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VOL. 41 | NO. 42 | Friday, October 20, 2017

Good communications make good neighbors

Universities, nearby residents learn how to manage rapid growth

By Jeannie Naujeck

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As college and university enrollments rise in Nashville, so too does campus construction. In a fast-growing city so attractive to infill developers, it can be hard to distinguish building by Nashville’s half-dozen colleges and universities from general residential and commercial development.

But despite universal complaints about parking and traffic problems, many residents of urban neighborhoods say they value living near a campus and applaud universities’ efforts to build relationships with neighborhood associations by including them in their planning process – and heeding their input.

The benefits, they say, outweigh the increased numbers of people that higher ed campuses bring to town.

“I’d say we’ve had a much worse experience with someone tearing down a single house behind us and putting up four,” says Todd Cassetty, who lives across from Lipscomb University’s ball fields with his wife and three small children.

“That’s more disruptive than Lipscomb has ever been to us. They definitely fall into the good neighbor department.”

All of Nashville’s universities are in growth mode.

Tennessee State University, which sits in an area of town that is poised for development, is spending $75 million on two new residence halls to meet a need for on-campus housing.

University officials say that students are looking to move back on campus because of the high cost of living in Nashville. TSU has more than 9,000 students, and this year’s entering freshman class is the largest in its history.

The school is also looking to construct new engineering and health sciences buildings, and has already secured $40 million for construction of the latter.

Big gifts, big buildings

This year, Lipscomb University saw its third-highest fall enrollment ever with its 4,585 students representing a 4 percent increase compared to last year. Its campus master plan looks ahead to more growth, with a series of infill projects and renovations on its wish list.

This fall, the university opened a new $15 million, 172-bed residence building, Bison Hall, that has the unusual luxury of private bathrooms for students in double rooms, a feature designed to lure upperclassmen to live on campus. The lower level has a small hotel with nine guest rooms.

Lipscomb has been upgrading its residence halls for the past five years and has renovated or rebuilt every residence hall but one.

Last year, the school completed an $8.5 million addition to its McFarland Science Center and opened the new McCadams Athletic Center at the Lipscomb Academy athletics complex. Earlier this year it dedicated the Fields Engineering Center.

Students walk towards the Otis L. Floyd-Joseph A. Payne Campus Center at Tennessee State University. The building was constructed as part of a plan launched in 1989 that brought eight new buildings to the campus.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

This fall the university will break ground on the two-story, 33,000-square-foot George Shinn Event Center, which will house its fast-growing College of Entertainment & the Arts, also named after the former Charlotte/New Orleans Hornets owner. Though he is not an alumnus, Shinn has given the university $15 million, its largest single gift, including the historic Sound Emporium Studio on Belmont Boulevard.

A good neighbor policy

Belmont University is Nashville’s fastest-growing university. Since 2004, enrollment has doubled from about 4,000 students to more than 8,000 today, 80 percent of whom are from out of state. The current strategic plan calls for enrollment to reach 8,888 by the year 2020.

Like the other universities, it is governed by an institutional overlay, a zoning ordinance that provides development rules for specific areas and works in cooperation with that area’s existing residential zoning. IOs must be approved by the Planning Commission, the Metro Council and, ultimately, the mayor.

Belmont University is in the process of developing an expansion of its institutional overlay, originally written in 2005. It is proposing to extend the existing activity zones into the new area along roughly the same boundaries that exist now.

Along Wedgewood will be a mix of academic and administrative use, and residential use beyond that. Another change would be the prospect of mixed-use development along 12th South that is currently zoned for either single-use residential or commercial. The university already owns a number of properties along Wedgewood Avenue to 12th Avenue South.

“They owned enough that we thought it was time for them to add onto the overlay so that people would know that’s their intent,” explains Lindsey Moffatt, who lives on Belmont Boulevard and represents Belmont-Hillsboro Neighbors on the Belmont Neighborhood Advisory Group.

“They listen to the neighborhood and what makes sense to go in facing 12th and facing Wedgewood … what supports their endeavors as an academic institution, but what also works best on the edges of the property that faces the neighborhood,” she adds.

“There’s a lot of dialogue that goes on in the development of this plan.”

The neighborhood group has not objected to Belmont’s proposed expansion and has come to the consensus that multi-use development is good for residents.

This fall, Lipscomb University opened Bison Hall, a $15 million, 172-bed residence hall with higher-end amenities designed to keep students from moving off-campus.

-- Leigh Singleton | The Ledger

“It’s actually truly an improvement, the utilization of that property,” Moffatt adds. “It’s the highest and best use.”

The university’s main priority now is to add residence halls to accommodate demand for on-campus housing, which is available only to undergraduates and required for freshmen and sophomores. A new residence hall is currently under construction between 12th and 15th avenues.

‘We’ve dug down and built up’

In its campus plan, Belmont has sought to increase density and make better use of its existing land, for example, by adding thousands of parking places in underground garages, says Dr. Jason Rogers, vice president of administration and general counsel for the university.

“The plan has definitely been to intensify and make more efficient the use of existing property,” he explains.

“We like to say we’ve dug down and built up. Whereas before we had a one-, two- or three-story building with nothing under it, now we have four or five levels of parking and four or five levels of occupiable space on top.”

Rogers says both Metro and the neighborhood association have been key partners in visioning and planning for growth in ways that complement the community.

“Every building project goes through an approval process and has to satisfy the conditions of the institutional overlay. As a result, we’ve built quite a good track record of how we work with people, but also a good record of data that is quite useful in having conversations when people ask about traffic or how much building space we think we might need,” Rogers points out.

“We have heard from both, especially from our neighbors, that they take great pride in what’s happened here in terms of the attractiveness of the campuses and the quality of the buildings. I think it’s been a win-win all the way around,” he adds.

Campus benefits

In August, Belmont University announced the $6.5 million purchase of four lots that include the International Market & Restaurant and three residential properties. While there are no immediate plans for construction, it will become part of the Belmont Art and Entertainment zone.

 Students walk through Belmont University’s campus.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

Moffatt says there’s some nostalgia over losing International Market, whose inexpensive buffet was a favorite among students and residents alike. But she also points to the benefits residents have gotten from the student-run enterprises in the Curb Center and the bookstore that Belmont put in after it purchased the old Athlete’s House.

The growing student population has also helped catalyze development along the opposite side of Belmont Boulevard, which is not part of its institutional overlay.

“It’s sad, but we also lost the Athlete’s House and it has come back as a bookstore,” Moffatt says. “Change is hard, but that’s what happens and you have to look forward.

“I would speak for most neighbors, I think, that everybody enjoys being in a campus environment. There’s a lot of advantages to having that and most people are adjusting to the changes.”

Cassetty says he enjoys living near Lipscomb University, too, and that Lipscomb strives to accommodate residents by letting them know when there will be a big event on campus. The university also puts out “No Lipscomb Parking” signs on residential side streets to discourage event-goers from parking there.

The campus also provides opportunities for family recreation, including holiday events that welcome the public.

“We take the kids over there and throw pennies in the fountain, and I like to go to the ball games,” Cassetty says. “They have a big celebration with fireworks and music on the Fourth of July where they invite the whole neighborhood that we go to every year … Lipscomb’s good. I can’t think of one thing that annoys me.”

Five years ago, neighbors were less positive about Lipscomb University’s plans to expand its institutional overlay and modify zoning rules to allow it to convert residential buildings for institutional use. They objected to the university’s purchases of properties on the west side of Belmont Boulevard across from its campus.

In the end, the university and neighborhood association came to a compromise, and the amended proposal approved by Metro Council preserved the residences but granted Lipscomb some expansion. Lipscomb officials cited it as a positive example of positive feedback and cooperation.

Getting past a rocky start

Neighbors of Vanderbilt University say they have a strong partnership now with the city’s largest private employer.

But it wasn’t always so.

The university had a rocky relationship with its Hillsboro-West End neighborhood in decades past due to the city’s University Center Urban Renewal Project in the 1960s that allowed Vanderbilt to sweep up 501 parcels of land on the campus’ southwest corner.

As Vanderbilt’s own website states, “The move was deemed controversial as the land was acquired through eminent domain.”

Fresh landscaping for a new parking lot is now in place where Granite Falls restaurant once stood on Broadway. Vanderbilt University’s expansion up Broadway also includes the historic home once occupied by clothing designer Manuel, and the building that was the original site of Noshville Deli.

-- Leigh Singleton | The Ledger

Today, the neighborhood contains some of Nashville’s most valuable real estate. But when Martha Stinson and her husband moved there in 1982, it had a vastly different profile.

“Realtors would try to tell us not to buy in this neighborhood. They told us it was terrible, that we needed to go to Brentwood,” recalls Stinson, who chairs the board of the Hillsboro-West End Neighborhood Association, which covers a large area bounded by Blakemore Avenue, I-440, West End Avenue and 21st Avenue South.

“But we insisted. So, we bought a house and we’re still in it. I guess it was just dumb luck.”

Vanderbilt actually improved the neighborhood, she says, by helping to finance mortgages – then at rates of around 20 percent – for faculty and staff who bought homes nearby.

“That started the renaissance of the neighborhood,” Stinson adds.

“They just realized it was an asset to have a strong, vibrant neighborhood on its borders and not one that was red-lined by banks and in decline.”

Now, she says, Vanderbilt works hard to foster good community relations. The neighborhood association is constantly involved in university planning, and the university supports and underwrites community activities.

“We have a lot of common goals and priorities, but then we have some that compete,” Stinson explains.

The competing issues the neighborhood deals with are parking and traffic problems generated by Vanderbilt students, staff members and construction workers traveling to and from the campus – often speeding through residential streets as a shortcut to campus or taking up residents’ parking spaces.

To try and calm traffic, the neighborhood sought and was awarded a pilot “Walking District” designation from Metro Public Works.

Speed limits have been reduced to 25 miles per hour on major streets like Blair Boulevard and Natchez Trace, and to 20 miles per hour on side streets. Police are patrolling the area to stop speeding drivers to point out the change.

The university has continued to grow upward and outward, adding new buildings and residence halls to accommodate enrollment and program growth as well as evolving philosophies of education, such as its residential colleges designed for living and learning.

Undergraduates are now required to live on campus, which has the benefit of reducing the number of student houses in surrounding neighborhoods.

Vanderbilt’s most recent project announcement is a 20-story, 340-room residential college at the corner of West End Avenue and 25th Avenue South. The university must get a city exemption from height requirements, Bill Herbert, zoning administer, told The Tennessean.

It is part of Vanderbilt’s “West End Neighborhood” redevelopment plan that will add new residential colleges and beautify the neighborhood along West End Avenue, including Carmichael Towers and Greek Row, turning it into a more pedestrian-friendly area.

It is a major component of the Academic Strategic Plan and FutureVU, Vanderbilt’s comprehensive land use plan that is available online. The university refused to comment on its plans beyond confirming information in press releases.

The Hillsboro-West End neighborhood has put in two layers of protections that would make it difficult, if not impossible, for VU to expand into residential areas.

One is a large conservation overlay that was initiated around 2005 and doubled several years ago, with little to no opposition. It prevents the tearing-down of an historic house by either the university or developers. The neighborhood is also zoned for single-family residential use so no new multi-family homes can be built.

But Hillsboro Village area residents and property owners have gotten used to construction. At a recent community meeting, representatives for new building projects detailed construction timelines and working hours for residents.

The new projects include a $20 million, 72-unit apartment building on a former nursing home site and the $37 million Moxy Nashville Vanderbilt, which will bring 130 hotel rooms and 47 apartments, along with 200 parking spaces and ground-floor retail, to the former Sunset Grill parking lot.

As neighborhood resident Jennifer Spencer puts it, “Disruption just is a way of life in the new Nashville. I don’t even know who’s doing the blasting or causing the traffic any more.

“But if you have to live with it, I guess you pick the lesser of evils. You could do worse than having a university as your neighbor.”

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