For at least the next 16 months, Nashville will forbid developers from touching the city's famed Music Row.
That is the practical effect of a vote the Metro Planning Commission took Thursday night — a stunning coup for the preservationists who have recoiled at demolition and construction that's already occurred along 16th Avenue South and 17th Avenue South. Those parallel, mile-long roads in Midtown are where country music's recording industry was born six decades ago. It's a legacy, and present-day business, that underpins the city's thriving Music City tourism brand.
The vote illuminates what may be Nashville's most pivotal issue: How well, or poorly, the city handles its unprecedented national profile and the breakneck development fueled by enviable job growth and a population surging faster than just about any other metro area in the nation.
Thursday's vote indicates that Metro government believes Music Row is under siege.
Because of its history and location, Music Row has emerged as the most prominent flashpoint in the development debate — even more so than the brief period last year when Walgreens considered opening a store amid the honky-tonks and boot shops lining the Lower Broadway tourist district.
Careers were born on Music Row. Countless icons and current stars wrote, recorded and produced hit songs there. But Nashville's growth — which is evident especially in Midtown and surrounding urban core — has made Music Row property suddenly worth much more than ever before. And that makes it foolhardy for longtime landowners to turn away eager investors. Plus, many buildings on Music Row are well past their prime, which only makes them more enticing targets.
"The current intense and unprecedented demand for development throughout the city, and Music Row in particular, raise (sic) the real possibility that Music Row's iconic role and importance will be completely lost," planning commissioners said in a joint statement.
RCA Studio A was the poster child of the preservation fight. A Brentwood developer purchased the recording studio last year and planned to tear it down, in order to build a five-story building of 80 luxury condos. After months of mounting criticism, the developer sold Studio A to local philanthropist Aubrey Preston, who's leading an effort to figure out how to preserve the studio.
At the Music Row roundabout, crews demolished old homes to make way for a planned 19-story luxury hotel operated by Virgin Group Ltd., the company founded and run by British billionaire Sir Richard Branson. Behind Studio A, Panattoni Development Co. tore down buildings to create a nearly 100,000-square-foot office building that's now under construction. Panattoni contends that new office space will keep music businesses on Music Row, instead of continuing their flight to downtown, the Gulch or other cities such as Brentwood and Franklin.
Neither of those projects is impacted by the planning commission's decision, since those were previously approved.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation jumped into the debate last month, declaring Music Row a "national treasure."
The planning commission's decision inflames that tension — and also aims to defuse it. Commissioners said they're attempting to allow sufficient time to create a comprehensive design plan for Music Row, before they'll consider looking favorably upon any proposals.
"If we do this piece by piece, you'll wake up in a year or two years and everything will be gone and you'll say, 'What happened?' " said Rick Bernhardt, the planning department's executive director.
Specifically, this is what the planning commission decided: Until the Music Row plan is complete, the commission will do one of two things when asked to consider rezoning requests: The commission will recommend that Metro Council either indefinitely defer, or outright reject, those requested zoning changes.
Developers have the ability to bypass the planning commission and go straight to Metro Council. In those instances, they need a super-majority to support them — at least 27 of 40 council votes.
A favorable recommendation from the planning commission needs just a simple majority of 21 votes. And of course, it looks better when the commission endorses a project, a process that ensures more of a public hearing as well.
The planning commission's advice is not binding on Metro Council. But given the commission's new stance on Music Row, it's unlikely the council would overrule their worries about projects in the pipeline.
Commissioners said creating a design plan for Music Row will take between 12 to 18 months. Work will begin in June. Commissioners picked that month because it marks the NashvilleNext, a multi-year effort to get the community's input on how to guide growth and change throughout Davidson County for the next few decades.
"That plan would include input from all interested parties, including property owners, developers, residents, the music industry and all interested in the future of the area," commissioners said in their statement.