(From the Nov. 19th City Council meeting)

    *     *     *

City council members took a break last month from the usual round of annexations, rezonings and beer licenses to dream about the future of the city

"I take back every snide remark I've made."
“I take back every snide remark I’ve made.”

You might call this the first effort to implement things the city’s planning consultant is recommending in the Murfreesboro 2035 study.

At any rate, the focus this year on planning is reassuring. It might be because of the two-year study the council commissioned to plan for the next 20 years of growth here. Or it may be simply something in the drinking water. Whatever the reason, people have been doing a lot of thinking about planned growth lately.

In less than an hour, the council approved two detailed redevelopment studies for the downtown area and authorized funding to improve Middle Tennessee Boulevard where it crosses the MTSU campus.

A cultural arts district here?

The only hint of controversy was about the name of one of the planning studies. It wound up being a case of a rose smelling the same by another name.

At the bottom of everyone’s mind is making the city a more excting place that will draw in “millenials “

A world stood on its head

The term refers to the tech savvy professionals, who were born between  1980 and 1995. It turns out that if a city wants to attract the best companies it must first lure millenials. If the old formula was workers following companies, these days the best companies are following the best workers. These people aren’t looking for a house in the suburbs. They want city living, probably in a townhouse or condo, and exciting things to do after work within walking distance.

Making Murfreesboro more exciting

The first study centers on Highland Avenue. The second covers what historically has been known as “The Bottoms”, once an unsightly shantytown near what is now city hall. Currently, both areas are underdeveloped.

Councilman Rick LaLance asked why planners were proposing to do two studies of city areas when the council hasn’t approved yet the massive 2035 plan for the entire city.

A landscape vs. a portrait

Matthew Blomeley, a principal planner for the city, explained that the 2035 study is like a photo taken from the top of the City Center Building, while the two proposed studies are more like portraits.

The latter, called “small-area studies”, look at a district on a parcel-by-parcel basis and decide what would be the best uses there. These two studies will combine a lot of input from the public, city leaders and city planners as well as a detailed economic analysis.  The council could then use incentives to try to get the kind of redevelopment it wants.

The Highland Avenue Cultural Arts District

"I'll lay you four-to-one this name disapears."
“I’ll lay you four-to-one this name disappears.”

The first study was titled the Highland Avenue Cultural Arts District. The area is bounded by East Clark Boulevard on the north, Northwest Broad Street on the west, East College Street on the south and Middle Tennessee Boulevard on the East.

Blomeley said the area was tentatively titled a cultural district because it contains the Oakland House, the Murfreesboro Little Theater, the Rutherford County Historical Society, and the old hospital building, which MTSU has acquired.

Cultural building blocks

“There are already some arts and educational uses in the area that we can build on,” he said. “There is a great opportunity to see what this area can become. We look at potential uses such as ice cream parlors, flower shops and places where artists can live and work. The potential for revitalization of this area is great.”

Do we want a lot of artists in loft studios?

LaLance seemed leery of getting locked into promoting this area as a cultural district when other uses might turn out to be more appropriate.

Blomeley stressed that the name was only tentative and that the study might well recommend other uses for the district.

Redevelopment is inevitable

Gary Whitaker, the city’s planning director, indicated that he was having a bit of buyer’s remorse over the name picked since it has spurred some doubts on the council about the study. He added that this study and a second one for the former Bottoms area should have started at least a year ago.

“Redevelopment of downtown is going to happen regardless,” he said. “There has been a great amount of (redevelopment) interest in downtown. There isn’t a week that goes by that we don’t get a call from someone wanting to redevelop part of the area. What we have is really improper zoning now that the medical clinic has left. Medicals are not going to come down to the Highland area. We know that.”

Medical zoning probably would not allow the artistic uses that have been proposed.

No preconceived idea on the best uses there

“What we want to do is figure out how we want it to redevelop.” he added. “I’m not sure we … have a preconceived plan right now. We want to get input … do a cost analysis and come up with a plan. We want to do it in the right way and not have people come in and buy property and develop it in a hodge podge way.”

The former “bottoms”

The second study area extends from Old Fort Parkway to the Discovery Center and from Broad Street to the CSX railroad tracks. Donald Anthony, another principal city planner, said the planning department feels this area is grossly underdeveloped. The eventual plan might include “daylighting” an underground stream in the area and providing a scenic walkway beside it for people to use.

For a dramatic picture of what The Bottoms looked like, click this link: http://digital.mtsu.edu/cdm/ref/collection/p15838coll7/id/80

The tab

Ragan Smith Associates of Nasville will conduct both studies. Funding for each study will come from the planning department’s budget. The studies could extend into two fiscal years, and the cost will not exceed $75,000 in either of the years. The total price tag for the first study will not exceed $153,400, and the second will not be more than $129,800. Any work that would surpass these amounts would be subject to additional negotiations between the city and Ragan Smith.

Studies will be guided by a lot of public input

Randy Caldwell, executive vice president of Ragan Smith, assured the council that the studies would include stakeholder meetings, workshops, and talks with city leaders and planners to get as much community input as possible. In addition, Ragan Smith will work closely with the Kendig Keast Collaborative, the consultant for the 2035 plan.

“A dream come true”

Councilman  Eddie Smotherman was enthusiastic about the potential the second study may bring to the area.

“Where we are sitting used to be The Bottoms,” he said. “This area was about as poor and bad as it could get. It was swampland, shacks .. a pretty rough area. You can see what city hall has done to stimulate this area. This side of the square could begin to connect to the Discovery Center, to Cannonsburgh, with that stream potentially a walking path. It sounds like a dream come true. To go in there and put urban dwellings and bring life back to a downtown area that needs a shot of stimulus.”

Middle Tennessee

The Middle Tennessee Boulevard project goes back to 1995. The planned improvements will run from Main Street to Greenland Drive, which includes the part of the road that dissects the MTSU campus. The university proposed a more grandiose project than the city was planning and worked to help get federal funds for the job.

The goal is to improve traffic flow, make the street safer for pedestrians and bikers, and improve the look of the MTSU campus. The final plan calls for a four-lane road with a landscaped median, turn lanes, bike paths, and pedestrian plazas at intersections.

The cost of the project is about $18.3 million. About $12.6 million is coming from federal funds.  MTSU is kicking in $5 million and the city $620,000 in cash. The city will also contribute some of the money it gets from the Federal Highway Administration. The chief contractor will be Jarrett Builders Inc. of Nashville. Their part of the total cost is $15.8 million. The balance of the funding will go for such things as design work and geotechnical studies.