The trust of a city street is formed over time from many, many little public sidewalk contacts. It grows out of people stopping by at the bar for a beer, getting advice from the grocer and giving advice to the newsstand man, comparing opinions with other customers at the bakery and nodding hello to the two boys drinking pop on the stoop, eyeing the girls while waiting to be called for dinner, admonishing the children, hearing about a job from the hardware man and borrowing a dollar from the druggist, admiring the new babies and sympathizing over the way a coat faded.
The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs
If there is a ground zero in Nashville for progressive neighborhood ideology, it would be somewhere within spitting distance of Belmont Boulevard and nearby Hillsboro Village. Residents there typically display a respect for historic structures, bike paths and sidewalks. There’s an understanding that it’s nice to be able to walk to a grocery store and pick up a carton of eggs. There’s also a healthy antipathy toward bad developers in general.
We buy all those things. But a couple of recent development disputes in the ’hood have left us mystified and confused. If you think that people in this area do in fact believe in principles like higher density urban living and the compatibility of commercial and residential structures, then you might want to think again.
Two recent disputes illustrate an apparent hypocrisy. On the one hand, a Nashville family recently restored a historic commercial building on the east side of Belmont Boulevard. Until recently, the ramshackle, brick structures had housed a second-rate grocery store and other small offices. The restoration was painstaking and first-rate. For their efforts, however, the owners ran into nothing but trouble.
The buildings had been constructed before zoning laws even existed in Nashville. When the zoning laws were implemented, the buildingswhich sit on property that is zoned residentialwere “grandfathered” into the zoning code. They were simply allowed not to conform to the law. But after rehabbing the structures, the owners thought they might want to put a restaurant or a medical office in the structures. Basically, they wanted a little latitude as they sought tenants. When they sought permission, a firestorm erupted.
“You had two factions in the neighborhood, really,” says attorney Shawn Henry, who represented the owners. “You had immediate neighbors within the block who felt like this was the worst thing that could happen. They wanted the buildings torn down and replaced with a home or two. Then there was the larger neighborhood, and many of them thought a restaurant could be a nice addition.”
Actually, a restaurant would have been a fabulous addition. It would have been a decided plus for residents in this part of the city to be able to walk to dinner, much as residents in East Nashville are now walking to the restaurants that have sprung up throughout their residential communities. What actually transpired was something else entirely. When it became apparent a medical office or restaurant wasn’t going to happen, the neighbors sought to place additional restrictions on the restored structures, such as limiting hours of operation of the new businesses. Rightfully, the Board of Zoning Appeals determined the owners didn’t have to abide by any of the neighbor’s proposed conditions.
Now, it would have been one thing if the structures were of the strip-mall, suburban variety. But they are honest-to-God, neighborhood friendly buildings that are in many cases in better shape than the residences surrounding them. What about all that talk of mixed uses in a residential setting being a great thing? What were the residents thinking?
Meanwhile, another simmering dispute in the ’hood made headlines this week when a Houston developeryeah, it sounds badessentially threw up his hands and said he was going to build a bunch of dormitory-type apartments at the corner of Hillsboro Road and Woodlawn Boulevard near I-440. Why build such garbage? Well, the developer had actually proposed building a luxury style development on the property, with lots of green space, concealed parking, landscaping by none other than Nashville’s well respected Hawkins Partners, and those granite countertops everyone’s getting. The project, however, required a zone change. And the neighbors didn’t like the fact that 280 apartments were being proposed. They were stuck on having no more than 239. Votes were taken among the neighbors. The neighbors said “no.”
“We basically said let’s take our chances and maybe the next one who’s willing to come along will be more interested in doing what the neighborhood wants,” says Keith Durbin, president of Belmont Hillsboro Neighbors. Previous proposals had included an 11-story luxury apartment building, which neighbors also opposed. The developer should have known the chances of pleasing the neighborhood weren’t too good.
Well, the gamble didn’t exactly work out. The developersthe Bomasada Groupare now proposing to build 148 dwelling units, which is allowed under current zoning. But each unit will have three bedrooms. So Henry, who, coincidentally, is also representing the developer in this case, says there will actually be more residents in this development than in the one the neighborhood rebuffed. The quality of the structure, Henry acknowledges, is also lower. He admits they’re targeting college students to live in what will be a dormitory-like environment.
As with so many development disputes, words fly, and who knows who’s telling the truth. Durbin says the Houston people didn’t communicate adequately, never presented any options other than the two proposals and are threatening to build the lower-quality development as a way to get the neighbors to support the luxury project. Henry says his team wanted the neighbors to help with exterior materials and site layout and that he explained all along to the neighbors they had a strict time deadline. Meanwhile, he says he’s dead serious about constructing the less desirable building.
It appears that folks in some of Nashville’s most treasured neighborhoods need to take a deep breath and think hard about what they’re doing and saying. We caution them that it’s easy to destroy what makes you special to begin with.
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