A full spread in a glossy pamphlet advertising Lipscomb University’s $125 million fundraising campaign stresses the importance of community. “Living our values where we live,” the page proclaims.
But some neighbors in Green Hills aren’t feeling the love.
Lipscomb is attempting to make several changes to its institutional overlay, a set of zoning rules that stresses cooperation with surrounding residential communities.
The main point of contention is a Lipscomb-owned apartment complex, Parkwood Terrace, that the school wants to convert to a development office (which coincidentally will oversee the aforementioned fundraising campaign). But Parkwood Terrace isn’t in the school’s institutional overlay. The building is on the west side of Belmont Boulevard, across from Lipscomb.
Neighbors contend that about a decade ago the school promised never to cross Belmont Boulevard.
“We took them at their word,” David Perkins, a longtime neighbor of Lipscomb, said. “We did and still do view their promise as a verbal and moral contract.”
The staff of the Metro Planning Department and the Planning Commission has agreed, at least in part, with the neighbors. The staff recommendation was to disapprove Lipscomb’s proposal because it doesn’t “exemplify the proactive ‘sensitive and planned manner’ for campus expansion intended by the Zoning Code,” according to the staff report.
Specifically, they recommend that Lipscomb come up with a long-term plan for expansion west of Belmont Boulevard, rather than plopping an administrative building in a residential neighborhood. But any kind of long-term plan would likely put the university further at odds with neighbors.
Councilman Sean McGuire, whose district includes Green Hills and Lipscomb, has attempted to promote a compromise. At a community meeting in the Second Presbyterian Church gym last week, McGuire proposed relinquishing the Parkwood Terrace building in exchange for a promise not to build west of Belmont Boulevard for 20 to 25 years.
“I think this is an opportunity to really give the neighborhood something to hold on to,” McGuire told the crowd. “I think that if we were to just flat out say no, you can’t cross Belmont Boulevard, that Lipscomb might withdraw their request, and they might come back in a couple years.”
Lipscomb officials say they are amenable to the compromise — but many neighbors are still opposed. George Spain, who has lived on Observatory Drive for more than 30 years, said the transformation to an office building could create a domino effect in future years. Another neighbor said for Lipscomb, a span of 20 to 25 years would be “nothing to them.”
Neighbors also voiced worries about Lipscomb buying up additional properties on the west side of Belmont. But Lipscomb officials said they intend to use that property only for residential and investment purposes.
“In fact, Lipscomb’s institutional overlay demonstrates that the university sees its growth in the foreseeable future to be toward Lealand Avenue on the east side of the campus and to the north toward Grandview Drive,” a university press release said. “We are very proud to be a part of this residential community, and want to maintain its character.”
Lipscomb President Randy Lowry said in a letter to neighbor Elizabeth Thompson that “the fears expressed [by some neighbors] will not be realized.”
“Instead of harming the neighborhood, we believe the use will improve the neighborhood,” Lowry wrote in the letter, pointing out that the administrative building will be used only during daytime hours.
In addition to neighbors, members of the Planning Commission also had concerns about Lipscomb’s proposed amendment to the institutional overlay. After hearing public comments from eight people in favor of the plan and 11 opposed to it, the board voted to approve several small changes to the plan but ultimately to deny the conversion of Parkwood Terrace.
Councilman Phil Claiborne said he didn’t like the idea of Lipscomb’s expansion from a zoning perspective.
“To come and say, ‘We want to move across to one place,’ is an example of spot zoning,” Claiborne said. “You’re moving a commercial use into a residential area. That’s against our principles of zoning as it’s adopted in our code.”
The commission also raised the question of whether Lipscomb could find another place within the overlay to put the development office, rather than infringing across a previously established boundary.
“We could tear down some houses, maybe ... and put a development office in. But right now, on the map, those are all slated for other institutional uses,” Lipscomb’s general counsel Phil Ellenburg said.
But, ultimately, the commission wasn’t willing to grant Lipscomb the addition to the overlay.
“What raises a red flag ... is when you have a large portion of the neighborhood opposing,” Commissioner Greg Adkins said. “I don’t feel like the university has worked out the differences.”
Ellenburg said he plans to re-evaluate the proposal based on the commission’s feedback — and hopes to come to an agreement with neighbors.