Note: I pieced together this narrative based on archived articles from the Tennessean and the Nashville Banner, as well as accounts from friends who lived in Nashville in the 1970’s. All conjecture is based on my own personal experience.
Metrocenter was already a going concern when I moved to Nashville in the mid 1990’s, but I’ve heard a lot of stories about the building boom out there over the years. A quick look at the map makes it obvious the entire area is a floodplain, and yet it’s also the site of a huge office park that includes the Titans practice field, one of Nashville’s four TV networks, a Comcast facility that provides internet for a good portion of middle Tennessee, an art school, and a Metro park and golf course. During its heyday in the mid 1990’s there was even an outdoor mall with a multiplex until it went under and was repurposed as the campus for Watkins Art Institute (Watkins moved from downtown to make room for the main Nashville library building in the late 1990’s). After an acquaintance at Metro Water Services told me the infrastructure and improvements in the area were worth $4 billion I decided to spend an afternoon sifting the library’s newspaper archive just to satisfy my curiosity about how it went from the city dump on a floodplain to the tail that wags the dog in Nashville’s flood mitigation plan.
Historically most of the land contained wetland areas or was used for farming. The earliest reference I found to the area was a story about the girls from St. Cecilia Academy sitting out watching gunboats duke it out on the river during the Civil War. (The school is on West End now, but back then it was on the grounds of the convent on the hill above Metrocenter.) There was a small airfieldon the floodplain in the late 1940’s and early50’s and the Nashville landfill was there for a while back in the days when nobody cared what floated down the river. I’ve also been told that a glass factory was located on the hill and used the floodplain to dispose of a lot of their excess product. Rumor has it if you dig deep enough in the right areas you’ll find glass under some of those parking lots. (An old timer told me Capital Nissan’s new lot is on top of the glass disposal area, but I have no idea if it’s true.)
In the early 1970’s the property owner realized he had a huge swath of unoccupied land within shouting distance of the state capital and downtown Nashville. Add the new Interstate being built next door and it had the potential to be the best real estate in town, if only something could be done about the regular flooding. This all happened before my time so this is a bit of speculation based on some old editorials from the Nashville Banner, but as best I can tell the property owner basically hired some bulldozers to pile up dirt along the river bank, called it a levee, and started subdividing tracts. (I’m sure it was a little more complicated than that, but the details are hazy so I’m going with poetic license.) In the end he had a home-made levee bounded on one end by Clarksville Highway on a high fill as it goes up to the bridge at Bordeaux, and on the other end by what’s now I-65 (called I-265 until TDOT redesignated it in 2000) on top of roughly fifty feet of fill as it goes up to cross the river and merge with I-24.
I don’t have any good idea of how the levee construction was done in this case, but a levee is usually constructed with an impermeable clay core surrounded by well compacted soil and built well above the expected flood elevation. It’s a very expensive undertaking, and from the reports I’ve seen the Metrocenter levee wasn’t constructed to any that exacting standard. It stood for nearly 30 years on it’s own so it obviously worked well enough to keep out the intermittent small floods on the Cumberland, but by the 1990’s the Metrocenter levee was starting to look shaky, and there was a lot of concern about it holding up through a major flood.
The 2000 flood map to the right shows the flood situation in the 1990’s. The flood studies showed the levee would keep out a 100 year flood (darker gray), but anything greater than that would overtop the levee and completely flood the interior (lighter gray is the 500 year floodplain). This analysis also assumed the levee doesn’t fail at some point, which may not have been a valid assumption. (This has been the legal floodmap since 2000. An update is underway to revise it to take into account the Corps recent modernization project.)
By this point the area was covered with office parks, and a breached or overtopped levee would cause major damage ($4 billion per Metro Water Services), so the landowners and tenants called in Metro, and the Corps of Engineers. This resulted in a multi-phase levee modernization project. Phase 1 was completed in the mid-2000’s and consisted of strengthening the levee and raising its top to protect from higher floods. Phase 2 to remove the vegetation on the levee and plug a couple of holes should be finishing up any time now.
And with that, somebody made a ton of money and managed to get Metro to do all the new levee work and assume all the risk of future flood damage. It’s really the only logical policy choice for Metro considering the huge potential damages and the modernization project proved to be timely by keeping Metrocenter mostly dry during the May 2010 flood.
I’ve got several more posts in the works discussing some of the details of the Metrocenter levee including how it held up during the 300 year flood in May of 2010, and how I became involved in the project.