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VOL. 43 | NO. 44 | Friday, November 1, 2019

Kempf: Not embracing our riverfront is missed opportunity

By Hollie Deese

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Lucy Kempf

Lucy Kempf, the executive director of the Metropolitan Nashville-Davidson County Planning Department, who moved here three years ago after working in growth and development in Washington, D.C., for more than a decade, wants Nashvillians to embrace the riverfront.

“My hope is that I will move the ball forward on reawakening people to the idea that the river has value, and what's really cool about it is it's not just a downtown riverfront,’’ she says. “This is a riverfront that snakes through north Nashville and abuts portions of TSU. There's a lot of really wonderful, exciting opportunities for that system to redefine how we think about the city.’’

Kempf talks about maintaining authenticity as Nashville grows, keeping it the kind of place where long-term residents can afford to live while creating and improving infrastructure, making strides to boost quality of life and building out the riverfront.

“We are city building on a huge scale, which presents a lot of opportunities to create neighborhoods that are places where people want to live, and new public spaces, but also a lot of challenges,” Kempf says.

What are some big challenges facing Nashville right now?

“On the physical side, certainly building cohesive and meaningful public infrastructure. That can be everything from the stuff underground with water, at ground level with roads, but also those amenities that can really improve the quality of life for our residents. That's what we're here for. We want Nashville to be a great city for people to live in.

“Things like parks, connectivity between neighborhoods, the diverse mobility options through greenways and multimodal transportation networks, giving people a choice in how they want to live their lives, and the character of their neighborhood is really important. I think trying to build those systems is usually challenging. Nashville has historically built infrastructure lot by lot. That does not work so well in fast-growing areas experiencing a lot of change. You have to have more of a systems approach. I think that's a core challenge that permeates all of our planning decisions.

“A second challenge is that as we evolve, Nashville needs to continue to maintain its voice. We have a point of view in this city that should be distinct from every other city, and that should feel that way through our built environment, through the types of uses we have for the way people experience the city. I think that we have that, and we have it through the music industry. We have it through the way that our neighborhoods have developed, that I think if we're not careful, that can slowly erode.’’

There is a lot at stake with growth, including culture among neighborhoods. How do we determine what best serves Nashville moving forward?

“To me, there are a lot of public benefits that go with quality of life. To me, that's about making sure we have services such as good schools for kids, access to parks and open space choice. If you want to be able to walk to work or your places of worship or your hobbies, to have that option. It's giving a variety of folks and a variety of age groups and incomes choice. I think that there certainly is a tension between long-time residents who are concerned about displacement.

“I don't think it's an either/or. I think we have to find a balance. What can be challenging is that issues like affordable housing, we've got to work both at the local and nonprofit level, but also at the state level, because there are protections at the state level regarding affordable housing and restrictions. I think that part of our challenge is bringing together all of the local and state constituencies around a common set of problems to try to solve those.’’

What opportunities are there for people to have a voice?

“Many. One of the things that I love the most about planning is it's not like we're biologists in a lab who don't care about what people think. Public engagement is a part of the foundational elements of the profession. It's about design and geography and community engagement. I think the planning, at least for me, we're trying to think a little more dynamically about how to reach out to folks.

“Sometimes we find out about a problem when there's a problem. What we're trying to focus on is building relationships earlier, so we can talk to folks about issues that they care about, and then have that relationship so we can identify problems before they fester. In planning, one of the most important tools that we have is the general plan for this setting, which is NashvilleNext. A countywide plan approved in 2015, it did some really important things that identified areas for growth, and areas that we wanted to protect, such as those with natural features or historic preservation features. It's basically charted a blueprint for future development. That plan was based on community feedback. That's a living document and we continue to work with individual neighborhood groups about the direction of their community.’’

How can tourism and hotel growth co-exist with residents right now?

“Ten years ago we didn't have so many residents living downtown and in the neighborhoods immediately downtown. But that's changing. I think that a lot of people find living downtown to be really fulfilling. As a city, I think that's important for us. We need to do some work around downtown and in the areas immediately downtown that identify from a character perspective where our tourism areas are. We certainly know Broadway, but the character of other parts of downtown doesn't have to feel that way. That can affect everything from our signage standards to the types of buildings that we do. All of that goes into the sense of whether or not we're oriented to tourism and the honky-tonks or something a little different.

“We can have both. Our downtown is big enough for both.

‘’Our downtown is big enough for both. I think we need to look at some of the entertainment vehicles which have begun to really move out of those tourism areas and into Music Row, Midtown and areas that are fairly far outside of the tourism core. Those vehicles, I'm not saying there's anything bad about them, but their function needs to be balanced with other functions. Our road network has to serve a lot of different people, and they tend to claim a lot of space. I think that we need to make some hard decisions there, and little things like that can make a big difference.

‘’One of the biggest symbols of tourism are short term rentals. The regulatory framework around short term rentals has been changing quite a bit over the last couple of years. For example, non-owner occupied short-term rentals are now not allowed in one- and two-family neighborhoods. That was a very big intrusion, from many residents' perspectives, into their neighborhoods from the tourism industries.’’

What is your dream for Nashville?

“I think that one of the most important character-defining features in our setting is our river. Like a lot of river cities, it was a center of commerce 100 years ago. Then slowly we started to turn our back on it. I think that over the last 10 years we've made good strides towards re-imagining the city around the river. But we have so much opportunity in this area for the city to refocus on our waterfronts, and to connect to our waterfronts through a system of greenways that bring together civic and cultural uses, as well as neighborhoods. I think we can have a transformative experience in Nashville bringing people together through those systems.

“Nashville is different from Atlanta and from Charlotte and from Denver because we are situated in a landscape setting. We're not built out as a region yet to be hardscaped. We're situated in a landscape setting. We have a beautiful natural hilly grade and that's different. That's unique and we should embrace that.

“As you look at the river, you'll see hundreds of acres of sites that were industrial at one point that have the potential today to be reimagined, not as little tourist or sports clusters, but as meaningful spaces for people to live.’’

What is important to address about developments within neighborhoods and how those might affect the people living there?

“One of the things that we have done a bad job of taking care of here in Nashville is the character of our main corridors and arteries in the city. If you look at Nashville, it's actually pretty dreamy. You've got a central civic space on a hill in front of a park situated next to a thriving downtown. Then you've got this fabulous river, and then you've got these major corridors that extend beyond the city. I'm talking about Nolensville, Gallatin, Murfreesboro (pikes) and the like. I would say by and large, we have not done a very good job of in terms of their design, their urban design quality, and their pedestrian orientation. They're scary to walk on.

“Our department has been working with public works to bring pedestrian amenities to these spaces, but also to develop urban design overlays that incorporate material standards so buildings don't feel scary when you walk past them. That is going to be a 30-year proposition, but I think it's worth it.’’

Money is coming into Nashville through growth and development, but people are concerned they're not going to be able to enjoy it or afford to live here. Is that a concern?

“Two things that come to mind. One, as the city grows and property values go up, is our school system keeping pace, and do we have quality choices for education. From that perspective, we're protecting families, the ability of families to stay here, and that's really important.

“I think one of the things that makes Nashville really different is that for a city of our size, we have some really fantastic educational institutions. Belmont, Vanderbilt, and TSU - all of these provide educational opportunities. I think that's going to be critical because we have new businesses coming in who may want a different skillset to have access to those jobs. It's workforce development, educational development.

“I would say of course affordable housing, but I think integral to the affordable housing piece is ensuring that everybody has the workforce and access to education and services that position the city to keep pace with the businesses moving here.’’

Do we have specific challenges downtown because people were not living there for so long? How do we continue downtown growth in a way that makes it desirable for people to live there among the tourism?

“Downtown, generally, is a lifeblood for a community. It ought to have the spaces where people want to gather, be together and have a lot of the architectural features that make cities different. I'm a very strong believer that thriving downtowns make thriving communities holistically.

“We've got to protect that momentum moving forward. But that's going to require a couple of areas of hard decision making. One is making sure that the whole thing doesn't become an entertainment complex, and we know how to do that. If you go to cities like New Orleans and Memphis, they have figured out the right transitions. People are still able to live there and feel like they're living in a downtown, not in a 24/7 party.

“Then historic preservation is a huge component of setting our identity as a city, and as downtown grows and the values of the land grow, that is going to put a lot of downward pressure on short buildings that could be presumably much taller buildings, but they are historic structures today. To me, making those hard decisions and doing the right thing in those instances will make an environment where people want to continue to live there, and make it a compelling place for people to live. It's just quality of life.’’

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