Lack of vitriol key to balancing act of making SPs work

Sunday, May 10, 2009 at 11:52pm
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Sections of Gallatin Pike also have been covered by specific-plan zoning. File/The City Paper

Now that the pot has been thoroughly stirred on specific-plan zoning, perhaps the debate needs to reach a more civil tone.

At the latest community meeting on creating SP for a stretch of Nolensville Pike, area business owners dominated the discussion and squared off with Metro Planning Director Rick Bernhardt, whom they peppered with questions, challenges and comments.

The handful of neighborhood people supporting the SP process sat quietly. But when they did speak, it was clear that both sides have drawn lines in the sand.

To have meaningful and productive discourse, those lines will have to be erased. The question now is who will move first?

Specific-plan zoning creates a special set of guidelines for development. Backers say it guides smart urban growth while keeping some design flexibility. But opponents contend that the framework is too restrictive and actually deters development. Many in the real estate and business community now believe Metro Planning has usurped the concept’s original intentions to create plans that favor aesthetics over economic reality.

Business owners swarmed into the recent Nolensville Pike meeting waving the problems people are having with the SP along Gallatin Pike. That put Bernhardt into defensive mode. As he and others from Planning have pointed out before, he said that Metro Council members and neighborhoods are the ones who seek these plans.

Generally, there are council members who support SP to push out businesses viewed as "noxious." Others want to make everything, even pawnshops, look like a Starbucks.

Still, the rancor from the Gallatin Pike SP appears to have prompted Bernhardt to review the triggers that require compliance with SP. As things stand, someone wanting to improve an existing property has to comply with SP if the cost of renovations hits 25 percent of the site’s assessed value. That threshold gets reached fairly quickly if the value of an empty property, for example, is low.

But raising the trigger points may not assuage the feeling that commercial property owners are being told what they can and cannot do with their properties. It also doesn’t convince them that SP may actually lower their property values.

Clearly, there's a disconnect in the discussion. The opposition and proponents talk at each other rather than with each other.

The businesses up in arms about the prospect of being told what they can do with their property perhaps need to understand that some of their customers come from those neighborhoods along Nolensville. In turn, the neighborhood people need to understand the potential consequences of SP, in particular, on the commercial tax base that funds a large portion of Metro services.

About half the tax revenue in the city comes from property taxes. Total assessed residential property values in the county actually exceed that of commercial to the tune of $9.6 billion versus $7.8 billion. But commercial properties account for only 10 percent of the land area in the county, which means their owners pay more per capita in taxes than residential property owners.

Perhaps the developers around town need to go directly to the neighborhood groups, bypassing the bureaucrats and the politicians, to calmly explain the economics of their livelihood. And perhaps neighborhood folks could offer a warmer reception and set aside thoughts of developers as greedy moneygrubbers.

Developers, after all, do help build the tax base. Learning how they look at supply and demand and how they establish construction budgets and pricing might be beneficial for neighborhood folks.

A developer generally can tell you the cost per square foot to build a certain type of product in a certain area as well as the price such a product can command. For example, something costing $150 per square foot to build would sell more easily in Green Hills than along Nolensville.

To figure all that out, they factor in land cost and zoning. Zoning requiring residential units that need elevators may drive up the price to a point where the product won’t sell. And with the credit markets still very much below par, development that mixes commercial with residential becomes trickier than ever to finance.

Developers typically won't build if they don't think they can produce a product that sells. So the belief among developers is that focusing on aesthetics over economics may mean nothing gets built or redeveloped.

At the Nolensville meeting, Metro Planning listed other SPs in Nashville and their successes, particularly when it comes to raising property values. But most of that list included SPs that effectively were driven by developers. That, many in the business argue, was the intention of creating SP in the first place.

The Bedford Avenue corridor in Green Hills is one of those areas. There, developers argue that the success came about differently. They say Green Hills, with its high incomes and limited supply of office space, is a good example of how market forces, not aesthetics, can determine the course.

The trick now along important arteries such as Nolensville Pike is to correctly balance demand with beauty. And that’s where open discussion will make a difference.

1 Comment on this post:

By: Jeremiah_29-7 on 5/11/09 at 7:46

Good points!

Also would be good to note that there were many meetings in 2007 to develop the Nolenville Detailed Neighborhood Design Plan -- meetings that were attended by business owners and neighborhood residents. To the best of my knowledge, it is THIS plan that the SP is attempting to respond to. By the way, those who are now opponents of the SP were invited to participate in that 2007 plan and chose not to do so.

I hope the open discussion can happen. Thanks for a good article.