Commentary: Nashville must prioritize protections for historically significant properties
A historical marker for the Elliston Place “Rock Block” is positioned just outside the Exit/In. (Photo: John Partipilo)
The recent threat to Nashville’s iconic Exit/In may feel like Yogi Berra said, “déjà vu all over again.” Except, it is different. This one was both foreseen and preventable.
Time and time again in Nashville, we have seen the push for height and density in our urban core approved at the expense of irreplaceable iconic historic structures – think the recent Virgin Hotel and, long before, places like President James K. Polk’s home, the Governor’s mansion, the Jacksonian on West End and Father Ryan High School.
Mostly, these situations happen where the zoning needed to demolish and build new infill has existed for years, often decades. In those instances, no request for rezoning is needed because the developers’ zoning rights are already in place. Historic preservationists and city planners do not have much standing in those instances to successfully protect the sparse pockets of architectural treasures in our urban core.
However, that is not the case on Elliston Place. Nashville planners, neighborhood advocates and preservationists had a rare opportunity to preserve what is irreplaceable, and we simply blew it.
In 2012, the Metro Government, on its own initiative, set out to upzone 455 acres of property in the Midtown area, under the banner of greater density and transit-oriented development. Metro planners identified this area as a target for growth, with or without the history that defined the area through its architecture. Through this rezoning, initiated by one department of our municipal government to benefit an unfunded and ultimately unsuccessful expansion of another department, developers were gifted tremendous windfalls in what could be built in the Elliston Place area. Metro planners blew open height caps and minimized setbacks on properties, establishing rights for far more invasive construction of residential and commercial units with nothing in return.
We simply handed over new entitlements without any protections in exchange. At the time, policymakers argued that the character of the buildings would outweigh the profitability of demolishing them. But rather than requiring that by zoning, they sacrificed what leverage they could have maintained to instead appear more welcoming to urban development. As a direct result of the expansive Midtown upzone, with all of those entitlements in place, the city government – and the people it is meant to represent—have little argument and less influence to this wave of development rolling through Midtown and over those iconic and historic structures like the Exit/In.
Naming what caused this situation is only as helpful as the degree to which we are willing to learn from it moving forward. What could have been done differently? How could we have still encouraged transit-oriented development without losing even more of our unique character as a city?
The Midtown area could have been encompassed into an urban design overlay, a tool available to planners that would have avoided automatically granting maximum heights and instead requiring density and height allowances to be purchased and transferred from existing historically significant properties in the immediate area. This would have permitted planners to approve the development of some parcels and simultaneously increase protections for historic others. Likewise, properties in the area that were eligible for the National Register could have been protected outright with historic overlays, a process that could have happened at the same time as the upzoning of nearby properties. We did something like that fifteen years ago, when Metro leaders preserved the now revered area of Lower Broad while allowing the construction of a proposed highrise Westin hotel tower in that area.
In a city as attractive to investors as Nashville, planners, preservationists, and neighborhood activists have the power to protect the very qualities that led to our current investment boon. If we are going to expand the development rights of investors, we need also to prioritize the protections that we rely on as residents. We can move forward without losing what makes our city special.
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