For Sale...But at What Cost?

For Sale...But at What Cost?

 My friend Barbara.

My friend Barbara.

It’s a constant topic of conversation – the growth and change constantly permeating our city. Nashville has been one of the 10 fastest growing cities in the country over the past several years, and we’ve all felt the boom. From the housing market to the restaurant industry, shifts are taking place all around us. I recently had lunch with my friend Barbara Moutenot, a real estate agent with Village, whom I’m quite sure is the most famous non-famous person in Nashville. She is like the belle of the ball, which is also ironic because she’s a no frills, straight-shooting New Yorker who moved to Nashville 23 years ago with her husband Roger, an audio engineer. They left the city to raise their family, and even now that their two boys are grown and living in Boston, they are still in the same house on Cedar Ln. that they bought when they first moved here.

“What did you like about the Hillsboro-Belmont neighborhood when you moved here 23 years ago?” I asked her.

“Well, coming from New York, Rog and I thought it was great!” she said. “But people definitely asked what side of Belmont you lived on. At that time, the side around 12th was not great. You didn’t go to Sevier Park, and there was a little “murder mart” on 12th, but not all these other shops. Well, Corner Music was here, and we loved that, and so was Minor’s Jewelry, and then Bi-Rite was there [on Belmont] and so was Sunshine Grocery, which is where Iron Tribe is now, but that’s really it. But we loved it! Where else in Nashville do you have the sidewalks like we do, and homes that are close but not right on top of each other? It’s great.”

{Full disclosure, my husband and I also live in that neighborhood and we also think it’s great. We actually met Barbara because she was the agent for the home we bought, and the seller had a lot of art in the house so they required her to stay while we looked. You know, so we didn’t steal any of it - which we didn’t. Sooo, Barbara spent some quality time with us while we looked at the house. Like 20 times. And brought architects and contractors and landscapers. And she still liked us! So we’ve always stayed in touch.}

“So how would you say the neighborhood has changed in that time?” I asked her.

“Well it has an overlay that has been in place for quite some time, so it has really preserved the character of the neighborhood.”

Photo Aug 06, 11 38 58 PM.jpg

{STOP – in case you don’t know what an overlay is I’m going to explain it in very basic terms because I think it’s an important point when we talk about growth. A historic overlay is, per the handbook on Nashville.gov, “a tool to protect the architectural character of Nashville’s historic neighborhoods by managing growth and change.” So basically neighborhoods that have been deemed architecturally significant have a historic overlay in place, and to do work in an area with an overlay, one must get a preservation permit (which does not cost) in order to:

  • BUILD a new structure
  • ADD to an existing building
  • DEMOLISH a structure in whole or in part
  • RELOCATE a structure
  • EXTERIOR REPAIR OR ALTERATION

I am familiar with the process because when we purchased our home in the Belmont area, we completed some pretty extensive renovations which all had to be approved by the Historic Commission. This is separate from the permit you must file with Metro Codes to make sure the work you are doing meets standards – and there is a fee for a permit from Codes. So when you live in an area with a historic overlay, changes made to homes, as well garages, sheds, fences, etc. have to be approved. If you live in a neighborhood without a historic overlay, you still have to apply for a permit from Codes, but you can build a house that looks like a pirate ship on your lot if that’s what you want.}

Got it? Okay, back to lunch.

So I asked Barbara her opinion of an overlay, and she said, “I think they are a catch-22. Some residents who have lived in a neighborhood for a long time also have to go through the process, and they might even be denied, possibly over something quite small like a dormer or some other relatively minor change, and that can be hard. But overall they protect the character of the neighborhood, which is what attracts someone to an area to begin with. And if you want to know what I think, yes, I think we are losing a lot of our character because of all this growth.”

Barbara and I went on to talk about the loss of originality and charm in Nashville and what it’s ultimately costing us.

“The thing is, whatever it is we like about an area initially – that it has cool warehouse spaces or an artsy feel or whatever it is – we end up hurting because we tear down all the things we were initially attracted to in order to create more supply.” Barbara recently had a friend in town who referenced the revitalization in Detroit; how they are repurposing old warehouses and homes (which is often more work and more money, just to be honest) and because of this, the city is brimming with a really cool mix of old and new. Here in Nashville we aren’t taking as big of strides towards preservation if we don’t have to. Instead we are tearing down a lot of old homes and buildings to make way for new options to accommodate the growth.

 An old warehouse in Wedgewood Houston next to four tall skinny houses. The four homes share a lot that once had one small home on it.

An old warehouse in Wedgewood Houston next to four tall skinny houses. The four homes share a lot that once had one small home on it.

“So how do we make people care about the old and still move towards the new?” I asked her.

“I think maybe the pendulum has to swing too far in one direction. Believe me, I am fearful of waking up one day in the not so distant future and saying, oh my god, what have we done?”

{I’m fearful too, Barbara.}

“The other thing that gives an area character is the people,” Barbara said. “And that’s the other part of this.”

She’s talking about prices and how they push people out of neighborhoods they’ve lived in their whole lives. Wedgewood Houston is a great example. The new homes going up are priced out of reach of folks like teachers, firefighters, and police officers – the very people we need to make our community strong. It’s not like in New York where you have rent-controlled apartments and can try to maintain diversity and opportunity for all.

 Aerial shot of development in the Wedgewood Houston neighborhood.

Aerial shot of development in the Wedgewood Houston neighborhood.

{Y’all, when I was 26 years old I lived alone and rented a three-bedroom house with a huge yard on Kentucky Avenue in The Nations. It was a working-class neighborhood and my rent was $750 a month, which I could easily afford. That would just never be an option in today’s Nashville.}

And we can’t deny or fight the growth -- and frankly we shouldn’t want to -- but we can be mindful and proactive in the steps we take as a city to preserve the past while welcoming the future.

“At the end of the day we have to embrace the change,” said Barbara. “But I also think people have to choose what they feel passionately about and then attempt to change it.”

So maybe the tall skinnies going up don’t bother you – maybe it’s traffic and trying to find public transportation options. Maybe it’s a way to find more daycare or schooling options. Maybe it’s the fight to preserve a landmark or a tree or whatever it is that makes Nashville NASHVILLE to you. There is no denying the city is changing, and as the citizens and the people who give this city its character, it is up to us to preserve what it is we loved about Nashville from the beginning. So don’t be afraid to take Barbara’s advice – decide where your passions lie and then find a way to enact change.

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