Saving History: Nashville's Conservation Districts

Black history is ineradicable to our cities history, just as it is imperative to a comprehension of our nation’s evolution. Traditionally, black cultural resources in have been among the most endangered due to local, state and federal policies originally established to preserve a race-based caste system. As a result, these urban neighborhoods have been more susceptible to urban renewal, political whims and development pressures. While historic districts might not be an option for many communities, conservation overlay districts have emerged as a popular alternative.

What is a Conservation District?

Between 2016 and 2017, over 100 people moved to metropolitan Nashville each day, raising the region’s population to 1,904,226.

Located a few blocks east of Vanderbilt University, Edgehill is one of Nashville’s oldest African-American neighborhoods. Once a freedmen’s camp established by the Union army during the Civil War, Edgehill gained a reputation as a place for aspiring working-class and middle class African American families during the early 20th century. Today, while Edgehill remains a close-knit community, the neighborhood’s historic sense-of-place is threatened by the pressures of gentrification. With this in mind, Edgehill became the latest Neighborhood Conservation Zoning Overlay (NCZO) district, in a similar size and scaled city that is nationally known for its NCZO program.

In 1974, Metropolitan Nashville and Davidson County adopted an ordinance creating historic zoning and authorizing the creation of the Metropolitan Historical Commission (MHC). The five-member commission, selected by mayoral appointment and council confirmation, was authorized to review all permit applications for alterations, new construction, relocation, and demolition within areas designated as historic zoning districts, to determine the appropriateness of the proposed work and preserve the area’s buildings and character. In 1977, the Metropolitan Historic Zoning Commission (MHZC) was established, followed by the designation of the first historic zoning district, Edgefield, in 1978. The ordinance was amended in 1983 to bring it into compliance with revised stateenabling law; and again in January 1985, to establish a second, less-restrictive type of historic zoning called neighborhood conservation zoning. With the creation of this additional type of historic zoning, what had previously been called historic zoning became known as “historic preservation zoning”. Source: Nashville Metro Historic Zoning Handbook

With the recent addition of Edgehill, Nashville is home to 22 NCZO districts within its boundaries. For cities looking to preserve their historic sense of place, Nashville’s NCZO program is a tool worth exploring. Quantifiable reasons for implementing conservation districts include giving neighborhoods greater control over development, stabilizing property values, decreasing the risk of investing in one’s house, promotion of heritage tourism, protection of viable urban housing stock, and preservation of natural resources through the conservation of building materials.

Scale appropriate infill in Nashville’s Salemtown NCZO district (Courtesy of Russell Conner)

Through a nine member architectural review board known as the Metropolitan Historic Zoning Commission (MHZC), applications for work on properties within NCZO districts are reviewed according to a set of design guidelines, criteria and standards developed jointly by the MHZC and the residents of the neighborhood. These guidelines, which are in addition to the base or land use zoning of an area, help determine the architectural compatibility of proposed projects, protecting neighborhoods from the development of properties that are inconsistent or not in character with the surrounding context. In addition, they help preserve structures that are historic or architecturally important to the community.

Design guidelines are criteria and standards which the Metropolitan Historic Zoning Commission must consider in determining the appropriateness of proposed work within a neighborhood conservation zoning district. Appropriateness of work must be determined in order to accomplish the goals of historic and neighborhood conservation zoning, as outlined in Article IX (Historic Zoning Regulations), Metropolitan Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance:

To preserve and protect the historical and/or architectural value of buildings or other structures;

To regulate exterior design, arrangement, texture, and materials proposed to be used within the historic district to ensure compatibility;

To create an aesthetic appearance which complements the historic buildings or other structures;

To foster civic beauty;

To strengthen the local economy; and

To promote the use of historic districts for the education, pleasure, and welfare of the present and future citizens of Nashville and Davidson County. Source: Nashville Metro Historic Zoning Handbook

Through the NCZO program, the impact of new construction infill and adaptive reuse is regulated in terms of height, scale, setback and rhythm of spacing, materials, texture, details and material color, roof shape, building orientation, proportion and rhythm of openings. In addition, in principle, in principle, the demolition of character contributing historic or architecturally significant buildings is considered not appropriate and not recommended.

Hope Gardens in Nashville

Finally, mitigating affordable housing, displacement and gentrification are also huge areas where conservations districts can play an important role in preserving established neighborhoods across the country. Between 2016 and 2017, over 100 people moved to metropolitan Nashville each day, raising the region’s population to 1,904,226. Considered to be one of the country’s boomtowns, many neighborhoods that are not NCZO districts have suffered with large scale displacement, gentrification and loss of historic character due to incompatible infill development. In a 2013 article regarding the city’s struggles with infill development and it’s impact on affordable housing, developers cited conservation overlays as a positive tool to combat the problem:

Lynn Taylor (Taylor Made Plans) says infill in East Nashville has succeeded in its goal of continuing to provide affordable housing to buyers where Sylvan Park has failed because of the conservation overlay. Without it, she isn’t sure that the eclectic people who make up the fabric of East Nashville could afford to live there anymore.

“There is really a debate about whether you improve a community by tearing down houses and building all new,” she says. “All you have to do is go over to Sylvan Park. They have some of the most butchered houses, and some houses that are just huge.

“In 12South, the same thing is happening. When all the little houses get torn down, and you no longer have a diversity of architecture and a diversity of people, and all the home price points get to be $400,000-500,000.” Source:

Article by Ennis Davis, AICP. Davis is a certified senior planner and graduate of Florida A&M University. He is the author of the award winning books “Reclaiming Jacksonville,” “Cohen Brothers: The Big Store” and “Images of Modern America: Jacksonville.” Davis has served with various organizations committed to improving urban communities, including the American Planning Association and the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation. A 2013 Next City Vanguard, Davis is the co-founder of and Transform Jax, a tactical urbanist group. Contact Ennis at