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.”