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.”
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.”