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VOL. 37 | NO. 17 | Friday, April 26, 2013

The ‘double-edged sword’ of infill

By Hollie Deese

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There are certain things about Sylvan Park that lured resident Steve Swartz away from Belle Meade seven years ago, like the variety in architecture and diversity in character of the neighbors.

“One of the charming things about Sylvan Park I thought was that it had a very mixed neighborhood,” says Swartz, president of the Sylvan Park Neighborhood Association. “But the neighborhood has changed.”

The watershed moment came in 2006 when one group of neighbors, after a bitter battle, could not win support for historic zoning – specifically, a conservation zoning overlay – that would have required Metro Historic Zoning Commission approval of tear-downs, new construction and renovation plans.

In no time, empty or underserved lots quickly filled in with all manner of homes. It’s what developers, planners and Realtors refer to as “infill.’’

At its foundation, infill is the redevelopment of lots that have been vacant or are underutilized, such as a small house on a lot that could support multiple houses. It is used as a way to provide affordable housing in desirable neighborhoods. Basically, infill is opposite of urban sprawl.

The “double-edged sword of infill,’’ as Lynn Taylor of Taylor Made Plans explains, is that new construction can fit in with the neighborhood and give it new life and diversity of price point, or it can spoil the neighborhood’s character and drive out anyone who can’t afford $300,000-plus for a place to live.

As infill houses have popped up all over Davidson County – East Nashville, Green Hills, The Nations, Salemtown, Germantown, 12South, Belmont, Vanderbilt, Brookside, Crieve Hall and Hillsboro Village – the debate moves along from neighborhood to neighborhood.

Half-million dollar homes

Prices for infill houses vary. Some are designed for the first-time buyer, but in Sylvan Park, developers filled in with several homes that hardly fit in the affordable category.

“Some people felt if we didn’t have a historic overlay that the nature of the whole community was going to change, and that was not a good thing,” Swartz says. “And they had a point.

“These houses now, even the little teardowns, are $225,000. You pay $5,000 to have the old house torn down, build a 2,000-square-foot home at $150 a square foot, and you are right at $500,000.”

The average sale price for homes in Sylvan Park from January 2013-March 2013 was $381,500, up nearly 30 percent from last year. Swartz is concerned about pricing creative and blue collar types out of the neighborhood. But, he doesn’t dispute the positive impact of infill.

“Nearly every block has a new half-million-dollar home going up,” he says. “They are lovely, very nicely designed, most of them, and architecturally they go along with the community and, in a certain sense, are very much an asset. Most of the people moving in are clearly affluent, young families with children, which has had a real impact on the community and our schools.”

Before 1900, Sylvan Park was a working-class community. People of modest incomes and modest backgrounds filled the neighborhood, many of them in unpretentious homes that are, for the most part, going or gone.

“The teardown thing is accelerating rapidly because you do have homes that are quite small and not worth very much,” Swartz says. “The land is worth more than the home by a long shot.

“It is too bad to have a lot of the more traditional nature of Sylvan Park slowly ebbing. I don’t think this trend is going to go away. It is too good a place to live, it is too close to town (and) so many amenities that it has extremely strong appeal.”

‘Knitting together downtowns’

Some consider the development of Sylvan Park a resounding success. Others call it a cautionary tale. But for most, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

“This is a trend nationwide in that some really bad decisions were made in the mid 20th Century as a part of urban renewal as people migrated out of the city,” says Phil Thomason of Thomason and Associates Preservation Planners.

“We had this problem in Memphis then they were going to extend I-40 straight through this thriving residential area. They tore down a bunch of buildings and then cancelled the project. So they have been knitting that area back together again.”

Thomason’s work takes him around the country writing and reviewing design guidelines for historic districts, and infill is a big part of that. He has seen a resurgence of baby boomers and young professionals wanting to ditch the suburbs and move back downtown, not just in Nashville but in every city.

“You can see this in the Gulch and development downtown, taking these vacant lots and doing infill,” he says. “And within any historic district we work in, there is going to be at least a few – and sometimes a lot – of vacant lots.

“So the question then becomes, what would be the most compatible types of designs that should go back in on those lots? The approach in most communities is to fill them with some kind of compatible building. It is a way of knitting together downtowns and our historic inner city neighborhoods.”

Taylor calls empty lots in a thriving neighborhood the “missing tooth syndrome” and says filling those spaces can revive a community.

“It is good for neighborhoods to have infill because it also brings in different people than you have there already,” she says. “It is not a bad thing to have new or different types of people than you would normally have in a historic neighborhood.”

Infill’s East Nashville roots

Thomason says East Nashville was a pioneering neighborhood of infill development back in the 1970s and 80s. An article published by the National Trust for Historic Preservation highlights Nashville’s role in developing infill housing, including single- and multi-family homes in Edgefield.

“Russell [Street], in particular, had a lot of vacant lots that they infilled, so it is an interesting development with a lot of really good examples,” Thomason explains. “We started kind of early in Nashville, approaching how we redevelop those lots that are going to have the most positive impact on the neighborhood.

“When I see what other cities are doing, I think the architects we have working here in Nashville in the last 20-30 years are pretty skilled compared to some. They might try to do it correctly, but miss it in the details, and as a result may not be what we have all hoped for.”

Ron Gobbell of Gobbell Hays Partners actually did the first infill home in Nashville on Russell Street in the 70s, and while it was kind of a fluke that he found himself on the project, he thinks the concept of infill development is solid.

“Well-done infill is certainly worth the effort,” he says. “Poorly-done infill can be a detractor. Getting these neighborhoods back to their glory, whatever that might be, is a challenge.”

Taylor still has the drawings for the first infill home she designed in 1994, also on Russell Street. Before that she had only done renovations and additions, but now specializes in custom and infill home designs that preserve the integrity of East Nashville, her neighborhood of choice.

“The reason people didn’t do it beforehand in certain neighborhoods was because you have to be able to build a house you can sell and make money based on price per square foot, and some neighborhoods just hadn’t reached that level,” Taylor says.

“But East Nashville started growing in popularity and people couldn’t afford what was there.”

Infill for first-time buyers

A builder Taylor works with regularly is Bob Potter of Kudzu Homes, who renovated or built about 50 homes in the past six years. He buys vacant or teardown lots and then builds homes that fit into the neighborhood.

Potter says increasing density in already populated areas decreases the cost of services for all. He aims to keep his homes priced less than $200,000 so first-time buyers actually have a shot at living in the neighborhood.

“A lot of my peer group teases me because they are building bigger things and making higher profits per house,” Potter says. “But for me, and speaking specifically to the character of East Nashville, I think it is important that there still be houses available for people to buy that can be affordable to working class people.

“If everything that is built is a $400,000-$500,000 [house], you are probably going to end up with all lawyers and doctors and executives. But where do the artists and teachers and police officers – people you want in the community who are going to be a positive influence – where do they live?”

Potter and Taylor teamed on a 910-square-foot infill home a few years ago with the goal to price it as close to $100,000 as possible. People thought it would never sell because of the size, but in the last few years they have completed and sold five of similar size.

“There were a lot of naysayers, but turns out there are lots of people who will buy them because of the price point,” he says. “It is really just creating opportunities for diversity in the community.

Two houses, one lot

One aspect of infill is taking a lot that has one home, and if zoning allows, building two or more. Potter is working on such a project now in East Nashville, and likes them if they work with the neighborhood. He also says they are not right for every location.

“If I can put two houses on a lot and spread the cost of that lot over two houses instead of one, I can give the buyers a little better deal on the property so they can have the single-family feel but don’t have to pay quite as much for it,” he says.

“If I have to put just one house on the lot, that will limit the kinds of buyers I can sell to because I have to raise the price on it.”

John Brittle Jr. of Infill Nashville has 25 years of real estate experience and subdivided his first lot on Westwood Avenue in 1997, building a replica bungalow to fit in the neighborhood.

He now works connecting buyers with builders mainly in the Green Hills, Vanderbilt, Belmont and the Nations neighborhoods, orchestrating the construction of more than 400 unattached homes in the last four years.

Brittle also doesn’t limit himself to vacant lots, but will look for lots that are not right for the area and offer to buy.

“We are not out looking for people in trouble,” he explains. “We are looking for opportunities where the land might not have been used to what we subscribe is the highest and best use principal.

“Basically, we look for oversized or underutilized land. I believe we need to build more stuff in close, so every day I am out knocking on doors and calling people and we are trying to find a place for you to live.”

Brittle completed four 1,800- to 2,000-square-foot homes on Grandview in Green Hills last year and is completing another six on Glen Echo in the same neighborhood that are between 2,000 and 2,200 square feet. And while the size is small, the cost, around $470,000, it still higher than what most first-time buyers can afford because of the lot prices.

Brittle says he continually pushes for multi-family developments in the areas he develops, but neighbors have balked.

“Neighborhoods change and cities grow and more people come and you have to put them somewhere,” he adds.

Brittle says people should be able to afford to live near where they work.

“People are afraid of multi-family, too, and unnecessarily,” Brittle says. “We don’t have enough rental property in Nashville as it is. The rental market is out of control, and part of that is the little houses in neighborhoods where someone wants a bigger house are going away.

“In some neighborhoods in the next 10 years, all of the little homes will be gone.”

The downside of infill

Taylor says infill in East Nashville has succeeded in its goal of continuing to provide affordable housing to buyers where Sylvan Park has failed because of the conservation overlay. Without it, she isn’t sure that the eclectic people who make up the fabric of East Nashville could afford to live there anymore.

“There is really a debate about whether you improve a community by tearing down houses and building all new,” she says. “All you have to do is go over to Sylvan Park. They have some of the most butchered houses, and some houses that are just huge.

“In 12South, the same thing is happening. When all the little houses get torn down, and you no longer have a diversity of architecture and a diversity of people, and all the home price points get to be $400,000-500,000.”

Not that prices are rock bottom in East Nashville, either, which is why Taylor and Potter try hard to create spaces that will keep the community diverse.

“In East Nashville, if you buy a piece of property for $125,000, then you have to build a house that is a certain size and has a certain price point to make any money. So that is why the prices get higher and higher and the houses get bigger and bigger.”

Mary Jon Hicks with the Green Hills Action Partners is focused on smart growth and sees the benefit of infill as a way of improving life in her area.

“Green Hills was just sprawling, and nothing was connected,” she says. “We really care about the way things are built and what is put here and how it works with everything else. And infill is very important for smart growth, and we hope to reduce some urban sprawl.”

But as a resident, she also thinks it can be too much of a good thing.

“Land is so expensive in Green Hills. I can understand why developers are seeking property and then wanting to renovate and redevelop,” Hicks explains.

“It makes economic sense. But we do have to keep in mind that one of the reasons people love Nashville is because of the beautiful, large lawns and the green spaces. We don’t want to get it so far that we lose what people love. We have to have a balance.”

Taylor agrees, but isn’t exactly sure you can stop progress.

“It is a double-edge sword, but some of this stuff you are not going to be able to stop,” she says. “And should we? I don’t have answers for that.

“Some of us would say when we started seeing infill that we wanted it to be improved some. But what we really wanted was to grow to a certain point and stop and say ‘no more.’”

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