The well-heeled are facing off against the well-housed. On one side there is Montgomery Bell Academy, the khaki-clad collection of future doctors, lawyers, and invitees to all manner of black-tie events.
On the other side is the surrounding neighborhood known as Woodlawn West, a quiet enclave of shade trees, Tudor bungalows, and robust property values.
The spat is ostensibly over what MBA claims are two things every growing boy needs: surface parking and tennis courts. The school has plans to add both on neighboring property.
But at a basic level, the squabble is a classic expansion versus preservation spat, with the added twist that this one often pits alum against school.
The neighbors, fearful that a loss of residential fabric will erode the quality of their enclave, want “conservation zoning,” otherwise known as a “conservation overlay,” placed over their neighborhood. The zoning designation gives the Metro Historic Zoning Commission approval power over demolitions, additions, and other new construction in a designated historic district. It is a favorite tool for preserving architectural character. The demolition controls give MBA growing pains.
The boundaries of the proposed overlay are the main source of dispute. The Woodlawn West folks want the district to run from the Brighton Avenue edge of MBA’s campus to Woodlawn Avenue, and from Wilson Boulevard to slightly beyond Ensworth Avenue. But MBA already owns seven parcels on Brighton, and plans to demolish the houses on them, as well as the eight remaining houses in the blockif and when the school can buy themfor tennis and cars, while closing Brighton to through traffic. MBA, therefore, wants all the properties on Brighton facing the campus excluded from the conservation overlay. The school also owns a house on Ensworth which is currently occupied by headmaster Brad Gioia and has long range plans for playing fields on that street.
On March 17, the Historic Zoning Commission voted to recommend to the Planning Commission a conservation overlay with the boundaries preferred by the neighborhood association. The next day the Planning Commission voted to defer its public hearing on the plan for one month. Ultimately, the Metro Council will decide if Woodlawn West gets the zoning change and what boundaries the district will have.
The Planning Commission staff recommends against the overlay boundaries approved by MHZC, suggesting instead boundaries that are remarkably similar to those favored by MBA. Planning Commission director Jeff Browning is concerned that MHZC’s action “politicizes the concept of conservation zoning” and makes the integrity of such districts “difficult to maintain.” Browning notes by example that existing historic zoning in Woodland-in-Waverly is under siege by Councilman Mansfield Douglas. Ann Reynolds, director of the Historical Commission, responds that “the MHZC was asked by the neighborhood to survey what qualifies for conservation zoning. And the houses on Brighton and Ensworth do qualify.”
Allen DeCuyper, a member of the MHZC, says of his pro-neighborhood vote, “Tearing down 15 homes and closing a public street is not necessary for MBA to survive and fulfill its core educational mission. And it’s not the highest and best land use. Brighton Avenue is almost 25 percent of the residential fabric of the neighborhood, so losing it would have a big impact.”
The MBA/Woodlawn West struggle pits golfing partners, bridge foursomes, and country club members against one another in the manner of a Civil War reenactment. “I went to MBA,” says one Woodlawn West resident, “but I’m in favor of conservation zoning. Now I’m viewed by many of my former classmates as a traitor.”
Feelings run high because each side is fighting to preserve what it perceives as necessary to its ambiance. MBA was founded in 1867 and moved to its present site in 1915. The neighborhood grew up around the school in the 1920s and ’30s. Several of the residents at the meeting testified that they had lived in Woodlawn West for 30 years, some in houses built by their parents. Ruth Dale Brown said her family owns three houses in the neighborhood, and that they located there because “we wanted to be close to MBA. My five sons all went there. I’m in favor [of conservation zoning] because I think new families should have the same benefits we had.”
MBA administrators and alumni want to ensure that current students, who pay an annual tuition of $9,500, have certain benefits as well, including driving to school and playing sports without excessive traveling off campus.
The list of alums reads like a Who’s Who of male Nashville. Buildings on the campus bear the names of civic pillars like Jack Massey and Brownlee Currey. Members of this exclusive men’s club are used to having things their way and are lobbying hard, particularly among at-large Council members, for their expansion plan.
The feud is not unique. In more and more of Nashville’s established neighborhoods, churches and schools are claiming that they need more space, and resentful residents are glaring.
In 1991, Father Ryan High School moved to Oak Hill from Elliston Place because “we needed more space for parking and for playing fields,” says principal Eddie Krenson. Fueling the growth is an explosion among independent schools in clubs and sports teams, he says. “This year we got a request to form a girls’ lacrosse team. And mark my words, with the Predators here, pretty soon we’re going to be hearing about ice hockey,” Krenson says.
Taking a page from the Father Ryan playbook, institutions such as the Westminster School are looking at new campuses in the far-flung suburbs where they can grow in peace, at least for a while.
Other schools are choosing to split academics and recreation. The University School has purchased 80 acres off Briley Parkway near the old Tennessee State prison for its playing fields. “Our participation rate for sports is way up, to 75 percent of our high school students,” explains University School director Ed Costello. “We decided not to move the whole school because our site on the academic corridor is tied into our mission. One of the reasons the new site was attractive is we knew we wouldn’t have any fights with neighbors.”
Other institutions are modifying their plans to make their neighbors, if not happy, at least not outraged. The Temple and St. George’s Episcopal Church agreed to a compromise over parking and building expansions in the face of neighborly opposition. “I don’t know if these churches compromised because they realized that the Belle Meade Board of Zoning Appeals wasn’t very lobbyable, or because their neighbors include some pretty powerful people, so there was a sort of political parity,” says board member Martin Roberts. “For whatever reason, the churches were made to understand that they had to engage and satisfy their neighbors before they came to us. The Temple and St. George’s did that and still met their core needs.”
MBA supporters claim the school has already compromised by maximizing use of its existing campus rather than sprawling to Woodlawn. They say that conservation zoning is being used by the Woodlawn Westers for the wrong reasonto stop MBArather than because of preservationist motives. They say that the neighborhood is not really historic, just kind of old.
The definition of what architecture is historic has been advancing. Today Tudor and craftsman bungalows, such as those in Woodlawn West, are qualifying for preservation, in part because they lie in the traditional, tree-shaded neighborhoods that are becoming increasingly prized because they are rare. And residents in these neighborhoods are using any tool they can find to preserve them from commercial and institutional encroachments.
Political realists say that getting 27 votes in the Metro Council for an overlay that includes Brighton is next to impossible. Councilman David Kleinfelter suggests that the neighborhood association consider a compromise: excluding Brighton in exchange for including the Ensworth parcels in the overlay. He also suggests that MBA explore carpooling, deck parking, and borrowing space from the Dominican campus across Harding Road to alleviate the crunch.
Woodlawn West may not get the overlay boundaries it wants, but the homeowners on Brighton hold the trump cardthey can refuse to sell. On the other hand, MBA isn’t going anywhere, and the school and its neighbors must lay plans to live together as they always have. “Big institutions, living next to small people, have the obligation to look at both sides, even if one of those sides is against their vested interests,” says Roberts. It’s time both sides got on the same playing field, but the ball is in MBA’s court.
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