Historic West End-area school building faces demolition

Tuesday, January 3, 2012 at 6:49pm

A 1918-era school building in a West End neighborhood is authorized for demolition, with plans to clear the way for 11 residential homes, after a court decision guided a Metro commission’s recent approval.

The Metro Historic Zoning Commission voted Nov. 16 to grant Franklin-based developer Advent Land Co. a demolition permit to tear down the former Ransom School building near Elmington Avenue to accommodate a residential development project. The Ransom building, which five years ago operated as Metro Nashville Public Schools’ Randall’s Learning Center, is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

Attorney Tom White, who represents Advent Land, said he expects a plan for 11 single-family houses at the 3501 Bryon Ave. site could be finalized this spring or summer. He did not know when the Ransom building would be demolished.

Metro Councilwoman Burkley Allen, who represents the neighborhood, said she hopes developers are “historically sensitive” with the designs of the new homes.

The City Paper was unable to reach Kevin Smith of Advent Land for comment.

The commission’s vote came nearly two years after the same board disapproved the demolition request in November 2009 by a 4-2 vote. The developer appealed the decision in Davidson County Chancery Court citing an “economic hardship” in salvaging and renovating the building for residential use.

The Ransom building is protected by a historic overlay, but an owner has the right to make a case for “economic hardship” to be exempted. A Davidson County chancellor backed the historic zoning commission’s decision, however.

Attorneys for Advent Land then took the issue to the Tennessee Court of Appeals, which in May 2011 reversed the lower court’s decision.

Court of Appeals Judge Andy Bennett, opining the historic zoning commission depended on “largely speculative” information to deny the request, ordered that commissioners reconsider the applicant’s demolition. He ordered the commission take action that is consistent with the court’s opinion.

Metro attorneys had argued the development group’s economic hardship was “self-created” because it purchased land knowing various zoning restrictions were applicable.

But Bennett wrote that the plaintiff’s attorneys demonstrated the developers stood to lose $700,000 if the demolition permit were not granted. He wrote Metro Code does not recognize “self-created” hardships.

“The commission made no findings and did not present any material evidence upon which a reasonable person could rely to reach a rational decision that [the developer] did not suffer an economic hardship,” the court of appeals opinion reads. “We therefore conclude that the commission’s decision is an arbitrary one.”

Metro Historic Executive Director Tim Walker called the authorization of a permit to demolish the Ransom building “an unfortunate outcome.”

The oldest portion of the Ransom building was built in 1918, with the school expanding in 1925. In 1932, famous Nashville architecture firm Warfield and Keeble led the designs of the construction of a free-standing addition. In 1957, Ransom Elementary School became one of Nashville first desegregated schools.

“The Warfield Keeble building was in fair shape and was a great candidate for rehab,” Walker said. “I had personally hoped that at least that building would be rehabbed, even if the rest of it had been found to not be economically viable.”

In its opinion, the appeals court also ruled that the historic zoning commission exhibited bias in its initial decision to deny the demolition request in 2009.

Emails sent from then-commissioner Allen DeCuyper –– who in 2009 voted against approval of the demolition permit –– to the historic commission’s staff indicated he had already reached a conclusion regarding the developer’s economic hardship.

“While the commission is free to rely on the expertise of its members, the commissioners may not engage in any ‘conduct that would undermine the fairness of the proceeding,’ ” the judge wrote. “These acts ‘would cause a reasonable person to question the [Commission’s] impartiality.’ ”

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10 Comments on this post:

By: pswindle on 1/3/12 at 8:58

Should we not save our historical places?

By: Lou2 on 1/3/12 at 10:28

Thanks Joey.

Historically sensitive, says the elected rep? Please. It would be nice if her constituents don't let her get away with that one. Own it, or disown it, but don't play both sides.

This is why Nashville is not Austin. Stuff happens, and you hear not a peep.

By: Rasputin72 on 1/4/12 at 8:41

The Supreme Court in 1954 changed the direction and the culture of the United States. This very small elementary school was doomed for demolition at some point in the future.

Change and demolition have been a part of the culture of the United States since it's beginning. Ransom is nothing more than cannon fodder in a country where change moves moves as swiftly as the wind.

By: GrantHammond on 1/4/12 at 9:06

It’s a shame this structure could not be saved through historic tax credits and other incentives provided by the city. I think that is where Nashville falls apart from cities like Austin who provide more funds to make historic readaptive use projects more feasible. The city needs to take more responsibility.

By: govskeptic on 1/4/12 at 9:15

It's time the Metro Code was changed concerning "self-imposed
Hardships". This allows developers or anyone else to pay an
outrageous price for a property and then demand even more
when being sold to government. This gives those with inside
info and or extraordinary political influence to gain extraordinary
profits at the expense of taxpayers doing the purchasing.
I'm sure lots of that took place on the Convention Center
purchases, and now on this old school as well!

By: Left-of-Local on 1/4/12 at 11:34

Yep. Can't save THIS, but we can keep the CRAPTASTIC FAIRGROUNDS alive for "history"...

Redneck, USA...

By: JeffF on 1/4/12 at 2:03

The ultimate question is it "historic" or just "old". In this case the building realistically isn't old enough to be considered old. Also, you have to do better than "one of the first" to rate as historically important. Unless we are playing horseshoe history.

Oh where are the history minded when a building is rotting away without an owner. Why do things only become historic in Nashville only after some sucker has stepped into the bear trap of hysteric preservation? Pass the hat history people and buy all these old places then you will not have to depend on the cloistered readership of alternative newspapers to rally the apathetic into almost shedding a tear.

By: shinestx on 1/4/12 at 5:39

Just one more domino in the destruction of historically significant buildings... Ransom is 94 years old! Ooops, can't have an old building like that lying around, not when "we" can see more McMansions there. And forget zoning protections... as Sonny West showed us.

So one more piece of Nashville's past falls to the wrecking ball. I was astonished when I saw a 2-page aerial photo (circa 1957) of downtown Nashville taken by the late great photographer Bill Grannis. His photos of everyday street-life in Nashville were recently published in a book... but I digress. Looking at the aerial photo, I was astonished by what vaguely resembled our city... but so different. There was the Capitol... and other state government buildings. But there were other classically beautiful buildings that are long-gone... lost forever because developers have no imagination. Gone are the stately original office buildings of the National Life Company, birthplace of the Grand Ol' Opry... and the old Tulane Hotel, where Music City was born. Gone too are the Sudekum building and the beautiful Tennessee Theatre, demolished by developer Tony Giarratana and replaced with a non-descript apartment building with windows too small. And the old American National Bank building... and so many commercial buildings that have left toothless, sad grimaces along every street of downtown.

To prevent this, the city should levy the highest property tax rates for any site that becomes a vacant parking lot after an historic building is demolished on that site.

By: ohplease on 1/4/12 at 11:34

Other developers wanted to buy the building to redevelop it when Metro sold it to a company with no experience or interest in its preservation. And then Advent Land let it sit vacant and unprotected for years and become a nuisance. All over the country developers are using historic school buildings for interesting, livable housing, but not here. Sad.

By: nvestnbna on 1/5/12 at 7:01

I used to vote in that building and didn't feel it was remarkable historically. JeffF, a little sparky this morning? 'Bob' Grannis. I think that photo, is from 1952, but maybe another later and it is sad we've lost a multitude of interesting buildings. If you looked at SoBro in that picture it was incredible, all or most demolished for industrial uses in the 50s 60s, now a huge indoor centric tourist auditorium occupies / covers 6 blocks (rather than an active streetcscape). The historic commission "hearings" if you will, have been shames, so no surprise there on a ruling by the court of bias, but glad for it.