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Why Nashville's Lower Broadway isn't closed to traffic like Beale Street or Bourbon Street
There are no signs that often congested, sometimes chaotic Lower Broadway will close to traffic anytime soon, despite persistent chatter about the prospects of Nashville following the lead of other cities with concentrated entertainment districts.
Honky-tonk owners say closing the street to east-west traffic would hurt business and lead to more crime, though some favor more closures on weekend nights.
While portions of Broadway are closed for major events such as this week's CMA Fest and the city's annual July 4 festivities, city officials say there are no plans in the works to make Lower Broadway pedestrian-only on a regular basis like Beale Street in Memphis or Bourbon Street in New Orleans.
However, Metro Public Works does plan to extend a program to widen the sidewalk and install large removable posts called bollards on Broadway after a successful pilot project on the north side of the street between Third and Fourth avenues.
“What we’re doing instead (of closing the street) is focusing on the safety of conditions as they exist,” said Jeff Hammond, assistant director for Public Works. “We’re making it as safe and comfortable as we can without going through the drastic step of closing it.”
Closing Lower Broadway to east-west traffic would require a city takeover of the street from the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) – a plan that Metro was exploring as recently as nine months ago. TDOT would then have to re-route street signs to create a new state highway route through downtown.
Hammond said Metro was interested in taking over Broadway to make streetscape improvements and close the street for special events without the necessary approval from TDOT.
“It was more a matter of convenience. That discussion has really not gone anywhere,” Hammond said.
Many of Nashville’s honky-tonk owners vehemently oppose the idea of making Lower Broadway pedestrian-only. They fear it could boost crime rates, increase panhandling and lead to a drop in business for the now-prosperous bars.
“We would fight that tooth and nail until the end of time to make sure that does not happen to Lower Broadway. The second that happened you would start seeing the whole street start to diminish. It would be devastating to our tourism and what we’ve built as an iconic environment,” said Brenda Sanderson, owner of several Lower Broadway honky-tonks including Second Fiddle and Nashville Crossroads.
Sanderson said she experienced firsthand how business can take a dive on a pedestrian-only street when she and her husband, Ruble Sanderson, operated a venue on Sixth Street in Austin, which is closed to vehicle traffic on weekend nights.
“It was horrible for the businesses on the street because what happens is you lose control of that safety factor that is so important to all of us,” Sanderson said.
The Sandersons wound up selling their Austin bar.
Barrett Hobbs, owner of three Lower Broadway honky-tonks, said he would close his businesses in protest for three days if the city took a step toward closing Broadway to vehicle traffic.
But not all Lower Broadway honky-tonk owners completely oppose the prospect of making the street pedestrian-only.
Acme Feed & Seed owner Tom Morales thinks the street could be closed to vehicle traffic on high volume weekend nights when pedestrians pack the sidewalks. At the very least, he said food and beverage deliveries should only be allowed during specific times of day to help ease congestion.
“I think after 5 o’clock on Friday afternoon, (no cars) can be downtown on Lower Broadway, and I think all the pedal carts and horse and buggies should be limited to a circle. All deliveries, you go to Chicago, you can’t get food delivery after nine in the morning in certain areas,” Morales said.
Metro Councilman Freddie O’Connell, whose district encompasses Lower Broadway, said he’s not a proponent of closing the street to east-west traffic, but he does think streetscape improvements like widening the sidewalks and adding bollards will help improve the pedestrian experience and safety on the road.
Hammond said Public Works plans to widen the sidewalks and add bollards from 1st Avenue to 5th or 6th avenues to give the entire stretch of Lower Broadway a uniform look. That would be a more permanent solution to the temporary fencing that’s on portions of the street now.
“It started as a pedestrian safety project where we had a lot of people that would just step off the sidewalk,” Hammond said. “Traffic, it gets to the point on Friday and Saturday nights where it’s so slow and people would begin to worm their way through cars sitting on the street wherever they wanted to.”
He said the high-security bollards would also prevent vehicles from hitting pedestrians on the sidewalk.
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