Cloud Hill developer pushes back at preservationists' criticism, calls Fort Negley 'nationally significant'
The Tennessean - Joey Garrison, Sept. 18, 2017
The proposed Cloud Hill development has faced a backlash led by historic preservationists after Mayor Megan Barry's administration in May picked the project for Nashville's old Greer Stadium site.
The critics contend Cloud Hill — a mix of creative space, housing, retail and park space — doesn't properly honor the history of nearby Fort Negley, which was built by slaves and former slaves during the Civil War.
The Cloud Hill plan has been criticized by the Civil War Trust, the nation's largest nonprofit for Civil War battlefield preservation, and the likes of Robert Hicks, a well-known author who has led preservation battles involving other Civil War landmarks.
Preservationists packed a Metro Parks and Recreation Board meeting last week demanding that the property be returned to Fort Negley Park.
The Tennessean recently interviewed developer Bert Mathews — who has partnered with music producer T Bone Burnett and Tom Middleton to lead the Cloud Hill project — about the issues raised by historians and preservationists.
A number of historic preservationists, historians and others have raised concerns about your project, arguing it’s inappropriate next to Fort Negley. What’s your response to those concerns?
I think that Fort Negley is a really important place. If you look at what is the fort and what’s been prescribed as the fort, it obviously needs a lot of attention. I think that by bringing more people into that community, it will continue to attract visitors. My sense is that there’s a lot that can be done with Fort Negley.
Fort Negley is a nationally-significant historical site, and our plan for Cloud Hill is 100 percent committed to honoring the fort and those who built it. We want to create a memorial in their honor. We want to create a park and make it open for everyone to enjoy. And we want to create affordable housing to address one of our city's most urgent priorities. And we plan to do all of that at no cost to taxpayers.
Well, what do you say to those people who say it’s just not a good move for the city to have a development directly downhill from a Civil War-era fort — that it’s simply not the proper use of that land? Would you disagree with that?
I would disagree with that. I think what the community is looking for — the community at-large and community at local — is something that is active, something that is engaging. The number one priority in the RFQ was park space — an active available park space that isn’t just walled off by two interstates and a railroad, but is connected to the community at large. And I think that what our response to the RFQ is about park space, open space, active and available to the community at large.
I think that there’s a reason 375,000 people visited the Adventure Science Center and only 12,000 people go to Fort Negley annually. And I think that there’s a reason that that place was a homeless camp up until just a few years ago. If you continue to have a walled off park, it doesn’t deliver I think what the community deserves.
Do you look at the Greer Stadium site as being part of Fort Negley Park or do you see it as land that is separate?
I do see it as separate uses. Much like you have the Adventure Science Center on one side of Fort Negley — which is an incredible use — and I look at Greer Stadium as being separate from Fort Negley.
What do you say to critics of your project who point to documentation (the 2007 parks master plan) that the plan has always been to return the Greer site back to Fort Negley Park post- Greer? And those who point to deeds in which the land was handed to Metro from the Overton family to be used as a park?
I think that if you look at the full variety of what parks has studied over the last many decades — whether it’s Plan to Play or how to activate parks in a variety of different ways, going back to the multiple studies (on the history of Fort Negley) — there’s literally dozens of master plans that people have looked at. And I would tell you, there’s space for a museum (on the Cloud Hill development) if somebody chooses to do a museum.
I would tell you that we have 13 acres of park and open space that I think we’ll be able to answer that question. And the question that nobody’s been able to answer yet is, what does it cost — let’s just take the Greer portion — to make that a park and maintain that? And then what does it cost to improve Fort Negley so that it is not decaying in front of us today? And where does the money come from to be able to do that?
How much do you think it would cost to turn Greer into a useble park?
I don’t know. I’ve heard the cost of parks running into a $1 million or $1.5 million an acre, but I don’t know. Somebody needs to take a look at that.
Should cost be a consideration? Why are you bringing that up?
It is easy to make a choice if it doesn’t cost anything. And the city gets to pick and choose where it spends its money from a capital perspective and an operating-cost perspective. I do think that ultimately cost is an important consideration. Otherwise we should have one teacher per every student. Cost always relates to these issues — whether it’s preservation, or parkland, or whatever. It’s always something that needs to be taken into account.
You would argue that your project is cost-beneficial for the city?
Yeah. We’re delivering 8.5 acres of park, and additional open space and housing that is desperately needed in the community in a way that’s respectful to Fort Negley.
What efforts are Cloud Hill undertaking to address historic concerns that are out there, particularly about the graves of slaves who built Fort Negley?
There’s three or four things that we need to look at. First of all, we need to know what’s under Greer Stadium. There’s been a huge amount of study that’s been done at Fort Negley, but there’s been very little if any study of what is there at Greer. So I think it’s important that us as a city know and understand that, and I’m pleased that the mayor is embarking on that research. No. 2, there has been a lot of conversation about how to honor the people that built the fort. And I agree with that.
To the extent that we can use the portions of Greer to be able to reflect that honor, we’re happy to work with that. It should be parks and members of the community of folks that helped build this place that ought to be able to decide what is appropriate. And help us as we’re working through all these steps to come to understand that.
You've seen some of the comments from Robert Hicks, a well-known author and preservationist. When he says that land owned by Metro parks — land he calls “hallowed ground” — should not be a money-maker for others, what’s your response?
Let’s work to figure how to take advantage of Fort Negley and treat it with all the respect and the money that it needs to make that happen. But as I talk to a lot of people in the community, it is housing, jobs and a really positive economy as well as providing parks, open space and a positive relationship with Fort Negley. There is a lot that we can do on this site that delivers what this community needs in terms of affordable housing and workforce.