When I moved to Nashville’s East End 13 years ago, my new neighborhood was a checkerboard of yuppie renovations, blue-collar cottages, and slumlord sleaze. In the intervening years, we managed to preserve the economic diversity while steadily repairing more and more of the architectural fabric. The tornado of April tore that fabric apart.
In the weeks immediately following the storm, Metro departments, NES and BellSouth workers, and a horde of volunteers quickly moved into the tornado’s wake. They cleared the streets and turned the power back on. Later, waves of workers gradually carted away the stumps, and volunteers with ReLeaf Nashville began to grow a new tree canopy to replace the old urban forest. But today many in East Nashville feel that the tornado recovery is stalled.
”The long term recovery hasn’t been as fast or as much as we’d hoped,“ says Lindsay Fairbanks, an East Nashville resident and real estate agent.
Blue tarps still flap in the wind. Recalcitrant insurance companies and inadequate insurance coverage frustrate the efforts of many to rebuild. East Nashville legend has it that some absentee landlords pocketed their payoffs and left for Europe, or at least to Destin. As a result, their damaged buildings were left behind to molder in the rain. And those with the funds and the will to build new structures on the vacant lots find themselves faced with a suburban-style zoning code more at home in Bellevue.
Such codes do not rest easy on the small lots of turn-of-the century neighborhoods. East Nashville homeowners have found that they must get a zoning variance to rebuild their garages where they stood next to the alleys.
Potential new business owners have discovered that parking next to the curb does not count toward filling their mandated parking spaces. Many East Nashvillians fear that ”demolition by neglect“ and inappropriate zoning will erode still further the architectural character of their neighborhoods.
To develop a strategy for solving these problems and to kick-start a new wave of progress, East Nashville wants to do a R/UDAT, an acronym for Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team. The process brings a nationwide group of volunteer experts to town under the auspices of the American Institute of Architects (A.I.A.). The team includes whatever disciplines the local community wants to ask for advice: architects, developers, preservationists, transportation planners, police, real estate and economic development gurus.
Before descending on Nashville, the eight-to-10-member team reviews a briefing bookcompiled by members of a local steering committeeon the history, demographics, and physical and economic character of the area devastated by the tornado. The team then comes to town and conducts an intensive 5-day planning workshop. They listen to what the citizens say in interviews and public meetings, apply their experiences from other places with similar problems, and before they leave, produce a master plan, print it, and explain it. One year later, the team returns to Nashville to assess the progress made by the local implementation committee and to suggest new strategies for success.
The target date for the planning workshop is sometime this spring, near the first anniversary of the tornado. Members of the Middle Tennessee chapter of the A.I.A., working with members of the Long Range Planning Subcommittee of the Tornado Recovery Board, have submitted the formal application for the R/UDAT to the national A.I.A. The local A.I.A. chapter has appointed Hunter Gee, an architect with the firm of Looney Ricks Kiss, as the local chair of the East Nashville R/UDAT effort. Gee was a member of the design team that produced the revised Subarea 9 Plan for downtown.
Gee has asked approximately 60 representatives of East Nashville business and neighborhood associations, as well as the relevant Metro Council members and Metro department heads, to serve on the local R/UDAT steering committee. This committee will meet for the first time on January 18 to plan the appropriate community involvement strategies and to plot a course for raising the approximately $40,000 in cash and in-kind contributions necessary to support the R/UDAT.
To those who want action and yawn at the idea of another plan, Gee admits that ”a R/UDAT can’t fix problems. The plan will just give us some objective, expert advice on where and how to proceed. We’re the ones who will have to implement the recommendations, change the policies. But the mayor and the Planning Commission and the Metro Development and Housing Agency have promised their full support.“ Gee points out that the tornado just exacerbated an ongoing struggle to revitalize the area’s decayed urban neighborhood commercial centers. ”East Nashville is typical of the city’s older sections, in that there’s been slow but steady private investment in residential renovation, but little, at least until recently, in commercial investment on a neighborhood scale. The R/UDAT process could create model strategies for application elsewhere in the city,“ he says.
A R/UDAT in Birmingham has had the permanent impact Gee envisions for Nashville. According to Phillip Morris, former editor of Southern Living and a long time Birmingham resident, in 1976 the city applied for a R/UDAT to focus on the stress that suburbanization, rather than a tornado, had created for its older neighborhoods. A team headed by Stan Eckstut, who designed the plan for Battery Park City in New York, developed plans and a planning process for three decaying neighborhood commercial centers. ”Then-Mayor David Vann really got into the R/UDAT planning workshop,“ Morris recalls. ”He stayed up all night talking with members of the team, and he put the weight of his office behind the implementation. The results led to the city’s entire urban design program.“
Today, Birmingham has 27 neighborhood revitalization districts and much more commerce at a neighborhood scale. Design and investment guidelines tailor-made for each district are produced and reviewed by a citizen panel, and the city’s capital improvements budget is aligned with the neighborhood plans.
”The R/UDAT not only changed the plans, it changed the process,“ Morris says. ”We went from a bureaucratic approach to a design/performance approach.“
Nashville’s planning process is still driven by the bureaucrats, but some EastNashvillians think a R/UDAT can change that. ”I’m feeling really positive about getting some people in here with no agenda to give us some fresh ideas,“says Fairbanks. ”Hopefully, the city will respond in kind and help us cut through the red tape.“
Christine Kreyling is a member of the Long Range Planning Subcommittee of the Tornado Recovery Board.
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