Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Historic Preservation Tuesday: Development moratoriums as a way to catch up building and zoning regulations

Image: Rhoda Barfoot.

Nashville's identity is tied to its history as the center of the country music industry. Along with the Grand Ole Opry Hall and Museum Complex, Music Row had been the major center of the industry, featuring recording studios, record label offices, and small performing spaces.

Nashville's Downtown, like many other cities, is experiencing a renewed interest in center city living, so there has been a great deal of development energy over the past few years, putting many of the small buildings that harkened to the industry's earlier days at risk for demolition.

RCA Studio A Building, Nashville.  The building isn't particularly distinguished architecturally, but historic preservation isn't always pretty.

In October, after community opposition and organizing, a proposed condominium project that would have demolished RCA Studio A, site of recording sessions for artists such as B.B. King, Loretta Lynn, and Dolly Parton, was halted through the sale of the property to owners committed to retaining the building.

"Preservation" of buildings in the Music Row District (not formally designated historic) is tough now because many of the buildings are "obsolete" and not necessarily still used for music-related activity. And the real estate market is strong, so the prices offered to property owners for "old" "obsolete" buildings are very attractive. But at the same time the city's "Music City" brand, for tourism (Nashville's Convention Center has the Music City name) and business development, is based on this history.

According to the Nashville Business Journal ("Nashville halts future development on famed Music Row"), galvanized advocates and the recently created Music Industry Coalition have successfully petitioned the local planning commission to put a halt on development for the next 16 months, while they assess historic assets and come up with a plan for retention of the most important.  (Also see "Momentum builds to preserve Music Row" from the Nashville Tennessean.)

A moratorium on development gives the community a chance to catch up building and zoning regulations to current conditions, rather than let the velocity of the real estate market run roughshod over other considerations.

It's a tool that more cities should use when it is evident that gaps in building regulations mean that community concerns, such as concerns about the preservation of historic buildings or the lack of strong regulations concerning big box development, fail to be addressed in the current zoning regulations.

DC is a good example of how the failure to use development moratoriums judiciously leads to the creation of poorly thought out changes to building regulations.

However, the way the city's constitution (the Home Rule Charter) specifies zoning and building matters--that they are under an independent Zoning Commission, not subject to the authority of the Executive or Legislative branches--indicates to me that only the Zoning Commission is able to promulgate such moratoriums.  Case law says the same thing (Tenley & Cleveland Park v. Bd. of Zon. Adj. 550 A.2d 331 (1988)).

Moratoriums allow for a more careful consideration of issues, rather than a quick and dirty submission of poorly thought out proposals, like what the DC Office of Planning did concerning rowhouse expansion and conversion ("D.C.'s Fiercest Neighborhood Battle Goes Before Its Ultimate Arbiter," Washington City Paper).

At the same time a defined time limit "focuses" attention on the issue and doesn't allow it to be drawn out indefinitely.  (This piece on Land Use Moratoria rules in New York State outlines how the process works, although isn't relevant to DC.)

DC's rowhouse development limitation proposals have some good points but many bad. But it is very difficult to modify the proposed regulation given how the approval process works.

 In my opinion, approving the proposed regulations as is will be suboptimal in terms of balancing competing desires of conserving neighborhood character while allowing larger houses to be "rightsized" to accommodate the smaller households that typify today's housing market.

It's proof that allowing evident problems to fester for years doesn't help bring about optimal solutions.

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