A recent article in the Tennessean describes East Nashville developers March Egerton and Dan Heller as bemoaning “the tough land use restrictions” standing like an iron rampart across the path of progress in East Nashville. In Egerton’s case, it’s actually “re-moaning,” since he’s complained for years about the straitjacket on developer freedom imposed by the Metro Development and Housing Agency’s (MDHA) Five Points redevelopment district. The pair wants the redevelopment district eliminated. They say the purpose was to eliminate blight, and that blight has gone away.
Councilman Peter Westerholm, who represents the area containing the redevelopment district, says he “could support” its removal. “I want to figure out a way to help a good project without unforeseen consequences,” he says. By way of explanation, he points out that Metro Planning “is trying to double density in Nashville.” Westerholm says he’s “concerned about a handful of other properties” likely for redevelopment, but is vague as to particulars.
Egerton and Heller’s grievance centers on the former Fluffo mattress building at 901 Woodland St., which the pair proposes to redevelop as a mixed-use complement to what they’ve done with the other Fluffo buildings on Main Street. Those buildings house emporiums serving up craft beers, barbecue and hot yoga. Egerton has also had issues with MDHA over a vacant lot he owns and wants to develop at the corner of N. 11th St. and Forrest Ave. next to the old foursquare house that’s currently home to Pizzereal.
Unfortunately, statements the developers made to the Tennessean exhibit the very “murkiness” that Egerton decries about the redevelopment district. He and Heller have failed to respond to repeated emails and calls from the Scene requesting elucidation on their specific problems with MDHA’s rules.
Not in dispute are the basic constraints on developers in the Five Points district: land use controls and design guidelines. The former were considered of crucial importance when the district, the first outside downtown, was created in 1989.
The point of the redevelopment district “was to get retail into the neighborhood that residents needed and wanted,” says former Metro Council member John Summers, who successfully lobbied for its creation as the council rep for the area. “There were multiple body shops and auto repair places. And a wrecker service at Five Points on Woodland choked off retail there, with trucks on many lots and parked all along the street.”
After MDHA established the redevelopment district, the agency purchased the wrecker service properties, paid to relocate the business to Gallatin Road and did some streetscape improvements. The properties were subsequently sold for neighborhood-appropriate development — the Art and Invention Gallery occupies what was the car barn for the wrecker service — except for two parking lots that MDHA still owns.
Land use controls were put in place “to prevent new incompatible businesses from moving into the neighborhood,” Summers explains. The land uses mapped for the redevelopment district were sometimes narrower than the uses permitted by the base zoning, “then mostly CS in the commercial areas, which at that time was very broad and allowed all the automotive stuff,” he says. “It’s typical for MDHA land use rules to be stricter than base zoning, because they’re trying to encourage certain kinds of development.”
The design guidelines arrived in 2000, when many owners were redeveloping properties destroyed or severely damaged by the 1998 tornado. The idea of guidelines was proposed in a 1999 master plan for the historic neighborhoods of East Nashville, the result of collaboration between a national team of experts supplied by the American Institute of Architects and hundreds of citizens. Area residents wanted to ensure the compatibility of new development with the character of an urban neighborhood. They sought to avoid the suburban-style, car-centric buildings and infrastructure that occurred during the days of so-called “urban renewal.”
“The design guidelines focused on the commercial areas, which weren’t already covered by preservation zoning overlays,” says architect Hunter Gee, a member of the group that crafted the guidelines. These overlays, which involve primarily residential areas and control the form and details of building exteriors, are administered by the Metro Historical Commission. The commercial territory targeted by the new guidelines was within MDHA’s East Bank and Five Points redevelopment districts.
The guidelines Gee and his team produced set forth requirements for building form and massing, height limits, and setbacks or build-to-lines appropriate for a traditional urban neighborhood.
“Land use had already been established by MDHA,” Gee says. “But the guidelines recognized that a land use plan doesn’t necessarily correspond to the desired building character.”
Case in point: the very Fluffo building Egerton and Heller want to redevelop. It was constructed in accordance with MDHA’s land use controls but before the design guidelines had been instituted. The result is a dumb brick box with few windows, blank doors and a suburban-style setback. It’s hard to imagine any East Nashvillian who would object to its redevelopment — or demolition.
The Tennessean depicts the developers as “nervous” about proceeding with Fluffo II “as long as the Five Points Redevelopment District is, in Egertonʼs words, ‘standing in the way.’ He said the upfront costs of money and time to get a project going tend to be ‘pretty brutal,’ so they donʼt want to take that risk if they canʼt be sure which rules — either evolving [sic] MDHA guidelines or base zoning — will govern height, setbacks and other design elements.”
This is questionable, to say the least. For starters, base zoning doesn’t dictate “design elements.” In addition, Egerton and Heller can be quite sure which rules will govern as long as the redevelopment district is in place: MDHA’s. And while the land use for the site is “neighborhood commercial,” the mixed-use Egerton/Heller prefer — or residential, for that matter — would also be permissible, according to MDHA development director Joe Cain.
“I don’t see what the problem is,” Cain says, “unless it’s the design guidelines. But you’d have to talk to March Egerton” about the particulars.
Architect Larry Woodson designed East End Lofts, a residential structure on Woodland Street within the Five Points redevelopment district. Woodson says he found the design guidelines “clear and well-written — no problem. They deal with height and form but not style. I was happy to have them.”
Egerton’s vacant lot on No. 11th St. presents issues different from Fluffo. The redevelopment-plan land use is for a one- or two-family residence. “March says that’s in conflict with the base zoning, which is mixed-use,” Cain says. “That’s incorrect. You can do residential in mixed-use,” so MDHA’s residential designation is merely more strict than the base zoning. Egerton told the Tennessean that MDHA’s land use requirement would make him build a house “that no one would want.” This might be news to the developers and builders who are scraping lots and building large new dwellings all over the Near East.
The context surrounding 11th and Forrest is residential in form — with setbacks and front porches — if not always in use. This is important, because the lot also falls within the Lockeland Springs/East End conservation-zoning overlay. Such overlays aren’t concerned with land use. But Metro Historical Commission executive director Tim Walker says, “We’d look very cautiously at any proposal for a commercial building that doesn’t preserve the residential setbacks.”
It’s quite true that certain aspects of the Five Points redevelopment district are outdated. Amending the plan, however, would require a labor-intensive effort by MDHA that Cain says the agency doesn’t want to undertake for a redevelopment district set to expire in 2020.
“We’re willing to remove it if the neighborhood supports that,” he says. “Does the neighborhood want to get rid of [land use controls and design guidelines] to get another restaurant next to Pizzereal?”
No redevelopment district has ever been eliminated before its expiration date, although two have been allowed to terminate at that point, including the controversial University Center district that destroyed blocks of houses for Vanderbilt University expansion. The ones covering downtown, some dating to the early 1950s, have been regularly renewed, despite the fact that the central city is not at all the blighted entity it once was. That’s because the purpose of redevelopment districts, according to MDHA’s website, is not only to reverse blight but also to “promote redevelopment that is sustainable from economic, environmental, aesthetic, public safety, and historic preservationist perspectives. One of the primary ways by which MDHA stabilizes property values in redevelopment districts and ensures a high standard of quality for new development is through design review.”
If the Five Points redevelopment district goes, the design guidelines go with it. Westerholm says he’s explored options to retain the guidelines or create new ones. But the only scenario is through an Urban Design Overlay created by the Planning Department. “And the staff say they’ve a backlog of requests for UDOs, so it would take years to get to ours,” he explains.
East Nashville has seen much blight removal and new investment. But the scars of years of anti-urban planning and development are easily visible — especially on Woodland Street west of Five Points, which still has a long way to go.
John Summers warns East Nashvillians to “think long and hard” before removing land use and design controls.
“Just because property values have risen dramatically doesn’t mean everyone is going to do neighborhood sensitive development," he says. "Look at Green Hills.”