Razing Hell

The shifting East Nashville skyline sparks neighborhood dialogue

  • Maybe you’ve gotten a postcard in your mailbox that reads something like this: “I want to buy your property AS IS, make you a fair CASH offer and close on the date you choose!”

     
    Or maybe you’ve seen increasing numbers of real-estate ads with a description like this: “New Construction in East Nashville! Real Hardwood Floors, Custom Cabinets, Granite Countertops, Stainless Steel Appliances, Master Suite, Walk-in Closets, Fireplace, Deck, 2-Car Garage and more! Only $350,000! Make an appointment soon!”
     
    It may sound like a dream home to many well-heeled buyers, but to some East Nashville residents, it sounds like the work of greedy developers and gentrification run amok. With a recent uptick in teardowns and new home builds on the Eastside, many residents are wondering what all this new development means for this historic neighborhood.
     
    For years, it’s been common practice in Green Hills to sell off a modest-sized ranch on an acre or two of land and watch a minisubdivision of cluster homes sprout up, with hardly a blade of grass between them. In the nearby Belmont/12 South neighborhood, it’s impossible to find a classic foursquare being renovated today without an extra 1,500 square feet of living space slapped on the back of it. But this kind of development hasn’t really happened in East Nashville … yet. Could it be coming soon?
     
    The rate at which “very large, very expensive homes are going in, it’s kind of a jolt” to East Nashvillians, says Brett Withers, Eastwood Neighbors neighborhood association president. “We need to get a handle on it. The goal is to find a way to fit everyone in.”
     
    Withers has been fielding a lot of questions from neighbors and prospective buyers, trying to calm listserv tempers and facilitate meetings between developers and neighbors. He’s also answered emails and calls from people who find him online, asking about homes for sale in the area, even though he is not a realtor. With the economy slowly rebounding and national media touting East Nashville as the place to be, demand — and prices — are soaring.
     
    “Lately, it’s been really tough to buy on the open market. There’s been a pretty big flood of investors and it bids the prices up. It was a lot easier five to six years ago,” says Brett Diaz of Woodland Street Partners, a property development firm with several new home builds in the works for the Eastwood Neighbors area.
     
    Residential home designer Lynn Taylor has seen deteriorating historic homes torn down and historic replica houses spring up in East Nashville over the last two decades. Lately she’s noticed a different demographic showing interest in the neighborhood. “They’re moving in from the suburbs, and they want bigger homes with garages and a more modern feel. They’re not really moving here because of the historic homes, but because it’s hip and cool.”
     
    Diaz has also noticed increased demand for larger homes in the last few years, and he and his company have taken some heat for a few of their outsized designs. “We’ve certainly been guilty of building larger than we should have,” he says. “As we evolve we want to be a bit more sensitive.”
     
    Diaz, an Eastwood Neighbors resident, listened to concerns at a recent community meeting and adapted the design of a new home being constructed to better complement the surrounding homes. The homepage of the Woodland Street Partners website now invites people to leave feedback about what kind of design is needed here.
     
    There is a general consensus across East Nashville that homes of significant historical value should not be demolished. Many neighbors are keenly interested in preserving the historic structures that make the neighborhood unique, and are ready to put up a fight to save them.
     
    As The East Nashvillian goes to press, a public dispute is playing out on Facebook and the listserv between supporters of the “Blind Girls’ Home,” located at 1309 Forrest Ave., and the developer who recently purchased the property. Accusations are flying about what might happen with the property and when.
     
    Lockeland Springs neighborhood association president Mary Vavra feels confident that the property, which will be converted from eight rental apartments into condos, will be preserved. The architect has stated that renovations and a rear addition are planned, but that there are no plans to demolish the home. “The neighborhood association will follow the process as proposals are submitted to historic,” said Vavra. “We’ll be keeping a close eye on it,” just as they do with any Lockeland Springs building project, she said.
     
    Withers reminds East Nashville residents that if they have concerns about whether a historic property will be preserved, they need to watch the Metro Historic Zoning Commission agenda, write in or get to the meetings. “With a good volume of community input, historic has been talked out of allowing some builds” they would have otherwise approved, he said. “In my experience, demolition applications bring a great deal of scrutiny on the part of MHZC and the public and so are relatively difficult to pass.”
     
    As a general rule, Diaz and his company stick with new construction rather than renovating historic homes and prefer building on empty lots. If they do buy a house to tear down and rebuild, “we really try to focus on dilapidated homes that are not historic; those that are smaller and don’t necessarily fit in with the neighborhood.”
     
    Diaz knows that there will always be debates around architecture and that no design will suit all tastes, but he wants to accommodate as many people as possible. “We have a certain responsibility to make sure we’re making it happen within what the neighborhood as a whole wants,” he said. Confusion arises when even the neighborhood is not quite sure what it wants. Some homeowners prefer historic design overlays, while others don’t want to deal with such restrictions if they renovate. Some want all-new homes to closely match their immediate neighbors, while still others opt for more modern design.
     
    In the Rosebank area, the land of post-World War II brick ranch houses, there are no historic design restrictions and no plans to push for them. District 7 Councilman Anthony Davis states: “I’ll leave it to my constituents to guide where we want to go.” Davis also notes that since builders have chosen not to revive the brick ranch design concept new construction homes in his district never really match up with existing homes. “I think East Nashville is eclectic enough for that to be OK,” he says. “We’ve got to grow intelligently so we don’t ruin the character of the neighborhood.”
     
    What upsets residents the most is the overshadowing height of many new homes, usually resulting from a developer squeezing a towering duplex onto a lot that previously housed one small cottage. The only place to build is up. “Developers are really forced to do that if they’re going to make a profit,” explains Taylor.
     
    These tall, skinny homes can block views and sightlines of existing homes and leave neighbors feeling claustrophobic. “A lot of people have gotten used to a certain amount of space and that is going away,” says Withers.
     
    This style of home “sticks out like a sore thumb” to Taylor, mainly because of the height difference between the new homes and the older ones nearby. She said many of the new builds are beautiful, but they just don’t fit in where they are. “I don’t think the character of the neighborhood is staying intact,” she says, noting the difference between what can be built inside versus outside of a historic zoning overlay.
     
    “If you are outside a historic overlay and you have all the legal rights to that property, you can tear down and build as much as normal zoning allows,” and structures may be up to 48 feet tall, says Withers.
     
    While most of the grand Victorian homes of Lockeland Springs and Edgefield fall within a historic zoning overlay, the overlay in Eastwood Neighbors is sporadic and in Rosebank it’s non-existent, which is probably why so much new construction is happening in those areas right now.
     
    The influx of homes in the $250,000-$350,000 range in East Nashville may seem like an untenable spike in real-estate prices, but, “East Nashville is still affordable compared with other historic neighborhoods,” says Withers. Indeed, new or renovated homes in the 12 South area rarely sell for under a half-million dollars. Since East Nashville is a neighborhood that thrives on diversity, there are concerns that “the creative class we celebrate in East Nashville” will be pushed out as home values continue to rise, he adds.
     
    “When you tear down a house, you’re automatically going to get a house at a certain price point,” says Taylor. As more small houses get torn down and replaced with large modern ones, “you don’t have the diversity in architecture, the diversity in square footage or the diversity in income levels,” she continues. “Diversity — that’s what makes a great neighborhood.”
     
    Withers has seen many changes over the past eight years. Teardowns are the latest trend and cause for concern. “If we allow too much to be torn down,” he says ruefully, “we’re going to end up with a Disney-fied version of a historic neighborhood.”
     
    As longtime residents get used to the growing pains in the neighborhood — a part of which is coming to terms with the fact that East Nashville is no longer the Bohemian enclave of urban pioneers it once was — Withers says they should not forget that, “the more expensive the homes going in, the more the home values for all go up.” Homeowners may elect to take advantage of their increased home equity to make improvements or additions.
     
    During the recent Davidson County property reappraisal, a process undertaken every four years, Council District 6 was deemed one of the “hottest” markets in the county, with values rising 10 percent or more over the 2009 appraisals. District 7 was not far behind, and District 5 made gains as well. The property reappraisals help the Metro property assessor adjust the tax rate throughout the county, shifting the tax burden according to the latest values. Homeowners may gripe about a tax increase, but “it’s an issue of fairness,” says Councilman Davis. “You have to pay more if your home is worth more.”
     
    Zoning laws and historic conservation overlay rules are not likely to change anytime soon, but neighbors do have a voice. They can go to zoning appeals hearings and community meetings; talk with local Metro Council representatives; and speak directly to developers.
     
    Woodland Street Partners exemplifies that some developers are open to listening to concerns and adapting plans to better fit in with the fabric of the neighborhood. “I’m grateful that we have a developer who is local and we can talk to,” Withers says.
     
    The topics of architecture, design and growth are perennial ones among East Nashville residents. “There’s definitely lots of opinions,” says Withers, so throughout the process, “we need to be talking with each other, not against.”