Nashville has plenty of land for parks but paying for and developing them is another matter
The Tennessean - Jessica Bliss, Oct. 23, 2017
At the heart of the Cloud Hill controversy is a park.
A green space for recreation and relaxation. An outdoor place free of development.
Most everyone seems to agree there should be one.
The question is should that park be in addition to — or in place of — the proposed private mixed-use development called Cloud Hill.
Mayor Megan Barry's plans to turn Nashville's abandoned Greer Stadium site into a development have been met with resistance from many in the historic and preservation community.
Plans for the 21-acre mixed-use project include creative space, retail, affordable housing — and more than 8 acres of public park and green space.
Those who oppose Cloud Hill want to protect the area from commercial and real estate development and focus only on restoring a much larger park that would preserve the land and its history.
Cloud Hill supporters question the feasibility of a park-only proposal, pointing to the thousands of acres of land already owned and awaiting development by the Metro Parks and Recreation Department and the significant cost to creating and maintaining a park, which could ultimately fall to the taxpayers.
Findings from ongoing archeological studies may be the determining factor of the debate, but as both sides wait they continue to consider the space’s future.
Preservationists continue to target the controversial Cloud Hill project
Metro Parks oversees more than 15,800 acres of open space, which includes 185 parks, 85 miles of greenways, seven municipal golf courses, seven dog parks and 171 sports fields.
It also maintains seven historical sites, including the Parthenon and Fort Negley.
Built atop St. Cloud Hill, the Civil War-era Fort Negley was constructed by 2,700 slaves or freed slaves from 1862 to 1864. Hundreds perished because of harsh conditions.
One of the biggest criticisms of Cloud Hill is the belief that graves of the former slaves who built Fort Negley lie underneath the area of planned development.
Earlier this month, Friends of Fort Negley petitioned the state requesting that the Tennessee Historical Commission define all of the Fort Negley site, including the Greer Stadium area, as a "historical memorial" under state law.
Metro Parks also launched a two- to three-month archaeological evaluation of the site that sits downhill from the fort.
Metro will pay $55,000 to complete the archeological work. The Cloud Hill project — which ultimately would need Metro Council and parks board approval — has been put on hold to await the results of the evaluation before deciding how to proceed.
Cloud Hill's leadership has said it won't build wherever African-American graves are found.
Preservationists are pushing for the project to be abandoned completely, replaced instead by a parks-only concept for the Greer Stadium space.
Park-only option could mean competing against other land-banked projects
Metro Parks has a plan for the future of Nashville parks, one that does not include the Greer Stadium site.
In March the department adopted Plan to Play: the Parks and Greenways Master Plan, which sets out the vision for Nashville for the next 10 years.
In it, the parks department's recommended $667 million in capital investment for improvements, with an additional $534 million for land acquisition to expand park land by more than 4,500 acres.
Plan to Play doesn't address any funding or master planning for the park-only option proposed by Cloud Hill opponents.
“We are trying to focus on areas unserved or underserved,” said Tim Netsch, assistant director of the Metropolitan Board of Parks & Recreation.
“That (Greer Stadium) area is actually doing pretty well if you look at service radius around each park in terms of lands. If you consider specific facility types, there are some gaps,” like community centers, playgrounds and dog parks, he said.
Most of the parks department focus has been on the southeastern part of the county, where growing populations have been left underserved when it comes to park facilities.
To address that, Metro has a land bank, which is area purchased by the parks department to protect from development and hold for future parks, greenways and green space.
The parks department has 1,708 acres of land banked.
The strategy of land banking makes sense, Netsch said, especially in Nashville's real estate climate.
"The fact is that we have less and less undeveloped land left in Davidson County," Netsch said. "And Metro Parks takes a very long-term view — we’re thinking about not only the Nashville of today but the Nashville of 50 and 100 years from now.
"So we have to be opportunistic. That may mean that it takes a few years between land acquisition and its development into a new park. But really, we’re not land banking anything for a really long time."
The largest tracts that have been land banked are the Ravenwood/Stones River Bend property, which spans about 600 acres in the Donelson/Hermitage area, and a property in Antioch that also covers about 600 acres.
The last major tracts of the Stones River Bend site were acquired in 2013, and a portion of the site has been open to the public for several years. The Antioch property was secured 2015.
The parks department is in the process of master planning each of these sites.
The other land-banked areas are significantly smaller and scattered across the county. Most are greenway easements, where trail development can begin only after enough contiguous land has been secured, Netsch said.
The Greer Stadium land is not considered banked, as it is already included in Fort Negley Park.
In its future priorities, Metro has planned for some improvements to the area. This includes, as part of its greenways priority, a cultural trail from Music City Center to Adventure Science Center and Fort Negley.
Those who support riving the Green Stadium area as only a park see that land as a natural part of the parks department's upcoming plans.
“If they are planning to add 4,500 acres, it seems logical this would be a part,” said Lynn Maddox, vice president of Friends of Fort Negley. “The important thing to me about having parks land in that area is the community there is growing and thriving, and I think we are a city that values green space and park land.
“Fort Negley Park has a historic landmark district designation, and it's important that we honor that.”
Consequences of reprioritizing
Such a move could affect other plans on the priority list, however.
There is a precedent for parks projects being pushed to the top, in part based on the priorities of whoever is mayor. Ascend Amphitheater is one example.
But funding must be made available. The 2018 fiscal year capital spending plan for parks is $16 million. Parks is primarily reliant on bond funds to support its projects.
“Typically we only get a fixed budget of capital funds each year, and one project might bump another project fairly frequently,” Netsch said. “From our perspective, it’s always a collaborative process with administration and council.
"There are hundreds of unmet parks needs. We do what we can. We make our recommendations, but we aren't the ones who allocate funds.”
The expense of a public park
Creating an active, urban park can be expensive.
Kim Hawkins, principal at Hawkins Partners landscape architecture and planning firm, has been involved in the creation of those parks and a number of others over the years. She has a close working relationship with the parks department.
Her firm did the original Fort Negley master plan in 1996 and it recently completed Plan to Play.
Hawkins is also part of the Cloud Hill team.
A park, she said, is not unlike landscaping your front yard. You start with a very blank slate. In the case of the Greer Stadium land, that means demolishing a large existing structure.
“That’s a whole lot of coming down,” Hawkins said. “Underneath is heavily compacted soil. You can’t just throw grass seed on it.”
There would be cost not only for demolition and removal but also all the landscaping, including soil, plants, irrigation systems, playgrounds, fountains, pavilions and restrooms.
A high-amenity park can cost more than $1.5 million per acre to develop, said Hawkins, pointing to Cumberland Park and Riverfront Park as two examples her firm worked on.
And that doesn’t include future maintenance.
“What may be even more costly over time could be operations and maintenance that maintains daily needs of the park,” Hawkins said.
Cloud Hill proposals would avoid all that, with part of the revenue generated from the retail and housing space being allocated to the maintenance of the public and private green space — at no cost to the city or the taxpayers, Hawkins said.
Hawkins respects the historical significance of the area, but based on cost alone, she doesn’t believe a park-only option overseen by Metro Parks is the right option for the city.
“It’s like, ‘How are we going to get all this money?’ ” Hawkins said.
“We would love to do it all. It all adds to the quality of the city, but there’s just so much to balance.”
The original Fort Negley Park, established in 1928, spans 65 acres on St. Cloud Hill south of downtown.
The space, which includes the Greer site and Adventure Science Center's land in addition to the fort, was purchased by the city from descendants of Nashville's Overton family.
When Larry Schmittou decided to bring professional baseball back to Nashville in the late 1970s, he negotiated a lease with the city for a plot of land at the foot of St. Cloud Hill on the park grounds and built a stadium.
Herschel Greer Stadium opened in 1978 to house the Nashville Sounds. It was the home for the minor league club until 2014, when the Sounds vacated the stadium for a newer ballpark downtown.
In May 2017, Barry's administration awarded an intent to contract to Cloud Hill, led by developer Bert Mathews and music producer T Bone Burnett.
That inflamed a community of people who felt the best option would be to remove the stadium and return the park to its original standing as a park, complete with a master plan from the parks department and surrounding neighborhoods to fulfill the area’s needs and preserve its past.
“Bert Mathews has a long history of being a preservationist,” Maddox said. “He’s a wonderful person, and I think his plan is wonderful. But it doesn’t feel like it’s the right fit for that space.
“… The important thing is to honor the history of the place and the struggles that took place there in a way that’s appropriate.”