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VOL. 38 | NO. 5 | Friday, January 31, 2014

East Nashville redevelopment question: What’s the issue?

By Bill Lewis

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Redevelopment districts have been part of Nashville’s economic development tool kit since 1952 -- longer than many residents have been alive. They’ve helped revitalize blighted neighborhoods and helped the city attract employers like Dell, the computer company.

So why is one redevelopment district suddenly being blamed by a developer for blocking a project in one neighborhood?

That developer, March Egerton, declined to discuss his plans for what’s known as Fluffo II at the old Fluffo Mattress complex on Woodland Street. The site is inside the Five Points redevelopment district in East Nashville. He has said only that he wants to redesign a building to attract businesses that would complement the craft beer, yoga and barbecue business that he’s previously brought to the portion of the Fluffo campus facing Main Street.

His partner in the project, Dan Heller, says the redevelopment district creates something no developer can tolerate – uncertainty.

“It’s having another layer of uncertainty in a high-risk endeavor,” he says. “At the very least, you should know what are the rules of the game.”

The developers want the city to eliminate or modify the redevelopment district’s regulations, but they decline to say how the rules are holding them back or what they want in their place.

Amending the guidelines would eliminate “a lot of pockets of inconsistency” in the way parcels of land in the district are zoned and used, Heller says. For example, the site of the East Branch of the Nashville Public Library is technically reserved for single-family housing even though it is surrounded by businesses on a busy stretch of Gallatin Road.

“If it can’t be eliminated, amending it (the district’s guidelines) to have a consistent land use policy” would be acceptable, said Heller.

At a meeting Monday night with Heller, Egerton and homeowners and business owners in the Five Points area, the Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency said it was willing to amend the design guidelines.

Joe Cain, director of the agency’s urban development department, said the process would involve local residents and businesses. Community members agreed but expressed opposition to eliminating the guidelines.

John Summers, who passed those land use rules while representing the area on Metro Council, says erasing the redevelopment district would be a bad idea – especially since the developers won’t explain why they think that’s necessary.

“What’s the issue?” says Summers.

The redevelopment district, in place since 1989, helped the city relocate auto wrecker services that were choking off retail development in Five Points. In 2000, in the aftermath of the tornado that devastated East Nashville, design guidelines were established to regulate the size and setbacks of buildings so they would be compatible with the neighborhood.

Today Five Points is home to an art gallery, restaurants including Margot Café and Bar, one of the city’s finest establishments, numerous small retailers and neighborhood pubs. The redevelopment district is credited with preventing the historic structure where Margot’s is located from being torn down and replaced by a Walgreens.

“It’s obviously revitalized the neighborhood. It worked,” says Summers.

The area’s base zoning shouldn’t impede Egerton and Heller’s project. Neither should the design guidelines, says Summers.

“Unless they’re trying to open a body shop or a car repair shop, they shouldn’t have a problem,” the former Council member says.

The city’s first redevelopment district, established more than 60 years ago, helped clear slums from the area around the state Capitol. Since then, the districts, administered through the Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency, have revitalized a number of neighborhoods and encouraged private investment.

Those areas include land near Nashville International Airport that became part of the Central State redevelopment district. Dell established its Nashville operations on the site of the old Central State mental hospital on Murfreesboro Road.

Other redevelopment districts cover the neighborhoods north of downtown where new home construction is booming and the new Sounds baseball park will be built; the area around the Titans’ stadium on the east bank of the Cumberland River; Rutledge Hill and portions of Dickerson Pike. The Arts Center redevelopment district covers portions of Demonbreun Street and parts of the Gulch.

Heller, who spearheaded Riverside Village, a thriving retail center in East Nashville’s Inglewood neighborhood, and Urban Green Lab, a community center dedicated to sustainable living, says “inertia” is keeping outdated rules in force in the Five Points district.

Summers, meanwhile, wonders why the developers are complaining about a decades-old tool for revitalizing neighborhoods.

“They’re raising complaints that don’t seem to be a problem for anyone else,” he says.