EAST NASHVILLIAN OF THE YEAR - Citizen

BRETT WITHERS

On a chilly December night, Brett Withers stands in front of the last Eastwood Neighbors meeting of the year, his last as president of the neighborhood association. “It’s time for this benevolent dictatorship to come to an end,” he joked, noting that he had served as president for five years, exceeding the technical term limit of the position by two years. Not that anyone at the meeting was complaining. Instead, the two dozen or so neighbors present gave Withers a round of applause and thanked him for his service.
     For the past five years, and during 2014 in particular, Withers has provided invaluable leadership to Eastwood Neighbors, and all of East Nashville, as it adjusts to the growing pains of rapid redevelopment. Where some people might see a problem, sigh, and say, “Oh well,” Withers is the guy who is already figuring out the solution. Deeply concerned about protecting the historic character of the neighborhood, and dismayed by the recent spate of poorly designed tall-skinny umbilical-cord duplexes crammed on postage-sized lots, he decided to do something about it.
     First, Withers guided the effort to expand the Conservation Zoning Overlay District in Eastwood Neighbors, and then he worked closely with Lockeland Springs to expand theirs.
     “Brett taught me how to understand zoning,” says Elizabeth Smith, president of the Lockeland Springs Neighborhood Association. His vast knowledge of neighborhood zoning issues and willingness to share that with others has been invaluable, she says. “He really only has the best interests of the neighborhood as a whole in mind.”
     After the Lockeland overlay was completed, Withers worked with crosstown neighbors and Metro Council members to get a countywide “duplex bill” and a new Contextual Overlay bill passed.
     “He’s like the Energizer bunny of the neighborhood,” says Cliff Lippard, recently elected to succeed Withers as president of Eastwood Neighbors. As vice president of the neighborhood association last year, Lippard worked closely with Withers on the overlay efforts and attributes the campaign’s success to Withers’ “slow, deliberate approach.”
     “He has just dedicated himself to this cause,” says Carol Norton, a friend and fellow neighborhood activist who was one of many people who nominated Withers for the 2014 East Nashvillian of the Year honor. “He helped organize neighbors and was out in the cold, dreary weather during the holidays last year, knocking on doors and explaining conservation zoning to his neighbors.”
     It’s not a task every neighborhood leader would be up for, but Withers embraced the cause with a true activist spirit, pounding the pavement, maps and surveys in hand, ready to answer all kinds of architectural and zoning questions.
     “My dream job would be to be an urban planner, but for now I’m glad to do it as a personal interest and a hobby,” says Withers, who works as an assistant to the president of a private transportation company.
     The overlay process, Withers says, “was very much a uniting experience for the neighborhood.” There was a high level of engagement and good turnout at community meetings, and of course, many virtual discussions over the East Nashville listserv.
     “What I’m most proud of is that there was so much participation among neighbors who talked to each other, knocked on doors and canvassed,” he says. “There are so many people who are passionate, involved and who care about this neighborhood.
     “Even if people were not in favor of it, they went along with the majority opinion” of their immediate neighbors regarding the overlay, Withers says. If there was enough opposition on certain blocks, they were simply left out of the coverage. Withers “made sure that people really wanted to be in the overlay; he was not dragging people into it,” Lippard says.
     On the front end of the overlay efforts, Withers insisted there would be only one survey circulated. “I didn’t want to create an atmosphere of competition,” he says. He is proud that the tone of the debate remained civil and “we avoided the split that has happened in other neighborhoods” regarding zoning issues.
     Even though Eastwood Neighbors successfully passed an extension of its conservation overlay, that will not magically stop all the “tall skinnies” from being constructed. “The non-conforming structures just moved across the line” from where the overlay boundaries were drawn, Withers says.
     Within the Conservation Zoning Overlay District, structures that are determined to qualify as “contributing to the historic character of the district” cannot be demolished in most cases, and significant alterations to the exterior of the buildings are reviewed by the Metro Historic Zoning Commissioners to ensure compliance with design guidelines.
     The conservation overlay expansion passed last spring helped Eastwood Neighbors ensure that the most characteristic structures can be renovated but not demolished, and helped to ensure that the remaining one-third of the structures in the district can be redeveloped, but must meet the design guidelines for the area. This year’s overlay expansion included approximately 450 properties in four areas, bringing the total district coverage area up to about 900 properties in the general area from Gallatin to Porter and Eastland up to Douglas or Greenwood.
     In order to offer some protection to parts of the neighborhood such as Rosebank and Rolling Acres that do not qualify for historic or conservation overlay coverage, Withers worked with neighborhood leaders from Whites Creek to Green Hills, the Metro Planning Department staff and Council Member Walter Hunt to craft a contextual overlay bill which passed this summer.
     This new overlay tool, available to neighborhoods throughout Davidson County, allows residents to have some control over the size of new structures going up on their block. “It doesn’t protect buildings, but it limits the size of new ones,” Withers says. “The main thing is it stops them from being really tall.”
     This kind of an overlay does not prevent demolitions or require design reviews, but it does limit the size of new construction homes or additions to existing homes to be no more than 125 to 150 percent larger than the average of the four neighboring properties. “It was a battle getting it passed,” Withers says. “The development community fought very fiercely.”
     Withers also butted heads with developers when he rallied the neighborhood in support of the so-called “duplex bill” that was resoundingly passed by the Metro Council in September. The bill removes the “umbilical cord” that was previously required between two units, and limits the height to no more than twice the width of the structures.
     “Overlays are somewhat controversial over property rights issues. But I don’t know of a single homeowner who is constructing duplexes,” Withers wrote on the listserv in August, one of his many online zoning updates that neighbors came to rely on.
     Withers’ ability to get information out to neighbors in a way they could understand it was key, Norton says, as he was able to translate technical and confusing language into something palatable to residents. “He spent an enormous amount of time sorting through all of this and outshone everyone in that regard,” she says. “Keeping East Nashville so well informed made a really big difference” in neighbor engagement and, ultimately, the success of the overlays and duplex bill passing, she says.
     Withers is proud of the regulations that have been passed during 2014 to help protect the character of historic neighborhoods in East Nashville and beyond, but, he says, “It’s best to put these things in place before crazy things happen, otherwise you’re working to undo past mistakes.”
     Norton, who has lived in Edgefield since the mid-1970s, says, “Some of us who have been around for decades fighting the good fight got complacent. It took some of our newer neighbors to jump in and fight to keep what’s good about East Nashville. It’s really good to see folks banding together to protect the neighborhood again.”
     During the seven years he has lived in the neighborhood, Withers has witnessed “the pace of development accelerate so quickly” that it was initially difficult to get a handle on what could be done before “crazy things” happened. “My first year as president of Eastwood Neighbors, our biggest problem was crime,” he says. “We cleaned that up and then architectural crime started happening.”
     With the rapid redevelopment of the neighborhood and the sharp increase of housing stock prices, East Nashville still needs to get a handle on how to encourage more affordable housing. “There are a lot of people who can’t afford to buy or rent a house for $1,600 a month,” Withers says.
     “There seems to be a real aversion to apartments,” but maybe more are needed to accommodate single people, traveling musicians, those who work in restaurants and don’t need 2,000-square-foot, $400,000 homes. “We haven’t solved the problem of people getting priced out of the neighborhood,” Withers says.
     During his tenure as president, Withers has gotten a crash course in zoning laws and mediating differences between neighbors and developers. He has spent countless hours poring over zoning and building codes information, attending public hearings, and relaying that information back to others.
     “I definitely do not have a personal life,” he jokes. But Withers adds that the work he has done over the past year “has been personally rewarding, and I think we’ve accomplished a lot.”
     It may seem like a thankless job at times, and of course, it’s not even a paid job, but one that Withers does because he cares deeply about his community. “He really embodies the spirit of East Nashville,” says Norton.
     “Brett is one of those selfless individuals that it’s kind of rare to find these days,” Smith says.