Durable Growth

Germantown and a Possible Flood of Dollars

Germantown For Sale Sign

Germantown For Sale Sign

I had a spare afternoon in Nashville two years ago.  As is my preference when I have free time in an unfamiliar city, I looked around for urbanism.  I stumbled into the Germantown neighborhood, a comfortable enclave of older brick homes.  There was also a scattering of newer wood-sided homes that blended well with the older homes.  And there were a few modest commercial storefronts.

Germantown was a short distance north of downtown, barely more than a mile from B.B. King’s nightclub.  The average Walk Score for the neighborhood was 68, which implies that many daily chores can be accomplished on foot.

Older Brick Home

Older Brick Home

Overall, it was pleasant middle-class urban neighborhood, of which we need more.

But there were warning signs.  At the end of the neighborhood closest to downtown, a multi-story mixed-use building, residential above and retail below, was under construction.  And there were vacant lots within the neighborhood that had mixed-use zoning and were for sale.

Overall, it looked like a neighborhood that was at risk of gentrification, with the existing businesses pushed to become more upscale and the current residents becoming marginalized in the neighborhood that was their home.

I’m pleased when an urban neighborhoods show economic improvement, but improvements that occur too quickly can risk the fabric that made the neighborhoods desirable in the first place.

Newer Wood Home

Newer Wood Home

Since my visit, I had often wondered what was happening in Germantown.  At CNU 21, while awaiting a session on form-based codes, I found myself sitting in front of Rick Bernhardt, the Planning Director for Metropolitan Nashville.  I introduced myself and asked about Germantown.

Bernhardt reported what I had expected.  The gentrification of Germantown was well underway.  The neighborhood was changing.  The existing restaurants had begun going more trendy and upscale.  But the risk that most concerned Bernhardt was the pressure on the small industries that still existed in Germantown.

As he described it, Germantown had a certain “grittiness” that needed to be preserved.  And that grittiness required industry to retain a foothold in Germantown.

Fifty years ago, Jane Jacobs warned about “cataclysmic flow of capital”, the rapid influx of money that can overwhelm good places.  It’s a conundrum for urbanism.  How to make better use of existing urban neighborhoods without burying them in money and newcomers.

A theme that was heard during CNU 21 was libertarianism, that building good places doesn’t require extensive planning as much as it requires common sense and a hands-off approach.

I‘m dubious about the concept.  Even setting aside the concern that we don’t yet have enough common sense in a land-use decision-making, I fear that a hands-off approach would open the door to Jacobs’ “cataclysmic flow”.

It’s hard to restrain capital.  Once a tipping point is reached on urbanism, or any land-use concept, money tends to flow toward it with unrestrained velocity.  Having CNU 22 in Buffalo, near Niagara Falls, may be unintentionally apt.

Nor is zoning, whether use-based or form-based, an effective response.  Zoning is about what, not about how quickly.

I don’t have good solutions to offer.  But it’s a challenge that we should face so that neighborhoods like Germantown can be simultaneously better utilized and preserved.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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