Back to the Future of Murfreesboro

By Lee Rennick

For a moment let’s step into Doc Brown’s souped-up DeLorean time machine and cruise into a possible future downtown Murfreesboro.

In this future, Todd stands outside his art gallery located on Lytle Street, across from the justice center, to enjoy the jasmine-scented breezes of another perfect May Friday evening.

The young family who rents the apartment above his shop greets him as they head out, picnic basket in tow, telling him that they are going to have dinner on the lawn and listen to the free concert in the amphitheater over in the Historic Bottoms sponsored by the Murfreesboro Parks and Recreation Department. It is an easy and safe walk over the pedestrian bridge near City Hall.

When his relief staff arrives, an MTSU art student who bikes from campus on one of the bike lanes running down Lytle, Todd will walk home to the shady brownstone he and his wife own near Central Magnet School where his son is a senior. They planned to have dinner with friends at one of the restaurants on the square, and then see the new play at the Center for the Arts.

Sears finished up the last of his design work and closed up his office overlooking Town Creek. His wife and kids would soon be arriving by bus and meet him at the Rover Transport Station just down the block from his office. The kids were going to walk the greenway over to the Discovery Center to hang at the Geek Out Space, and he would meet his friend Todd and his wife at the station before they all went to dinner.

Taking in the changes that he had watched take place in the downtown area over the last 18 years, Sears marveled at how much things had changed, and yet remained the same. He felt the history of the city center where his friends lived and he worked. He thought back to when downtown had been just a few blocks near the square.

Now it was a thriving center of business, government, entertainment, and the arts stretching from Middle Tennessee State University to the edges of the Historic Bottoms. Downtown was once again the heart of the city, as it had been many years before.

What Murfreesboro will look like in the near future is deeply entrenched in the past. Two recent land use studies of the downtown area, one pertaining to the North Highland area, and the other pertaining to the Historic Bottoms, will help determine how downtown Murfreesboro will be developed and expanded.

The depiction above is but one translation of the four key elements that emerged out of both studies — connecting the Historic Bottoms to the rest of downtown and making it a safer destination for arts and entertainment; creating mixed use and higher density development with parking, living, shopping, offices, activities, and multiple transportation modes; increasing the physical connection to the MTSU campus; and maintaining the sense of history and culture currently present in the area.

“Historically downtown Murfreesboro was the center of activity for the city,” said Jennifer Moody, Assistant City Manager, “as we started working on the 2035 plan three years ago to deal with the growth we have been experiencing, we saw a need to increase the investment we were already seeing downtown. One of the items we were made aware of while working on the 2035 plan was that our downtown is much smaller than those of similar sized cities.”

Murfreesboro government hired Ragan Smith Associates to do the land use study for the North Highland and Historic Bottoms areas due to possible opportunities created by the moving of the medical corridor to Medical Center Parkway, and the increase in movement by businesses out of the former industrial area behind Cannonsburg Village.

One of the keys to the study was involving the public through forums, focus groups, and even a caulk board placed downtown asking for community input. From all of this information, Ragan Smith compiled two comprehensive documents to be presented to the Planning Commission and then to the City Council. Both parties recently adopted these documents.

“…[T]he public was a lot more engaged [here] than on past proposals that we have worked on [for other cities],” said Randy Caldwell, Executive Vice President Private Sector for Regan Smith. “They engaged through the entire process and did their part. We captured a lot of the public input into the final product.”

The final product suggests items like day lighting Town Creek that runs into Lytle Creek at Cannonsburgh and incorporating it into a greenway that runs from Discovery Center to the current greenway entrance at Cannonsburgh; insuring that no development in the area covered by the Highland study goes over two and a half stories; landscaping medians (especially on Broad Street) to slow traffic; creating a pedestrian walk over Broad Street; supporting working artists in an arts area much like Paducah, Kentucky located from the Center for the Arts through the current downtown and into the Historic Bottoms; preserving current green space while working to increase what currently exists; preserve historic elements that give Murfreesboro its character; and building more sidewalks and bike paths.

“We want to preserve the square as the heart of downtown,” said Moody, “and reinforce it as such while expanding downtown with more arts and more entertainment, while providing opportunities for economic growth.”

“The main feedback from the Historic Bottoms study,” said Donald Anthony, Principal Planner for Murfreesboro, “was the need for more things to do. That was what everyone was telling us. More museums, galleries, and other kinds of entertainment.”

The plans are already being acted upon, and when done, the face of downtown will be changed and at the same time the history and culture will be enhanced.

“Plans created now will help us handle the massive growth we are experiencing by allowing us to insure we have enough housing, jobs, parks, schools, transportation, and entertainment in the future to keep moving us forward,” said Moody.