We’ve all heard the frequently invoked cliché, “Seeing government in action is like watching sausage being made.” How Metro has handled the case of the Westin Hotel would make Bob Evans jealous.
The Arkansas-based Barber Group and Denver’s Sage Hospitality want to build a Westin Hotel and condo complex between Second and Third avenues on the south side of Broadway. The word in commercial real estate circles is that Barber has options to pay between $8 million and $9 million for the parcels. Using the more conservative figure, this translates to over $158 per square feet for the 1.16 acres, a historic high for SoBro. By comparison, land nearby recently sold for between $50 and $60 per square feet, according to real estate sources.
In addition to the bundle of cash the Westin developers are willing to pay for the land, they’ve also shelled out for a well-connected team to clear the site of legal and public relations obstructions. They’ve retained attorney James Weaver of Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis and two PR firms: Hall Strategies for what’s euphemistically described as “government relations,” and McNeely Pigott & Fox for general communications. This team is trumpeting the project as a $105 million investment in downtown that would create 200 full-time jobs and contribute $1.1 million a year to property tax rolls.
Whether the Westin land price is reasonable or instead a case of locals fleecing out-of-towners is unclear. There are no market comparables for an assemblage of this size this close to Broadway. What is certain, though, is that if you pay high for land, you go high and wide with what you build on it, to max out the return on your investment.
Thus the Westin proposal calls for a building that, at its tallest, would rise 19 stories (or 201 feet) and contain 375 hotel rooms and 48 condos—with 12 set aside as affordable housing—as well as street level retail, restaurants and music venues fronting Broadway. Part of the new building would infill what’s now surface parking at the corner of Broadway and Second Avenue. The upper floors of the three 19th century buildings now housing Trail West would be rehabbed for affordable condos. The current Broadway homes of Kelly’s Western Wear & Leather, Broadway Gifts and Decades would be bulldozed and replaced by hotel-oriented construction of the same height as Trail West. The 1930s Richards & Richards records storage warehouse on Third Avenue, as well as the law office building next door, would also disappear.
The size of the proposed new building, and the demolitions it would require, have put Metro’s planners and preservationists in a fighting mood.
But they have few weapons to wield. Unlike Second Avenue North, Broadway lacks a preservation zoning overlay. The base zoning requires that portions of new construction rising over 65 feet in height be set back from the property line according to a receding formula, to prevent the front wall from towering over pedestrians. The farther away from the street, the higher the building can rise—imagine the boundaries as a pyramid whose base is at 65 feet. The profile of the Westin complex meets the setback requirement on all but the Third Avenue side. To fall within the pyramid, the developers would have to reduce the building’s height.
To get around this requirement, the Westin group could have asked the Metro Board of Zoning Appeals for a variance. But attorney James Weaver advised a more complex and time-consuming route to seek a zoning change, perhaps because he didn’t think the zoning board would respond favorably to his arguments. The zoning change would be to something called “specific plan,” which substitutes for the more general provisions of the zoning code a detailed individual site plan. This site plan must be voted on by the Metro Planning Commission and ultimately approved by the Metro Council.
Planning Department staff recommended against the specific plan proposed for the Westin. As executive director Rick Bernhardt explains, “The scale and massing are just inappropriately large for Broadway. A block farther south, it’s no problem. Lower Broad is one of the very few authentic parts of Nashville left. It’s the heart and soul of our culture. If that’s not worth preserving, what is?”
Bernhardt says the Westin group first approached his staff about a year ago to discuss their proposal. “We were emphatic from the beginning that the highest we could support was eight to nine stories. The next thing I know, I’m looking at more than twice that height.”
Brandon Rains of the Barber Group has claimed that the numbers won’t work for a smaller structure. “The land values, the economic factors dictate the number of rooms, and that dictates the height,” Rains said at a public meeting last summer. Barber, however, made similar claims regarding a 225-foot-high, 15-story condo and retail project in Fayetteville, Ark. But when city officials rejected this scale, Barber shrunk the size to 135 feet, or nine stories, to win approval.
Bernhardt is concerned not just with the size of the Westin, but also what it portends for Broadway’s future. He says that restricting heights in the blocks flanking Broad would serve as a restraint on land value. If the asking price wouldn’t allow a developer to make a profit with a smaller structure, the seller would have to adjust the price. “But once you’ve established this high of a land value based on this degree of density of development, you’ve set a market value that requires this density. Then how can you expect to preserve any other block of Lower Broad?”
Despite Bernhardt’s objections and those of his staff, the Planning Commission itself—after strong-arming by chairman James Lawson—approved the Westin plan last week. But the vote wasn’t a simple Yes or No. During their discussion, a majority of commissioners expressed various concerns about the project: the height and scale, the nontraditional architecture of the street facades, that the affordable housing component would last only five years, after which all units could revert to market rate. To placate the concerned, Lawson offered a vote on the plan with conditions attached. But Lawson didn’t call for a summary of the conditions before the vote. So the commissioners approved the specific plan zoning uncertain of the specifics in the plan.
Bernhardt has drafted a list of the conditions based on the transcript of the commissioners’ discussion. They don’t include a reduction in height because Lawson told the commissioners that “the [Metro] Council will take care of this.”
The chief caretaker of Broadway is Metro Council member Mike Jameson, in whose district the site lies. Jameson says he’s in “support of a Westin Hotel,” but has his own conditions for the project. For starters, he wants the building to incorporate a green roof portion and some level of certification by the Green Building Council, and he says the developers have agreed. Ironically, the sustainable design will bring more demolition. To pay for the costs of green certification, the developers expanded the Westin’s footprint, destroying the law offices on Third Avenue.
Jameson says he’s still trying to negotiate “the design and aesthetics” of the Westin building. He says that among those attending the three public meetings held on the Westin, “the clear result” among survey respondents, “by a two-to-one margin, was a concern with height and scale.” One strategy he’s discussing with attorney Weaver is to grow the height of the building’s base—the facades on Broadway, Second and Third avenues—to a maximum of 65 feet to shrink the tower while still containing the developers’ proposed square footage.
Finally, Jameson insists that approval for a Westin must go hand in hand with a preservation overlay on Broadway from First to Fifth avenues, to prevent further erosion. He says the Westin developers have agreed to pay $25,000 to cover the costs of consultants to survey the architectural territory and gauge support among property owners.
It’s clear why the Westin developers would see benefit in the preservation overlay.
What they’d be protecting are the views from their hotel rooms and condos. They get to build the size of building they want and at the same time get legislation that will prevent future competition in the heart of Broadway’s tourist district.
What’s less clear is whether Jameson can get the support of area property owners and fellow council members. Landowners dreaming of the big bonanza in the sky tend to want to protect property rights more than historic architecture.
One agency that could have stunted the growth of the Westin, but chose not to, is the Metro Development and Housing Agency (MDHA). Because the Westin site straddles two MDHA redevelopment districts, the project had to pass through the agency’s design review committee. In October, the committee approved the Westin plan.
To do so, the committee had to engage in some mind-numbing hair splitting. For example, MDHA’s redevelopment plan for buildings on Broadway states that “No structure listed or eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, nor any structure contributing to a National Register Historic District, may be altered in any manner inconsistent with the Secretary of the Interior Standards for Historic Preservation…. No permit for the demolition of any eligible or contributing structure shall be issued unless it is determined by MDHA that the building is economically unfeasible for renovation.”
None of the buildings slated for demolition fall within the Broadway National Register District, which the Metro Historical Commission unfortunately hasn’t reexamined and enlarged since 1980. MHC executive director Ann Roberts says, however, that all but the law offices on Third Avenue are National Register-eligible. MDHA development director Hank Helton counters that the design review committee “was given no definitive statement that the buildings to be demolished are eligible for the Register, only that they may be.”
On such distinctions rests the future of Broadway.
The fate of the historic street, as well as the design of the Westin, now lies in the hands of the Metro Council, which doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. As one member of that body, John Summers, told the Metro Planning Commission in voicing his objection to the project:
“You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.”