Where Goes The Neighborhood?

New residential development is spreading through Nashville’s older neighborhoods like wildfire. Can the character of East Nashville be preserved as property values rise and gentrification sets in, or will we all be packing up and moving to White’s Creek?

Thirty years ago, I was living just to the south of Belmont College at the corner of 15th and Compton Avenue in a 1930s era two-story gray stone house popularly known as . . . well … “The Gray House.” It was divided into four apartments — two on the first floor, one on the second, and a fairly roomy one in the attic space. My rent was $275 per month, which seemed like a whole lot of money at the time. Many of the other houses on Compton were also split up as rentals.

Through whatever forces or energies that dictate these things, there was a large concentration of extremely talented individuals living in and hanging around the Gray House. It was almost like a commune. Future members of bands like Lambchop, Wilco, and Ryan Adams were regulars. The bass player from Jason & The Scorchers lived there. The alternative music scene actually was an alternative music scene, and touring bands relied on a nationwide network of kindred spirits to provide crash pads. Black Flag, REM, the Goo Goo Dolls — the list goes on.

The entire Hillsboro-Belmont neighborhood was filled with the types of creative people all of whom, each in their own way, helped lay the foundation for the cultural diversity Nashville has the pleasure of experiencing today. No one seemed to have much money back then, so affordable housing played a huge part in allowing that scene to happen.

It’s doubtful someone in Metro’s Planning and Zoning department ever thought, “Hey, let’s create an environment for a bunch of impoverished creative types!” Even if they had we’d have probably moved elsewhere. The same holds true for the rise of the creative community in East Nashville, which has roots, this time around, that were planted in the early ’90s. For as the Hillsboro-Belmont area gentrified, the young, creative types moved on in search of a place they could afford. That place happened to be East Nashville, broadly speaking.

Landlords of the 80s weren’t looked upon favorably; many of the rental houses — including the Gray House — were in disrepair. There seemed to be a “bare minimum” approach to home maintenance, although, looking back, that attitude probably played a major factor in keeping rents low. My landlord, Roger Joynes, was fairly typical of the type. He was a decent enough man, though, and was willing to put up with us. One day I asked him what he’d sell 1500 Compton Ave. for: “$35,000,” he replied without hesitation. It might as well have been a million dollars.

Nowadays there are fully restored Four Squares on Belmont Boulevard selling for well over a million dollars. Sound familiar? It should because a similar scenario is unfolding on the East Side these days, only faster. The Belmont area has had one thing, in particular, going for it, though: large swaths of RS7.5 zoning (medium density residential, requiring a minimum 7,500 square foot lot and intended for single-family dwellings). This more or less eliminates the dreaded duplex from the landscape. So, if you happen to be a homeowner or developer wanting to maximize return on investment in the Belmont area, the best option is to renovate and add to the existing structure, and that’s exactly what they did.

The resulting neighborhood, 30 years on, is still one of my favorites. But it’s an expensive place to buy into now, and the rental houses are long gone. Belmont University began purchasing houses on Acklen and Compton Avenues in the 90s — including our beloved Gray House, which they razed. The scene of 30 years ago wouldn’t be possible in that area today.

East Nashville is experiencing the results of a different type of zoning. From 5th to McGavock, it’s almost entirely R6 zoning (medium density residential, requiring a minimum 6,000 square foot lot and intended for single and two-family dwellings). The “two-family dwellings” part allows for “tall skinny duplexes.” Even Edgefield, with its stunning historic homes, is zoned R8 (medium density residential, requiring a minimum 8,000 square foot lot and intended for single and two-family dwellings), although homeowners in that neighborhood have managed to have a “Historic Zoning Overlay” established that placed additional restrictions on what can be built there and how it will look.

It’s something of a conundrum, really: Push to have things rezoned RS (single-family) or to have other, more restrictive overlays put in place, and the unintended consequence might be one of eliminating the income diversity that gives the East Side a substantial part of its character.

Don’t get me wrong; some of the duplexes that have been built are ridiculously out of context. If one went up next to my house I’d be furious. The complaints are legitimate. Developers are people, too, and, like the rest of humanity, some people care while others don’t.

—Chuck Allen

Things stand out because they’re different from other things.

Some things stand out because of quality. A really high-end diamond stands out because of its cut and clarity, shining brighter, seemingly, than those around it. A top-notch musician stands out because of his or her facility at playing an instrument. A great singer has a voice that rings cool, clear, and true, or else red-hot and unforgettable. Everyone else just sounds like, well,
everyone else.

And some things stand out because they’re trying too hard, or not hard enough. The 45-year-old man-boy in face paint and a jersey at a Titans game. That dude wearing a T-shirt to a funeral. The big, tall, gawky, pastel-painted house-looking things you see all over
East Nashville.

Wait: What are those things, anyway? You’ve seen them by now, provided you even occasionally leave your house. They’re tall, they’re angular, and they’re awkward. If Ric Ocasek were a piece of housing, he’d look like one of these. They usually come two to a property, connected by a building code loophole often derisively referred to as an “umbilical cord,” and are often parked between two other houses or dwellings of, let’s say, more conventionally “home-looking” homes. Some folks call them “tall skinnies.” Many, especially in the last year, call them something more. An eyesore, or worse: a problem.

You’ve probably seen those signs in folks’ yards that say “Build Like You Live Next Door.” Indeed, they seem to be everywhere.

Those signs, in and of themselves, don’t solve anything, however. They’re the real-world equivalent of a Facebook status update that 158 people “like” and then promptly forget as they scroll down the rest of their feed.

Why? Because the builders of a particular property (or, rather, the LLC that is financing said building) could be based, quite literally, anywhere. Anywhere that someone has a certain amount of money to spend and feels confident that by spending some of his money now, he will enjoy even more money in the future.

You may have heard in the last year or so various estimates concluding that Nashville’s population may increase by 300,000-500,000 people by the year 2030. Sounds all science-fiction-y, doesn’t it? Consider, however, that it was 15 years ago that George W. Bush was first elected president. Fifteen years, unless you’re 15 years old yourself, isn’t such an unimaginable chunk of time.

It’s a problem a lot of cities would kill to have. Nashville’s relatively bustling economy, “It city” status in national magazines, and general quality of life have all sorts of people from all strata of society wanting to relocate here, and not all of them are failed butt-rock musicians.

These people will need a place to live. Builders and real estate honchos are well aware of this. They are also aware of the fact that East Nashville gets its own share of laudatory press, as well it should, with its inimitable mix of unique people, places, and things to do. If they can at all afford it, people like to be around other people doing cool things.

This is why East Nashville, in whose warm embrace you’re likely reading this right now, is about to see a building boom like this side of the city hasn’t seen in almost 50 years.

But where will all these people—these hypothetical, projected people—live? Areas like Cleveland Park and Eastwood Neighbors and Inglewood, both South and North, are already seeing single-family homes going for tens of thousands of dollars more than they were valued at even five years ago—and that’s if you can even find a quality home that’s for sale and doesn’t require an almost total rebuild.

That’s where two big catchword phrases start entering into the picture: “Density” and “Infill.”

Density is a byword for “more people living in an area, paying property and other taxes to help the economy, without building new subdivisions.” Density, it is often said, is essential to developing an urban core, something that not only helps sustain cities but also protects them against the sort of inside-out urban decay that residents of cities like Memphis and Detroit know only too well. Common ways of attaining density are through condominium homes, cottage homes, apartment housing, and, increasingly, the “tall skinnies” idea of having two residences on a piece of property where only one stood before. This sort of density is often popular when the piece of property a particular dwelling sits on becomes more valuable than the structure itself, which leads to the property being bought out by a developer (or LLC), who then razes the structure and, if current zoning allows it, builds a duplex or other, non-single-family home.

Infill, or infill housing, is the insertion of additional housing into an already-approved neighborhood. This can come in the form of additional units built on the same lot, dividing existing homes into multiple units, or, perhaps most commonly, by creating new residential lots by further extending lot lines—further subdividing a subdivision, if you will. In many cases, the existing infrastructure may be sufficient, or need relatively little work to accommodate the additional units.

As often happens, infill structures sometimes clash with the neighboring, pre-existing ones, at least aesthetically. This leads to your “Build Like You Live Next Door” signs, to your, “Oh, you mean those Gumby-looking things?” comments when you bring up the issue to your co-worker.

Truly ugly things never really stand the test of time, of course—think the Ford Edsel or stonewashed jeans. Think hate. For our purposes, think architecture.

I asked Anthony Davis, Metro Councilman for District 7, what his constituents have to say to him about infill development, or if they ever broach the topic at all.

“Density has probably been the largest issue, primarily that fear of losing the character of the neighborhood you bought into,” he says. “Also, some of the developers are simply building crap. It’s not everyone—we have a lot of infill development that looks really good, and actually matches the surrounding homes. But you always get a few bad apples in a
housing boom.

“The pressure from the Planning Department is clearly for more density,” Davis continues. “They will not deny this. Some neighbors want it, and many neighbors in my area [Inglewood/Rosebank] do not. Each of us East Nashville Council Members likely has a slightly different take on it. In my mind, the best balance for my district is pockets of density on specific sites [using SP zoning tools], and also trying to preserve the single-family housing stock and the character through our neighborhoods. Conversely, I am more inclined to say no to a developer attempting to do a ‘cottage development’ on what would normally be a lot with a couple of homes on it. To me, that is an attempt to cram in homes for profit, not to ‘add value’ to Inglewood.”

Here’s another thing to consider: In a housing boom, there must also be a range of housing price points. Not everyone is able to drop a quarter-million dollars or more (or a lot more, if recent $750,000-plus homes on streets like Fatherland are any indication) on a house.

Not everyone, in fact, even wants a house in the first place.

Many people, as the old cliché goes, are married to their careers. Some are recent college graduates, others still young professional couples who don’t want children. Some are same-sex couples. Some feel more comfortable in an urban environment. Some, perhaps, just really hate yard work.

Maintaining a range of housing price points, then, requires a certain amount of density.

In almost every city, neighborhood gentrification follows a general pattern: A neighborhood, by nature of its affordable rent, is home to a cadre of artists, musicians, aesthetes, and other creative types. People from elsewhere (usually elsewhere in the same city, at first) like what that area has to offer. They visit the area. They visit the area more often. They decide they’d like to live there. Other houses are renovated. Restaurants open. Cool things abound. Soon, the unmistakable whiff of profitability starts wafting up. Developers and speculators move in. Cool, quirky businesses can’t afford the rent any longer. Landlords and others see they’re sitting on a gold mine, and raise rents for the trailblazing artsy types too. Fast-forward the whole thing about 10 years, and all of a sudden you’ve got an area where the businesses and people who helped make an area cool to begin with can no longer afford to live there. It’s like that old Yogi Berra quip: “Nobody goes there anymore—it’s too crowded.”

There is a workable medium, Davis says, and it’s residents “owning ownership” of their neighborhoods, and, conversely, land-thirsty developers not looking at our little subsection of Nashville like it’s last call
for overhaul.

“We don’t want to be worried about the infill development all the time, looking over our shoulders,” Davis says. “An example is the duplex bill. We need to fix it and we need to fix it yesterday. Maybe neighbors wouldn’t be so upset with the infill if we had better guidelines in place. The planning department is working on the new drafts now, and our neighbors need to pay attention to it. The draft loses the umbilical cord between duplexes, allowing for a shared wall, or two units detached with a six-foot setback [space in between the homes]. I personally think with all the discussions we’ve had in Rosebank, it needs to be attached, or have a 10-foot setback. I’ve had conversations with others that only want a
shared-wall duplex.”

On top of that, many, including District 6 metro councilman Peter Westerholm, caution that talks over a specific piece of property must also factor in not only today’s neighbors,
but tomorrow’s.

“Discussions can be difficult because, in many cases, you’re trying to think of what’s best for this parcel of land for the next 80 years,” Westerholm says. “And you’re trying to figure out how that will relate to adjacent properties for that period, as well as how that area might also change.

“The challenge for cities, for Nashville, and for East Nashville is crafting a long-term vision that recognizes the benefits and consequences of each of our decisions,” he continues. “From the big ones like moving forward with a better mass transit system like the AMP, to the smaller ones like a rezoning going on down the street, or as it often is, next door. Each decision has an impact. Recognizing what these impacts will be and acting accordingly is the challenge for all of us—for planners, for politicians, and for residents. Our neighborhood will change; it is up to us to shape the change to ensure it reflects what we value most in our neighborhoods.”

Like Casey Kasem, Westerholm believes it’s possible to keep our feet on the ground while still reaching for the stars. Both Davis and Westerholm note that the only way real change can happen is for folks to get involved, and to change whatever rules and restrictions are currently on the books. Until then, developers can feel free to run the table, even if we feel like their game is garden-variety “dirty pool.”

But can you blame a developer for doing what’s within his (if he’s a corporation, he’s a person, legally speaking) legal rights? Perhaps, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do anything about it. If there were something on the books that said triplexes were permitted if connected by a series of conjoined Rubik’s Cubes, rest assured that some developers would have their people haunting vintage toy stores and eBay tomorrow. It’s a business, as traded professional athletes say all the time, and the market makes the rules.

However, there is a human element to this story, as there is to every story worth telling.

Developers can’t run roughshod over a city or its citizens if they wish to continue making our acquaintance. People don’t like to feel like they’re being taken advantage of, or at the very least don’t care for it once it’s been pointed out to them. Keep building more “crap,” as Davis aptly puts it, and you’ll risk pissing people off. Keep making the city look bad, and your one-time rubberstamped go-ahead might start reading “REJECTED.”

“Build Like You Live Next Door” is one thing. Perhaps it would be instructive for folks interested in this issue on a deeper level to turn that around for a second. What if we tried living like we built next door?

Zac Thomas of Woodland Street Partners and Paragon Group echoes everyone we talked about for this story in saying that, in the case of residential development in East Nashville, talk isn’t cheap—in that not talking can be expensive for everyone involved.

“Dialogue is critical,” Thomas says. “We favor proactive engagement with the community to help shape what we build. In areas that help by providing us with active feedback, developers have the opportunity to better understand the goals and needs of a changing community. Every year, we’re improving and expanding our community engagement efforts to help us do that faster and in smarter ways. We believe that a builder cannot be successful over the long-term without a community commitment that includes substantive dialogue and engagement. We engage in dialogue to help learn, to improve how we build, to tailor what we build, and to help us prevent repeating something that wasn’t popular or a flat-out mistake.”

It’s Thomas’s job—any developer’s, when you get down to it—to know what can and cannot be built on a piece of property. As such, if zoning, overlays and codes allow, it can be built. However, many citizens don’t feel privy to this information, even as it is, by law, readily available to view (if, admittedly, not always easy to find). I asked him how Metro could improve upon community education and awareness where residential development
is concerned.

“We don’t know of the full range of Metro’s community education and awareness efforts,” he says. “Metro does make an enormous amount of information on zoning, overlays, and construction/development topics available. There are several places where relevant development and overlay information is posted regularly online. The key is knowing where to look and how to interpret the information. Providing a single place to look online that aggregates all relevant upcoming construction and development activity would likely help to simplify and streamline things. We believe that Metro has something like that in the works. But one way or another, we all need to work to reduce the incidence of a concerned resident’s first look at a project occurring after the chance for community feedback has passed. There’s a responsibility there on the part of developers, Metro, and the residents.”

Thomas thinks that good business—better business—ultimately grows out of good business sense and right action.

“A short-term focus on return on investment can get any business into trouble,” he says. “If something is unpopular, opinions shift against it. We are hopeful that reactions to poorly done development don’t overcompensate in a way that creates new problems without first considering the trade-offs. If demand for homes is high and you limit the size of the homes, the price per square foot will likely climb faster than it would otherwise. If demand for homes is high and you rezone to prevent additional density, home prices likely climb faster than they would otherwise. In both instances, economic diversity is lost, which fundamentally alters the fabric of a community.”

Which is to say: You can’t stop progress, and the rich will get richer. All those clichés, which are, incidentally, probably correct, fundamentally. Culturally, you’ll price out a lot of the quirkiness that East Nashville prides itself on. You’ll lose the ever-changing collective face—and faces—that make the area so livable and desirable. You’ll lose your hot “it city” status, and not too many media outlets find time to make listicles about America’s most “lukewarm” places to visit. Prevent density, as Thomas notes, and home prices will go up. Which is great if you’re currently a homeowner, but not if you’re looking for a home, or considering moving here.

The answer to poorly done development, then, is not to prevent all development. It’s to talk, with your metro councilman, with developers. It means going to neighborhood meetings. It means making some time for your home, as well as yourself and your loved ones who live in that home. Like anything you want to keep in peak performance, it means
occasional maintenance.

“Currently interacting with residents isn’t something that is broadly mandated in the rules,” Thomas says. “Interacting with neighbors is a decision we’ve made to try to build in a way that’s consistent with the wishes of the communities we build in. That often requires trying to balance opposing viewpoints on what Nashville should become. Residents want less-expensive homes, but sellers want ever more for their land. Residents want smaller one-story houses, but homebuyers want larger ones and higher land prices often preclude that option. Residents want economic diversity but are often opposed to the density that could help provide it. Buyers want less-expensive homes but still want great areas, driving demand for density. Communities often don’t share the same sentiments, or even agree among the residents. Communities often don’t agree with what Nashville’s planners think Nashville will, could, or should look like. Communities often don’t agree with the preferences of relocating home buyers who are coming from denser areas. It’s not easy to satisfy all people.

“Development isn’t always just a place to be; it’s an opportunity to define how to be… As the city is continuously refreshed, there’s tremendous opportunity to define how we want to be. Good development can help.”

Bill Purcell is a lawyer at Jones Hawkins & Farmer, and also a noted hot chicken aficionado. For those new to the area, the East Nashville resident was also mayor of Nashville from 1999-2007, before the current mayor, Karl Dean, took over. He doesn’t live in the ivory tower some might expect of a former mayor and lecturer at the Harvard University Institute of Politics. He makes his home on a modest lot in Lockeland Springs.

While in office, Purcell developed the Office of Affordable Housing, created some 26,000 new units, and also focused on increasing the density downtown while preserving housing stock in the city’s historic neighborhoods. With the city’s real-estate temperature currently as sweat-inducing as Purcell’s favorite Prince’s order—hot—this now seems prescient. Purcell says it’s just called thinking ahead—far ahead, in most cases. And he doesn’t just mean developers or Metro government.

“The most important thing is for neighborhoods to be engaged in real-time, both in policy changes and in the effect those changes have on the ground,” he says. “It takes constant communication and attention to the people, where they live and work.”

Purcell argues that economic forces actually will work to save neighborhoods in the long run. Subpar work, whether in an infrastructure or aesthetic sense, actually hinders developers and development, he argues and should keep those seeking to ignore the “spirit” of zoning in order to maximize their return on investment out.

“Protecting the fabric of a neighborhood is at the core of maximizing return on investment for the long term,” he says. “Our most successful neighborhoods have been careful about this for a generation now, and the results are obvious in the increased valuations in East Nashville, Sylvan Park, Second Avenue, Richland, or Hillsboro-West End, just for example.

“Metro Planning and MDHA [Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency] have experience in protecting what has made this city so special,” he continues. “They know what to do and have done it successfully in the past. Most important now is not forgetting what we know, some of it learned the hard way, [and thereby creating] a place we are not now and never want to be. We are the ‘it’ city we are today not because of what we might build next, but because we protected and then enhanced what made Nashville so special through two centuries and now beyond.”

I asked Purcell if stricter zoning and overlays, historic and otherwise, could be a double-edged sword, in that what might “protect” one from a developer now might hinder one’s options with their own property in the future.

“There is nothing double-edged about protecting a neighborhood and the people who have invested their money and their lives in the place,” he says. “There are other cities that have no zoning and little building regulation. The people who have chosen Nashville will not forget why they came or why they stayed in a place that protects their homes and values their community.

“They know they made the right choice. Just ask them.”

Where goes the neighborhood? Exactly wherever you decide to lead it, East Nashville.

—Timothy C. Davis

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