Sunday, February 26, 2012

A 12South timeline: residents vs. developers

Two months ago, H.G. Hill Realty and Southeast Venture announced to the media plans to build a mixed-use four-story complex that will include one- and two-bedroom apartments in order to fill what they called "a much needed niche" in the 12South neighborhood. One commercial building and two old houses used for small commercial (the zoning is currently commercial) are to be demolished. This particular kind of growth has not brought the neighborhood together in support of the proposal. In fact, there is a group that has been organizing since January to fight the development team.

There seemed to be bad blood from the beginning. The co-owner of Blackbird Tattoo, one of the small businesses affected, told concerned neighbors:

In September 2011, we were informed that our building was most likely going to be demolished and that we should find a new building .... I do not know how we could have fought this ... in effect we WERE forced. We were told we could purchase our building for $500,000, an astronomical price for our small business.

A 12South blogger vented her frustration early in January:

I’m not one of those rabid listserv purists who goes nuts every time somebody proposes a new development in my neighborhood. And although the proposed construction project at 2310 12th Avenue South (the property between the 12South Taproom and Rumours Wine Bar) does appear a bit overblown and disproportionate at first glance (67 apartments and 4,200 sq. ft. of retail), I was ready to keep an open mind.

But when I found out last week that that the owners of the Rumours property right next door had exerted a little deep-pocket muscle on Rumours restaurateurs to strongly “incentivize” them to sell their lease with four years left, I felt frustrated and not a little bit angry.

12South neighbors who are otherwise supportive of growth in their community utilized their elist to express incredulity at the deviation from community character and anger that the process seemed less-than-transparent in its early phases (it did not help that they learned about it in the media). Some expressed opposition to 12South becoming an "extension of The Gulch". Some pointed to the distraction of the holidays (introducing controversial zoning requests during holidays or vacation seasons is a time-honored ploy many developers use to mitigate public backlash). Some pointed out to the quality of preserving the older houses along 12South and wondered why the developers did not pursue other properties for sale along 12th Av S. Some objected to paving over properties with surface parking.

Even those who supported the project emphasized that the community should have a "constructive voice" in the planning of the project.

The frustration and ambivalence about developers extended deeper into January:

When the bulldozers come, I am going to weep shamelessly. And that means that suddenly, the stakes went way up for me. Consequently, I’m going to judge what rises from my favorite wine bar’s ashes much more harshly than all previous building projects here. It’s going to take a whole lot for what comes next to be a net gain for me, an improvement in my quality of life. And that’s kind of a big responsibility, You Developers. Please do well. And do good. Don’t make our little corner of the world worse.

The neighborhood association attempted to reassure members in an elist posting:

The 12South Neighborhood Association has some concerns about this large-scale project, and has been diligently working together and initiating discussions with the development team.

We want to assure you that we are actively involved in reviewing the schematic design and voicing the concerns of everyone in the neighborhood and adjoining communities.

We have called on the Metro Planning Commission and The Mayor's Neighborhood Representative, and have thoroughly reviewed the zoning/planning overlays for this property to ensure that what is being proposed is within the guidelines established.

Southeast Venture has agreed to listen to a smaller representative group from the neighborhood in the schematic design phase...and would also like to meet with the neighborhood at-large in a subsequent meeting to present the project to the community .... The initial meeting with Southeast Venture will include members from the 12South Neighborhood Association Board, the Belmont-Hillsboro Neighborhood Board, the Sunnyside Board as well as councilwomen, Sandra Moore from District 17 and Burkley Allen from District 18.

We are cautiously optimistic that our concerns will be heard while recognizing that from a practical standpoint we are not in a position to stop a project that meets current zoning and codes requirements.

The initial meeting occurred on January 20, and the officers emailed association members to tell them how they believed residents' concerns were addressed:

The major points of concern from the 12South Representatives & Council Representatives were:
  • How will traffic be affected and how will the designers address the additional influx of cars with a single point of entry/egress? Answer - A traffic study will be done/is being done and will dictate anything beyond what is currently shown in the design in regards to traffic flow. The parallel spaces along 12th should provide some traffic calming as well.
  • How is the design team approaching the selection of exterior materials? Answer - the exterior materials are being selected based on the contextual materials in the 12South area.
  • How is the size/scale/mass being dealt with in order to stay within the context of the neighborhood? Answer - the design along 12th is not a solid wall/facade but is broken up with pieces being pushed back off the street to break up the facade. Also, the 4th floor being pushed back from the lower 3 floors will help minimize the height of the building at street level.
  • What are the lease/rental rates for the retail/restaurant spaces? Answer - the rates will be consistent with the rates in and around the 12South area.
  • Are the developers seeking any zoning variances? Answer - not at this time and there is no plan to do so.
Overall, the major concerns of the neighborhood were discussed and we are optimistic that they will be met as the design process moves forward. We will be working with SEV, HG Hill & Council-lady Sandra Moore in the coming weeks to schedule a neighborhood-wide meeting.

While officers met with developers, a group of residents held strategy meetings to recruit volunteers to fight the proposal.

Those aiming to fight the developers did not seem satisfied with answers they got back from the association officers' meeting with the developers. Dissent seemed to come to a head last week when an opposition letter signed about around 50 people in advance of the large community meeting was sent out through the neighborhood contact list:

We the signers believe the four-story, luxury apartments proposed for the sites of Middle Tennessee Roofing, Rumours Wine Bar and Blackbird Tattoo are a poor fit for the 12th Av So neighborhood. First, the vehicle traffic associated with 95 living units plus retail, all moving through a single 12th Av entrance, will exacerbate already-stifling 18 hour per day congestion. Second, the size and privacy of the structure will dwarf historic landmarks, obstruct viewscapes, and foreclose integration of the business district center with the larger community. Third, the gentrification entailed - upscale, gated, high-turnover rentals replacing small businesses and manageable leases - will reverberate in higher costs-of-living and diminished diversity throughout the locale.

The structure is planned for dead center in the old-and-new community. In the immediate vicinity of 12th Av intersections with Elmwood and Caruthers are “worthy of conservation” ... churches, commercial buildings, school, and homes, including the Rumours and Blackbird cottages and many residences in the Belmont Hillsboro Conservation District west of 12th. For three decades, entrepreneurs and residents have invested heavily in these buildings and in the prospect of “new urbanism” based on century-old development patterns.

The neighborhood’s documented periods of balanced self-sufficiency should be guiding new growth. The original village combined streetcars, distinctive and affordable homes, farm produce, dry-goods, elementary school, and churches. By the 1940s, additions included groceries, pharmacies, service stations, meat & three, tavern, hardware, bookstore, middle school, and Sevier Park. After crippling outmigration in the 1970s, government, business and homeowners initiated re-birth under 1221 Partners banners of “neighborhood strategic district” and “cultural marketplace.” Later studies – the 2005 Plan of Nashville, 2006 Future of Neighborhoods, 2008 12th Av So Detailed Neighborhood Design Plan (DNDP), Mayor Dean’s recent Green and Healthy initiatives - touted “human-scaled,” “complete neighborhoods.”

While the precedents cited above do not legally constrain new construction, they are socio-economically compelling. They suggest the following responses to the proposal:

  1. Quoting the DNDP, “auto-oriented development … conflicts with business center mixed use.” The SV/Hill project is less “mixed use” than high density “mixed housing” and thus should be located on an exterior, larger thoroughfare. In either location, however, it would merit rear access by alleys and side streets, and shared parking, in line with original and contemporary best practices. The developer should do its part to “(re-) create an alley system parallel to 12th Avenue South along the east side.”
  2. Nevertheless, the more fundamental problem is inappropriate “mass, scale and orientation.” The height will be twice, and length and depth three times, that of vintage structures. The rear extension will invade the former alley. Rumours and Blackbird cottages will be demolished. The developer should consider a 3-story, more modest “urban design” paralleling the street, with less rear extension.
  3. This upscale, limited access project introduces aspects of exclusivity that are alien to democratic “smart growth.” Gated apartments for the wealthy are not uniformly a priority for diverse neighborhoods. Currently, destination attractions for disposable incomes overshadow basic services for residents. The project will abut the old school yard, affording private green views and precluding planned pedestrian movement from 12th Av through the school to 10th. The developers should embrace the crucial urban connections between the neighborhood center and the surrounding residential, civic and recreation areas. Specifically, the new project should, according to authentic mixed use, diversify living options, complement possible futures for the school, include more revenue sources, and help create a local sense of place.
  4. While this project will significantly raise the bar in traffic, mass and scale, and gentrification, these issues have long been simmering. “Permissive building codes,” responsible for sprawl in suburbia, now enable excessive “bulk” and lot coverage and insufficient parking and green space in our urban community. The resident and business associations should recognize and nurture the existing constituency for conservation, small community life, and sustainable growth. This could begin simply with defining the distinctive essences of our “place,” and then promoting them to homeowners, employees and customers. It might – or might not - later involve the adoption of one of several guidelines for “appropriate” land use and development character. By whatever means, though, we should unite in taking care of the “golden goose” that brought us here in the first place.

Last December developers told the media that construction would start in April. It looks like they may have a showdown with their new 12South neighbors before the groundbreaking. It seems to me that they should have started having larger community meetings months ago about this, especially if they are seeking rezoning from commercial to mixed-use. Public hearings at planning and council meetings can always turn nasty with controversial developments that do not strive for transparency and compromise.


  1. This is interesting. Thanks.

  2. The only rendering I've seen is the 'old' one, which is included in this post. Now that two additional properties are part of this project, I'm wondering if an updated image is available that shows the expanded project.