In early December, as developer Tony Giarratana stands in front of his project and the tallest residential building in downtown Nashville — called 505 Nashville — he points out some of his company’s other nearby projects: Cumberland on Church, Viridian Tower, Bennie Dillon. He motions toward the ones a little further away: Encore and The SoBro. When he calls Church Street his sandbox — as he has several times — he says so completely free of irony. He sees the area as incomplete, and sees himself as the person who needs to make it whole. There are several parcels he’d like to develop along Church Street.
But there’s one piece of property that’s become a personal conquest for him: Church Street Park, the tiny quarter-of-an-acre piece of green space across from the Nashville Public Library.
Earlier this year, the plan for a land swap between Metro and Giarratana came out: In exchange for the park, Giarratana was to build at least 100 permanent supportive housing units (a term he said he didn’t know before the potential land swap) and a Downtown Homeless Service Center at 301 James Robertson Parkway.
Where Church Street Park sits now, Giarratana wants to build his tallest high-rise yet, a building he’ll call Paramount Tower. He says he’ll call it Paramount — to mean “above all.”
There’s just one problem, though, the people most acquainted with the park are people experiencing homelessness and the people attempting to walk with them in their struggles.
When asked about the backlash for the land swap, Giarratana is keen to point out that the swap has support from Mayor David Briley, District 19 Councilman Freddie O’Connell, the Nashville Downtown Partnership, the Metro Public Library Board, the Metro Parks Board and more.
But there are plenty of people who’d like to see the space remain a park — whether to keep green space at the core of the city or to avoid displacing a group of people who congregate there for essential services.
“Because our city lacks adequate affordable housing and a downtown service providing hub, the Church Street Park has served as an important site for people experiencing homelessness over the years,” Lindsey Krinks, Open Table’s director of street chaplaincy and education, told The Contributor earlier this year. “Nashville has no shortage of parks, and Riverfront Park, Bicentennial Mall and the Greenway are all accessible for people in the downtown area.”
As it stands now, Giarratana would give $2 million to alter the property at James Robertson into a replacement park. And he’d forgo development fees to help the city develop into the Homeless Services Center. The project would cost about $25 million and offer 100 units. Giarratana has also promised $5 million for a complete re-envisioning of Anne Dallas Dudley Boulevard.
A Downtown Homeless Service Center is much-needed, but it could be asked that with the funds used to build the other one at James Robertson, why the city wouldn’t just build it where Church Street Park is. Why couldn’t the city just meet people where they are?
It’s clear Giarratana sees groups like Open Table Nashville, a nonprofit who works with many people who frequent the park, as a “small but vocal” opposition — though it’s also clear that this land swap has pushed him more in the direction of helping more vulnerable citizens of Nashville.
Giarratana says that while he’s always had his eye on Church Street Park — he wants the people living nearby in his other high-rise residential units to enjoy the park as well — acquiring the park became personal about a year and a half ago. The daughter of a dear friend and colleague of his was the project manager for 505. As she stood outside overseeing the construction, he says she was struck in the face by a person experiencing homelessness who had come from the park. The same person, he says, threw hot coffee on another colleague.
“It’s just an unfortunate thing all around,” Giarratana says. “That person deserves more than being left in the park, and the neighborhood deserves more than to suffer assaults and other damage.”
As debate over the park continues — the Nashville Civic Design Center just released the second in a series of three articles outlining more plans for what a redesign might look like. The NCDC has renderings for almost every possible use of the space: skate park, amphitheatre, playground, projection movie theater. It’s also outlined what reactivating and using the space around Anne Dallas Dudley Boulevard could look like: bleacher seating, sidewalk cafe, a pay zone and more.
“Civic spaces give cities meaning,” the NCDC writes. “They are the physical manifestation and reflection of a city’s past and present, its collective identity and values. At the same time they challenge us to look towards the future and boldly set forth our collective aspirations. Successful public spaces elevate the city as a whole. Through thoughtful consideration, Church Street Park and Anne Dallas Dudley Boulevard can become one of Nashville’s defining civic spaces — one that enhances the city around it, reflects our exceptional identity, and welcomes all into the process of navigating our future together.”
Giarratana sees the land swap as a way to set a precedent for other business owners and says he’s beginning the process of engaging other developers and business owners in using their money and resources to help contribute more effectively to issues like homelessness and poverty. But he argues that after 20 years, the time for redesigning the park has come to an end.
“The time for more discussion to make a difference at this site is over,” Giarratana says. “The least likely way we are going to see meaningful change is to revert conversation back to awareness of the challenges, instead of the opportunity to do something about it in front of us.”
But what that something is all depends on whom you ask. As much as some might like the conversation to be over, the debate over what space belongs to who and why in Nashville is just beginning. As the city continues to grow and change, these conversations will shape the city’s future. And, hopefully, we all get to play in the sandbox.