Historic preservation zoning on the horizon for Sylvan Park

Sunday, March 21, 2010 at 11:45pm
4710 Idaho Ave. before (bottom) and after (top)

At the intersection of Idaho and 47th avenues in historic Sylvan Park, a massive two-story house is under construction. It’s an attractive pale gray house with plenty of period architectural details — groupings of narrow windows, a small porch with square posts and exposed supports and millwork.

By most outward signs, the home is a quality new construction — it’s listed on real estate websites for more than a half-million dollars and is described as a four-bedroom, 3 ½-bath Energy Star house with nearly 3,000 square feet in the heart of Sylvan Park.

Less than a year ago, the site held a modest 1940s-era home much like the single-story bungalow next door and those on the other corners of the intersection. That house was razed to make way for the new construction some call “mini-mansions” — the type of housing that is attracting newcomers willing to pay a premium for Sylvan Park’s convenience.

But this popularity and new construction is exactly what some neighbors fear will lead to the demise of the historic aspect of this neighborhood.

Over the last 10-15 years, Sylvan Park has experienced rapid change and become a hot commodity in the real estate market due in part to its proximity to community services, restaurants and retail on the Charlotte Avenue, Murphy Road and West End corridors.

“They’ve got strong churches and schools, and a community center and library. I think those all strengthen the neighborhood,” said Jennifer Carlat of the Metro Planning Department. “I think its proximity to a lot of employment centers like downtown and Midtown, Green Hills area, makes the area attractive as well.”

The challenges Sylvan Park faces in retaining its historic character during gentrification are not unique to the neighborhood or to Nashville, according to Robin Zeigler of the Metro Historic Commission.

“I know that’s something that’s happening to historic districts all over the country,” Zeigler said. “They become popular, they’re places where people want to live, so then there becomes that pressure to demolish smaller homes so that they can put more home or more units on the lot. It’s real typical for a lot of historic neighborhoods.”

A proud history

Sylvan Park residents are proud of the neighborhood’s history, and many relay similar stories of its beginnings at the turn of the 20th century as one of the city’s first planned communities.

Connected to downtown by a trolley line, it was one of the first developments outside the urban core.

Although different groups and individuals define the neighborhood by slightly different boundaries, the most common parameters are Charlotte Avenue to the north, Richland Creek to the west and the Sentinel and Seaboard Systems railroad tracks to the east and south.

And in the 100 years since the West Nashville Land Improvement Company platted it into a tight grid of numbered streets and avenues (east/west streets were later changed to state names), it has developed into an eclectic mix of more than 2,000 homes and businesses that showcase classic examples of turn-of-the-century Victorian architecture and hundreds of Craftsman-style bungalows that were built in several waves of infill through the 1950s.

Surprisingly, in the mid ’90s more than half of the original houses remained, according to a survey by the Metro Historical Commission. But that number is declining — some say rapidly.

Jason Holleman, who represents Metro Council District 24, which includes Sylvan Park, said the neighborhood has lot about two dozen homes in the last couple years.

Although there is no specific area of Sylvan Park that is more at risk for teardowns and new construction, residents anecdotally describe other historic houses like the one at Idaho and 47th avenues that have been razed to make way for new and — most of the time — larger homes.

Rob Robinson, the president of the 150-plus member Sylvan Park Neighborhood Association, cites a house that once stood at the intersection of Nevada and 46th avenues. The house, originally slated for renovation, was demolished, and because it had been a duplex, two houses were built instead of one.

Knocking down one and building two is the exception rather than the rule, according to Carlat at the planning department. Nearly 20 years ago the neighborhood changed to a new zoning district that allowed less density.

“In their case, they went to a district that allows new construction to only be single-family detached housing,” Carlat said. “That’s definitely going to preserve the single-family character of the area, but it doesn’t preserve the exact houses they have today.”

Neighborhood associations in the mix

There are now two neighborhood associations in Sylvan Park: the 25-year-old Sylvan Park Neighborhood Association and the newly formed Historic Sylvan Park Inc., which came about in January.

SPNA members say the group puts on community activities that include an annual Fourth of July parade, participation in the Annual Night Out Against Crime, holiday caroling, a neighborhood yard sale, and support of spring youth sports teams.

“A lot of what we do is generally trying to make the neighborhood a better place to live,” said SPNA Membership Secretary F. Clark Williams. “That takes a lot of different forms. It can involve anything from keeping up with changes in the neighborhood, zoning updates, those kinds of things, to general opportunities to promote fellowship and getting together.”

But while the group was updating its bylaws in late 2009, a few members decided it had become too focused on social activities and was not dealing with the zoning and demolition issues that threaten the historic homes.

Those disgruntled members formed Historic Sylvan Park Inc. They claim to have 20 members and plan to grow and protect the historic aspects of the neighborhood.

“They were not pushing [zoning and preservation issues] because they are a more diverse group and they have so many people,” said Wendell Goodman, the president of Historic Sylvan Park. “They can’t reach a decision because they have people on both sides of the issue, and they can’t reach a consensus so they don’t take a position.

“Our focus is on preservation and renovation in Sylvan Park,” Goodman said. “Sylvan Park is dramatically changing. Our goal is to try to do things that would help keep the historic aspects of Sylvan Park.”

Animosity remains

Both groups say they are interested in preserving this historic character of Sylvan Park, but they have different ideas of how to accomplish that.

One solution that would limit demolition and regulate new construction would be adding a historic overlay to the area, but a bitter and divisive fight five years ago over whether to create an overlay soured many people on the concept.

“Some community members are still licking their wounds from that battle,” Robinson said. “There were very strong opinions on both sides and honestly very well-reasoned arguments on both sides.”

Members from both groups said the idea of an overlay is always in the back of neighbors’ minds.

Goodman’s preservation-focused group hopes to bring it to the front of people’s minds. They met earlier this month to discuss the possibility of bringing back the idea of an overlay.

“I don’t want to see houses being torn down and some modern house put up that would destroy the character of the street,” said Goodman, who lives in brick Victorian on Park Avenue.

He said the new house at Idaho and 47th is characteristic of the demolition and rebuilding sprinkled throughout the neighborhood. The same company building the house on Idaho also demolished an older home and rebuilt a mega-mansion on Dakota Avenue.

“And the only way to prevent that from happening is to get an overlay,” Goodman said.

This time around, the group plans to include only the most historic parts of the neighborhood. They haven’t pinned down a list of what properties they would include, but Goodman said the group is working with the Metro Historic Commission to determine what area would best fit in an overlay.

“We know there are areas that really shouldn’t fit in [an overlay], but there are parts that need to be protected,” Goodman said. “We’re narrowing our focus down to the really historic portions of Sylvan Park. Certainly the one area is Park Avenue, which is right along particularly the area behind Richland Park that includes mostly homes built in early 1900s.”

Another preservation tool that the historic group may consider is garnering a listing in the National Register of Historic Places, but that’s more of an honorary, non-restrictive answer.

Some residents would like to see the onus shift to Metro to find a solution without resorting to a restrictive measure of preservation such as a blanket overlay.

“I would like to see the Metro Council go look in other communities to see how they are accommodating a mix of retail and residential, because our current set of codes make it very difficult to accommodate those things in ways that make a lot of sense,” said Williams, who lives on Nevada Avenue. “For example, to have a retail operation on the ground floor and residence above is really hard to get done without threatening the residential nature of the neighborhood.”

He said there are other communities across the country that have enacted legislation that makes it easier to do that while mitigating threats to a neighborhood’s character.

Holleman said it’s his opinion there’s not just one approach to conservation, but that it should be looked at as an “evolving tool.”

“When Metro developed conservation zoning in the mid-’80s, it was considered historic zoning lite,” he said. “We looked at what other cities were doing and did something that other communities have followed.”

Metro’s rules affect only major additions, demolition and new construction. They don’t go as far as other cities like Richmond, Va. where they look at windows, doors and paint colors.

“I would like to see them researching other communities across the country so you can maintain the character without having to impose what some people call draconian measures of preservation,” Williams said.

Whatever the answer for Sylvan Park, Holleman said the most important aspect is “group input” and to “be thoughtful in how we grow.”

14 Comments on this post:

By: dargent7 on 3/22/10 at 6:14

I live dead center in Sylvan Park for the past 3 years. Great neighborhood...safe, great location to shops/ stores. Mainly SAFE!
Everyone I see is married, 2 kids, 1-2 dogs. A real beadroom community.
But,....3 years ago all these 1940's 1 story homes were getting gutted and re-built into 2 1/2 story plastic "mansions". On my block, 3 were built, one on each corner, all 2-3 story, all blocking the sunrise and sunset! Sure, the property values went sky high, selling at $550k, and my house is still at $250k.
They ruined the charm and character of the neighborhood.
Cannot believe there weren't zoning laws in place.

By: yancy1026 on 3/22/10 at 7:58

I am Yancy Lovelace the builder of the house featured at the corner of 48th and Idaho. I love the sylvan park neighborhood and truly understand the neighborhoods concerns about development. We try very hard to mimic the historical standards of the neighborhood. However, a grown family of four can't fit in a two bedroom one story bungalow.
Each project is analyzed on an individual basis. The original home at 4710 Idaho was very dilapidated and had very little historical features worth saving, so we decided to start fresh. New construction gives us the opportunity to add energy efficient upgrades not seen in older homes. We build our homes to an Earthcraft "green" standard certified by E3 Innovate. My personal gas bill in an older 1500 SF bungalow is currently $140, the gas bill for the new home on Idaho - $80 at twice the square footage.
I personally believe we can all work together to make sylvan park a better place to live.
Please contact me at ylovelace@hybridbuildersllc.com for further questions or comments. We appreciate all feedback.

By: richgoose on 3/22/10 at 8:18

I grew up in Sylvan Park and I remember thinking after my first visit on my motorbike to Belle Meade that they should tear all the houses down in Sylvan Park.

By: CityProgress on 3/22/10 at 9:05

Thanks for that golden egg, richgoose.

Average home sizes have doubled since the 70's, while the average family size is one half of what they were.

Developers have to make a return on their investment, but the McMansion fever sweeping through town is taking it's toll on Nashville's soul.

By: dargent7 on 3/22/10 at 9:35

Pretending you cannot read or see 20/20 doesn't give you a pass. The 2 1/2 to 3 story monstrosities being built in Sylvan Park are faux homes. All plastic exteriors, hardly a brick or stone in them.
They puctuate the skyline and block the sun from setting.
Whatever 'energy saving" devices installed DO NOT make up for the shear size of these homes. They stick out like sore thumbs, and deface the character.
What idiot would spend $550k for a new home surrounded by $250k older homes?
I'd locate to Belle Meade, Franklin....three times the house and twice the lot size for same money.

By: JeffF on 3/22/10 at 11:14

I have a hard time placing Nashville's "soul" into a old, non-historic starter home.

By: twiggins on 3/22/10 at 1:14

I've lived in Sylvan Park since 1996. I bought my first home here in 1999 when I was single. Not long after that I got married and the family started growing. And so did our house. We did tasteful addition and made several renovations over the years which significantly improved the usefulness and appearance of the home. We recently sold this home and moved a few blocks over into a home that we remodeled that will now allow my family of five to remain in the neighborhood for another 15 years or more.

If we were not allowed to undertake this significant renovation, we'd likely be in Brentwood and thus the local economy, our local parish and school would certainly miss our involvement and our our economic support.

I can see no architectural or historical significance in the home on Idaho that was torn down. There are several homes like this in the neighborhood and I, for one, will not miss them. There are several others that ARE relevant and worth preserving. I would argue that those worth saving have remained and will warrant preservation but that we don't need overlays and restrictions to do this.

Why push families to the 'burbs when there are opportunities to improve our streetscape and character? In recent years local builders and remodelers have done well to preserve the feel for the neighborhood. Are the homes bigger? Yes. Today's buyer demands more and it is unlikely that these homes can be improved and resold with only 1,000 - 1,200 square feet to offer. If homes were limited in size, the neighborhood would stagnate. No one would buy these homes in the condition they are in and nobody could afford to fix them up for sale.

So before you condemn me for my "mini-mansion" come look at my home, and talk to my builder and architect about the care we took to fit into the neighborhood while providing the space that allows my family the ability to STAY and LIVE in the neighborhood that we love so much.

Todd Wiggins

By: yancy1026 on 3/22/10 at 1:59

Yancy again. I wanted to add that the house on Dakota was burned and required demolishing.

By: sylvanparkresident on 3/22/10 at 6:36

I am a long-time Sylvan Park resident-having moved to Nashville some 20 years ago.

The house mentioned at the corner of 46th and Nebraska was demolished after the homeowner and their contractor got into a legal dispute about money. When this happened, the contractor refused to return to the house to complete the project and as a result the house sat largely unoccupied and open to the elements to deteriorate. Having known the people who owned the house, I can assure you they met with 20 to 30 different contractors to finish the house and none could fix the existing issues without charging more than the house was worth. Also, two houses were built at that location not because it was a duplex but because that particular house sat on two lots.

As for the conservation overlay debate, Mr. Goodman's assertion that the SPNA has not been able to address zoning issues because of its size and diversity is preposterous. For over a year they did nothing but discuss zoning. After much discussion, the SPNA members voted and overwhelmingly they did not support a conservation overlay. After that, the Metro Council took a vote in the Sylvan Park neighborhood and again that vote showed the neighborhood did not support a conservation overlay.

The article also mentions that metro's rules only affect major additions. Having educated myself the last time this issue was up for a vote, this is simply not true. Any addition of any size must be approved through Metro Historic. Also, no change to the roof line is ever permitted (dormers, roof pitch, adding a second floor, etc.)

The 20 or so members in this new organazation are simply not happy with the decision that was made by their neighbors the last time this came up. They apparently think that they know better than all the people that voted the last time or worse they just don't care. That is arrogance. Like the arrogance of some of the members of this organazation that have put additions on their own homes that would not be allowed under conservation zoning and now want conservation zoning adopted to prevent the rest of Sylvan Park residents from doing the very thing they have done. Arrogant. Hypocritical. Superior. Whatever you call it, it's wrong. Wrong to divide an entire neighborhood again over the arrogant wishes of a few.
Conservation zoning is a useful tool in some neighborhoods, but almost all of the houses that have been demolished in this neighborhood have needed it. If Mr. Goodman believes so strongly in conservation zoning maybe he should move to a neighborhood that already has one. I'll help him pack..

- Long-time Sylvan Park Resident

By: richgoose on 3/22/10 at 9:31

I told my mother many many years ago that Sylvan Park was going to be a great location in the future. I can remember telling her that the homes that were in existence would be detrimental to the location. Some developer would have been better off in the 70's to have bought every single home at a premium price as they came for sale. This would have enabled those with money to have a housing development commensurate with their incomes.

Now it appears we are having a squabble between the those that are in support of Obama's health care bill and people who can afford not only a nice home but health care as well.

By: CityProgress on 3/23/10 at 11:53

Any word on the old Charlotte Ave Church of Christ?

If it isn't already demolished, then Historic Sylvan Park Inc. and SPNA should do everything they can to figure out a way to save it. It seems like a unifying issue.

"Today's buyer demands more" ?
There was an article in this paper a couple months ago about McMansions falling out of fashion. I couldn't find it, but these say similar things:

By: McMansionDweller25 on 3/23/10 at 9:36

I live in one of these so called "mini mansions." I find it interesting that a few of you posting want to call my house plastic on the outside and inside. Our hardy board is actually made up of cement. So you might want to check your facts. Also, the last time I checked granite is a stone.

So stop being a bunch of crybabies. It's impossible for a growing family to live in a 1,000 square feet.

By: My_house_is_my_... on 3/24/10 at 9:59

For the last 5 yrs I have been a Sylvan Park resident on Idaho. I have a small 1000-sq ft house that was built in the 1920s. It is impractical for a family to live here unless I add on or tear down the house and build a larger home. It is my business what I want to do with my lot. Therefore I intend to make changes as I see fit so a family can live here in the future.

And good for the person featured in the article on 47/Idaho and also the McMansion Dweller. I welcome you. What the preservationists ignore is these newer, larger, more expensive houses add value to their home. They are full of it if they don't want their house to increase in value-- and just because you don't like these new houses doesn't entitle you to tell other people what to do with your overlay threats. Half of the homes in Sylvan Park are an eyesore anyway and progress is good!

By: SylPa architect on 3/25/10 at 9:56

I’ve lived in Sylvan Park a few years now with a growing family in a 2 bedroom 1 bathroom house. I’m an architect who moved to the neighborhood for its amenities, greenway access, convenience to work, and safety (which I’m sure many of you did). I feel like I understand both sides of this argument. Sylvan Park is a great neighborhood, so why not build a “great” house in the neighborhood for your family? Sylvan Park is a great neighborhood, so why do we want a bunch of huge houses that destroy its character? I believe we can have it both ways; it’s just a matter of creative thinking and design. A great home for your family does not have to mean a great BIG home. There are plenty of newer homes in the neighborhood that are 3 or 4 bedrooms that are 1.5 stories tall and use square footage efficiently. I’d like to applaud Mr. Lovelace for making an energy efficient home which he did not have to do at all. However, the house appears to be too tall for the surrounding neighborhood. I believe that Mr. Lovelace could’ve gotten the same square footage on that lot without going out of scale. I live in a 1400 SF home where the family before us raised 4 kids. Do I want to do that? Hell no, and I plan on adding to my home in a way that is efficient and within the scale and character of Sylvan Park.