12South's renaissance resets former 'Bad Side of Belmont'

Sunday, April 1, 2012 at 9:05pm
By Kay West
One of Belmont Boulevard's signature four squares, shown here with addition.
This duplex at 1504 Elmwood is scheduled for demolition to make way for a new home.
A modest 1930s bungalow was typical of the neighborhood.
A rear view of same 1930s bungalow reveals massive addition.
A third-story bridge connects these two listed homes on Lealand.
The historic zoning commission first rejected then passed these additions to this 19th-century mansion on Linden.

 

The sounds and sights of spring are everywhere in neighborhoods all over Nashville: birds chirping, dogwoods and redbuds blossoming; stroller, bicycle and scooter wheels rolling over sidewalks; the seasonal symphony of mowers and trimmers.

But in Nashville’s hottest neighborhoods — Belmont and 12South — less pleasing additions to the soundtrack and landscape are becoming increasingly familiar to residents. 

There’s the deposit of a large metal bin in a driveway, the planting of an electrical post in the yard, next to stacks of lumber, drywall, shingles and tile. There is the groan of a home falling victim to a bulldozer, rumbling excavators ripping down brush and digging up shrubs, the clamor of dump trucks hauling  away rocks or unloading masses of dirt. There’s the racket of rotating cement truck hulls oozing concrete for foundations, the cacophony of jackhammers, the squall of saws and endlessly, the pounding of hammer onto nail into wood. 

There’s another intrusion that is affecting renters in the area — a segment of the demographic that is rapidly diminishing. It is the knock on the door or the letter in the mailbox from the new owner of their brick duplex, or tiny apartment in one of Belmont Boulevard’s foursquares, letting them know their time is up. Tick-tock.

It happened to Russel O’Brien on March 14, when he arrived home to the brick duplex at 1504 Elmwood Ave. where he’s lived for three years. He found a letter in his door. “My landlord had already told me he had sold the place,” said O’Brien, who walks to work at Burger Up four blocks away. “He told me he thought I probably had through the end of the summer. A couple days later I got this note from the new owner telling me I had 30 days to get out. 

“I love this neighborhood, and I love my neighbors; my dogs know their dogs, and we’re all friends. I don’t want to leave the neighborhood, but I don’t think I’m going to be able to find a place for $600 a month anywhere close by. I get it, but I don’t like it.”

He’s not the only one. As developers, builders, contractors, architects and real estate agents are turning a pretty penny these days — a welcome turn of events after the long, dry spell that began in 2008 — some longtime residents of the area, preservationists and even some of those benefitting from the boom are expressing concerns about what is being lost as a result of the gains.

“The thing that is valuable about our historic districts is they have a mixture of styles, sizes and residents,” said Robin Zeigler with the Metropolitan Historic Zoning Commission, housed in the 160-year-old Sunnyside Mansion in Sevier Park, 12South’s most popular green space. “In suburban subdivisions, all the homes are essentially the same size and style, and sell for the same price to the same kind of people. But in urban historic districts, you have tiny homes, medium-size homes and large homes, and a diversity of people.”

She’s preaching to the choir when it comes to the Belmont-Hillsboro Neighbors and one of its founders, Gene TeSelle. “Once a neighborhood seems ‘desirable,’ the speculators move in, and then it can lose the character that made it desirable,” he cautioned. “What we lose is diversity of race, class, socioeconomics and age.”

 

 

Before 12South the neighborhood was branded with a catchy name, it was typically derided as ‘The Bad Side of Belmont’ an area east of Belmont Boulevard populated by architecturally diverse Victorians, foursquares, bungalows and craftsman-style homes built in the early part of the 20th century, spotted with one-story ’60s-era infill and squat brick duplexes. 

While the description of the residential profile was overly critical, the corridor of 12th Avenue South that ran from Ashwood to Kirkwood was most notorious for its accurately named Murder Market (where 12South Taproom is now), several numbers joints operating under the guise of legitimate business, and the drug deals and prostitution that kept most law-abiding citizens out of Sevier Park. 

Still, as the revitalization of the Hillsboro-Belmont neighborhood began to take hold, folks who couldn’t afford the increasingly steep prices on the west side began buying houses on ‘the bad side’ and the gentrification began. In 1996 — prodded by a coalition of residents, real estate investors and community activists — the Metropolitan Development and Housing Authority embarked upon the 12South Master Plan to improve sidewalks and street lights, move overhead utility wires, add benches and bike racks. Phase I covered the south end from Halcyon to Sevier Park, and Phase 2 took the beautification north to Ashwood. 

In 2000, Colleen and Michael DeGregory opened Mirror restaurant next door to the 2-year-old Trim Salon at the corner of Elmwood and 12th, sparking  the transformation of the area from a pass-through commute to a bustling stretch of cool commerce serving a suddenly desirable neighborhood. 

Homebuilder Joe Kovalick, founder and owner of Dreaminc has several high-profile, primarily historic remodel projects in the area, but he is also a longtime resident. 

“I like to do the historic renovations, and we’ve had good luck finding unique older properties. But they are more expensive and time-consuming than it is to bulldoze and build a new one. When you see non-neighborhood-sensitive builders slap some cement board siding on and sell it for $800,000 it’s a definite change from the direction many of us thought this neighborhood would go in,” Kovalick said. 

“Some of the people who have the money and are buying the properties and building the huge houses are the ones dictating what we have to live with. Often, they don’t live in this neighborhood. Michael [Ward of Allard Ward Architects] and I work together, we live here, our clients are our neighbors, and our neighbors are affected by what we do. 

“I’ve got to live with everything I build,” Kovalick added. “That is not true of some of the builders coming in here. Their goal is to get it out of the ground, get it sold and move onto the next.”

Commuters who take the 12th Avenue/Granny White Pike corridor from outlying Oak Hill, Forrest Hills and Brentwood to offices downtown have witnessed the transformation of Sevier Park and the commercial redevelopment of 12South, in particular the six-block strip that runs between Kirkwood and Linwood, a pedestrian-friendly bustle of salons, restaurants, coffee shops, music stores, markets, yoga studios, art galleries and boutiques.

But it is the narrow streets that bleed off the north-south arteries that are — depending on your point of view — bearing the brunt or enjoying the benefits of the boom in residential construction that has enveloped one of Nashville’s oldest urban neighborhoods. Along Belmont Boulevard, the once-grand foursquares that were cut up into apartments in the ’60s and ’70s during the upper- and middle-class exodus from the urban core to the suburbs are being  restored to their glory days — with the addition of a thousand or more square feet, a free-standing garage and a wall to shield it from the alley. Ironically, they are often then sold to suburbanites looking to move back to “town.” A lot of Williamson County plates can be spied on luxury cars and SUVs pulling into those new garages these days. 

“I sell everywhere: Forest Hills, Oak Hill, Green Hills, Richland, East Nashville, even Brentwood. But there is no place hotter than the Belmont/12South neighborhood right now,” said Barbara Moutenot, an 11-year Realtor with Village Real Estate Services and 20-year resident of 12South’s Cedar Lane. “Things don’t even go on the market. I have clients who tell me this is where they want to live, so what is available. It’s crazy.” 

There is a diverse range of properties available — from the renovated foursquares and expanded bungalows to newly constructed three-story homes with bonus rooms, screened porches and garages larger than the 1940s cottage across the alley. What they have in common are buyers with deep pockets. 

The brick foursquare at 2514 Belmont Blvd. being renovated by Tradition Homes used to have five apartments in it, said owner/president Daniel Green, who acquired the property in April 2011 for less than $500,000. “It was over 3,000 square feet and will be 4,800 square feet when it’s completed. The third floor will basically be a bonus room, with a full bath and sloped ceilings. 

“The garage will be three cars, because I felt like at this price point, we had to offer that,” Green added. He had a buyer who signed before he even began work on the house — and will pay close to $1.175 million.

Green worked on his first house in the neighborhood in 2009 around the corner on Beechwood, a stone bungalow that received both a renovation and an addition. That was the first of six projects Tradition has done on the street, most on the east side of Belmont. One of his homes was a new build — 3,700 square feet at 1513 Beechwood that sold for $840,000 — that will be the older sibling to one next door, which is currently a cleared lot since the demolition of the shingle-sided duplex at 1515. He has just completed renovating and expanding an existing bungalow at 1917 Beechwood — now with four bedrooms and 3 1/2 baths, listed for $889,900.

Green acknowledges that his houses are a good deal larger than the bungalows and cottages that line the side streets. “The ones we are building are size-wise larger than many. In this neighborhood they’re fairly good-sized, but the reality is, for some of the people moving in town from larger homes in subdivisions in outlying counties, our houses are a bit of a downsize for them. For someone who has been living in a 6,000-square-foot house, losing 2,000 square feet is a considerable downsize.”

 

 

And then there’s the price point. One of the first sales in the Belmont and 12South neighborhoods to crack The City Paper’s monthly Headline Homes list of top residential sales was No. 7 on the July 2011 list, an expanded home at 1721 Beechwood that Ann and Donald Cox sold for $1.48 million. The couple then crossed Belmont and purchased another home at 1504 Linden Ave., and set off a neighborhood controversy only slightly less inflammatory than the massive fire that nearly destroyed the Linden landmark on March 30, 2010. 

The historic Victorian was owned for more than three decades by Tree Publishing exec Donna Hilley and husband Rayford, and there they entertained the royalty of the music business. When Hilley became ill, the house was purchased for $1.3 million in 2006 by longtime 12South residents Jenkins Hardin and Brett Sherrif. The couple embarked upon an extensive renovation, but not long after it was completed, a brush fire erupted into a raging blaze that consumed the house and took the Nashville Fire Department more than five hours to put out. 

The house was nearly a total loss, and though it was not torn down, the property was put on the market. It was purchased in July 2011 by the Cox family, who planned to not only restore it but also build large additions on either side.

Enter the Metropolitan Historic Zoning Commission. In April 2005, after much work by Belmont-Hillsboro Neighbors, the Belmont-Hillsboro Neighborhood Conservation Overlay District was created. The boundaries of the NCO were determined by the interest of residents; thus the map of the district is irregularly shaped and in some cases ends in the middle of a block. Generally, its border is Magnolia to the north and Clayton and Primrose to the south. The westernmost edge zigzags along 20th Avenue, Bonnie Briar and Hazelwood, and on the south, the border hopscotches almost to 12th on some streets, to 15th on others. 

Neighborhood conservation zoning honors an area’s historical significance, and so certain exterior work on buildings — new construction, additions, demolition and relocation — is reviewed to ensure that the neighborhood’s special character is preserved. 

“A conservation district is less onerous on the owner or builder of house than historic preservation,” explained MHZC’s Zeigler. “Homes within the NCO are subject to review by the MHZC. If a house is determined to be contributing to the historic value of a neighborhood and it is within the district, it cannot be torn down. Any new construction and/or additions to a home in the district must be reviewed by the commission before their permit is approved.”

Which is what the new owners of the home at 1504 Linden had to do because it is within the Conservation District. 

“If the people who had bought 1504 had come to us and asked to demolish it, it is likely they would have gotten permission because the house was so damaged by the fire,” Zeigler said. “But they wanted to work with what they had and build on. We were looking at what’s appropriate for infill and additions and historic context. This was already a very large house. That large an addition does not fit into historical context, but the property is an anomaly because it is actually three lots. Because the lot was so large, it could have been subdivided and built an additional house. We thought this was preferable to that. And the lot was large enough to handle something that big. 

“Typically what happens is an applicant comes in and works with staff, and we get them to the point that we feel meets the guidelines so they can get a yes from the commission. On the first go-round we recommended no, but the applicant took their plans to the commission anyway and were turned down for the addition they requested,” Ziegler said.

“They made some changes to the positioning of the garage, brought the height down on the two additions and pulled it in a little bit, tightened it up and dropped some square footage, and they received approval from the commission. 

“Whether they received approval from their neighbors is another matter,” Ziegler added. “I know it has been controversial.”

As the homeowners and builders were going through the process, the speculation on the street was that the total square footage would range from 15,000 to 22,000, but no one seems sure what the final size will be. In many neighbors’ minds it falls into “McMansion” territory. 

 

 

Though it may be the biggest, it’s far from the only construction site on Linden. 

Perhaps no big-house developer dominates the neighborhood more in terms of size and quantity than Rigid Development, started nine years ago by Brent Craig.

He grew up in the construction business in family firms Craig Homes and Celebration Homes, mostly known for new construction in subdivisions. Craig started out with his own excavation and site development company. After doing several demos for developers in the Belmont/12South area, he decided to get a piece of the pie and nine years ago built his first two houses.

Rigid Development is on track to complete 15 to 20 homes there this year. Some are outside the conservation overlay, and most of those that are within it are deemed “noncontributing” and thus cleared for demolition. “We don’t shy away from being in or out of the overlay, but anything that becomes available that could be a good building lot is fair game,” he explained. 

That includes O’Brien’s 1504 Elmwood address, and three on Linden outside of the overlay — 1401 and 1217 are next to each other; 1209 is three small existing bungalows away. All have been pre-sold. According to Duncan, “We had clients who wanted to live in the neighborhood, and so we looked for lots we could acquire.”

Scott Evans, sales manager for Rigid Development/Parks Properties, added, “I would say Brent’s ideal purchases have been those brick duplexes that are just so ugly. I think most residents would much rather live next to or across the street from a nice house than one of those duplexes.”

Back to Kovalick, both a resident and builder in the neighborhood. (His company’s renovation and additions to a historic bungalow at 1500 Linden yielded a $800,000 sale two years ago, and the house recently listed for $1.35 million.) He concurs on Evans’ point about the duplexes — to a degree. “The nonconforming ugly brick duplexes that were built in the ’50s and ’60s are not a loss. I have no problem with that. It’s what is going up in their place that raises concerns.”

 

 

Hoping to capture first-time homebuyers without the deep pockets needed to snag an address closer to the center is Core Development, owned by Hunter Connelly and Aaron White. The partners — who have been working on Werthan Mills in Germantown since 2003 — entered 12South with the help of Jim Massey, who obtained the property on which they built the 12th & Paris Building, home to nine commercial spaces (among them Burger Up and Las Paletas) and 18 residential units, which were initially leased and have now all sold. 

Their current project is Gale Park, a community of about 80 single-family homes (three bedrooms, three baths) in the $250,000 to $300,000 range on Gale Lane overlooking Franklin Road. “We both live in the neighborhood,”  Connelly said. “We knew it was getting harder and harder to find a lower price range in this area. The 12th & Paris condos sold for $169,000 to $269,000, and Gale Park starts at $250,000. Those are accessible prices for people who want to be in this area.” 

Unfortunately for current residents like O’Brien, things aren’t looking quite so rosy for renters at his income level. Meanwhile, a luxe apartment project in the works on 12th has created a neighborhood uproar that seems likely to only get louder and more intense. 

The project, a partnership between H.G. Hill Realty and Southeast Venture, has already closed Rumours Wine Bar and Blackbird Tattoo and will soon swallow up Middle Tennessee Roofing to clear the way for construction of a four-story building with 90 luxury apartments and 9,800 square feet of retail space. It is the subject of a detailed report from nearby residents, and according to 12South Neighborhood and District president Will Carney, it’s at the top of neighbors’ list of worries. 

“We have a large group of residents concerned about many issues this project raises: traffic, parking, size, scale, mass and how it relates to the historic fabric of the neighborhood,” Carney said. 

“We are not totally against development, but we want it to be successful for everyone it affects. We would like our concerns to be heard and hope to have a dialogue with them. We invited them to a community meeting on March 29, but they declined,” Carney said. “We thought it would be a positive step for them and the project, but apparently they don’t agree. They are within their zoning rights to do this, and our options are limited. If nothing else, it is causing us to revisit the overlay, and see how to use it to protect our neighborhood and preserve the character that drew us here.”

Council member Burkley Allen, whose 18th District encompasses Hillsboro-Belmont and splits 12th Avenue South, noted that residents on outlying portions of three streets — Linden, Gale and Cedar — have begun the process to be added to the conservation overlay, and she said she hears mounting concerns about the effects of development in her rapidly growing district.

“Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should,” Allen said. “We all need to be good neighbors.“