After hearing an earful from Nashvillians, the Metro Planning Commission voted Wednesday to recommend rezoning 10 acres of the city’s fairgrounds for a new mixed-use development as part of the city’s Major League Soccer stadium project.

A pair of unanimous 6-0 votes on two land-use changes came after a passionate public hearing where scores of soccer fans and fairgrounds advocates debated the future of the site.

It was a split crowd, one divided between a younger group of Nashvillians backing the project — some newer residents of the city — and an older generation with long ties to the fairgrounds.

After three hours of combined public hearing and debate, planning commissioners ultimately sided with a plan pushed by Mayor David Briley and supported by the planning department’s staff and the area’s Councilman Colby Sledge. Their endorsement now goes to the Metro Council.

Commissioners said the ancillary mixed-use project around the stadium, which would be developed by MarketStreet Enterprises, would further activate what’s already at the fairgrounds and complement the Wedgewood-Houston community.

“We’ve heard loud and clear that racing, fairgrounds and flea markets are important to our city,” planning commissioner Jeff Haynes said. “I think for that to continue, mixed-use enhances the viability of those uses.

“This is the right project at the right time,” he said.

Two changes backed by commission

The vote clears the proposal for the council, which will take up the rezoning and three other pieces of legislation related to the stadium this month, setting up a possible final vote Sept. 4.

The planning commission endorsed two actions, both of which relate to only the private development component of the project, not the stadium itself, which zoning already permits.

One of them is a new Specific Plan, a type of zoning district, for a portion of the fairgrounds that would allow mixed-use development, enabling Nashville’s MLS ownership group led by billionaire businessman John Ingram to build a private development with housing, retail, office and a hotel on 10 acres next to the stadium.

The land is currently zoned for warehousing, wholesaling and bulk distribution.

The new Specific Plan would allow up to 900 units of housing, buildings that are five stories tall and 350,000 square feet of retail, office and other non-residential uses. The 30,500-seat stadium would be built on the highest elevation of the fairgrounds, the west side of the property.

In addition, the plan calls for a reworked road network in and around the 117-acre fairgrounds property, including a Wedgewood Avenue extension from Rains Avenue to intersect with Craighead Street. Benton and Rains avenues would also be extended the site of the future private development.

Separately, the commission voted to recommend that the council amend the South Nashville Community Plan from an open space category to a community center category.

Although neither vote is binding, the project cleared a key hurdle because it allows the rezoning ordinance to pass with a simple majority when it goes to the council. Had the commission voted against the rezoning, it would have needed 27 votes.

Project would turn ‘pass-through’ to a destination, backers say

During the public hearing, proponents touted the opportunity to activate the fairgrounds site, which is often empty when flea markets or auto racing events aren’t taking place. They included soccer enthusiasts, immigrant advocates, business owners and neighbors.

Jason Howes, a fairgrounds neighbor who supports the stadium project, said he’s excited to be able to walk his child to a revamped fairgrounds.

“Right now, there’s a fence that surrounds it,” he said. “It’s great at keeping people out. It’s not good for letting people in.”

Kyle Mountsier, a soccer fan from Madison, said, “For most people every day, the fairgrounds is a pass-through or pass-around.”

“What I see in this plan is a place where instead of driving through, I get to stop and I get to be a part of the community of Wedgewood-Houston,” he said.

Opponents slam ‘land grab’

But opponents of the project said the stadium and mixed-use development would violate the spirt of a 2011 Metro charter amendment approved by voters to preserve the status quo at the fairgrounds. Metro Department of Law Director Jon Cooper countered that its passage did not prohibit new additions to the fairgrounds.

Shane Smiley, head of the Nashville Flea Market Vendors Association, said he and others have collected more than 3,000 signatures in opposition to the stadium plan at the fairgrounds.

“This proposal that’s before you acts in absolute opposite of what the voters said they wanted done for this property,” he said, also questioning the mixed-use project’s plan for parking.

George Gruhn, a longtime fairgrounds supporter and owner of Gruhn Guitars, disputed the suggestion that the fairgrounds is underutilized in its current form.

“The fairgrounds has managed despite virtual total lack of support from Metro,” he said. “This is a land grab and it is opposed to the referendum of 2011.”

Nashville was awarded a MLS team in 2017 and now the city is pushing to build a stadium for the team to play in Michael Schwab/USA TODAY NEWTWORK – TENNESSEE

Gicolay Lane, another opponent, said the neighborhood has suffered enough from gentrification, and this plan would exacerbate it further.

“I’m opposed to this plan because it reeks of privilege,” Lane said.

Community benefit agreement key for many

Even some who lined up to speak in favor of the project warned that they will only support it if the team’s ownership signs on to a community benefits agreement to ensure certain wages for stadium workers and affordable housing.

“We have to think about the people who are going to be working in this stadium and the ones who are going to help construct the stadium,” said Odessa Kelly of Stand Up Nashville, a union-aligned group negotiating the community benefits agreement with the team. “They can’t afford to live in Wedgewood-Houston.”

“Is it so wrong for us to have standards for those people who are the working class of this city?” she said. “Yes, we want soccer, but at what cost?”

Votes ahead for Metro Council

As part of the stadium plan, the existing expo center buildings where flea markets and other events are held would be torn down and rebuilt near Walsh Road and Craighead Street, on the property’s lowest elevation.

Last month, the Metro Board of Fair Commissioners and Nashville Sports Authority voted to enter into a ground lease for the stadium to be built on the site.

The council last November voted 31-6 to approve a preliminary plan to authorize $225 million in bonds for the stadium project. It was a key step before MLS weeks later awarded Nashville an expansion franchise.

But the bonds are contingent on the council clearing several proposals in the coming weeks: the rezoning, an additional $50 million in general obligation bonds, a ground lease between the city and ownership for the private development, the demolition of existing fairgrounds buildings and the adoption of a ticket tax for the stadium.

Reach Joey Garrison at 615-259-8236, and on Twitter @joeygarrison.

Originally posted by: The Tennessean