Sometimes it takes a tornado. The storm of April 16, 1998, not only blasted buildings and uprooted trees, but widened the fissures in Nashville’s zoning code.
East Nashvillians whose garages were blown down found that they would have to get a variance from the code’s setback rules to rebuild next to their alleys.
In the commercial districts, owners of tornado-vacated land discovered that the code’s off-street parking, setback, and buffer requirementsdesigned for larger, suburban parcelsate up as much as a half to two-thirds of their small lots. Some were left with possible building footprints about as big as a dog kennel.
The Board of Zoning Appeals was generous in granting variances to tornado sufferers. But Metro’s planners were forced to acknowledge that the time-consuming and costly process of applying for exceptions to the zoning rules was too much of a hassle. There’s a new plan: It’s to make urban-friendly zoning the rule rather than the exception for the older districts of the city.
On Dec. 3, the Planning Department published a request for proposals from consultants to re-urbanize zoning for the area roughly within the pre-Metro city limits of 1956. Four teams responded by the Jan. 21 deadline.
A committee of the relevant Metro staffwhose names are not released in order to inhibit lobbying by the competing teamsis expected to decide the winner within a few weeks.
”The tornado really made us aware of the magnitude of the problem,“ says Jerry Fawcett, who manages community plans for the Planning Department.
The ”problem“ is that our current zoning is ”basically one size fits all. It presumes that Davidson County’s zoning needs are uniform, with the exception of the central core downtown,“ Fawcett explains.
But the areas framing the core were developed with a pedestrian and public-transit orientationbuildings close together on relatively small lots, framing a grid of streets and sidewalks. Newer suburbia is a car-cultivated sprawl.
”Our current zoning requires a placement of buildings and off-street parking, especially for commercial uses, which are alien to, which actually erode the character of the older urban neighborhoods,“ Fawcett explains.
It wasn’t only East Nashvillians who found the 1998 zoning code a poor fit. Even before the tornado, the Metro Development and Housing Agency was struggling to stay within the code in redevelopment districts south of Broadway and along Jefferson Street.
”The massive increase in the off-street parking requirements contained in the code hit developmentssuch as the new Country Music Hall of Fame, which was already in the detailed design stage when the code came on board in 1998pretty hard,“ says MDHA development director Phil Ryan. ”You almost have to leave whole blocks for parking.“
Ryan also notes that in traditional neighborhood commercial areas, ”you pretty much have to tear down every other structure“ so that you can build the mandated parking spaces for what remains standing. ”We went to [then executive director of the Planning Commission] Jeff Browning and told him it just wasn’t working.“ The zoning was inhibiting economic redevelopment.
So why does a zoning code enacted just two years ago already need a major overhaul? Ed Owens, who led the rezoning effort for Metro’s Planning Commission, says you have to go back to 1990, when planners began working on a rewrite of the 1974 comprehensive zoning ordinance, to understand.
”There’s no question the community was still in a suburban mindset when we started,“ Owens says. ”If we had begun within the last two or three years, the document would have an entirely different tenor.“
Owens also points out that the Metro Council refused to appropriate the $300,000-$400,000 Metro’s planners estimated it would take ”to do it right. So the Planning Commission came up with $118,000 out of its own funds for the job, which reduced the scope of the exercise.“
Owens says his rewrite, ”focused on land use rather than an urban design framework.“ His team created a bunch of new mixed-use categories, which allows residential and commercial to co-habitate and marks a strong departure from the highly segregated land uses of post-World War II suburbia. By neglecting the three dimensions of urban design, however, the building envelopes containing the mixture of uses still have to conform to suburban placement patterns. People can now live over the shop, but only in buildings isolated from each other by landscaping and parking, which undercuts any attempt at urbanity.
”We created some opportunities for developers to use off-site parking and reduce the suburban setbacks, but they were subtle ones,“ Owens says. Too subtle by half.
Fawcett and Ryan emphasize the traditional neighborhood commercial areas, because it is these that have suffered the most under suburban-style zoning.
Urban retail works best as a continuous pedestrian experience along a transparent series of storefronts, giving consumers easy visual and physical access to merchandise. Malls turn this principal outside in, locating walkers and storefronts indoors and surrounding them with surface parking.
Mall shoppers must drive and park before they can walk, but once inside they’re doing pretty much what their grandparents did on America’s Main Streets.
Fracturing the retail fabric with parking lots, and inhibiting merchandise visibility by large setbacks from the street, ruptures the rhythm of urban shopping. All the brick sidewalks and benches and planters in the world won’t plug the gaps left by applying suburban development patterns to an urban location.
Once only historic preservationists protested planning and zoning that encouraged developers to bulldoze architecture for the sake of asphalt. Today old urbanists and new urbanists are joining forces.
”In other cities, the more successful, vibrant, and attractive neighborhoods convey their history visually,“ Fawcett says. ”But Nashville’s current zoning is not consistent with preserving an historic fabric. And it’s not consistent with the greater interest in opposing sprawl and developing more of a sense of community in neighborhoods.“
Fawcett expects that the new amendments to the current code will include ”build-to [the sidewalk] lines“ rather than setback rules, the consideration of transit availability in a relaxation of off-street parking requirements, and some height restrictions. But he points out that once the consultants have done their work, it will be up to the Metro Council to make the changes law.
”We’ll have to see how willing the Council is to generalize about zoning, rather than apply the zoning Swiss cheese they’ve historically employed,“ Fawcett says.
Cheesy zoning could be Nashville’s fate if Council members slice and dice our city the way they have in the past.
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