Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Church Street Park is a small downtown space known to draw people experiencing homelessness. Now it’s slated to be replaced with a condo tower.
In the heart of downtown Nashville, Church Street Park fits like a coin pocket. At just a quarter of an acre, it’s dwarfed by the central library building that looms across the street. Nearby stand soaring new condo towers, home to the white-collar workers who are fueling the city’s massive recent growth.
The park has never been a great public space. First built as part of a 1996 master plan to revitalize Church Street, downtown’s by-then nearly abandoned historic shopping corridor, the little park has narrow sidewalks and curious landscaping that, locals say, leaves little breathing room and too much cover. It’s known as a place where drug deals go down. Homeless individuals sometimes park their shopping carts there before entering the library. Before a hepatitis breakout earlier this year, some used its small central fountain to bathe. (It was drained due to health concerns.)
“There’s been this sense that the park has not succeeded,” said Freddie O’Connell, the metro council member representing much of downtown. The space is also perceived as unsafe, he added, pointing to a handful of recent assaults that allegedly took place nearby. Residents and tourists—of which there are many in downtown Music City—are afraid to enter, O’Connell and others told me. In a city effort to improve it, Church Street Park was bulldozed and rearranged in 2007, but the changes didn’t seem to help; now, two police cruisers are stationed there every day.
But Church Street Park appears to be in line for the ultimate “fix”: The city wants to let a new owner build over it. Developer Tony Giarratana has proposed to take over the land in order to build the tallest condo tower Nashville has seen yet. In exchange, he’s offering the city a different parcel downtown of equal size—currently a parking lot—that could be converted into public parkland. To sweeten the deal, he’s throwing in $7 million in green space investments, and an offer to build the city a homeless service center at cost.
The mayor praises the deal as an equal swap that would be also an investment in public space and housing. The city’s parks board voted 4-3 to back the proposal last month. Now it’s awaiting approval by zoning officials and the metro council. O’Connell, for his part, is ready to bid good riddance to a failed park.
But other elected leaders, architects, homeless advocates, and neighbors have objected to plan. “This is a calculating and persuasive land deal,” Kem Hinton, a prominent local architect, told a packed room at a public meeting in late October, where members of the city’s board of parks and recreation considered the park’s future. “I think you should think about public space for everyone. Not just the rich.”
In a way, this unloved patch of grass has become a tiny front in a wider conflict—a struggle over the soul of a city that’s undergoing a supercharged economic boom. As affluent newcomers surge into town, who gets to decide who the city is for?
Giarratana has reportedly long coveted Church Street Park. It more than doubled in value between 2013 and 2017, according to county records, and that’s partly thanks to the work of his group. A block away is 505 Nashville, a glass-clad tower that became the city’s second-tallest building when Giarratana Nashville LLC opened it last year. Three of the other residential towers that have popped up along narrow Church Street in recent years bear his fingerprints, totaling more than 1,200 units, the Nashville Business Journal reported in August. On the park site, Giarratana would like to add another 200 condos in a $240 million tower called the Paramount that would soar 50 to 60 stories. “Church Street is our sandbox,” he told the parks board in October.
Giarratana, who did not respond to requests for an interview, showed renderings of his vision for a few of the many properties involved in his proposed swap. Anne Dallas Dudley Boulevard, which runs alongside the current Church Street Park, looked vibrant with planters and cafe seating; part of the deal by now is that the city would let Giarratana beautify this corridor, where he would spend $5 million to spruce it up in the style of Dallas’ Klyde Warren Park.* On top of that, he said, he’d give a parking lot on James Robertson Parkway to the city to redevelop and program as green space, with an additional $2 million that he would pay.
Finally, Giarratana talked up his drawings of a new, $24 million homeless service center, to be located on a separate piece of city-owned property which would include 100 or so units of permanent housing downtown. He’d waive the usual developer’s fee if the city goes through with the deal, which he called “innovative.”
“It’s important for a city like Nashville that’s growing entrepreneurially to encourage people to bring forward new creative ideas and say, we’re going to proceed,” Giarratana said.
The last piece of the proposal—the new shelter—seems to be central to Mayor David Briley’s enthusiasm about it. “We felt like this was an opportunity both to address the quality-of-life issues associated with the park and, at the same time, address some of the underlying concerns that have created the issue with the park,” Briley told the Tennessean in July.
But that’s part of what’s troubling about this situation, if you hear it from opponents. The city was already planning to build that service center in some shape or form. The previous mayor, Megan Barry, who resigned in March amid controversy, got $25 million in general obligation bonds approved by metro council to build affordable housing and other facilities for the city’s growing homeless population. (The deal with Giarratana also began under her tenure.) Now that those dollars have been mixed into this condo deal, the discussion about the land swap has been muddied, critics say. “There are a lot of people who believe we have to give away this park so that we can get a homeless service center,” said Angie Henderson, a metro council member representing southwestern Davison County. “But that’s just not true.”
When those factors are separated, the stakes of the park-swap decision become clearer. First, the parking lot Giarratana would offer as a replacement park may be about the same size as the patch on Church Street, but the location is much less desirable, critics said—it’s squeezed up alongside a major four-lane arterial. It’s also not far from the existing Public Square Park. So, while the total amount of parkland under city ownership would stay the same (or even grow, given Giarratana’s plans for Anne Dallas Dudley Boulevard), it would appear to condense access for downtown park users. “It’s a redundancy,” said Henderson. “You’re not serving other people by swapping for this.”
Second, opponents charge, razing a park that’s known as a congregation space for the homeless would neither solve the design flaws that have long repelled other users, nor serve those who do rely on it. “Are we just going to ship the problem from Church Street to James Robertson Parkway?” wondered one parks board member in October.
Homeless advocates say that this wouldn’t be the first time the city has tried to push out vulnerable people rather than help them. Public benches have been removed around downtown over the last few years. A large homeless encampment in another metro park was bulldozed in 2016. This summer, the district attorney’s office took the unusual step of funneling all cases that occur in the downtown area to a single attorney, which advocates say would essentially create a separate criminal docket for those living on the streets.
It’s also hard not to notice that, if the new homeless service center is built according to the Church Street Park proposal, it would be across from the new county jail.
All of this is happening against the backdrop of rising homelessness in Nashville, which was highlighted by a major report in the Washington Post earlier this year. The city’s annual street census—an imperfect and likely conservative estimate—found that the number of unsheltered individuals jumped 10 percent to 2,300 between 2015 and 2016, and it has hovered around that number since. One big factor in this surge is the city’s economic boom: The Post reported that average Nashville rents rose from $882 in 2013 to $1,148 in 2018. In the city’s core, according to the Greater Nashville Apartment Association, that figure jumps to $1,700.
O’Connell, who sits on the city’s Homelessness Commission, says that the city is working to address the issue. He points to administrative changes that the city has made over the past year to streamline and coordinate action in response to the crisis. And of course, there’s that $25 million for affordable housing the council approved last year. Now the lion’s share of that money has been wrapped, confusingly, into Giarratana’s bundle.
In this light, maybe it’s not so surprising that the city would go for a proposal that looks like a win on homelessness. But that’s not how many individuals living on the street or their supporters view the Church Street Park deal.
A group of local homeless advocates wrote a stern open letter in the Tennessean earlier this year, decrying the deal. “[W]e are deeply troubled by the trend we’ve seen in Metro’s willingness to hand over public land and parks to luxury developers who do not invest a percentage of the profits they gain into projects that benefit those struggling most in our city,” they wrote.
Howard Allen, Jr., a native Nashvillian and social activist who is homeless, told me that few of the unsheltered people who use the park space during the day were asked for their opinion by city officials about the swap, which he opposes. “They’re always talking for us, but never talking to us,” he said. “And while they’re talking, we’re dying.”
Even some supporters seem concerned about how some of the city’s thorniest issues are coming to a head in one small space. “I think the fundamental questions is: Is this board OK with giving up green space for a high-rise building?’” said Sharon Gentry, a parks board member, before casting her vote to back the deal in November. “I hope we’re not voting on this as a solution for homelessness.”
The parks board was initially split, but ultimately, the majority of members swayed to approve the swap. George Anderson, the board’s chair, told me that was because it added more public green space on balance, between the possible improvements to Anne Dallas Dudley Boulevard and the renovations to Giarratana’s parking lot.
But members of the city’s architecture and design community think there’s a better approach, one that doesn’t threaten Nashville’s larger sense of public life. “Rather than admit defeat and say that the only option for this public space is a 60-story building with 200 luxury units, we could show people that there are other ways to make this place successful,” said Gary Gaston, the chief executive officer of the Nashville Civic Design Center, a local nonprofit focused on urbanism. Even when everyone agrees that the park’s current form is unsuccessful—maybe especially then—public space should stay public, he said.
In 2006, just before the city renovated Church Street Park the last time, the Design Center conducted a survey of park users about what could be improved. Based on their feedback, the organization made a number of design recommendations, including installing movable seats and pulling out the central fountain. (Notably, a nearly equal share of respondents said they felt the area was “unsafe” as those who said it felt “safe.”) But the ideas weren’t adopted when the city re-landscaped the following year, Gaston said.
In January, the Design Center plans to present city leaders with a new alternative vision for renovating and programming Church Street Park, based on the organization’s earlier work and other downtown parks around the world. At the hearing in October, parks board members said it would require an “infusion of resources” to reactivate the space. But for Gaston and other skeptics of the Giarratana deal, a downtown park is too valuable to lose, especially considering the trajectory of Nashville’s future. The mega-retailer Amazon recently announced its intentions to plant another 5,000 workers in a new operations hub half a mile from where Church Street Park sits today. “You’re adding a lot of people who can afford the most expensive apartments that exist in Nashville,” a real estate analyst told the Nashville Business Journal last week. That concentration of jobs and wealth is likely to drive rents up further, and tighten the city’s housing crunch.
Nashville is not alone in this dilemma. West Coast cities like Seattle and San Francisco have struggled, with very mixed results, to balance economic booms with preserving housing and public resources for longtime residents and maintaining the essential character of the city. New York City is the the poster child for the privatization of public space, for better or worse. Conflicting interests often butt heads on sidewalks, which are some of the last shreds of safe, free-to-use space in sought-after cities all over the world.
In Nashville, the needs of the homeless are colliding with development pressure in an unusually visible setting. What comes next at Church Street Park may be a watershed for the city’s future.
Locals like Allen lament what’s happening. “My city—Music City, U.S.A.—has turned from something that was known as a good place to live to a police city. A Millennial city. A tourist city,” he said. “And they don’t give a damn about people living in poverty.”
*CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated that Klyde Warren Park was located in Houston.