatin Pike SP has been amended three times in the past four years, which suggests the 50- page planning document had deficiencies. Many in East Nashville feel that the SP needs to be amended yet again in order to encourage redevelopment of existing properties, instead of new construction, and offer more flexibility instead of a “one size fits all” approach that obviously is not working very well.
     Indeed, whether valid of not, potential East Nashville developers have the perception that opening a business on Gallatin Road is more trouble than it’s worth. And serving a few days in jail for opening a business without the proper SP permit can have a chilling effect on new investment.
     “The SP was well intentioned and could be wonderful, but until the Metro Planning Department decides that it is okay for Gallatin Road to get better in small increments instead of leaps and bounds, we will not see much development,” Baker insists. “I don’t know that the SP is the problem, in my opinion the planning department is the real problem.”
     Call it the Gallatin Road Conundrum.