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

Capehart: Growing cities have to invest in mass transit

By Hollie Deese

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Tifinie Capehart, a Realtor, land-use consultant and adjunct professor, stands with “Emergence,” a sculpture by Buddy Jackson in Hartman Park.

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow The Ledger

When Tifinie Capehart returned to Nashville in 2007 after a few years away post grad school, it was mainly because Nashville didn't do as poorly in the recession as some other cities she was looking for work. She began work as a community planner with Metro Nashville Planning Department right as the city was seeing more infill development in some of the inner city neighborhoods.

Now in her role as a land use consultant Capehart works with clients and neighborhood groups to realize the highest and best use of property, sometimes working with them through a zone change or understanding land use policy. An urban planner, she has more than 13 years of experience writing, speaking and practicing in the areas of urban planning and community engagement.

“At a community meeting I saw there was this tension between new development and existing neighbors, and the conversation just got really uncomfortable. I thought there has to be a better way,” she says.

So she got her real estate license so when she works with developers she can help them find property as well as offer knowledge about what to do with the land.

“It was the opportunity to use my knowledge of planning, community engagement and how to build a sound and sustainable neighborhood, but then also putting on my real estate hat and understanding that the developer or property owner, they want to also do good work but make a profit. And so, trying to find the balance of that,” she says. “When it works well, everybody gets something that they want, and when it doesn't, nobody wins.”

Capehart spoke with the Ledger about how neighborhood groups can work with developers to get the resources their area needs to help maintain their integrity through this period of growth.

What are some of the bigger challenges that come with growth?

A: I'll say the No. 1 challenge is just the idea that we are a large city. I came here in '99, I went to TSU, and then went back home for a little bit for grad school, and then came back in 2007. And just even between 2007 and now, the city has changed tremendously.

And so when you think about the amount of growth that Nashville has had in the last 10 years, it was a lot. Full blocks have changed. There continues to be change. So, it was this big learning curve of going from a smaller, kind of mid-size city, to now we have all this growth happening, and we are a real metropolitan city, and we're going through a lot of these growing pains.

I think the biggest challenge is people wrapping their mind around if you're going to be a large city, then how do you adapt to that? We have to think big. We have to think innovative. We have to push ourselves into the next phase of what Nashville will become. And sometimes making hard decisions that may be uncomfortable but we really have to do. Like the transit debate. That was uncomfortable because nobody wants to tax themselves to pay for anything else.

But at the same time, we're a large city. We can't continue to operate with the same system as we're operating with now. And at some point, we have to do the thing that's uncomfortable in order to plan for the next 30, 50, however many years.

Like addressing transit?

"I was watching a short documentary about one of the first subway systems. This was in the 1900s, but they were having the same conversation about transit, that no one would go underground and get on a train, and there was a big debate on how it was going to get paid for.

"But cities like Chicago and Boston and New York and Philadelphia, they had those growing pains at that time. We're just now experiencing that. We cannot operate like a small town. We have to operate like a large metropolitan area. That's what we are.

"And with that, I think our downtown and our urban areas, they seem to be filling in, and aside from the debate on character, and what's good architecture, and what's not good architecture, I think the neighborhoods are filling in quite nicely with a mixture of commercial and residential.

"I think our suburban areas will be the next challenge. How do we begin to transform our suburban places into being more walkable, and better connected with a better mixture of housing? That is the next challenge on the horizon, focusing on Antioch and Madison and other places like that."

What are the factors that go into whether a development works or doesn't for a particular neighborhood?

"For me, being a planner and having practiced it for so long, you just know when it's a bad development, and you know when it's good. You know when you're standing somewhere and it's uncomfortable, whether it’s Gallatin Road, or a Walmart parking lot. But when you're in the Hill Center, or you're in the Gulch or any place that's really designed well and functions well, you feel good in the space.

"You can really get academic in terms of sidewalks, buildings at the right height, street trees, on-street parking, a mixture of housing. Does it meet the land use policy that the community plan lays out? Because that's where neighbors say, this is the vision that we have for this community. And the policy is basically how you get there."

It feels like people are paying more attention to development, are more aware of what's happening in their neighborhoods. How do they get involved?

"I think people are more engaged now in the processes. You rarely can do a zone change these days without engaging the neighborhood group. And the council people, most of them who have been in office for a while, they have their process. And part of that is you have to come to neighborhood meetings.

"How they become more effective in their engagement is more important because you can come to meetings, but if all you're doing is shouting, that's not productive. Because it's not always good to just say no, we don't want you here. Because people will go around them, or people will do what they want to do under the existing zoning, which is not always the best solution. There are ways to negotiate with the developer to get things that you may want need for your community.

"I'm a board member with The Civic Design Center, and they have a really cool tool called The Neighborhood Assessment Toolkit. It's a full analysis to see what is lacking in your neighborhood. Are we lacking retail? Do we need more affordable housing? Do we need more green space? What is it that your neighborhood is lacking? Then when a developer comes and you need more green space, you can ask them to offer street trees as part of the development, for example."

There can be this mentality that developers are bad.

"Everybody's okay with development happening downtown. Don't tear down any historic buildings, we're fine. But it's the neighborhood stuff where it's like, ‘Oh, my street is different,’ or ‘They've got these tall skinnies,’ or, ‘This commercial center that's going to be here, what's the parking going to be like?’

"It's the smaller developers that are doing those things. You may have some larger guys that come from out of town, but it's these smaller builders, investors who have families. They live in Nashville, they love Nashville, and they are running small businesses just like a lot of other people. A 10-unit development is probably a huge risk for them. Even two-unit is a huge risk for them. The person you're pushing back against may just be your neighbor.

"They're putting a lot of money and time and resources on the line. And that's why we need to be really working with these folks vs. giving them a hard time."

I think people are worried about getting left out as Nashville grows. Who do we have to make sure doesn't get left out with all this development?

"I come from two perspectives. Being a black woman in this industry, that's my sphere, my circle, my peers from TSU, family members, my husband's from here so he has a lot of family network here, and people are really scared of losing the Nashville that they knew, and are really scared about how expensive it's getting to live here. And for a lot of historic black neighborhoods that are close to the city, people are concerned about being displaced, and not recognizing neighborhoods that them and their families have lived in for years. I think the black community is really fearful about that.

"And then, just equity in general, they idea our school systems in those neighborhoods were ignored for so long until the neighborhood started changing. That's often a side effect of neighborhoods changing, is that people feel like we’ve been there all this time, why weren’t they investing in our schools and our infrastructure back then?

"Nashville's getting really expensive to live in from a housing perspective, from a transportation perspective. Even just from an amenities perspective. We have to be very careful about putting in new restaurants and things into neighborhoods where people who can't afford the items that are being sold there. I think a lot of people are feeling that push."

How important is planning in maintaining neighborhoods?

"When I left metro planning, we had just finished NashvilleNext, which is the city’s comprehensive plan. We laid all of that groundwork, so now we ought to be implementing a lot of that. That's where I feel like mindset becomes important.

"I tell my students is at the beginning of the semester to think about all the places where they go and visit, whether it's Chicago, or New York, or some parts of LA - any place where you go that is really cool place to be. A lot of these places were created with intention. We have to figure out what's our intention, and then go with that."

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