Coming to a neighborhood near you

Developers have upper hand in march toward higher density on urban streets

Friday, May 10, 2019, Vol. 43, No. 19
By Hollie Deese

James Kelley has lived since 1988 in the historic Richland-West End neighborhood, a tree-lined, enclave located on land that was once part of John Brown Craighead’s 194-acre estate.

It’s an idyllic example of Nashville’s architectural past, a mix of bungalows and Craftsman houses in Colonial Revival, Tudor and American Foursquare styles, and was one of the city’s first planned subdivisions, created in 1905.

A member of the Richland-West End Neighborhood Association board of directors, founded in 1974 as a historic preservation group, Kelley, an attorney, led negotiations between the neighborhood and GBT Realty Corporation, which is developing a two-building, 14-story project a block away – just across I-440 – on Murphy Road that will include a hotel, residential, shopping and restaurants on a small lot now occupied by a single-story Fifth Third Bank branch.

For Kelley and the neighborhood – as well as the nearby neighborhoods of Sylvan Park Hillsboro-West End – it isn’t just the height of the development but the volume of people and cars it will bring.

“The issues this will bring with traffic, I think that’s going to affect everybody who’s in the general area,” Kelley says.

And despite the proximity, he says neighbors had little say in the matter, a common complaint among Nashville residents who sometimes miss or ignore zoning signs and letters from Metro about upcoming public meetings or simply feel Metro too often sides with developers in the rush to get more cranes into the sky.

It’s a battle that has and will play out in neighborhoods across Metro as growth continues its rapid pace. The deck is stacked in favor of developers who have the expertise, money and legal firepower to push projects through. And Metro Council has shown little willingness to push back.

Even a neighborhood as affluent as Richland-West End – with a significant war chest to fight development and zoning challenges – was unable to find a land-use attorney willing to take its side in negotiations with GBT.

The neighborhood essentially fought GBT to a split decision, in boxing parlance, getting a reduction in scope but unable to keep it within current zoning.

Neighborhood leaders called it a ‘soft win.’ Other neighborhoods with fewer resources and less political influence will likely not fare as well.

The greatest change Kelley and his neighbors have seen in his 30-plus years living in the area was in 2015 when the Welch College, formerly the Free Will Baptist College, moved to Gallatin, freeing high-profile property on West End and Richland Avenue ripe for development.

Developer Mike Ford of Ford Custom Classic Homes purchased the property for about $12 million and began developing land between Richland and West End Avenues into a series of brownstones and $2 million single-family homes.

Richland-West End resident James R. Kelley helped lead the neighborhood’s fight against GBT Realty’s development of a 207-foot-tall office, retail, hotel and residential tower on nearby Murphy Road. A smaller version of the plan was ultimately approved.

That development, Richland Hall, has classic architecture that fits into the historic area, utilizing the tree-lined streets and sidewalks and keeping the new builds in line aesthetically with neighboring homes. Kelley says he has been happy with the development, despite the noise and disruption that inevitably comes with construction.

But the nature of the new development at the site of Fifth Third Bank at 3415 Murphy Road, next to Dose coffee shop and across from the exit to I-440, is a much different prospect.

The initial proposal from Brentwood-based GBT Realty in 2018 sought a special zoning allowance to build one tower 207 feet high, with 380,000-square-feet of space. That’s twice the density of existing zoning, which allowed for a building 110 feet tall with 190,000 square feet of space, even though it’s in a corridor slated for intense development growth.

Area neighborhoods banded together, meeting with the developer multiple times about their concerns about how much the increased density would impact traffic.

Now after nearly a year of back and forth with the neighborhood groups, GBT Realty has compromised with a new design which includes two buildings that will rise 14 floors (154 feet) as opposed to the initial proposed 16. The developers have added muted-glass reflectivity, improvements to the nearby greenway and an additional traffic study.

The project was approved by Metro Council last month.

“It’s still too big, but it is what it is,” Kelley says. “By the time our neighborhood got involved, the Planning Commission approved a much bigger building, so at that point we’re trying to undo what had already been done.”

Planning for the future

The Metro Planning Commission turned to guidelines from NashvilleNext when making its decision about zoning. NashvilleNext is the long-range plan for Nashville’s future based on community vision and input. It was adopted in 2015 after 20,000 community members shared their thoughts and suggestions with the planning commission, online and in person, at more than four hundred meetings, briefings, events and public conversations.

Metro Planning spokesman Sean Braisted explains NashvilleNext is intended to guide growth, development and preservation through 2040, with more detailed policies for neighborhoods set through 14 community plans to establish which zoning policies would be sufficient for individual parcels.

The Green Hills/Midtown Community Plan, conducted in 2012, includes Kelley’s particular part of town and set height guidance. The area of 3415 Murphy Road was identified as a midrise area, with heights between 8-20 stories. The Specific Plan (SP) Zoning request approved by the planning commission allowed for 16 stories.

But it is just a suggestion.

“NashvilleNext was not adopted as a zoning ordinance change,” Kelley says. “It’s sort of a statement of vision, and that’s what the Planning Commission used to justify erecting a building that was twice as high and has twice as many square feet as what the zoning allowed.”

NashvilleNext encourages density along or near major transportation corridors and where established patterns of growth exist, in part to help meet the goals of providing housing and job opportunities for Nashville residents while relieving development pressures on established residential areas, Braisted says.

“In this case, 3415 Murphy is situated between I-440 and the West End Corridor which is serviced by two transit lines, and is across the street from an 11-story development,” Braisted explains. “By going through an SP process, this allowed the planning staff to work with the developers and the community to put in place conditions to help alleviate some of the concerns, such as traffic and transportation improvements set forth in the conditions.”

But the growth accounted for in NashvilleNext also took into account some kind of transit plan,

“When you have mass transit you can accommodate more density,” Kelley adds. “Well, we didn’t get the transit, but we got the density. It seems to be a disconnected theory.”

Braisted agrees transit and growth went hand in hand in the NashvilleNext plan, but says zoning changes are not conditional of a transit plan.

“While additional high-capacity transit options are still a goal of NashvilleNext and nMotion, the community plans were not conditioned on eventual passage of a comprehensive proposal such as the one envisioned in nMotion and the Let’s Move Nashville transit plan,” he explains.

“Ultimately, it is the market that drives the need for growth and density, the community plans are meant to guide that growth and density in the places where it is most appropriate.”

And while neighbors might not feel they had much say in the development, Braisted points out that, ultimately, neighborhood concerns can’t be the only factor when making plans and staff recommendations based on the policies adopted through the community planning process, in this case, the Midtown Study from 2012.

“We understand that the Council members in the area around Murphy Road have requested more detailed designs for this particular area, and planning staff will be happy to work with them and the community to try and accommodate, understanding that there are many other areas of town that are in need of updates, as well, and staff resources are limited,” Braisted adds.

Metro Planning Staff regularly does more broad updates to the community plans – or conducts detailed neighborhood design plans – to further refine policies in the area, Braisted says. Last week, for example, staff conducted a design meeting in Wedgewood Houston and Chestnut Hill to do just that, with more planned over the next few years.

“At this point it’s done,” Kelley says. “The zoning has been approved, so we have to live with it. It’s really not optional anymore, unfortunately. We just have to, I guess, get used to having a very large building that’s right there on Murphy Road.”

The bigger worry is that the rezoning on Murphy Road is a precursor that will lead to lots surrounding the project being upzoned, changed from their current 10-story, 190,000-square-foot limit to be more in line with the GBT development, which would bring even greater density and congestion in the area.

Braisted says all zoning changes do have to go to the Metro Council, which can take into consideration other factors, such as community support or opposition, when deciding how to vote or in this case amending the SP to meet the concerns of the community. And that is what happened here with the amended plan.

“I believe that everybody in the neighborhood would agree that the final project is substantially better than that which was initially approved by the Planning Commission,” Kelley says. “But when you started with a project that was so unreasonable, even making in-roads doesn’t necessarily give you a great project.”