Proposed ‘Downtown Code’ could make nationwide waves

Monday, November 30, 2009 at 11:45pm

A proposed set of zoning guidelines known as the “Downtown Code” could transform the way Nashville develops its urban core.

Following a two-year study and community outreach effort by the Metro Planning Department, a final version of a long-awaited zoning plan — devised to facilitate more mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly pockets within downtown — has made its way to the Metro Council where a pair of related ordinances will be heard Tuesday on first reading.

Inspired by the 2007 Downtown Community Plan, the Downtown Code bucks the prevailing method of basing zoning regulations on land use categories such as residential, commercial and industrial. Instead, the proposal embraces design-oriented standards — signage, proximity to the street and window, and entrance and parking locations, for example.

“What matters is how the building relates to the street and relates to pedestrians,” said Jennifer Carlat, manager of the department’s community plans and designs division. “If the building is built in a way that it’s friendly to pedestrians it’s going to make downtown a more livable, more enjoyable place to work, play and live. What use is going on in that building matters a little bit less. I’d say that’s the biggest change — moving from a focus on use to a focus on form.”

Formal filing of legislation came from Mike Jameson and Erica Gilmore, the two Council members who represent parts of the defined downtown area, which is bounded by Jefferson Street to the north, the interstate loop to the south and west and the Cumberland River to the east.

The plan divides downtown into four general zones: The Gulch neighborhood along 12th avenue, as well as north, south and central downtown. Planners envision replicating the kind of mixed-use development found in the 12South neighborhood, downtown Church Street and Broadway.

For the planning department, the final draft of the Downtown Code came after the adoption of the Downtown Community Plan in 2007, which kicked off an analysis and series of community meetings that culminated with the Council vote.

“Our staff looked at the downtown plan, the vision of the community, and saw the zoning that is currently present in downtown was not going to implement that vision,” Carlat said.

Planners had already discovered the current zoning criteria to be out of synch with recent downtown developments, she said, including the Pinnacle at Symphony Place office tower and the Row 8.9 Lofts on Rosa Parks Boulevard. Both projects required exemptions from zoning requirements.

“Not only does this current zoning not match the vision, but it hasn’t proven workable for projects we’ve seen in the past few years anyway,” she said.

If the Metro Council decides to adopt the new, more progressive zoning requirements, it could set a trend that has yet to take off in most cities nationwide.

“Many cities still focus on land use over the form,” Carlat said. “I think Nashville is a leader in thinking more about having a good form, having welcoming streets that are friendly to pedestrians.

“Ironically, though, it’s kind of a return to how we used to build cities when we weren’t as completely auto dependent,” she said. “That old is new.”

8 Comments on this post:

By: Myth_of_the_Nob... on 12/1/09 at 11:10

This is a huge step in the right direction for downtown Nashville. The process the planning department went through to develop the code is community based, so it incorporates the common elements that stake holders agreed upon resulting in a shared future vision of our downtown. The old zoning code is cumbersome and encouraged the wrong type of urban form. The new code will streamline the approval process for projects that improve our urban fabric and will discourage projects that include small buildings surrounded by large surface parking lots. As a downtown resident, I'm very proud that we are doing this as a city and I think it is something that we will all be proud of in the future as we continue to grow in a smarter way.

By: JeffF on 12/1/09 at 11:32

The change in zoning will help, but the most helpful thing Nashville could do to help downtown would be to remove itself and MDHA from the process of each and every development in the area. Intelligent development does not require a government "partner" to build desired and smart buildings. But right now MDHA acts as the gatekeeper for everything that happens in downtown. This drives up cost and thus increases the need for tax breaks like TIF to get anything completed. Getting away from use and having a set design book will reduce the cost, time frame, and red tape for getting things done in downtown.

Killing off the hysteric preservation board of busybodies would help as well.

By: DDG on 12/1/09 at 3:19

Instead of a convention center of new football/baseball/whatever stadium in the future, how about a friggin' monorail train from downtown to Vanderbilt. It sure would cut down a lot on traffic coming from West End and allow people on the interstates to get into downtown more easily.

By: DDG on 12/1/09 at 3:19

of=or

By: JeffF on 12/1/09 at 5:01

You would be connecting two parts of town that contain a minority of population and employment. Why is it so hard of a concept to connect all of Nashville together with something less sexy (and expensive)? Buses work, the most expensive train technologies do not.

By: Time for Truth on 12/1/09 at 9:32

Jeff, on your initial post I am in total agreement with the first paragraph. The folks who brought us the MCC, which will not just be a fiscal disaster but a planning disaster as well, should not have any final decision over anything.

The shorter paragraph about preserving our history is another matter. The badly botched sixties 'urban renewal', Tony G's luxury condo that looks like government housing on the site of the Tennessee Theater and the unchecked razing of other viable landmarks are huge warnings to have a set of eyes on what little is left of Nashville's heritage. As you know from your research on the MCC, developers are not by design benevolent visionaries with the best interests of the taxpayer as their first priority. Somebody needs to mind the store, and enthusiastic volunteers are a good first line of defense.

Interesting to see if this plan works. Remains to be seen if Pinnacle is an asset or liabilty in this market so that was a bad example to use. It has certainly redefined that area for better or worse. At least they didn't have their hand out. Nashville is one of the least walkable/bikeable cities in the nation and anything to improve that is welcome.

By: Myth_of_the_Nob... on 12/3/09 at 10:59

Jeff, I have to disagree, connecting downtown and midtown with a higher quality of transit with a higher level of service is a great idea. However, I agree with you that it doesn't need to be highly expensive either. It is the population density along Broadway/ West End, that makes DDG's suggestion a good one, yes compared to the population of the entire city its a relatively small group, but it is the most dense corridor in middle Tennessee. We've been subsidizing highway and roadway construction for 60 years, I think its time to reverse that by incentivizing smarter transportation systems. I'd love to see the return of privately operated streetcars in Nashville, and Broadway is probably the strongest candidate for where to begin.
Thats what is great about the new DTC, it encourages the type of density that puts homes closer to where people work, shop, and find entertainment. The result will be neighborhoods that are more walkable and well suited for forms of transportation like streetcars.
Choice riders (people who own cars) are not attracted to buses, but they will chose to leave their cars at home and ride transit that is built on fixed guideways.

By: townsend on 12/7/09 at 9:44

"...having welcoming streets that are friendly to pedestrians."

I'm sure this won't apply to the new convention center, which will have blocks-long blank walls on at least three sides. If built according to the above sentiment, there would be retail spaces fronting the streets on all four sides of this monstrosity, along with a transit station for a light-rail system tying all of the metro area together.

The city missed this idea when redeveloping Deaderick Street, which is pretty but has nothing for people to DO on it.