Developers are one step closer to turning most of West End Avenue into a suburban strip mall. Despite the personal efforts of Mayor Phil Bredesen and a petition signed by more than 4,000 Nashvillians, the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) last week approved z
oning code variances that apparently doom the historic Jacksonian Apartments at 31st and West End to demolition.
The vote was four to three in favor of the variances, which will allow the historic building to be replaced by a Walgreen drugstore. Because of the zoning board’s action, developer Russ Morris, an independent agent with Eakin & Smith Real Estate, can build a drive-through drugstore that is in violation of the zoning code’s “setback” provisions, which decree how close a building may be to the street.
Morris needed the variances because the urban site now occupied by The Jacksonian is too small to accommodate the prototypical plan for a suburban Walgreen drugstore with a drive-through window.
On the day before the vote, Bredesen took sides in the battle, sending each member of the zoning board a letter requesting that the variances be denied. Metro Council members Stewart Clifton, Horace Johns, David Kleinfelter, and Ronnie Steine also asked the zoning board not to grant the variances. The night before the zoning hearing, Save Jack! supporters attended a protest concert featuring Emmylou Harris and other performers at the Pub of Love on 12th Avenue South. The fight over the Jacksonian has emerged as the largest land-use struggle in Nashville since the fight over the proposed 21-story Algernon-Blair office tower on Second Avenue in the mid-’80s.
“I’m very disappointed in the action taken by the BZA,” Bredesen said this week. “They are good people trying to do the right thing.” However, Bredesen expressed frustration that his effort on the Jacksonian’s behalf seemed to have so little impact. “I would have hoped that the mayor’s view on something good for the city in the long run would have had more weight,” Bredesen said. “But I’m still working on several angles; I haven’t given up.”
Meanwhile, Morris, the developer of the project, expressed admiration for the mayor’s persistence. “I like the mayor,” Morris said. “You can see why he gets so many things done.” Nevertheless, he vowed to move ahead.
Morris said no clear timetable has been set for demolition of the Jacksonian. “We have tenants in the building,” he said. “We need to do everything to treat them appropriately. Their leases need to run their course. I’m not sure where we go today. I’m hoping it quiets down.”
The Jacksonian may be in critical condition, but there is still a faint pulse. Even though the zoning board approved the variances, staffers in Metro’s Traffic and Parking Division must still sign off on the traffic circulation plan included in the Walgreen scheme. According to Ali Afis, a traffic engineer in the department, the traffic plan has been approved in concept, but his department is waiting to see the final plan.
Attorney Tom White, who represents developer Morris, said that, prior to last week’s zoning board hearing, he assumed Traffic and Parking had already approved the traffic plan. “My clients met with their representatives on May 15, and all were in agreement as to what changes had to be made to the plan,” White said. “Then at the BZA hearing, Ali Afis said they needed more time for review. Somebody brought some pressure to bear on Traffic and Parking, because they did a 180-degree turn.” White declined to speculate on whether that “someone” was Mayor Bredesen.
The Traffic and Parking Commission will probably vote on the Walgreen traffic plan at the commission’s meeting on June 8. If the vote is negative, the harm still might not be too serious, since the developers can adjust their plan without too much delay.
Opponents of the Jacksonian’s demolition can only hope that the zoning board’s decision will be appealed to Davidson County Chancery Court. Mike Lawson, an attorney representing Jacksonian Foundation Inc., a not-for-profit being formed to fight for the building’s preservation, said the argument in chancery court would be that “the board did not have sufficient or adequate evidence to support its decision.”
In their appeal, supporters of The Jacksonian might also argue that landscape plans for the drugstore, as approved by the Metro Codes Department, do not full comply with the new zoning code, which went into effect Jan. 1.
Thus far, the legal team involved in the case has expanded to include Franklin attorney Anna Pace, and, potentially, Brian Jackson of Trabue, Sturdivant & DeWitt. Jacksonian supporters have also been in conversation with Bredesen pal Byron Trauger.
Despite the hoopla from the opponents, attorney Tom White is unflustered by the prospect of another day in court.
“The opponents certainly have the right to appeal, but the most they can do, and I doubt this will happen, is get the court to say that the variances were not properly granted,” White said. “Frankly, demolition of The Jacksonian could happen before the appeal is ever heard.
“I don’t want this to sound like a threat, but the building is going to come down.”
White is probably right. The Jacksonian’s owners have a right to tear it down whenever they want. White essentially said as much at last week’s zoning board hearing, where his display of legal maneuvering was masterful.
White claimed that, because the site is “particularly small” and “exceptionally narrow and shallow,” it presents a hardship for the developer. He asked the zoning board to remove the hardship by granting the variances.
What White didn’t say was that the developer is having hardships because he plans to build a suburban-style structure, with ample parking as required by Metro codes, on an urban lot. The plan to build a Walgreen on the Jacksonian property has “been a shoehorn situation from the very beginning,” says Public Works traffic engineer John Gregor.
Steve Tocknell, a transportation planner who testified at the hearing on behalf of The Jacksonian’s supporters, said that Walgreen “wants to do the same thing on West End Avenue that they would do in CoolSprings. However, the site of The Jacksonian is urban, not suburban. That’s why you need variances to build a Walgreen [at 31st and West End]. That’s also why the variances shouldn’t have been granted.”
At the hearing, White noted that the Jacksonian property is already zoned for commercial use and is not in an historic district or on the National Register. “Preservation, desirable as it may be, has no relevance,” White said, before a board that deals with zoning issues.
Members of the zoning board agreed that preservation was not an issue in the zoning appeal. Board member Joe Meeks defined the board’s role as “voting land-use policy up or down.”
In approving the variances for a Walgreen, a majority of the zoning board ignored the long-term land-use policy established by the Planning Commission for the area that includes The Jacksonian. According to Cynthia Lehmbeck of the Planning Commission staff, that land-use policy calls for so-called “mixed-use” in the Jacksonian’s neighborhood.
Lehmbeck explained that “a mixed-use policy has as its goal the creation of a mixture of integrated land usescommercial and residentialthat allow people to live, work, and play without necessarily having to get into a car.” She noted that the Planning Commission recommended for The Jacksonian site a mixed-use zoning that would allow commercial, office, and residential land uses in buildings up to 65 feet tall. The description sounds more like the existing Jacksonian than a drive-through Walgreen.
White argued otherwise. He testified that a Walgreen drugstore “is consistent with the commercial policy called for in the subarea plan for the area.” White also argued that a Walgreen “will increase the value to the surrounding property” and said it would improve “the quality of light and air” along that stretch of West End. The new drugstore, he said, would be shorter and much less dense than the existing Jacksonian; thus, he said, it would be “less intrusive.” White did not explain how a strip shop that feeds off car culture and eliminates a building full of residents who could walk to nearby businesses will advance the air quality, or any other kind of quality, on West End Avenue.
At the hearing, White said that those who want to preserve The Jacksonian for multi-tenant living have a case of “zoning nostalgia” and noted that the property has been “zoned commercial for 30 or 40 years.”
By standing squarely on the side of suburban-style development, however, it is White who ignores the future. “Nashville finally seems to be at the point to support urban residential,” says developer and contractor Bruce Zeitlin. “People with the experience of urban living have moved here, and they don’t want three cars and a lawn.” The Metro Development and Housing Agency is investing millions to build urban residential living on SoBro’s Rolling Mill Hill and in Germantown. Then another city agency grants zoning variances to a developer who wants to demolish an existing urban apartment building.
Plenty of observers are asking why the situation was allowed to get to such a pitiful state. White and the building’s current owners, the heirs of the late John Cobb, say everything was done to try to improve and save the building. However, they contend that the cost of making basic repairs was simply too high.
At the zoning hearing, and in interviews afterward, White and the owners said it would cost $1.5 million to bring The Jacksonian up to codes. The $1.5 million figure, White has said, is one the owners came up with when they tried to assess their options.
When pressed, however, White admitted it was not the Cobb heirs who arrived at the $1.5 million figure. Instead, he provided the figures to the family himself, based, he said, upon advice from contractors. White would not disclose the names of the contractors he consulted.
What’s more, White says, The Jacksonian’s champions themselves have estimated that it would cost even more to repair the building. Some estimates of making fundamental repairs to the building have run as high as $1.8 million.
Trey Rochford, one of the Cobb heirs with a stake in the building, says he and his fellow owners “are not businessmen.” Yet his father, John T. Rochford, has extensive experience in the local development community. He owns a construction company, has sizable residential holdings in Temple Hills, is currently developing a massive movie theater in Green Hills, and has numerous projects in Bellevue to his credit. As well, he has been actively involved in The Jacksonian’s history. He managed it for some time.
The slow and steady demise of The Jacksonian building has been proceeding for decades. Even if Walgreen bows out of the deal with Russ Morris, other developers are waiting in the wings. David Smith, who owns the Holiday Inn-style apartment building and beauty salon immediately behind The Jacksonian, says Atlanta developer Peter Cory has approached him about a hotel and/or office complex on a site combining Smith’s property and the Jacksonian site.
The new construction would be screened by a restored Jacksonian façade. Bill Barkley of Armistead Barkley Inc. has also discussed with Smith the possibility of a boutique hotel in The Jacksonian, with a new residential building to be constructed on Smith’s property.
The Jacksonian’s owners, meanwhile, are ready to cash in. They have a developer who has put together a legitimate business deal that calls for the demolition of the building. Such is business in America. Perfectly legal. Perfectly allowable. But sometimes very ugly, very heartless, and very sad.
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