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When a Developer Comes for Your Little Neighborhood Park

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This is a tale of two parklets, 1,000 miles apart. Combined, they cover less than an acre. They harbor no endangered species and embody no distinguished landscape design. They date only to the 1990s. But both belong to the public, and in each case, elected officials plan to turn them over to developers to build desperately needed housing. As open-space causes go, neither Church Street Park in downtown Nashville nor Elizabeth Street Garden in Little Italy attains the grandeur of, say, protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or the urgency of the Everglades. But in dense cities, every little wafer of unbuilt land acquires outsized significance. Even a miniature wedge of parkland is more than just an empty lot; it is a microcosm of urban life.

The first is a forlorn square in the heart of Nashville’s downtown, where strips of historic fabric hold together a patchwork of glam skyscrapers, parking garages, hotels, and concrete fortresses. The Metro Development and Housing Authority carved out Church Street Park in the mid-1990s, tearing down a pair of small buildings and hiring a local design firm to give downtown a nugget of civic grace. It became an ideal habitat for starlings and rats, and a pretty good encampment for the homeless, but everyone else avoided it. “Church Street Park failed because it was designed to,” wrote the Nashville Scene’s Christine Kreyling. “Not deliberately, of course. But the structure discouraged civic behavior … It was all circulation and offered very little space—or reason—to pause there.” A decade........

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