In Search of a Home 

The Watkins College of Art and Design finds itself in an ironic situation. The neighborhood where the college wants to relocate views the institution as a problematic tenant, while other Nashville neighborhoods salivate at the very thought of Watkins’ presence.

Art school officials are exploring a relocation to Free Will Baptist Bible College in the Richland-West End area, but the neighborhood association there, known for its civic activism, is protesting such a move. Meanwhile, as word of Watkins’ cool reception in the Richland area has become public, alternative site suggestions—the Gulch, Fountain Square, Germantown, and East Nashville—have flooded the local real estate grapevine.

Already, Watkins has signed a letter of intent with Free Will to explore the financial and spatial feasibility of a new home there, although either party could withdraw from the negotiation before a set Sept. 1 deadline. Watkins president James Brooks says his institution couldn’t ignore the Free Will site when it hit the market. “We need at least 100,000 square feet of space, and the Free Will campus has 170,000 square feet as well as good access from the interstate,” he says.

If Watkins consummates the deal with Free Will, the art school has to raise the money to buy and renovate the buildings before taking over the campus in July 2003. While Watkins officials won’t comment on the price of acquisition, sources say it would probably be at least a couple of million dollars less than Free Will’s asking price of $14 million.

Meanwhile, the Richland-West End Neighborhood Association has filed a lawsuit to determine if the current zoning of the Free Will campus is transferable to a new owner. “For the last 40 or so years, Free Will has enjoyed a zoning status as a legal-but-nonconforming use,” says association president Tom Truitt. In other words, Free Will is legal in its institutional use of its property, but the use doesn’t conform to the residential character of the area.

“When Free Will began buying up property here in the late ’50s, they could buy houses for $10,000 to $15,000,” says Ben Page, a longtime neighborhood resident. “The non-residential intrusion was allowed because the neighborhood was at its absolute nadir. Now property values, and traffic on West End, are out of control. We think a better alternative for the site would be to attract a top-end developer to do some quality residential.”

Nashville attorney Tom White, who represents Free Will and has developed a reputation as a land-use legal eagle, says he thinks the potential property transfer to Watkins would allow the art school the same institutional freedom Free Will enjoys. “The law is pretty clear that the conditional use permit, if the use remains the same, runs with the property, not the owner,” he says. “My understanding is that the neighborhood association is asking the court if the conditional use defines or limits the number of students.”

The body count is the rub. Truitt says that “the Watkins mission of arts instruction is compatible with the values of the neighborhood, most notably our interest in historic preservation, but unfortunately, Watkins’ stated growth objectives aren’t compatible.” The neighborhood is concerned that an expanding Watkins could bring more traffic to their streets, more surface parking, and even an unsightly garage.

Watkins currently has 367 students. “If we go to the Free Will firm, we’d limit our growth to 536 students—322 full-time and 214 part-time,” Brooks says. “That’s what we think the property would accommodate.” Free Will now has approximately 400 students.

Watkins has hired a local engineering and architectural firm, Gresham Smith and Partners, to outline the most effective ways to park cars and manage traffic. “Our goal is to have an adequate number of spaces on campus,” Brooks says. The school also has commissioned a study of the current conditions of the buildings and the cost to renovate them for the school’s film, interior design, graphic arts, photography, and fine arts programs. “Both studies are overall positive,” Brooks says, “but they do raise significant issues, particularly the economics of adapting the space to our curriculum.”

As for alternative sites for the art school’s new home, the Neuhoff Building north of Jefferson Street on the Cumberland River is one favorite; the historic Werthan complex in Germantown is another. Charles Jones, the owner of the Werthan buildings, says he contacted Watkins officials to let them know that he is “interested in selling or leasing all or part of my two buildings—whatever would make a deal work.” Advocates say that Werthan lies in a Metro Development and Housing Agency (MDHA) redevelopment district, and thus might be eligible for financial incentives.

Brooks says that he’s also “heard from some in East Nashville about properties for sale there and that neighborhood is looking better by the day.” East Nashvillians suggest the Woodland Sound Studio in Five Points and other vacant or underutilized properties on Main and Woodland streets, noting that much of that property also falls within MDHA redevelopment districts.

Jeff Ockerman, a former Metro Council member who heads the urban design committee of the ReDiscover East neighborhood organization, suggests that Watkins officials should think more broadly about what they could accomplish with their presence. “Watkins has a great opportunity to fulfill its own educational mission, and at the same time contribute to the economic revitalization of a mixed-use area such as East Nashville.”

One Germantown developer who supports Watkins relocating to the Werthan site says “the Free Will campus is a silly place for Watkins to be, particularly with the neighborhood resistance. If I were a student coming to Nashville to go to an arts school, I wouldn’t want to be in a totally residential neighborhood, where off-campus housing is very expensive, there are no cafés or restaurants or art supply stores within walking distance, and where I’d get dirty looks. I’d want a more urban environment.”

“For now, Watkins isn’t actively looking at property other than Free Will, but if that doesn’t work out, we will,” Brooks says.

If he does, he’ll find a horde of property owners and neighborhood advocates waiting with open arms.

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