When news broke that Fort Houston's landlord was objecting to their request for a parking variance from the Zoning Appeals board, it looked like it was going to be a showdown. It looked like it was going to be Art vs. The Man in a battle for the city's soul. But then — poof — a little communication, a little story in The Tennessean, and the objection was withdrawn. And in the place of controversy all that remains is a business, a neighborhood and a city primed for growth — all remarkably aligned in their desires to make good things happen. Roger Corman would be disappointed.
Fort Houston, a collaborative workspace and creative think tank, was formed after two of Nashville's most prominent DIY entities, Brick Factory and Zombie Shop, outgrew their previous homes. Settling in the heart of the Wedgewood-Houston neighborhood, the city's de facto arts district (even if the nominal "Avenue of the Arts" lies further north), the group rehabbed their new space — 10,000 square feet behind the Chestnut Square Building, longtime headquarters for the scrappier independent side of Nashville's arts community, which had lain dormant since the May 2010 flood. Both previous entities had been primary forces in the creative community in their prior locations, so Fort Houston's silence in recent months, as they negotiated a way to fit their first-of-its-kind business model into the city's zoning guidelines, was a strange one.
"Whenever we first went to the city, it was one of those things where they were like, 'We've seen far worse cases, way worse scenarios,' " Fort Houston co-founder Ryan Schemmel says. "And I'm sure they have, but there was this giant learning curve because I've never done these sort of things."
Schemmel's experience opening the original Brick Factory had been smooth sailing by comparison. In the basement of Cummins Station, the team basically just had to set up and open the doors; codes and zoning had already been handled by the larger entity. But Brick Factory's needs for "a place we can get dirty" and larger environs — the sustainability of their model directly relates to square footage — sent them looking for new space. When they found it, the questions began to arise. Most pressing: What the hell is Fort Houston, and how do you zone it?
"We know what Fort Houston is; we know what they're doing out there," says Metro Zoning Administrator Bill Herbert, who began working for the city last year after two decades as a land-use attorney. "But if you were to look at the zoning code and say, 'OK, I need to pigeon-hole this particular use to one classification,' it is very difficult to do. We don't have anything, per se, under the zoning code that fits what Fort Houston is."
But Herbert and his office are as fired up about finding creative solutions as the folks at Fort Houston, and a classification for the member-based, for-(not much)-profit outfit was eventually decided on: Fort Houston is a "vocational school" in the eyes of the city. And it works. Fort Houston is as much an educational endeavor as it is a functional one.
Vocational schools need parking, though, and the property just wasn't built with enough for Fort Houston's purposes — which is how that parking variance came into play. (Fort Houston goes before the Zoning Appeals board at 6 p.m. Thursday, June 6.)
"We've really been working with Ryan and Fort Houston to guide them through this process as expeditiously as possible," Herbert says, "and now that they've got the agreement of the owner, they are back on track."
As the city grows, and works to encourage its creative class, there will be more of these irregular land uses popping up. And Wedgewood-Houston is primed to be on the cutting edge of that. The neighborhood — bookended by the fairgrounds to the south and Greer Stadium to the north — is unique in that it has both industrial and residential spaces, historical character and urban grit. It's a working-class neighborhood in the heart of the city, looking to develop but not ready to abandon its identity to become the next 12South.
"I think just really [the future is] having the neighborhood develop as a neighborhood for working artists," says developer Scott Chambers, a pioneer of Germantown's revitalization and the owner of the building where Zeitgeist Gallery has opened its gorgeous new space. "That would include studio space, gallery space and social places for people to gather with the idea that conversations be more towards the art world."
For all its amenities — interesting architecture, uncommon accessibility by public transportation, beautiful old trees on most every block — Wedgewood-Houston is still a place where people work and live, but rarely hang out. There's only one place to get food — Gabby's Burgers and Fries, manned by some fine artists in their own right — and no place to congregate when the brushes are put away and power tools turned off. As more people discover the neighborhood, and as it evolves from hidden gem to new hip spot, those spaces are bound to appear.
"It's exciting that Planning and Zoning are behind the kinds of changes that might happen or be needed, because they can take a long time if there isn't support," Chambers says.
In a part of the city where so much of the conversation is about having good neighbors and being good neighbors (it's a mutual admiration society, frankly), there is an air of endless possibility tempered with reasonable caution about how things can and have spun out of control in other developing neighborhoods. The powers-that-be in city government have embraced its evolution, and are making moves to facilitate rather than orchestrate — allowing things to unfold naturally, creatively, intuitively. Just like the folks who live and work there.
"At the end of the day, like we've now seen, [the city is] on our side, and they do know the direction Nashville is heading," says Schemmel. "You can't fabricate culture — but you can foster it."
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