Powerful neighborhood associations shaping Nashville development

Sunday, September 27, 2009 at 11:45pm

Still smoldering after a year's worth of intense land use issues — from the high-wire dramatics of Bells Bend to the continued back and forth over a downtown convention center — Nashville has reached an important crossroads in regards to development.

Out of the grab bag of buzzwords and concepts, infill has emerged as the championed chosen path that many feel is the best route for shaping Nashville's future growth. However, as the city now turns its back on sprawl and grapples with how to rethink older areas of the city, one group of stakeholders is likely to take on a growing role: Nashville's neighborhood associations.

Numbering more than 200 organizations citywide, the groups are a significant presence. Many of the long-standing groups, such as the Hillsboro-West End, Lockeland Springs and Belmont-Hillsboro, are strong in membership, savvy to the process and equipped with a clear vision for their area.

First organized in the 1970s as a front against absentee landlords, predatory lenders and the boorish bureaucracy of Metro government’s old guard, tcomm. It’s a progression that one longtime neighborhood activist describes today as “power passing back into the hands of the people from whence it should have come.”

For many that ascendancy peaked with Bill Purcell, a mayor supportive of a vibrant city patched together from distinct neighborhoods. Today, the groups are empowered by the community plan process, an approach that lets citizens map out with Metro’s Planning Department the land use of their area. Thanks to this influence, the associations arguably have as strong a hand as any of the other players at the table.

In fact, some developers complain that planners and politicians tilt too readily toward the associations' wishes.

But now the classic clash between builders and communities has been altered. Today, spiking the usual brew of development tension is market uncertainty; with a shipwrecked economy, many of the development opportunities available only a year or two ago are off the table. As development lurches forward from the current snag, some members of both the building community and the planning department wonder if the very detailed community plans outlined over the last decade will accurately reflect the type of building that will be available down the road.

“I think there's a real tension in the community plans between trying to lay out what's going to happen in the future, wanting some certainty that the plan is going to be followed, and the need to keep it flexible to respond to a changing market,” said Metro Planning Department’s Jennifer Carlat.

If the market reality doesn't support what's in the fine print, the question rises as to whether or not strong neighborhood association will be flexible to alternations to their plans — what many residents hold to be the holy writ of how their areas grow.

This fallout from the economic bust means it's likely all the parties involved in development — from planners and politicians to neighbors and developers — are going to change how they plan the future.

Neighborhood groups get savvy

In Metro’s current setup, the main thrust of the neighborhood associations' influence comes from the community plan process.

The Planning Department has chopped the Metro area into 14 community plan areas; each section goes through an update process every seven to 10 years.

“That update is the most important time for the community to be involved because that's when we do the visioning of what should be preserved, what should be changed, what should be created from scratch, and what needs to be scratched,” Carlat said.

Through a series of feedback sessions, the department meets with area neighborhood associations, as well as city officials, Metro Council members, institutional representatives and developers. By bringing all the parties to the table, the aim is to have as open and honest a discussion as possible. One plus to [that] approach is that changes to the community’s makeup can be discussed from a distance, without the heat often stirred up by zone change requests.

“The idea is we can have this conversation a bit more calmly,” Carlat said. “We can think a little more broadly in terms of long term impacts and also in terms of what's my community's role in the overall county.”

What emerges is a document outlining the land uses for every single piece of property in an area. Neighborhood leaders involved in the most recent community plan process for West Nashville say they appreciate the voice the current system gives to the community.

“I think the plan will encourage development where neighbors are comfortable,” said Rob Robinson, a leader in the Sylvan Park Neighborhood Association. “I hope that it will make sure that if someone does go in and develop in an area neighbors are sensitive to, they'll develop in the right way.”

Things change

But Carlat acknowledges the planning staff sees a catch in the current community plan setup. As neighborhood groups become more savvy to the process and seek more specificity about the density and land use assigned to a parcel, that specificity comes at the cost of flexibility.

Members of the development community echo the same feeling. According to James Weaver, attorney for Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis, the plans reflect a snapshot of market possibilities at the time they're devised. However, the end success of a development rests on whether or not businesses, restaurants and retailers will buy into the available options in later economic conditions.

“The apprehension our clients have about the community planning process is that what it sometimes is not designed to be is a living document, and the market is a living phenomenon — it changes,” Weaver said. “What may be feasible today, may not be feasible tomorrow.”

The community plans aren't ironclad; the planning mechanics allow for projects with an alternative land use to apply to amend the current documents. When those alternatives are proposed, developers and neighborhood associations are drawn back into the ring, sparking dialogues that have proven to be everything from constructive to contentious.

However, with the markets fluctuating as rapidly as they have, Carlat says the Planning Department does expect to see more rezoning requests in the future.

Some rough patches

Nashville's recent history of plan amendments has not been altogether smooth. Ideally a chance to engage in a constructive dialogue about planning, the amendment process at its worst can break out into pitched battles between development interests and neighbors on the defensive.

The Green Hills area was recently bruised-up in such an ugly squabble regarding a development in the heart of the neighborhood. Last spring, developer Brent Smith unveiled plans for a 300-plus unit development off Abbott Martin Road. According to Smith, the local neighborhood groups immediately took issue with his project, despite the fact that the Planning Department staff recommended the proposal.

Following a series of contentious public meetings, Smith pulled his project after the area’s Metro councilmen, Carter Todd and Sean McGuire, deferred to the neighbors.

Looking back, Smith says a vocal minority of association members hijacked the discussion without knowing all the facts. But he doesn't rest blame entirely on the groups. Instead, Smith believes the council members should have taken more of a leadership role in the process.

“I think the real problem lies more in the amount of weight that our council members give the neighborhood associations,” Smith said, adding if Metro Planning staff approves but the neighbors oppose, council members should not be afraid to stand up for a project with long-term community value.

Also, council members are wrong to measure community support by polling public meetings held on projects, Smith argued, because often only citizens in opposition attend, which creates a potentially false sense of majority for an opposing viewpoint.

So, instead of exercising judgment, the developer says, council members easily allow sound development to collapse under the volley of public outcry.

Council members counter that community input is essential when dealing with a plan amendment.

In East Nashville, Councilman Mike Jameson is current working with community members to measure the support for a 6,000-square-foot mixed-use development at 16th Street and Ordway Place. For Jameson, the public meetings on the project have been important.

“As squeamish as it makes people, a show of hands is at least an indication of the neighborhood consensus,” he said. “It's not the be-all and end-all of development decisions. I caution people that this is simply a factor that goes into it, along with the Planning Department's recommendations, and other council members' input.”

Zoning’s political pitfalls

If the choppy market does force more zoning amendment proposals to surface, charged land use disputes could follow. As Nashville Neighborhood Alliance leader John Stern points out, plan amendments are tricky political terrain.

“I think it's safe to say zoning issues make or break council candidates,” Stern said. “That's one of the things that people don't easily forget.”

As an example, Stern points to Councilwoman Pam Murray's precipitous pitfall into her current recall, a situation set off after neighbors were upset with how their representative handled a rezoning request.

The neighborhood associations are not without their own political push. Both as individual groups and as umbrella organizations, such as the Neighborhood Alliance and the Nashville Neighborhood Defense Fund, the neighborhoods have successfully lobbied for civic initiatives such as storm water management and animal control, as well elements that play directly into the political process.

Stern and others played a role in putting the current councilman recall provision in Metro's charter. The group's candidate questionnaire, a look into the development proclivities of candidates, is a popular election season reference.

Through persistence and push, the neighborhood associations have managed to “increase the number of council members that are respectful of the community and constituencies,” according to Stern, but he added that “there still are outliers out there causing problems.”

Stern acknowledges too that most of the older neighborhood groups have matured beyond the not-in-my-back-yard attitude.

“We're at the point where we have to say what we envision as well as what we don't envision,” he said.

In part it's because of how far they've come that the neighborhood associations could play such an important role ahead. As the post-May Town pressure for infill increases and changing markets potentially upset the specificity of community plans, neighborhood groups could take the lead working with developers.

However, according to Carlat, these groups must begin to think beyond their own neighborhood. By thinking of every neighborhood as a piece of ‘the whole,’ associations, planners and developers can quilt together the right citywide mix.

“Neighborhood leaders need to take responsibility to think about the impacts of development not only on their community, but on the broader community and on Davidson County,” she said.

3 Comments on this post:

By: topthinker on 9/28/09 at 3:34

I'm trying to figure out why "powerful neighborhood organizations" are so much more of a threat than powerful (plus rich and well-connected) developers.

And why Jennifer Carlat feels the need to patronizingly admonish neighborhood groups to "think about the impacts of development". Surely that is supposed to be the job of the Commission staff, and surely they have not been doing very well at it lately.

Plus the talk about how the neighborhood plans need to be "flexible"-- the commission staff interprets "flexible" to mean that a brand new neighborhood plan for rural development should be able to accomodate a gigantic and very dense development, i.e. Bells Bend.

From where the public sits, these neighborhood groups are the only thing preventing developers from planting whatever they want wherever they want. Certainly the Commission staff hasn't done much in that regard.

By: Kosh III on 9/29/09 at 7:14

This Smith person seems to feel that developers should have a free hand to do whatever they wish and the public and neighborhood can just roll over, lube up and take it.

The Commission has been little more than a tool of developers. It's about time that the people who actually live there should have the most say about what happens.

Let's "develop" a low-income 1000 unit housing project in Smith's neighborhood and see how he'd like it.

By: mmiddle on 5/24/12 at 1:25

As someone relatively new to both Nashville and to neighborhood association leadership, I have found Jennifer Carlat and her colleagues to be amazingly helpful and flexible, willing to meet with us repeatedly over many months, to listen patiently and respond specifically, and to give us maps and very even-handed information. If anything, she has urged us to take it slowly and cautiously, educated us on Council's processes and on our part of the Plan, always graciously and promptly. She has supported our newly-emerging and vitally important relationship with developers, and has helped greatly to strengthen community ties. Those commenters who reflexively fall back on the victim/villain stereotype need to get past that cliche, and start paying closer attention.