Rapid change along Nashville’s Music Row has raised concerns among preservationists and the music industry that gave the area its name. But after about three years of slow going, Metro’s city planners and a group of Row leaders are finally making progress on specific new rules and incentives.
The intent is to guide development of the area and to encourage music businesses to remain on — or return to — the Row.
But the challenge thus far has been balancing the varied interests of music companies, property owners, preservationists and residents of adjacent neighborhoods. Their goals intersect in a location coveted by developers but home to beloved historic structures. There’s immense pressure on some owners to sell.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a more complex problem for a more unique location,” said Lee Jones, who is heading up Music Row work for the Metro Planning Department. “Dealing with these competing interests that are diametrically opposed is very difficult.”
At stake, Jones says, is the future of an area deemed a “national treasure.” That designation is partly because of the history, but also because of a longstanding perk of doing business there: When likeminded companies gather in one spot, they collaborate and draw sustained interest.
“Synergy through proximity,” Jones says. “The fact that you have artists creating songs, you had musicians creating the music, the music and lyrics, the labels, the recording studios recording the music, the labels putting the music out there … is what makes Music Row unique on a worldwide stage.”
Yet Nashville doesn’t have some of the preservation tools that incentivize property owners elsewhere to keep their historic properties. (For example, property tax breaks.) That’s another reason that a Music Row Steering Committee has been meeting to revise rules or create new programs.
This week, that committee reached consensus on several ideas (detailed below).
“Some people’s hard work has come up with something that actually encompasses what everybody wants,” said Cliff Williamson, a committee member with Starstruck Entertainment. “I love it, conceptually.
“For the first time in a long time, I’m feeling … we’re about to turn the corner and make Music Row a special place to live, work, and play again.”
His caveat: “The devil’s in the details.”
Initial Changes For The Row
One of the next actions could come from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which plans to deliver a petition to the Metro Planning Commission with a list of three requests.
- The trust, which has been involved in preservation research and advocacy, wants the planning commission to stop approving “specific plan” projects on the Row, which can provide exemptions to height and other zoning rules.
- The trust is seeking a designation of a “Music Row Cultural Industry District.”
- And the trust is asking the city to develop incentives for preservation.
In the meantime, the trust helped launch Music Row walking tours and T-shirts that raise money for new street markers about the area’s significant places and, eventually, for a small fund that historic property owners could tap into.
The city’s planners, meanwhile, have been revising some rules adopted in late 2016.
Of most significance, the building design guidelines divided Music Row into four zones, and set limits on building heights in each area.
The south end, near Belmont University, is the most strict — capped at three stories. The bulk of the “Music Row Village” allows five stories. Toward the northern end, the limit has been eight stories (but could be increased to 12). And the farthest north, close to the Music Row Roundabout, ultimately permits 20 stories or more.
Led by Jones, the planners are also suggesting tweaks to rules about streetscapes and nicer alleyways to try to keep the Row tied together with the feel of a campus.
While many at the table say they wish that Metro had approved tougher rules in 2016, Lee points out that the design guideline — especially the five-story maximum — have likely deterred some large redevelopments from even being pursued.
“We at least have that guide in place,” he said.
The revisions could be sent to a Planning Commission vote within three months.
After that, planners are pursuing something much more ambitious: the “Music Row Code.”
One More Year For A ‘Code’
Driving much of the conversation for years has been a possible Music Row Code — a broad overhaul of the zoning rules for the area, potentially dispensing with some of the generic “office” or “retail” labels used citywide in favor of Music Row-specific rules.
But zoning changes — even for a single parcel — can be involved or controversial. That’s why planners say they’ve been taking their time. An economic consultant has been enlisted. And a pending survey of Music Row will send researchers door-to-door to try to create the most detailed report to date of what businesses exist on the Row. (There’s a hunch that company signs visible from the street are outdated or misleading about the actual day-to-day activities there.)
Despite delays, the Music Row Steering Committee has signaled clear interest in a Music Row Code.
It could differ from zoning elsewhere in that it would try to provide perks to music-related businesses. It’s too early to list those, but Jones said that in theory, a music-related use could qualify for more height or square footage.
Of course, defining “music-related” is tricky.
“There are folks who believe that a music-related use is everything from a hair salon where a country music singer can get their hair done to a recording studio, and everything beyond and in between,” Jones said.
If a Music Row Code can advance, it may include another idea that has intrigued preservationists for years: a “transfer of development rights” program.
In simple terms, these programs allow developers in high-density areas to get permission to build extra floors by paying the owners of smaller, historic properties, who then must agree not to demolish or enlarge their buildings.
Cities from New York to San Francisco run such programs. (See case studies.)
In Nashville, the preliminary proposal would allow property owners along most of Music Row to sell or “send” their height rights to developers in Midtown and the northern end of Music Row, who would be buying or “receiving” the extra floors.
Making a program is extremely complicated because of the difficulty of knowing how to value the air rights so that buyers and sellers find them worthwhile. A key sticking point at the moment is what area of Music Row would be eligible to “sell,” and what criteria of buildings would qualify.
Hammering out these details could take another year.
But Metro Planning’s new director, Lucy Kempf, told the Music Row Steering Committee this week that she’s committed to seeing the project through.
Kempf also had to navigate some of the opposing viewpoints in the room. At one moment, she outlined a succinct, off-the-cuff vision for the Row:
“I disagree with the premise that all of the structures must be historic and must be the same as they are today,” Kempf said. “I think it’s important to retain some of that fabric, absolutely. And I think new fabric that is developed over time should be respectful and responsive to the older stock. I think it needs to be a vital, mixed-use, living neighborhood.”