Mayor Phil Bredesen wants to save Jack too. In his first public comments about the proposed demolition of the historic Jacksonian Apartments on West End Avenue, Bredesen said Tuesday he opposes the plan to raze the building and replace it with a Walgreen drugstore. He’s also investigating what steps he can take, as mayor, to short-circuit the plan.
“I would be extremely disappointed as a citizen if [the Jacksonian] were torn down,” Bredesen told the Scene. “At a time when we’re all trying to strike this balancing act between growing this city and preserving it, that seems to be exactly the kind of thing we fear with growth.”
Bredesen’s comments are the first major show of support for the drive to keep the aging apartment building standing.
Bredesen said he became concerned about the building’s fate on Monday when he ran into members of the Metro Historical Commission, who encouraged him to leap into the fray. After the happenstance encounter outside the commission’s offices, the mayor returned to his office and asked his legal staff to brief him on the particulars of the Jacksonian controversy“exactly what the situation is, what kind of variance is needed, and what issues are at stake.” At that meeting, Bredesen said, he gathered “some ideas” for a strategy, which he plans to discuss in coming days.
The mayor said that, on occasion, he has “contacted members of the Board of Zoning Appeals about things” and that such action “certainly would be an option” for him in this case. “I certainly think [the board members] should be aware of what’s going on,” Bredesen said.
Bredesen’s pronouncement is, in part, bad news for the site’s developers, Eakin & Smith, who want to raze the 1917-vintage structure to make way for a Walgreen with a drive-through window. The developers are to appear before the zoning appeals board on Thursday to request an exemption to current zoning laws so that they can proceed with their project.
The opinion of a city’s chief executive can exert considerable pressure in situations such as the Jacksonian decision. After all, every current member of the zoning appeals board is a Bredesen appointee, and the mayor’s public statement might influence the board to vote no.
On the other hand, the mayor may ultimately find that he has very little actual power to save the building. No legal restrictions prevent the Jacksonian’s current owners, the family of the late John Cobb, and the developers, who want to purchase it, from tearing the building down. What’s more, the Jacksonian property is already zoned commercial. Even if the zoning appeals board does not grant the variances requested by Eakin & Smith, the building could still be torn down and replaced by a commercial venture.
Nevertheless, a “no” vote from the zoning board might send the developers back to square one, forcing them to find another use for the property. A “no” vote would also demonstrate that, for once, Nashville’s preservationists had actually spoken loudly enough to get something accomplished.
The set-back setback
The Board of Zoning Appeals is scheduled to make its decision at a 2 p.m. meeting this Thursday at the Howard School auditorium on Second Avenue S. At that time, the board will rule on the developers’ request for a reduced “set-back” from West End Avenue. That means the argument comes down to a matter of inches and feet.
Eakin & Smith’s attorney is Tom White, who has a track record of successful challenges to zoning laws. One month ago, White was scheduled to appear before the zoning board, requesting three variances to existing zoning laws.
In order to make room for the Walgreen, the developers were asking permission to reduce the required number of parking spaces, the required landscape buffer, and the required set-back from the street, all of which are spelled out in the zoning law. Moments before White was to present his case to the zoning board, he asked that the issue be deferred.
This week, the zoning board is again scheduled to take up White’s request. But instead of asking for three variances to the zoning laws, White is asking only for one.
Walgreen had originally planned to build a14,000-square-foot drugstore on the Jacksonian site. Now, White said, the company hopes to build a drugstore that is almost nearly one-third smaller, leaving plenty of room for the required parking and for the landscape buffer as well.
But when it comes to the set-back from West End Avenue, the developer still needs an exemption from the zoning board. Metro’s zoning laws, which went into effect Jan. 1, require that the front of the drugstore be 69 feet from the center line of West End. But White is asking the board, in this case, to reduce the set-back to 52 feet.
“Seventeen feet more is what we’re asking for,” White said. “Most of the buildings up and down West End are not in compliance with the set-back. Our building would still be farther back from the street than Houston’s.” Houston’s Restaurant and The Jacksonian are next-door neighbors on West End.
At first glance, the developers’ decision to ask for one variance, rather than three, would seem to give them a leg up with the zoning board. White and his clients certainly appear to be demonstrating a willingness to compromise.
However, zoning board may well be disinclined to grant variances just now. The board is now using a revamped zoning code that was developed after years of hard work and that nobody wants to water down. White is requesting an extra 17 feeta considerable stretch of land in urban terms. Board members may be wary of weakening laws that are not yet six months old.
Most urban planners today advocate dense, pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use development with a heavy dose of residential property along major transit lines. Otherwise, they warn, we’re in for more traffic and air pollution problems in the future.
The Hines Corporation’s plans to build an office/hotel/retail complex on Vanderbilt University property at the corner of West End and Natchez Trace underscores the increasingly dense, pedestrian-positive direction in which West End is headed.
The Jacksonian, a four-story, multi-tenant structure on a major public route, is within walking distance of a variety of retail establishments. Replacing the apartment building with a one-story strip shop surrounded by surface parking is precisely the sort of land-use urban planners fear.
According to White, the Cobb family has spent a considerable amount of time investigating how the Jacksonian might remain a residential property. But residential use, he said, is out of the question. “You have 28 units there, and a maximum of 15 parking spaces. You’re never going to have any more than that,” White said. That lack of parking, he said, makes it virtually impossible to think of transforming the Jacksonian into a high-rent residence.
White also said his clients have conducted studies which indicate that, if the Jacksonian were to be upgraded into luxury apartments or condominiums, it would cost $1.5 million simply to bring the building into compliance with Metro codes. “There’s no sprinkler system. Plumbing and electrical is in bad shape,” White said. “It would be impossible to spend $1.5 million and then tell an owner or tenant we don‘t have any parking. It’s not going to work. It’s inescapable that the building is going to come down.”
White said, “The owners wish to preserve the building.” But he added, “It’s just not practical.”
Nashville has long allowed developers to determine how its cityscape will look. Local planners, preservationists, historians, and other activists have simply sat on the sidelines, watching in utter amazement as “progress” consumed countless examples of wonderful architecture.
This is the city that tore down its old governor’s mansion on West End in order to make room for Popeye’s chicken franchise, only to tear down the chicken joint when it went out of business five years later. Today, nothing stands in its place. Oddly, in a city filled to the brim with history buffs, old families, and a citizenry that supposedly reveres the past, buildings like the Jacksonian are allowed to fall to the ground with nary a word of complaint.
This time, however, things may be different. Thus far, Tom White seems to be the only person in Nashville who likes the idea of building a Walgreen at the corner of West End and 31st Avenue. And Tom White bills by the hour.
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