• Nashville townhouse.

    Credit: Henry Ambrose

    Nashville townhouse.

Roughly 400 people poured in, and 100 or so took the mike to make passionate pleas for improving their community. “The common thread was how important the diversity is in East Nashville. They said, ‘We don’t want to completely gentrify the community,” Gee recalls.

The final charrette presentation drew almost 1,000 people, including private developers from the wealthier side of the river. Several themes emerged: East Nashville had no cohesive identity. Areas with many single-family homes were steadily improving, while others contained clusters of substandard Section 8 housing. The residential areas were underserved by retail and commercial facilities. And Main Street’s auto-oriented zoning had produced an eyesore.

“It’s important that the team not only have good ideas, but good practical ideas,” says R/UDAT member Alan Mallach, senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress, Washington, D.C. “And when people are primed to engage, it makes a huge difference.”

Since the R/UDAT, East Nashville has employed new zoning and design guidelines while federal and local funding have spurred major investments. At 5th and Main streets, a striking mixed-use condominium building acts as a gateway into East Nashville from downtown. Many other medium-density redevelopment projects—infill and recycled commercial space—are tucked into the residential neighborhoods. One example is Martin Corner, near Five Points. This area, once known for prostitution and drug deals, is now a healthy pocket of contemporary town homes, a modest mixed-use condo building, and a rehabbed corner with a Vietnamese restaurant and retail.

The R/UDAT empowered the whole community to identify a common direction and form the partnerships—and pools of capital—to make it a reality. “The most significant outcome was the private investment that came after the R/UDAT,” Gee says. “Investors and developers realized East Nashville’s significant potential.”

Another important outcome was the formation of Rediscover East!, a council representing all the neighborhood associations. Its urban design committee is charged with upholding design guidelines and pairing needy residents with volunteers and funding to improve their homes. “Even if people don’t necessarily refer to the R/UDAT plan anymore, it’s the subtext, the floor on which we stand,” says Christine Kreyling, an architecture and urban planning critic who is a resident.

The R/UDAT also was a stepping-off point for a young architect’s career. Gee chaired Rediscover East! for several terms, and two years ago was appointed to Nashville’s planning commission. A year ago, he launched his own firm.

“I don’t think I’d be in the same place now if it weren’t for R/UDAT,” he says. “It’s not just visibility I gained, but it locked in a passion for the difference we can make, not just as designers, but perhaps more important, as leaders.”