A bustling cafe in the vibrant East Nashville community.
Henry Ambrose A bustling cafe in the vibrant East Nashville community.

On April 16, 1998, a tornado touched down in Nashville, Tenn. It tore through downtown before hopping across the Cumberland River to East Nashville, toppling some 20,000 trees citywide and damaging hundreds of homes and businesses. East Nashville, a patchwork of quirky neighborhoods and about 25,000 people, took the brunt.

There is no evidence of that devastation today. Instead, new growth knits together this eclectic string of communities. There are historic mansions, humble bungalows, hip restaurants, and a smorgasbord of small businesses. Musicians rub shoulders with physicians, and trendy boutiques share streets with not-so-mainstream bars. There are attractive housing options for people with low and average incomes. It wasn’t always that way.

For years, East Nashville was considered a rough part of town, cut off from the urban core by the river and an interstate highway. It had its charms, though, including a traditional urban fabric and a nice mix in household income, race, demographics, and architecture. By the early 1990s, the influx of artists and musicians priced out by real estate across the river had begun breathing new life into the area’s ramshackle shotgun houses and abandoned lots. But crime and slumlords persisted.

Natural disasters sometimes clear a path for progress, and then-mayor Philip Bredesen posed a challenge to the tornado recovery board: What if they looked beyond the blue tarps and splintered trees and made East Nashville even better than it was? Not just rebuild, but reinvigorate?

In 1998, the city partnered with the AIA to do a four-day charrette with a Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team (R/UDAT). Since 1967, R/UDATs have led interventions in more than 140 communities, matching interdisciplinary professionals from around the country with local experts to strategize around a common vision. On the last day, the team presents a published action plan in a public meeting. The program is part of the AIA Center for Communities by Design, which won the 2010 Organization of the Year Award from the International Association for Public Participation.

“The organizers looked at other options to see who could help, and the big reason they chose the R/UDAT was its emphasis on community participation,” says Hunter Gee, AIA, principal of Smith Gee Studio, Nashville. He chaired the local steering committee, organized by Carol Pedigo, Hon. AIA, executive director of AIA Middle Tennessee, who also sat on the tornado recovery board. At the time, Gee says, “I was just a young pup that agreed to take on this challenge.”

Plans moved swiftly. By September 1998, R/UDAT chair William A. Gilchrist, FAIA, then director of planning, engineering, and permits for Birmingham, Ala., began accompanying host committee members on visits with folks from every sector: bankers, developers, arts organizations, churches, business councils, government officials, social service providers, public housing authorities, and neighborhood associations. The goal was to pave the way for the charrette by inviting people across constituencies to share their ideas.

“Bill came to town and helped us understand the importance of reaching every category of community stakeholder,” Gee says. Over the next 10 months, Gilchrist told stories of other R/UDATs, not only to present case histories of the program’s effectiveness in rebuilding communities, but also to stress the importance of citizen participation as the first step towards the area’s recovery. These accounts were well received and helped garner the necessary $50,000 support for the R/UDAT. (The experts who come to town aren’t paid, but there are costs for lodging, transportation, and setting up a design studio.)

On Saturday morning of the four-day workshop that following July, the R/UDAT team convened a forum in a public housing building. “Where we held that meeting was critical,” Gilchrist says. “We wanted to make a clear statement about being inclusive. We couldn’t have the public housing sector left floating like raisins in pudding.”