The Belle Meade Links neighborhood is suburbia as it was meant to be. Situated next to the Belle Meade Country Club golf course on the eastern side of Harding Place, it is where kids seem to grow as naturally as grass, and dogs doze behind picket fences.
The streets of the Links are narrow, curving lanesno urban right anglesthe shady lots small for this part of town. In a pocket park at the center, a gazebo waits for Fourth of July bunting. The houses are mostly brick, bungalows and Tudor cottages of Anglo-village styling. The street names are also AnglophilicWindsor, Pembroke and Westover. And they tend to reflect the area’s historic roots in Belle Meade Plantation. (Blackburn Avenue, for example, memorializes a race horse.) Everything about the Links communicates the message designed into it in 1915: This is the not-city.
But civic strife has reared its ugly head in the Links. Lawns have sprouted dueling signs: “Save the Links” vs. “Enhance the LinksBuild a Park.” This enclave of robust property values has become a battleground that pits neighbor against neighbor, and parents against parents, over the growth plans of Harding Academythe boy next door.
Harding Academy stands just across Windsor Drive from the Links. The K-8 school was founded in 1971the year busing came to Metro’s public schools and private academies blossomed. The campus once included space for students to practice and play sports, but that space is now occupied by buildings, parking and a travel lane paved to minimize traffic through the neighborhood.
For some time now, the academy has needed land for playing fields, and it looked to the Links to find it. In 1991, the school began acquiring properties and, by January 2003, had spent $3.5 million for eight houses on 3.2 acres between Blackburn Avenue and Harding Place. Now the institution wants to bulldoze the buildings to play ball.
The Friends of Belle Meade Links, fearing both the traffic they think athletic contests will bring and erosion of the neighborhood’s architectural fabric, want a “conservation overlay” for their neighborhood. This zoning designation gives the Metro Historic Zoning Commission (MHZC) approval power over demolitions and new construction in a designated historic district. The overlay would give Harding Academy growing pains.
The group formally applied for the overlay in March, and the commission approved it in mid May. Area Metro Council member Lynn Williams filed the overlay with the Metro Planning Commission in April, and it signed off on it May 22. To become law, all that’s left is Metro Council approval. (A public hearing on the issue is scheduled for July 1.)
The neighbors beat Harding to the punch. It wasn’t until May 1 that Harding Academy applied to the Metro Codes Administration for permits to demolish the houses and replace them with “a park for the physical education of the children at the school.” Codes granted the demolition permits, but revoked them two days later at the advice of Metro’s legal department. The rationale for revoking falls under the legal doctrine called “pending legislation.” This doctrine holds that “a permit applicant doesn’t have the right to circumvent the legislative process by getting a permit that runs counter to the legislation that’s pending,” according to Metro law director Karl Dean. Translation: Metro asserts its right to wait and see if the conservation overlay becomes law to avoid granting permits that would undermine the goal of the overlay to preserve the neighborhood.
Faced with the case of the vanishing permits, Harding Academy sued Metro in chancery court. On May 28, the school argued before Chancellor Carol McCoy that the pending legislation doctrine didn’t apply to this case.
Harding board chairman Bill DeLoache decries the “extra-legal method by which the demolition permits were revoked.” DeLoache claims the pending legislation doctrine isn’t recognized in Tennessee. “And even if it was, the trigger of a public hearing to make the legislation pending hasn’t happened yet. It’s like a 16-year-old who’s granted a driver’s license, then is told to surrender the license because the state is considering raising the driving age to 17.”
After hearing both sides, McCoy told Metro to give the academy the permit for a park within the next month. But the judge refused to decide the demolition aspect of the suit, telling Harding administrators they must observe Metro process and first seek a reinstatement of the demolition permits from the Board of Fire and Building Code Appeals. If this board refuses, the demolition issue could resurface in chancery court.
Another gnarly legal question is whether Metro’s zoning ordinance would allow playing fields on the lotseven if Harding Academy secures permits to raze the houses. “Harding wants to use the land for its students’ recreation,” explains attorney Leslie Shechter, who represents the Friends of Belle Meade Links. “That’s an accessory use to the educational use of its property, and doesn’t meet the definition of 'park’ in the Metro code. And the code says an accessory land use has to be on the same parcel as the primary facility, in this case the school. But the property the academy wants to use for recreation is across a public right-of-wayWindsor Driveso it’s not the same parcel at all.” Shechter has requested a ruling from the Board of Zoning Appeals on whether Harding can use its land for playing fields. That board is scheduled to hear the issue on June 19.
Swirling around all these mind-numbing technicalities are intense emotions, because each side is fighting to preserve something it perceives as necessary for its existence. “It’s really a case of conflicting goods,” says Metro Historical Commission director Ann Roberts.
Underlying the question of which good is “gooder,” however, is whether Belle Meade Links has historic significance. “The houses [in the Links] aren’t really historic,” says one member of the Harding Academy board. “They’re just old.” Harding’s attorney, George Dean, echoed these sentiments in court. The Links, he said, is “not The Hermitage or the Ryman Auditorium.”
Of course, in the 1970s, the owners of the Ryman didn’t think the auditorium was worth preserving either. Opryland officials wanted to tear the place down, and it took a bitter fight by a small cadre of preservationists to save it. Nashville lost a lot of Victorian architecture when common wisdom held that “historic” stopped with classical columns and the Civil War. “Preservation is an evolving field,” Roberts says. “And it’s hard for people to realize that something built in the 20th centurymaybe even in their lifetimecan be historic.”
Some friends of Harding Academy allege that the Friends of the Links are manipulating conservation zoning, that Links lovers are more interested in preserving their quality of life than a historic environment. Roberts responds that in her experience the impulse to preserve is never pure and disinterested. “People turn to conservation or historic zoning when they perceive threats,” she says. “The threats are different in every neighborhoodteardowns to build bigger houses, inappropriate infill or additions, encroachment by institutions or commerce. And you will never find 100 percent of the residents in favor of an overlay. In the Links, I think it’s about 75 percent. Overlays are a way to manage change, and reaction to threats is always a part of the motivation.”
The Links neighborhood is small149 propertiesand the loss of eight houses would take a good-sized bite out of it. That’s significant becauseunlike The Hermitage or the Rymanthe historicity of the Links doesn’t reside in individual architectural structures, but in the whole as an assemblage.
Belle Meade Golf Links subdivision, as it was formally known, was laid out in 1915 by Ossian Cole Simonds. Simonds was a pioneer, with Frederick Law Olmstead, of the picturesque tradition in landscape design, andwith Olmsteadfounded the American Society of Landscape Architects in 1886.
The picturesque tradition originated in 19th century suburban cemetery plans, with their curvilinear road patterns that hugged the topographyno grids, pleaseand presented sightlines worthy of a landscape painting. The point was to make a cemeteryor a park or subdivisionseem like it organically grew there, blurring its man-made reality.
Picturesque planning is rooted in Romantic philosophy, which contends that human beings are at their best when closest to nature. And to the extent that we imitate the irregular and textured forms of nature in the built environment, we create a place in which human nature feels most at home. The picturesque subdivisionplanners called it “buildings in a park” was a reaction against the industrial city, which was replacing nature with grids and factories, right angles and machines.
Belle Meade Links is a remarkably intact example of the picturesque subdivision, which makes it a Nashville rarity. And demolition is an irrevocable act that makes playing soccer seem ephemeral by comparison. Harding Academy should look elsewhere for its playing fieldsperhaps right next door, to the Belle Meade Terrace condos and the Nashville Humane Society property.
Building a soccer park won’t enhance the Linksthe whole place was designed to be buildings in a park. So we should just save it.
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