With none of the usual fanfare or ribbon cuttings, sans the Metro council squabbles or funding controversies, Nashville's government is quietly rolling out a proposal that could alter completely the course of the city's economic development.
Over the past year, as big-name projects such as the Music City Center or Bells Bend have dominated the debate over the region's future, the Metro Planning Department has been carefully redrafting the zoning codes for downtown, swapping traditional regulations for a progressive approach.
Based on 2007's Downtown Community Plan, the new neighborhood-heavy code would essentially rewrite how development gets done inside the core. But the document, known as the Downtown Code, is no normal set of guidelines. Instead, the new proposed code outlines an ambitious vision for what downtown Nashville could one day look like.
Chopping the district into 15 sectors, the new code outlines an interlocked network of neighborhoods, each with a distinctive character thanks to building specifications tailored by the code to each sector. The idea is to extend the distinctive feel of neighborhoods like the Gulch or SoBro to every section of the city.
“We're focused on neighborhood creation,” said Metro Planning's Joni Priest. “The goal is that we have something that's economically healthy, socially interesting and sustainable over time.”
But what underscores Metro Planning's move to adopt a progressive planning approach is the relatively poor shape of the core today. Thanks to economic ups and downs, downtown Nashville is an underutilized market in the midst of an identity crisis, a patchwork of real estate in various stages of development and success that hasn't quite gelled as a larger entity.
The core's entertainment district is mainly confined to the vein running down and around Broadway. The office sector's thunder has been repeatedly stolen by Cool Springs. And the stab developers took at the high-end residential market during the condo boom has slowed thanks to the recession.
Also, the poor planning of the past is clearly apparent. An analysis by Metro Planning shows 37 percent of the lots in downtown are vacant and only 6 percent have buildings with five or more stories, a very low number for a city of Nashville's size.
“When you compare what has happened in other core cities, we have not developed as rapidly as they have,” Planning Department Executive Director Rick Bernhardt told The City Paper. “I think [the existing] code has been an impediment.”
The new code is currently only in draft form and has yet to be adopted by Metro Council. However, the plan has already gained support from area developers and city officials.
But today, any conversation about the future of downtown development tends to stray across the river toward Bells Bend and the May Town Center, the controversial project that, depending on which side of the debate you stand on, could either be a key to revitalizing the core or the last nail in its coffin.
Some ardent supporters of the Downtown Code's vision say Davidson County must focus on the core and can't divide its development attention between the city's center and May Town. May Town supporters — equally enthusiastic about the code's vision — say May Town's corporate headquarters emphasis is the perfect compliment to core development.
The debate raises important questions abut where the region's economic development focus should lie. Coming out of the recession, Nashville could get a jump on other regions if the right conditions are in place. The question is whether or not the city can afford to split its energies.
Shifting from use to design
When the city met with community members and developers in 2007 to update the Community Plan, one of the prominent complaints regarding downtown development was the time- and money-consuming process involved in zone changing.
Today, the majority of downtown is blanketed in Core Frame zoning, a classification that strictly dictates how a structure — be it office, residential, industrial, retail or mixed-use — can be built on a plot of land. However, when projects in The Gulch or the Pinnacle in SoBro were initially designed, they didn't fit with the zoning, forcing developers to go through three Metro Council readings and pay fees in order to get the zoning changed.
The proposed new code shelves old zoning classifications based on land use and substitutes new regulations that police height, street frontage, signage and other design elements. By freeing developers from use restrictions, structures can be built as long as they comply with the particular neighborhood's form.
“You decide what you want the shape of the building to be and there's less emphasis on what goes behind the walls,” Priest said, citing Germantown as an example of a neighborhood where the buildings have a variety of uses. “You might have residential right next to light industrial, and that's totally okay in an urban environment.”
The code's form for buildings is different in each of the 15 subdistricts of the city. In some segments such as The Gulch, SoBro or the Core, an emphasis is placed on high- and mid-rise buildings. In areas such as Hope Gardens, the emphasis remains on lower-scale structures with pedestrian-friendly frontages and green space. The goal is for buildings to cohere as a whole.
“A high rise might be appropriate in The Gulch, but a high rise across the street from some townhouses in Hope Gardens, maybe not so much,” Priest added.
Also, by focusing on form instead of use and encouraging that structures be built with more stories rather than sprawled space, the proposed code aims to put a mix of uses within the same building. The hope is to transform downtown from a workday or weekend destination into a sector active at all hours of the day.
The form-based code's encouragement of use diversity is also an attempt to prevent downtown from being seriously impacted by the downturn of a single real estate segment. For example, today downtown's office market — the core’s traditional anchor — has a vacancy rate of 17.3 percent, according to a market analysis by Colliers Turley Martin Tucker. That’s up from about 10 percent in early 2008 and it’s a figure expected to climb once the Pinnacle opens.
As long as core office space remains empty, downtown's retail sector will also be threatened, experts say. The code could help break this cycle with its emphasis on diversifying uses.
Talk of a second downtown
Some city officials see the vision outlined in the Downtown Code as exactly the type of focus Nashville needs in terms of economic development.
“If you look at that vacancy rate of 37 percent, we've got a ways to go if we're ever going to attract anything like mass transit downtown or make it economically viable,” said District 6 Councilman Mike Jameson. A vocal opponent of May Town Center, Jameson says he sees a conflict between developing downtown and setting up an ancillary market that could compete against the core.
“I worry about Bells Bend and May Town because we have high rises downtown that are now at 12 percent vacancy, up to 20 percent vacancy,” Jameson said. “If we build this essentially second downtown, it's going to sap the current downtown of everything.”
May Town developer Tony Giarratana says the project would complement new downtown development. With a focus on large corporate relocations, May Town essentially offers a different product, Giarratana explained.
“Nashville does not have the suitable corporate environment these companies demand,” he said. “We can say we've got downtown, but these companies have spoken with their wallets and their moving vans.”
Giarratana adds that core tenants such as law firms and financial services companies will benefit from the increased business corporate headquarters at May Town Center offer.
Curiously mum on May Town Center so far is Mayor Karl Dean. When contacted for comment, the Mayor's office issued a statement in line with the administration's core-centric agenda.
“The greatest opportunity our city has for continued downtown redevelopment is the construction of a new convention center south of Broadway,” Dean said. “Combined with the redevelopment on the east bank, the completion of Rolling Mill Hill, continued development in The Gulch, and hopefully, some sort of project on the Thermal Transfer site, south of Broadway will be nothing like it is today 10 years from now.”
The work on the Downtown Code has sown the seeds — albeit quietly — for a significant and progressive wave of growth in Nashville’s core. What remains to be seen is whether builders and developers will help produce a bountiful harvest.