‘We’ve got the scale pretty good right now’
The Nashville Post - T Bone Burnett, Sept. 21, 2017
In May, Metro officials chose Cloud Hill Partnership — a group comprising developer Bert Mathews, investment banker Tom Middleton and legendary musician and producer T Bone Burnett — to redevelop the former Greer Stadium site near Fort Negley. The Cloud Hill team has proposed a mix of creative spaces, residential units and retailers while converting Greer’s playing field into public green space. Burnett and Middleton sat down with Post Editor Geert De Lombaerde mid-summer, before public opposition to their project began to grow in volume. Here are some edited excerpts from that conversation.
How did this work even get on your radar? The idea of preserving and redeveloping.
BURNETT: I’m a storyteller and I believe in storytelling. ... So I got very interested in storytelling through place. ... I started getting intellectually interested in preservation and started reading Jane Jacobs and William White. The first thing that hit me, you know, I learned everything I needed to know to sustain me through 50 years in music in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village. And I started reading about how Jane Jacobs stopped Robert Moses from putting a freeway right through Washington Square Park and destroying Greenwich Village.
And then as circumstances come about, I work[ed] at a studio in Los Angeles called Village Studios. And the owner of the studio was feeling like he wanted to get out of it and he started talking to me about buying it. ... It was an old 1924 Masonic Temple that had been broken up over the years.
So I started saying, “If we’re going to do this for the 21st century, we have to completely reconfigure this.” He said, “Well, what’ll I do with all the people that are working in there?” ... There are all these composers and producers. ... And I said, “Well, you know, if we take them out, we could build out around the Village and build other producer-composer suites that are more appropriate to the 21st century.”
And so, there was a post office next door that was privately owned and leased to the government. And we started talking to the 95-year-old gentleman who owned the post office.
... And then we just started looking, well, what’s this parking lot? And what’s this parking lot? And we discovered it was a distressed 10-acre civic center that was built in the 1950s but it had become derelict. There was a county courthouse there that was closed. There was a city building that’s in disrepair. There’s a senior center that’s barely used. A library that’s actually functioning. But mostly, there’s an amphitheater that’s hardly used. It’s a terrible concrete amphitheater. It was just bad ’50s top-down [design].
I don’t believe in the top down — I don’t believe in design, really. I believe design is to city planning, you could say, as a degree is to music. Music happens first then people figure out what it is. So good design kind of grows out of the actual realities. It’s on the ground.
So we started looking at this whole 10 acres [and] I brought some people together around this idea and we’re still working on it. It’s a very complicated transaction aggregation having to do with private, this federal government with the post office, the state government, the city government, the county government and the courts. So we’ve almost got everybody in line. But I’ve been in this process now for several years and bringing these various transactions — I guess you would call them that — together around a good idea. Which is also the thing I’ve done my whole life.
I started realizing if you look at “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” for instance ... What I was able to do there was to take an established but neglected art form and recontextualize it for the present day. I believe that’s an act of preservation. Like, preservation isn’t just sealing something or laminating something, you know? It’s about breathing life into it and helping it to live. So, generally that’s sort of how I got into it.
And how did that carry over to Cloud Hill?
BURNETT: Tom and I had talked about the site in Los Angeles. And as I was driving from downtown to my studio in Berry Hill, I would pass this place and it nodded at me. There’s this incredible renaissance going on in South Nashville and there are these two spots that are completely distressed: The Fairgrounds and Fort Negley.
So here is an opportunity to tell a story with a place. Nashville has a singular story in the whole country. And I think because of its civil rights history starting here, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the suffrage movement, the lunch counter [protesters], onto the present day.
As we worked on it, we started realizing that the main problem for this site is that it’s cut off by two freeways and a railroad track. And as we’ve searched for years now, we’ve not been able to find one park, one successful park in the United States, that has a light industrial warehouse edge, much less a light industrial warehouse edge and a railroad track.
So the only chance there is for this to be a successful location or successful public place is to profoundly activate this street and to pull the neighborhoods that have been cut off from this site by these old developments. It’s a challenging site. Anybody in his right mind would not take this on, you know?
One of the things we started realizing, if we go over here to Centennial Park which is right about here, then there’s Rose Park here, there’s the Reservoir Park here. And we realized walking right down Edgewood, you could connect all these parks. We could connect Centennial Park, Rose Park, Reservoir Park, Fort Negley, the city, the city cemetery and the Dudley Park.
A few months ago, you discussed your vision by saying, ‘I’m going to put a plan together that’s better than the developers could do because they have different priorities.’ I get the sense that everything you’re talking about is neighborhood-oriented and the scale of the project —
BURNETT: You know what? We don’t know if we have the scale right.
And that’s what I was going to ask you. It’s intentionally a little more neighborhood-y and could be a lot denser, right?
BURNETT: First of all, we kept everything below the press box at the current Greer Stadium. Because that just seemed like, if that was the viewshed that had been agreed upon at some point, we were not going to go over that. But then, we took pictures walking around the path and you can barely see any of this from the walking path. You can’t see any of it from south. It’s all under the canopy.
So, as we begin to activate this street and activate the site and we will observe, and we will listen and observe and watch and we will come to a consensus among the whole community and the whole city about what the right scale is.
But the general idea is it will be what’s context-appropriate?
BURNETT: You know, I am not a developer. But it’s true – we’re not trying to maximize profits. When I say this is a legacy project, what I mean by that is I have 50 years of experience in music. ... The legacy I’m talking about is a gift. If you look up legacy, that means gift. So as I look at this, this is a gift to the city that’s been so good to me.
As far as what the city gets back from this, this place will generate literally billions of dollars of revenue for the city over the life of this place. Literally billions. ... If we get it right ... we’ll be able to help maintain this park. We’ll be able to, you know, [the city] won’t have to keep it up. The city’s getting more and more park space. They just got 40 acres at The Fairgrounds. ...
The parks department doesn’t have the money to maintain it or do anything with it.
You said you’re not sure if you have the scale just right yet. But percentagewise, how close do you feel like you are to the vision?
BURNETT: I really don’t know. I couldn’t put a percentage on it. I know this, I can tell you this, that of this 60 acres ... there’s a very small part of it that’s dedicated to rent and houses and offices and that’s what generates the revenue to sustain the rest of it. So there’s a small part back here that’s going to pay for all of the rest. So I would say for that part, we’ve got the scale pretty good right now. I mean, I couldn’t believe how well these guys did at putting this together.
You made a point there isn’t a park like this that works anywhere in the country given the geographic constraints. You’ve done your homework and looked around the country. Are there other projects you can point to that are working in terms of the redevelopment angle like this?
BURNETT: Yeah, well, we’re working with a guy at the Project for Public Spaces called Fred Kent. ...
MIDDLETON: He’s New York-based.
BURNETT: But he and his team did Sundance Square in Fort Worth where I’m from. Which is a similar project in that it was two parking lots.
Yes, I’ve seen images of that.
BURNETT: These are close to me, that’s one and then there’s one in San Antonio called the Pearl Brewery. And Fred Kent did both of those as well as Bryant Park and Union Square Park. He’s working on the High Line now. He did Harvard Square.
What I’ve always done is bring the best people to bear and get out of their way. I don’t care if it means going and throwing some grass seed out there, great. But, you know, if that’s what makes it successful, I’m fine with that. I just don’t want a derelict, horrible, dangerous area right in the middle of the city like that. I want something beautiful...
The thing about all of these developments or parks I’ve just named is people from every neighborhood use them. Every day and every night.
You’ve hinted about activating Chestnut. Obviously, that will involve the southern side of the street as well. Have you started thinking about what that will look like?
BURNETT: Well, we’ve gone way beyond starting [to think] about it. And there are a couple of things I can’t really say right now because I don’t have all my ducks in a row, but I can say that 12 acres in here is owned by Vanderbilt and a piece is owned by Scott Chambers. And we’ve spoken in great detail with both of them, and both of them are, I would say, not anxious but ...
MIDDLETON: They both wrote letters of support for our submission. And as neighbors — as opposed to sort of institutions — they’re very interested and excited about what we’re doing.
BURNETT: And they have said they will develop this in union with us.
Sure. That makes a lot of sense.
BURNETT: They’re going to change this all over. There’s going to be housing. They need to change things. Plus, as this [street] turns into Edgehill, it goes right to Vanderbilt. So then you’ve got Centennial Park, Vanderbilt, Music Row, Edgehill — straight shot. And all we have to do is beautify Edgehill so that it’ll draw people right down here. One of the things we’re talking about is having autonomous buses that make the loop from Vanderbilt right down here, right up Sixth, right to the Convention Center.
I work in South Nashville and the kids down there — the kids that I work with and the kids at Vui’s and the kids at the coffee shop — they all talk about [how] they want to walk. They want out of cars. They don’t want insurance. They don’t want all that. It’s a completely different and better world. I agree with them. They have my sympathies.
So I think this town, because it grew out of buffalo trails, really is going to benefit from having an actual walking district that I think should extend all the way into downtown. I mean, there are already people walking from downtown to Music Row. I see that happening.
We see it every day here in The Gulch. It’s night and day compared to five or six years ago.
BURNETT: Right. Exactly.
MIDDLETON: It’s not an easy town to walk around, you know? And that’s a big personal thing for me, making this a walking town.
BURNETT: It’s sort of become my main focus because I started out thinking I was going to give a gift to the city and now, I’m getting all this knowledge in return. Now I care about this city in a way I didn’t ever think I would. And this walking district, it’s become the most important. This is an incredible hub in the city when you look at the potential for opening up the corridors.
We’re trying to do something really monumental here. And I hope we can. I pray we can pull it off. And I think we can.