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VOL. 39 | NO. 44 | Friday, October 30, 2015

How will neighborhoods fare under Barry?

New mayor seeks to balance historic growth, quality of life

By Linda Bryant

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Nashville’s mayors shape their reputations in very individual ways, and those legacies take shape over time.

Neighborhood advocates in Davidson County are poised, eagerly waiting to see if new Mayor Megan Barry will have a similar legacy to former Mayor Bill Purcell, the “put-neighborhoods-first mayor,’’ whose administration spanned 1999-2007.

Since taking office, Barry has signaled a more neighborhood-centric focus, naming Nashville native Lonnell Matthews, Jr. to lead the renamed Mayor’s Office of Neighborhoods and Community Engagement and focus on the need for widespread, county-wide community involvement.

“I plan to re-energize the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhoods to ensure that neighborhood leaders and other residents feel a strong connection to Metro Government,” Barry told The Ledger.

“You can also expect to see more neighborhood leaders taking seats on Metro’s many boards and commissions as vacancies appear.

“My administration will be working with neighborhoods to give them the tools they need to grow and change in ways that reflect their unique character while making sure long-term residents also benefit from those changes as new people move in.”

A fine start, but what advocates want is far more specific: More staff for Metro Codes, processing of building permits in a more timely fashion, adding non-developers to the Planning Commission, focus less heavily on downtown.

And, depending on your part of the county, fix the traffic problems, build sidewalks or help protect a neighborhood’s character.

“I think the Planning Commission is top-heavy with developers,” says Charlotte Cooper, president of the Green Hills Neighborhood Alliance and board member of the newly-formed Alliance for Green Hills, a coalition of neighborhood activists, developers, business owners and community members.

Cooper says there’s been a “great deal of mistrust” between Green Hills neighborhood advocates and the Metro departments that deal with growth, planning and construction.

“We’ve been concerned about the amount of money given for downtown projects,” she says.

“Green Hills is under so much pressure. We’ve had three major water main breaks this year, and some residents were without water for 2-3 weeks. Green Hills is such a cash cow for Metro, but Metro hasn’t always shown consideration for Green Hills.”

Following Dean

Barry is just getting started, so it’s impossible to know how her leadership will be characterized or how effective the new Metro Council will be.

Will it be possible for her administration to slow growth a bit in order to accommodate some of longstanding concerns and complaints of some of the city’s organized neighborhood preservation groups?

Many neighborhood groups certainly hope so and are moving forward to letting Nashville’s new mayor know their desires and demands. Meanwhile, new Metro Council members, many of whom ran on pro-neighborhood agendas, are eager help Nashville neighborhoods find their voice.

Purcell established the city’s first Office of Neighborhoods, and neighborhood groups increased from 250 to 353 during his tenure.

Karl Dean’s eight-year term from 2007 to 2015 was marked by stratospheric commercial and residential growth. Under Dean’s banner, Nashville became a star of the international press and indisputably one of the hottest growth cities in the country.

Some Dean critics accused him of putting bread and butter neighborhood concerns on the back burner as Nashville’s growth exploded.

Neighborhood advocates say he focused too much on downtown growth and economic incentives for the commercial sector and say established neighborhood groups lost power and influence during his administration.

Barry ran as a pro-growth, pro-education progressive and has pledged to have a diverse and responsive administration. Some have characterized her campaign as Dean 2.0. If that is so, does that mean Nashville’s skyrocketing growth will take precedence over neighborhood stability?

Others, particularly those in the real estate and development community, are watching Barry closely because they want her to continue Dean’s strong legacy of residential growth and commercial development. To dampen it, they say, would deprive Nashville of jobs, prosperity and national and international clout.

Can Mayor Berry strike a balance between Purcell-era neighborhood activism and the skyrocketing, prosperous growth of the Dean administration? Or would that amount to “serving two masters”?

In her inaugural acceptance speech on Sept. 10. Barry didn’t mention neighborhoods specifically, but focused more broadly on her goals for education, diversity, inclusiveness and economic development. But she did encourage citizen participation in a broad way.

“I want to hear from you,” Barry said, repeating that phrase several times during her speech.

Inadequate staffing, representation

A widespread complaint among neighborhood groups is what they consider to be inadequate staffing at Metro Codes, where building permits are being processed at a record rate. Many also believe that the Metro Planning Commission doesn’t have adequate neighborhood representation.

Cooper’s new group, the Alliance for Green Hills, includes some former adversaries who fought at opposite ends of the growth issue in Green Hills. The group has decided to take a collaborative approach to solving some of Green Hills frustrating growth issues.

“Many residents were feeling helpless in what was happening to their community, and there was growing resentment,” Cooper says.

“It did not appear any group was working together,’’ she adds. “Developers were building on every available piece of property and angering many residents; business owners were protecting their business and their property, and residential neighborhoods took legal action against the Metro Planning Department for approving a development that is out of character for Green Hills.

“There was no place where a resident, a developer, a retail customer, a business owner could go to either suggest new ideas or to seek information about ideas that were circulating in the rumor mill,” Cooper adds. “Many determined we needed a way to talk to each other.”

‘Everyday people’ can’t keep up

Frank Stabile, president of The Nations Neighborhood Association, says he agrees with Cooper about staffing and representation.

“At least among most of the people I talk to, there’s a widespread feeling that zoning and planning are in the pocket of the developers,” Stabile says. “It’s frustrating because everyday people with jobs and families have a very hard time keeping up with – and responding proactively – to developments in their neighborhood.”

Stabile has lived in The Nations, one of the city’s hottest areas for new development, since 2009.

“I just don’t think anyone was quite prepared for the onslaught of development that has taken place,” Stabile notes.

“I started to get involved and began to try to help neighbors with their planning and zoning issues. I got progressively more frustrated, and this year it became near impossible (to deal with Metro Planning and Codes).”

Stabile says much of the construction in The Nations, which includes many duplexes and the much-maligned, side-by-side “tall and skinny” homes, is grandfathered in by a 100-year-old platting configuration that allows for two homes on one lot.

Neighbors were unaware of the old ordinance until the construction boom. The zoning seems archaic to Stabile since The Nations has historically been a neighborhood of single-family homes.

“It’s pretty much meant that a duplex development could go up without a public hearing or request for rezoning,” he says. “We were told that if we tried to change it, the state would just overturn it. No one has challenged it because we don’t have the resources for a lawyer.”

“Some of the new building in The Nations is legal, even though all of us might not like It.” he adds. “But I believe some of it actually is illegal, although it’s too late to do anything about it now.”

Stabile says the waiting lines at Metro Codes are often “ridiculous” and can take hours.

“We need find a balance,” he says. “It’s clear the growth is more like a frenzy that’s causing poor communication, and in some cases, bad decisions. Things slip through the cracks. We need to increase staff at Metro Codes and probably have more inspectors. We need to make it easier for everyday people to keep up.

“And one thing I feel strongly about,” Stabile adds. “They (Metro Codes) should be issuing building permits when the demolition is done and not before.”

New Metro Council or Mayor Barry to the rescue?

Barry tells The Ledger she’s aware of concerns such as those voiced by Stabile and Cooper.

“This is one of several areas where fresh eyes will help us see where we have appropriate staffing and where we need more employees to make our government work the way it should,” Barry says.

“I believe the Metro Development Services Center – the ‘one-stop shop’ – has made a difference in the way permits are handled, which has been good for builders. Their investments in our city are important.

“But we always need to make sure we’re striking the right balance between business interests and neighborhood interests, and I realize there’s more to do.”

Newly-elected Metro Council member Brett Withers ran for a seat in East Nashville’s District 6 because he wanted neighborhoods in his district to have stronger representation. Many of his constituents are concerned about the demolition of historic homes, the lack of adequate sidewalks and lack of compromise on higher-density developments.

Withers

Withers says he’s “appalled” by the staffing situation at Metro Codes and by some of the struggles with fast development many Nashville neighborhoods have gone though.

“It’s not luxury spending (to hire more Metro Codes staff),” he says. “I believe most taxpayers are willing to pay for essential services.

Despite his concerns, Withers is extremely upbeat about the new Council’s ability to get things done.

“The council is now full of neighborhood leaders,” he says. “I’m optimistic. I think we’re probably going to be one of the most neighborhood-friendly council’s in Metro’s history.”

Sidewalks and bikeways

Withers says Barry is engaging with longtime neighborhood leaders and, in some cases, appointing them to keep positions.

Mike Jameson, who was extremely active in neighborhoods when he was an East Nashville councilman, was recently named Barry’s law director. Vice Mayor David Briley, although he’s elected and not appointed, is also known for being a neighborhood advocate.

Withers is also expecting residents to speak up more to the new administration. “I encourage neighbors to get out to meetings, write letters and apply pressure when they are concerned,” he says. “It makes a difference.”

Mayor Barry says she’ll take a look at Metro’s sidewalk situation.

“Planning for, building and maintaining great sidewalks and bikeways are imperative for a healthy, active, safe and vibrant community,” she says.

“My administration has directed Metro Public Works to undertake a thorough update of the Strategic Plan for Sidewalks and Bikeways, which was last updated in 2008.

“I encourage citizens to participate in this process and to work with us to ensure Nashville’s sidewalks and bikeways are safe, useable and welcoming to people of all abilities.”

Colby Sledge, the newly-elected District 17 Council member, says his neighborhoods are organized and interested in finding out how to be more proactive.

Sledge

“I think there’s an awareness that now is a good time to speak up,” Sledge explains. “There’s excitement and energy and a real capacity to deal with issues in the future.

“A lot of folks aren’t against growth, and they don’t necessarily have a NIMBY (not in my back yard) attitude.

“But I’m seeing a theme in the district. Neighborhoods want to be more of a voice at the table.”

12South, one of the neighborhoods Sledge represents, is in the process of applying for conservation overlay zoning, a method of zoning that protects neighborhood character and preserves historical buildings.

The zoning change is driven by residents’ concerns about overdevelopment.

Withers, of District 6, says he believes there will be more applications for conservation overlay districts or similar protective zonings.

“A few years ago, many neighborhoods weren’t that interested in conservation zoning,” Withers says.

“Many are considering it now because they are feeling the effects of so much construction.

“It’s like they can’t get it done quickly enough because the growth is coming so fast.”

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