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Nashville's Fight for Music Row

With rampant development threatening the historic district, Music City is stepping up with a plan to preserve it.

A scene from Music Row in the 1970s. (Metro Nashville Archives/The National Trust for Historic Preservation)

Across Nashville, development fever has taken hold. The proliferation of construction sites reached such extremes last August that the Nashville Business Journal compiled a “Crane Watch” map, and has since been updating it as locals send word of new scaffolds. From above, the map shows a city all but obscured with 170 labels indicating the coming of multifamily buildings and office skyscrapers.

But zoom in a little closer, and there’s an area just southwest of downtown relatively untouched by the boom. There are a few sites being built up—a 19-story tower on 19th Avenue South; a 230-unit apartment complex on 17th—but for the most part, the streets of Music Row are quiet.

The 209-acre Music Row neighborhood sits just on the edge of downtown Nashville and the Gulch; Vanderbilt and Belmont universities border it to the west and south. In the post-recession years, all of those areas were “supercharged” with plans for new developments, says Freddie O’Connell, the councilmember for the Music Row district. “You started to see these faceless apartment developments emerge,” O’Connell says. “I mean, completely unengaged with the streetscape; completely disconnected from the context of Music Row other than, in some cases, a musical motif attached to the name.”

Caught in the economic upswing, construction in the area proceeded largely uncontested. But in early 2014, RCA Studio A fell under threat. Chet Atkins established the historic studio in 1964 as the first purpose-built commercial space in the district; a developer now wanted to tear it down and replace it with condos and a restaurant.

After an impassioned plea from Ben Folds, who, along with an impressive list of other musicians, recorded at the studio, the local philanthropist Aubrey Preston stepped up to buy and preserve the legendary property. The fight to save Studio A from redevelopment—an effort described by the musician Trey Bruce as “white knuckles, straight downhill with no brakes”—threw the plight of the whole Music Row district into the spotlight.

The interior of RCA Studio A. (Nashville Metro Planning Department)

The effort to preserve Music Row will come to a head this summer. Since the controversy over Studio A, The National Trust for Historic Preservation has been working to protect the district. On May 4, the Tennessee Historical Commission’s State Review Board unanimously approved the Multiple Property Documentation Form prepared by the National Trust, which submitted the entire neighborhood, along with 64 individual properties, for recognition on the National Register of Historic Places.

The work of the National Trust parallels the “Save Music Row” campaign that took off in Nashville the summer of 2014, when the fight for Studio A was at its apex. Out of those grassroots efforts, the Music Industry Coalition and the Music Row Neighborhood Association formed to advocate for the district.

And the city listened. In February of 2015—a month after the designation of Music Row as National Treasure, a highly significant but threatened cultural place—the Metro Planning Commission of Nashville put a hold on approvals for rezoning requests in the area. Those projects already under construction proceeded, but all other plans ground to a halt.

“This area was in such flux,” says Stephanie McCullough of the Nashville Metro Planning Department, which will submit a new design plan for the community this summer. “Everybody felt things were moving too fast.”

The gaze of the whole of Nashville had, in the years since the recession, been fixed firmly on the future. McCullough estimates that a million new people will arrive in the 10 county-area around the city by 2040. But to ensure that Music Row would still be standing in that year, Nashville had to look to its past.

Music Row before the industry arrived, circa 1906. (Tennessee State Library and Archives)

The road to Music City, U.S.A.

If you live in Nashville, says Carolyn Brackett, the senior field officer for the National Trust, “you get the sense that there isn’t anything else like Music Row.” There isn’t. The National Trust, in gathering its defense for the preservation of Music Row, examined music centers around the country, from Chicago to Los Angeles to Muscle Shoals to Detroit; nowhere comes close to mimicking the intense proximity that characterized Music Row at its peak in the decades following the war—a culture that was all but inextricable from the streets and buildings that housed it.

To cope with the economic growth following World War II, the newly established Nashville city planning commission decided that the residential neighborhoods surrounding the downtown area could also be zoned commercial. Music executives, seeking less expensive property to expand their burgeoning businesses, took to the outskirts of the city, including the neighborhood that would become Music Row. Quaint, turn-of-the-century streets produced some of the U.S.’s most significant sounds: Elvis Presley recorded “Heartbreak Hotel” at RCA in 1956; Bob Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde” came out of Columbia Records in 1966; Quadraphonic produced Joan Baez’s “Blessed Are” in 1971.

The Bradley’s studio with the Quonset Hut extension. (Harold Bradley)

Nashville had become Music City, and Music Row was its heartbeat. “It had everything you needed to make music: publishers, publicists, artists, songwriters, producers, performance rights’ organizations,” Brackett says. The National Trust found that:

By 1979, a newspaper report counted businesses on Music Row and came up with 270 music publishers, 120 record production agencies, 80 record manufacturing companies, 80 booking agencies, 10 music organizations and unions, 20 radio commercial and jingle companies, 20 album cover photographers, two radio broadcast stations, several music-oriented newspapers and magazines, and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

While the number of businesses on Music Row has dwindled to over 200, and the Country Music Hall of Fame has since relocated downtown, the district is still a substantial factor in the 56,000 jobs and $3.2 billion in annual labor income linked to the city’s music industry, Curbed reported.    

Now that Nashville is leaning more heavily on development for revenue, maintaining the integrity of Music Row has become “a conversation about where identity runs up against the economy,” O’Connell says. “It’s by no means an easy conversation for the city to have.”

Changing with the times

Nashville is prepared to meet the challenge head-on. The February 2015 decision to put a freeze on rezoning requests, O’Connell says, is unprecedented, and out of it have come concrete plans to redirect the thinking about Nashville as a whole to account for Music Row’s place in its future.

While the National Parks Service reviews the National Trust’s Multiple Property Documentation Form this summer, Brackett and the National Trust will negotiate with individual building owners to convince them to list their properties, a move which would make them eligible for tax credits for rehabilitation, but would limit the extent to which sites could be sold or redeveloped.

“Coming in as the National Trust, we said from the very beginning that we have no intention of proposing regulatory plans that would lessen the control of property owners,” Brackett says. Any building requirements and restrictions will come instead from the Metro Planning Department, whose Music Row Detailed Plan, once finalized this summer, will provide a blueprint for the concrete image of the district going forward.

A guitar painted with the likeness of Elvis Presley on the lawn in front of RCA Studio B in 2014, when the “Save Music Row” campaign began to take off. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Fighting to preserve the character of a historic district amid a construction boom, McCullough says, necessitates walking a fine line.

There are the owners who bought on Music Row as an investment, whose desire to build taller and taller buildings at the expense of the neighborhood’s Victorians and mid-century studios is driven by high property values. And then there are the people who want to stay: the artists and small companies being driven out by soaring taxes and costs. The Metro Planning Department, McCullough says, hopes to strike a balance between the two. Since the pause on rezoning requests, the Metro Planning Department has held four community meetings and issued multiple surveys to work out how to draw the lines around future developments; how to maintain the scale and industry in the neighborhood while also allowing for change and growth.

“It’s been hard for some people to wrap their heads around,” McCullough says. Often, conversations about historic preservation hinge on aesthetics—maintaining the look and feel of a property in its original form. But in Music Row, “It’s not the buildings we’re trying to preserve, as much as the music industry,” McCullough says.

To guide the process going forward, on May 16th the National Trust released its final recommendation report for the neighborhood. Its overarching goal is to designate Music Row as a Cultural Industry District, which would protect the intent of the neighborhood while also allowing for growth. O’Connell—who, along with fellow council member Colby Sledge, will present the recommendations to Nashville Metro Council—says that continuing to champion Nashville as Music City will mean facing up to the fact that the music industry itself looks very different now than it did at the height of Music Row in the 1970s. “I’d love to see even a portion of Music Row designed to capture what’s possible now with music and technology—to see Apple Music or Spotify represented,” O’Connell says. “I think there’s a way for the city move with intent in this direction.”

The National Trust is working with a three-year timeline—begun with Music Row’s designation as a National Treasure in January 2015—to see these recommendations through. Though the work will involve the cooperation of the whole city, from the government down to individual property owners, Brackett is optimistic that Nashville will be able to pull it off. “People just continue to be interested and engaged with the process,” Brackett says.

For her, it’s not hard to see why. The need to preserve Music Row, Brackett says, “is not anything we have to stretch to comprehend. We all probably have a record or a CD—or however we get our music these days—that came from there,” she says. “People feel a strong connection to this place, because it’s our music.”

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