On July 23, Ed Owens walked out of the Metro Planning Commission a free man. Like any guy who’s done hard time, Owens is grayer and leaner than he was when he entered the Gothic stone fortress on Rutledge Hill, site of the commission’s offices, in March 1980. His shoulders stoop a little more, his suit hangs more loosely on his frame, and his face has something like a jailhouse pallor. His voice is low, almost uninflected by emotion. It’s as if he had been subdued by the political passions that have swirled around him.
For the last eight years of his time with Metro, Owens served the Planning Commission as the primary architect of Nashville’s new zoning ordinance, which went into effect this past January. During that time, he was grilled by representatives of every special interest in the city. He underwent the third degree about flood plains and hillsides, planned unit developments, and landscape buffer yards. Trudging up to the Metro Courthouse, he lugged documents so heavy they would have snapped the backbone of a weaker man. For days and nights Owens sweated in the hot seat at Metro Council chambers, explaining to the true believers in absolute property rights why zoning is not a crime against nature.
Ed Owens has come out of his ordeal with an unbroken spirit and a die-hard fan club, all of whom are grieving at his departure. Reporters and policy makers who relied on Owens to decipher the zoning code are wondering whom they can turn to when they need the plain English version of one of Metro’s most confusing documents.
On a recent Friday afternoon, with the haze of a Middle Tennessee summer filtering sickly through the windows, Owens leaned back in his government-issue chair and talked about his past and his prospects. He explained that he’s walking away from the Planning Commission because he’s “ready to do something else. The zoning code is complete. We’ve gotten through the code’s six- month probation and the July public hearing on the corrections to what I had wrought. I’m leaving behind a strong staff. It’s a good time.”
Owens said that, because he and his wife Loretta, who directs the Nashville Housing Fund, don’t have children, he has more freedom than some people might have when considering a career change at age 45. Asked what he plans to do with his future, Owens said he wants to do some traveling a trip to Ireland in early August will follow a camping trip he took out West in July. After that, he said, he plans go into the private sector.
It’s easy to imagine Owens setting up shop in a Broadway storefront with a sign that says “Ask Me About Zoning!” boldly displayed in the window. Metro bureaucrats in shirtsleeves, reporters in jeans, developers in pinstripes, and politicians in polyester would all be queueing up, shuffling slowly along the sidewalk, rehearsing questions about floor-area ratios and conditional-use permits, waiting long hours for five minutes with Ed. Envisioning that scenario, I told him, “It’s brilliant. For years you’ve passed out free information and made us dependent on you. Now you’re going to charge us, and the sky’s the limit. Just like a drug dealer. You could make a fortune.”
In the nasal accent of his native Ohio, Owens calmly explained that he doesn’t see himself hawking zoning advice on a street corner. Instead, he’ll start his new career Aug. 17 as a manager of development projects for Gresham Smith and Partners.
Gresham Smith is an all-purpose design firm that specializes in hiring former Metro wonks. As a result, the firm has a reputation for working the inside track on government contracts. At his new job, Owens will join former Planning Commission staffers John Palm and Tom Martin, as well as former Public Works engineer Mickey Sullivan.
Shifting gears is not a new occurence for Owens. He seems to do it about every 20 years. In 1978 he finished a master’s degree in city and regional planning at Ohio State University. But he didn’t move directly into a bureaucrat’s job; he took a trip around the world. “I just grabbed my camera and headed out,” Owens recalled, mentioning Edinburgh and Istanbul as cities that especially caught his planner’s eye. “I like the urban feel of earlier stomping grounds,” he said.
Owens stopped traveling when he ran out of money. In 1980, he answered a job advertisement and was hired by the Metro Nashville Planning Commission as an entry-level planner. He became head of Current Planning and Design in 1990, just as Nashville was preparing to undertake a full revision of its zoning regulations. “The old code [dating from 1974] had been so amended and in such a piecemeal way that it no longer hung together,” Owens recalled. The eyes of every development-related interest in the city were suddenly turned on mild-mannered Ed.
A zoning code’s impact on a city is immeasurable. It tells a property owner where he can build an apartment complex or an office building, how tall it can be, how far it must be set back from the property line, how many parking spaces it must have, and how much landscaping is required. Changes in the zoning laws affect everyone who lives or works in Davidson County.
When everyone has a stake in the outcome of a project, the politics can be intense. And every interest group advocates for mobile homes and foes of adult entertainment, subdivision builders and neighborhood defenders wanted to take a piece of Owens’ time and give him a piece of their mind. But few understand the wonky language of zoning. Ed Owens became not merely the chief crafter and negotiator of the new code; he became its public explicator as well.
“When we were investigating possible sites for the new main library,” said library director Donna Nicely, “I quickly became aware that there are a lot of rules and regulations to constructing a large building in a downtown location. Ed Owens was the person who walked me through the maze. The first word that comes to mind when I think of Ed is ‘patience.’ He defines what public service is all about.”
The low point in Owens’ tenure as zoning czar probably came in 1992, when, he said, “the Council decided it wanted to tackle signs.” “Tackle” is the right word. Special interests lobbied ruthlessly, kneading Council members like Play-Doh and gutting even the most mildly progressive parts of the proposed ordinance. Nashville remains visually polluted to this day. “We did manage to prohibit portable signs, and some of the kinetic things banners and pennants,” Owens said, speaking with the equanimity of a battle-worn survivor.
After taking another incremental step by drafting a tree ordinance in 1994, Owens and his staff decided it was time to deal with the zoning code as a whole. “We were concerned that if we did any more zoning in pieces, the code could begin to fragment and the parts wouldn’t match,” he explained, adding that, “if Nashvillians only revise their zoning every 25 years, they could only kill Ed once.” A half-dozen drafts and countless meetings later, Owens and his staff had come up with 150 pages, bound in black hardcover notebooks. Metro Council passed the new code in October 1997.
The new ordinance was on the books, but Council refused the remapping that would have put the plan into action. A majority of Council members decided they preferred to rezone bit by bit, to preserve their power as the zoning arbiters for their districts. As a result, the current zoning of individual parcels is often out of sync with Metro’s General and Subarea Plans, although the new code was designed to implement these plans. For example, a Subarea Plan could call for a mixture of residential and commercial uses along a particular street, while the actual zoning along the street forbids everything except office buildings. As a man with a finely honed sense of what’s politically possible in an imperfect world, Owens seems unruffled by this partial defeat.
Still sounding like a bureaucrat, Owens was careful in his comments about the rumors swirling through the Metro grapevine that his walkout is yet another manifestation of discontent with the Planning Commissin’s executive director, Jeff Browning. The commission has suffered major staff turnover in the past few years, with planners at all levels heading for the door. Some former staffers describe Browning as an obsessive micro-manager who doesn’t think in terms of the big picture.
Owens denied that his leaving has anything to do with Browning’s administration or a more general dissatisfaction with the Planning Commission. He pointed out that some of the staff changes have been the result of inevitable retirements. He noted that there is a lot of turnover in the planning profession in general. Planners tend to change jobs every three to four years, according to surveys by the American Planning Association, he said.
Urban design is not a priority for the Planning Commission, and that may be a result of the way planning power is divvied up in Nashville. Urbanists have long observed that the Metro Development and Housing Agency (MDHA) is given control of downtown, while the Planning Commission sits up on Rutledge Hill and looks to the suburbs.
Owens is more diplomatic in his interpretation of the situation: “Nashville is unique in the relationship between the city’s development agency and its planning commission. But MDHA has a fabulous track record and has the money to do things,” he said. “I’m an urban-design animal, and I’d like to see more focus on these issues. But my career here has focused on suburban development patterns. It’s the layout of the land.”
Owens is realistic about the limits placed on zoning in a state where the rights of private property are held as sacred as Holy Writ. And he freely admits that the new zoning code, because it’s a comprehensive document that involved numerous compromises, is not perfect and never will be. But Owens said he hopes that in the future the zoning code will be subjected to regular, systematic updates, “rather than amended every time someone wants to file a bill in Council” on behalf of a special interest.
When asked to assess the real strength of the new zoning code, Owens said, “It’s the mixed-use provisions that excite me the most. Locally, we’re novices in the mixture of residential and commercial that you see in mature, thriving cities. In the new code we created the tools to allow that to happen. I just hope they get used.”
At Owens’ going-away party, government workers and Council members gathered to hoist a few in honor of a man who can actually get excited about mixed-use zoning. “Ed received two standing ovations,” said Stewart Clifton, a Council member who serves on the Planning Commission and who shepherded the new zoning code through the approval process. “That’s a real tribute from the Council, which usually agrees to disagree about just about everything connected with zoning. There’s a lot of respect for Ed, because he always looked you in the eye and told you the truth.”
On Ed Owens’ last day, some friends had guaranteed him $150 if he would sing a chorus of “Danke Schön” at the conclusion of his final report to the Planning Commission. Owens didn’t take the dare, and probably he was right. In 18 years of Planning Commission meetings, he had never stepped out of character as the complete bureaucrat. It was no time to begin.
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