Nashville Nonprofits, Officials Speak Out On Proposed Homeless Housing Project

May 29 2018
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Nashville Nonprofits, Officials Speak Out On Proposed Homeless Housing Project

By: Andrew Wigdor

The ambitious plan from the mayor's office banks on a land-swap deal with developer Tony Giarratana



An ambitious proposed plan from Mayor David Briley’s administration and developer Tony Giarratana has been praised by some as an innovative way to pull hundreds of men and women off of Nashville’s streets. However, others are not convinced. 

In exchange for Metro-owned Church Street Park (a long-time resting spot for the city’s homeless), Giarratana will develop at least 100 units of permanent supportive housing and a Downtown Homeless Service Center at 301 James Robertson Parkway.  If the plan is implemented as proposed, the Church Street Park will become the new site of a Giarratana commercial high-rise. 

At 301 James, the property will be used as “a one-stop shop” for housing navigation and social services, and Giarratana will be developing the project at no extra cost to the city or the taxpayer. The major elements of the proposed building would include housing for homeless individuals, office space for the Metro Homelessness Commission, bathrooms, showers and storage that homeless individuals can use, as well as case management in order to connect homeless men and women to the resources they need. 

The current proposal shows financing for the plan is made up of three major components: the land-swap of Church Street Park, $1.4 million in cash from the developer and $25 million in general obligation bond funds, which Metro Council approved for affordable housing in the Fiscal Year 2018 Capital Spending Plan. Additionally, Giarratana Development has committed to spending around $5 million to convert Anne Dallas Dudley Boulevard between Church Street and Union Street into a “walkway boulevard,” which would include a green space, wide sidewalks and other amenities. The plan also calls for more publicly accessible green space so there is no net loss of green space if the Church Street Park area is developed .

While Giarratana did not originally intend to be a part of the plan, he said that the mayor’s office “leveraged his interest.” 

“The Giarratana team has been developing luxury, urban housing in Nashville for nearly a quarter century,” Giarratana says. “We enjoy it and would like to develop more of it, but have not been deaf to the need for more affordable housing. My team and several long-time partners decided to dedicate 2018 to trying to help.”

Giarratana says that he has submitted many proposals to Metro to build on the Church Street Park land and that it would be easier to simply be permitted to purchase the land at market price.  But when the mayor's office approached him with an affordable housing plan, he felt he could set an important precedent.

“Unfortunately, because there’s been a lot more talk about affordable housing than there has been action, the homeless community in Nashville currently needs just about everything,” Giarratana says. “While it's not reasonable to expect any single development to address all the needs of Nashville’s homeless community, 301 James is a tremendous step in the right direction. It is our hope that this development can serve as a model for other developers interested in creating such housing.” 

Rachel Hester, the executive director of Nashville homeless service Room In The Inn, believes that the plan is a step in the right direction. “I find my role to always sit at any table with an open mind that talks about affordable housing or moving the needle for people that we serve,” Hester says. “And, sadly, there’s not been a lot of that happening in the last few years. We’re a good city for a lot of people but not for people that we are serving at places like Room In The Inn.”

Hester says that she’s met with Giarratana regarding the proposed plan and showed him the 38 affordable housing units that Room In The Inn has to offer. 

“We would like to do more, but the nonprofit community can’t do it by itself,” Hester says. “It’s going to take all of us … To have somebody who is knowledgeable (about development) is a benefit to cost-saving. If we’re going to move forward as a city, we’re going to all have to be open to doing something that’s outside of our traditional scope.”

Some critics say it's too costly. However, Hester says costiliness is a necessary evil. “If you’re going to build something of quality, which is what people deserve, it does cost money,” Hester says. “Our facility cost $13.5 million when we were finished ... We’re 64,000 square feet and only have 38 affordable housing units.” 

While Hester feels that organizations should be open to the new plan, members of Nashville nonprofit Open Table Nashville, which coordinates many volunteer efforts to help homeless individuals, say that they are “troubled” by the plan as proposed. 

In a joint statement published in The Tennessean on May 13 from Open Table team members, the nonprofit representatives said that they see the plan as another part of the trend in “Metro’s willingness to hand over public land and parks to luxury developers who do not invest a percentage of the profits they gain into projects that benefit those struggling most in our city.” 

Their other worries include the project’s “non-transparent and un-competitive bidding process.” Open Table says more units could be built for the “$25 million price tag” and Church Street will “become a playground for wealthy residents while so many Nashvillians are dying on our streets for want of housing.” 

“Because our city lacks adequate affordable housing and a downtown service providing hub, the Church Street Park has served as an important site for people experiencing homelessness over the years,” Lindsey Krinks, Open Table’s Director of Street Chaplaincy and Education, says. “Nashville has no shortage of parks, and Riverfront Park, Bicentennial Mall and the Greenway are all accessible for people in the downtown area.” 

According to Metro, Church Street Park is no longer a viable green space for all residents to use. A proposal draft for the land-swap plan refers to the park as an “informal gathering and services location for those who are unhoused” and states that the park is a frequent site for police calls. However, Krinks believes there are other and more beneficial ways to solve the park problems. 

“If the 30 public benches that had been removed from around the park were replaced, it would offer more seating so that so many people didn’t have to congregate in the park,” Krinks says. “As Anne Dallas Dudley/Capitol Boulevard is developed to include more green space, the layout of Church Street Park could also be re-imagined. Public green spaces are essential for the livability of cities like Nashville.”

But despite the perspective of those such as Krinks, Metro Chief Resilience Officer Erik Cole  who has participated in the Metro Homelessness Commission since its inception  says that the park has been “an area of concern” for quite some time. 

“I think it’s hard to argue that (Church Street Park) is used by all people equally, and that’s the charter of parks, that they’re available for the enjoyment of all people,” Cole says. “I’m not sure I can count the number of meetings I’ve been in over the last five or six years related to concerns of (homeless) people leaving their belongings there, day-in and day-out, as well as positioning themselves in the park. We know that arresting people for simply existing is not the answer … However, if you ask downtown residents if they take their dogs there or use the park during the day, the majority of constituent response is that they do not.” 

Cole says that permanent support housing   a strategy if officials implement the plan  is a model that could have the most impact. “When we count 1,200 folks who experience homelessness at any given time downtown, we need to take some bold strides to move the needle on homeless housing,” Cole says. “We have a need for directing people to services through this service center model and rapidly getting them signed up and eligible for supportive services.” 

According to Cole, the research behind Metro’s plan has been conducted over the past several years and that the need for permanent supportive housing was identified by the homelessness commission. 

“We looked at a number of other cities,” Cole says. “The mayor’s office did the research, as did the Homelessness Commission, as did outside consultants … We’ve really tried to build this (plan) based on input from stakeholders.” 

Cole says criticisms of the cost and bidding process are unfounded. “To my knowledge, (Giarratana) was the first person that was willing to come in and talk about permanent supportive housing and very low-income housing and basically said, ‘I will work with you to build what you think you need,’” Cole says. “The price tag question is an interesting one because we don’t actually have a full price tag yet. We know the amount of money we’ve been authorized to spend, but we’re still working on the design and model for the building.”

Cole says Giarratana is not being paid to build or construct the housing units and services center. Instead, he is doing the work at cost. These elements make Giarratana’s proposal the best approach for both the homeless individuals and residents of Nashville, according to Cole. 

 “We’re committed to improving the condition of downtown and to also meet the needs of the homeless,” Cole says. “I think we all have a responsibility to be involved in matters of social welfare like homelessness. It’s a much larger problem than just the city of Nashville.” The Metro Parks Board, the Metro Planning Commission and the Metro Council will review the plans this summer.

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