Doing good urban design has been all but impossible in Nashville since the passage of comprehensive zoning in 1974.
With the exception of the zoning codes in our central downtown, our zoning laws encourage large setbacks from the street and prodigious numbers of off-street parking spaces. It’s no wonder that we end up with strip malls rather than urban villages.
East Nashville, in the wake of the tornado, is suffering from the effects of these zoning laws, in particular the parts that have to do with our car culture. Some stores that lay in the path of the storm, and were too far gone to save, have been demolished. These buildings once sat right next to the sidewalk, and customers parked along the curb, around the corner, or in the few spaces out back.
Owners of these properties are discovering that if they rebuild, however, they must do so by the standards of suburbs like Bellevue. In the process, what was once commercial architecture of a scale and style that rested easily within the surrounding 19th-and-early-20th-century residential context will be replaced by generic American ugliness, eroding the character of the neighborhoods bit by lethal bit.
Metro Councilman Stewart Clifton doesn’t want to see the same thing happen to Hillsboro Village. Not that he envisions a natural disaster sweeping down 21st Avenue South anytime soon. But the Village is feeling the winds of redevelopment. Restaurants have replaced much of the neighborhood retail, bringing with them increased demands for parking. Where the H.G. Hill grocery store once stood, on the northeast corner of 21st and Blakemore, is a small park and entrance into the Vanderbilt University campus. In what is perhaps the boldest challenge to the personality of the street, H.G. Hill Realty has demolished most of a block to build a three-story mixed-use complex that will feature first floor retail and apartments above.
John Hardcastle, the president of the realty company, is developing his new structure in a way that will maintain the urban feel of the street. But he didn’t have to. Hardcastle could have built something like the Blockbuster/Kinko’s strip on West End Avenue. Had he done so, Hardcastle would have saved himself the expense of the underground parking he must build to both preserve the urban feel of the neighborhood and stay within the zoning code.
Clifton doesn’t want to gamble that future developers will be so sensitive to the Village’s architectural character. He hopes to put zoning guidelines in place that will channel the Village along its traditional urban path. To do so, Clifton is taking advantage of a heretofore unused provision of Nashville’s new zoning code: the urban design overlay.
“I decided to make a run at it when I heard the concept explained as part of the new zoning code,” explains Clifton. “It jumps out at you that the remaining small retail areas of the city, as well as SoBro, call for urban design for future development. Outside of the urban design overlay, Nashville doesn’t have a real good way to deal with urban commerce.”
Putting the urban design overlay in the new zoning code was suggested by the Nashville Urban Design Forum. This group of design and planning professionals felt that the basic code did not make adequate provision for urban-style redevelopment of the areas that surround the core downtown area. The zoning provision they proposed is called an overlay because it is a set of rules and guidelines laid over a designated area’s base zoning. If the base zoning calls for commercial land use, the overlay describes in greater detail what sort of buildings can be constructed, or which ones must be preserved.
An urban design overlay functions in the same way as the historic or conservation overlays found in the city’s historic districts, but with two exceptions. Historic and conservation zoning are intended to preserve architecture of historical significance, and the guidelines are written by the U.S. Department of the Interior. An urban design overlay is applied where the architecture is not particularly noteworthy, but where suburban development patterns would be inappropriate. And because each urban, or potentially urban, area is differente.g., SoBro is not the same as Hillsboro Villagethe guidelines for each urban design overlay must be developed on a case-by-case basis.
Clifton has formed a committee of property owners, business owners, and residents in the Village to establish the basic goals of the plan and help craft the guidelines. A public meeting will be held Nov. 24, at 7 p.m., in the Belmont Methodist Church, to encourage broad public participation. To make the difference between urban and suburban design comprehensible to the general public, John Hardcastle is paying the architectural and planning firm of Looney Ricks Kiss to give a slide presentation at the meeting. The presentation will be in the form of a visual preference survey, with those in attendance voting on which slides best exemplify how they want the Village to look and work. The survey results will form the basis for the design guidelines.
This is heady stuff for Nashville. Visual preference surveys are a staple in other cities, but they are not a part of the typical Metro Planning Commission presentation. Such surveys allow citizens to plan the places in which they live and work by seeing actual representations of different kinds of zoning. Nashville’s routine for zoning changes is usually to present citizens with a bunch of maps and documents written in “zoning-ese,” and then ask them to say “yea” or “nea.” What normally happens is that the only people who show up are property owners with a vested interest in a particular parcel of land.
The major issue that has surfaced in previous meetings of the Hillsboro Village overlay committee is the boundaries of the urban design district. Planning Commission staffers appear to favor defining the overlay area as narrowly as possible along 21st Avenue, to avoid the potential political problems of getting a consensus among a large group of property owners. Restricting the overlay to 21st Avenue may help to preserve the street, but it will do little to manage the Village’s future growth.
Most committee members have pinpointed parking as the key to the area’s financial health. Structured parking shared by a number of merchants is one possible solution. But building the kind of garages that do not detract from the character of the Village will require stricter guidelines than are found in the base zoning code. Such structures should include first floor retail and architectural cladding rather than exposed concrete decks. These garages should be located on side streets rather than the main drag. An urban design overlay worth its salt must therefore include areas in which such garages could be located, and the design principles to make them compatible with the neighborhood.
Getting an overlay established for Hillsboro Village will be mind-bogglingly complex. Clifton and members of the Planning Commission staff must propose amendments to the Subarea Plan and the base zoning of the Village, as well as develop the urban design plan. All affected property owners must be notified of the necessary public hearings held by the Planning Commission and the Metro Council. Then the Commission and the Council will have to approve separately each subarea plan, base zoning, and overlay proposal.
An urban design plan for Hillsboro Village could prove to be a model for other areas of the city. The land to the east of the Bicentennial Mall, and large parts of SoBro, for example, would benefit from guidelines that embrace urbanism rather than suburban sprawl. But Nashville’s basic planning process runs counter to the urban impulse. Clifton and his crew have their work cut out for them. And the whole city is watching to see if urban design can happen here.
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