This article has been brewing in my head since I heard a popular Sylvan Park Realtor admit that any home sale in Sylvan Park would result in a teardown. This sounds incredulous, but as you drive block after block in this historic West Nashville neighborhood, it’s apparent that she’s probably right. What is propelling the huge number of teardowns, which are occurring at breathtaking speed all over town, are developers increasing home density for greater profits. What’s funny is the more you raise your awareness to this issue, the more likely you are to see it everywhere and in almost every Nashville neighborhood. Increasing density has many consequences — everything from losing the character and charm of historic neighborhoods, to loss of trees and green space, to more traffic. However, its overriding advantage is that it accommodates the scores of new residents moving to Music City. But at what cost to our beloved neighborhoods?
With full disclosure, this a personal issue for me. I worked tirelessly to get my neighborhood under a conservation overlay and encountered a fair amount of conflict in the process. Having been called an elitist and bearer of propaganda, I stand by my belief that preserving historic neighborhoods in Nashville is as important as anything else we do as a city. If you have ever been to Charleston, SC, Asheville, NC, or Savannah, GA, you understand why great cities define themselves by their historic buildings and neighborhoods.
Another phenomenon that appears oddly unique to Nashville is the birth of the “tall-skinnies,” or more commonly referred to as “A/B” houses. They can be found all over town in most neighborhoods. Not only do they lack ingenuity — they all look the same, substituting rich architecture with cookie cutter designs — but many replace sturdy stone and brick homes with newer construction leading one to wonder if they will survive the test of time.
To maximize the land use, the new lots have yards of concrete and shared driveways without a tree in sight. In Green Hills, it is common to see “A, B, C, D & Es” on a lot that used to house just one single-family home.
Even in my own neighborhood, of which only a portion is protected by a historic overlay, I have seen dozens upon dozens of old trees cut down to make way for 10,000+-square-foot homes and high density condos. Does it matter to us as a community that the once lovely stretch of West End that was Welch College has no trees and one lone historic home left standing? The Nashville that once enjoyed tree-lined streets and historic architecture is rapidly becoming extinct, one teardown at a time. When the subject is broached, there seems to be a sense of helplessness from neighbors as they feel a day late and dollar short when it comes to being a part of the discussion.
Currently, the Albert Samuel Warren House near Music Row is headed to the chopping block to be replaced by two towers for residential and hotel use. If you remember, it took the efforts of singer Ben Folds to raise awareness about the demolition of Studio A and Aubrey Preston, a Leiper’s Fork investor, to finally save it.
With this issue weighing on my mind (a lot), I asked Burgin Dossett, who is a developer and preservationist, to share his thoughts.
“As the Nashville metropolitan area continues to grow at unprecedented speed, homebuyers are quickly discovering the value of living in or near the city, often in areas that were passed by in recent years as new residents desired more land and bigger homes in the suburbs for less cost,” Burgin explains.
The preferences have changed, due in large part to the ever-increasing Nashville traffic, changing tastes of millennials and empty nesters, and the appeal of “walkable neighborhoods” — typically leafy districts with sidewalks near amenities like coffee shops and cafes. This abrupt shift in mindset has yielded a gold rush-type frenzy for developers, now flocking to in-town neighborhoods in search of vacant, low-priced lots or small houses ripe for demolition.
In many cases, what follows are new houses of maximum allowable size that dwarf adjacent structures and leave little room for yards and landscaping. It should be noted, though, that developers can bring welcomed improvements to a neighborhood if the new construction is in keeping with the setbacks and overall scale of the surrounding district.
Burgin says there are things that neighborhoods can do right now to organize and protect the place they call home. These include:
1. Meet with the Metro Nashville Planning Department to understand what the existing zoning and land covenants in your neighborhood permit for new construction and — just as significant — what they prohibit.
2. Organize as a group to determine what makes your property and the properties around you special and how to maintain that character. What existing buildings and houses are of architectural value and worth saving? What lots or distressed structures might be cleared to make way for improvement, allowing the surrounding homes and businesses to increase in value? Developers make money based on location, design and, most importantly, the size of a house — the greater the size, the greater the profit.
3. With this in mind, the neighborhood plan should consider creative ways to increase floor area in both new and renovated homes while maintaining the appropriate scale and footprint. Adding dormers to attic spaces, finishing basements or partially submerging new additions to match existing roof lines are a few approaches that have proven to be successful.
Another option for increasing size and density is allowing construction of a garage with a mother-in-law suite above, a practice now permitted in many areas. This freestanding building at the rear of lots, accessible by an alley or side street, gives the builder added area and provides a more open backyard at the same time.
4. Work with Metro to create an overlay or district with a documented design criteria that sets forth appropriate scale, architectural standards and materials for any new construction. Such a bold step will require a majority consensus by the homeowners and may be subject to Metro Council approval.
5. Engage in dialogue. Work with developers to provide input on proposed new buildings. Stakeholders might consider increasing permitted density at some key entry lots or corners to allow multifamily or mixed use spaces, such as ground floor retail offerings (coffee shop, dry cleaner, bakery) with apartments above. Study the older neighborhoods of East Nashville where a small commercial building or apartment house dating from the early 20th century can be found on many corners, allowing residents to walk to a public place for both community and convenience.
What Can You Do?
If you see your street or neighborhood being steadily demolished and rebuilt, what’s a neighbor to do?
Know the rules and know your rights.
Kathleen Murphy, Sylvan Park’s councilwoman, says, “Neighbors need to be aware of what their current zoning and adjacent streets’ zoning allows. I have received a lot of complaints about homes being torn down and new homes going up. Neighbors are often surprised by what is currently allowed by zoning rights. Overlays and other district design elements should not be seen as restrictive. Rather, they should be seen as protecting what is existing and making sure the neighborhood you chose stays a neighborhood you love.”
Get on Nextdoor and/or join your neighborhood association.
If you have not yet joined Nextdoor, you should. It’s a great way to communicate with your neighbors on issues that matter — traffic, crime, development and, of course, lost dogs and cats. Beware that thoughtful discussion can turn heated and passionate, but if you commit to keeping it civil and respectful, it’s one of the best ways to communicate with neighbors.
On the heels of the election of a new mayor, Megan Barry, there’s no time like the present to plan for quality growth and create new development in established neighborhoods that both draws from the past and addresses needs for the future.
This topic is definitely not new. There are plenty of articles discussing the importance of preserving Nashville’s beautiful historic buildings and homes. Here are a few that offer some further insight to the topic. Read them, and then get involved and do your part in saving the parts of Nashville that attracted people here in the first place!
- Nashville Business Journal: “She Wants to Save Nashville From ‘It City’“
- The Tennessean: “Million-dollar homes, condos planned for Welch College site on West End Avenue“
- WKRN News 2: “New growth turns The Nations into thriving Nashville neighborhood“
- USA Today: “Nashville’s Studio A to be saved from demolition“
Get in touch with the people, offices and organizations that can help. Here are some important contacts to seek out:
- Office of the Mayor of Nashville
- Members of the Metro Council
- Metro Planning Department
- Metro Planning Commission
- Historic Nashville Inc.
Find all the wonderful things to love about Nashville in the SB App. Click here to download!