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

Cobb: 'First battle in a war'

By Hollie Deese

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As owner of the Exit/In, a 49-year old club in Nashville's Rock Block, Chris Cobb has committed himself to this city in a way many business owners in Nashville do - by operating out of a building they don't even own.

So when things like zoning changes and development happen around him it may be great, or it may be devastating. It's an unknown, and something he doesn't have much control over.

Cobb spoke with The Ledger about preserving culture, and creating a better, more stable working environment for entrepreneurs, not just land owners.

ABout the rezoning bill that was postponed, what exactly did you win? It just kind of pushes the ball forward a little bit, right?

"Absolutely. And the way that we want it to go. So the bill that we were fighting would have rezoned the parcels across the street and residence where the 100-year old apartments currently sit. And they would've allowed the owners to build up. Basically, to double the height that they can currently build to. So it's zoned for eight stories right now, and they're trying to go to 15. They want to build a 15-story box hotel.''

Were they using the NashvilleNext plan to justify a rezone at that height?

"Planning voted 0-6, so it was a unanimous disapproval of this plan in February. This plan goes against NashvilleNext. It pretty much checked every box for being opposite of what NashvilleNext is for. Because it destroys affordable housing in the core in exchange for hotel rooms. So it contradicts any sensible plan for Nashville, including NashvilleNext.

"The support and the ground swell here of local support for protecting historic buildings, for protecting neighborhoods, for protecting institutions like Exit/In that are foundational for Nashville. It was good. It was the first battle in a war. But I'll take the win in the first battle, every time.

What would something like this hotel do to a business like yours?

"Well, I don't know. Be disruptive. Elliston Place just doesn't need a Hilton Garden Inn on it. Elliston Place, we serve local. We also serve tourists, but we serve an alternative segment of the market. It's the Rock Block. There's funky clothing stores and diners and music venues. It's not SoBro and that's what they want it to be. This is the first push to do that. To wipe all the cool funky stuff away and put up more white-washed bullshit.

"But I can tell you right now, they're talking about neighborhoods. So all of this tells me that things are changing around here and people are tired of this continued destruction and displacement of people, places and things that Nashvillians love.

"I challenge you to find one person who hasn't lost something about the city that they love over the last couple of years. And so it makes me feel really positive that that is starting to shift. And look, we're at the bottom of a mountain here. There's a lot of money. There's a lot of lobbyists. There's a lot of powerful people who want that to continue.''

How secure do you feel not owning the property Ext/In is at?

"Well, I'd feel more secure if I owned it.''

That's a bigger issue across Nashville where so many small businesses don't own the property they work out of. And when things like this happen, rezoning, it just makes things even harder.

"Like many things, the laws have been stacked for generations against the working class. And they have been built in the favor of the wealthy, the landowners. It's a systemic issue here. It's much bigger than zoning. The lobbyists and council people forcing zoning changes through so they can tear stuff down and build ugly stuff. It's not for people who live here.

"Now you're starting to talk about triple net leases, which in a triple net lease, your tenant is paying all the property tax, receiving none of the benefits. The landowner is receiving all the benefits. That's a standard lease around here, which I am fairly certain are actually illegal in other parts of the country now. That's one example of how the laws are stacked against us here as lease holders.

"This whole zoning thing is a great example of how the system is built against us. The notices for the zoning changes go to property owners, not the business owners. So the law says that the notice, it goes to the landowner. So when they send out the notices, they don't send them to us. There was no notice in my mailbox. I was given zero notice.

"I wasn't invited. I wasn't notified. So yeah, there's multiple levels of state and local system laws and rules that make it really hard for local business owners who rent their buildings. And yeah, you're right, the statistic is crazy. I think it's 80% or more of local businesses in Nashville don't own the property that they're in. So it's a huge problem and it's one of the reasons that we're losing so many places.

So what's next? What do you hope happens as Nashville continues to grow?

"The dream is affordable housing for the creative working class in those departments. The dream is that these 100-year-old beautiful brick buildings with huge trees and grass continue to live on that corner.

"So I can't overstate how detrimental a change it would be visibly to this neighborhood. I'm standing right now staring at these buildings and trees and grass and rock and brick. It's a beautiful neighborhood. You can walk through it, you can live in it. There are trees. We need the character. You can't rebuild character like that. Well you can, but guess what? They don't.'

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