A warning horn sounds.
Five minutes later, the ground rumbles and shakes the surrounding buildings.
Blasting. It’s a part of daily life for the students of Belmont, almost unnoticeable. That’s not the case for the university’s residential neighbors.
“You can always notice it,” said longtime Belmont community resident Gene TeSelle.
For Belmont’s administration, the sounds signal progress on the campus that’s increased its student population by 46.8 percent since 2000 en route to a goal of 7,000 by 2015.
But to the neighbors and local businesses on Belmont Boulevard, the constant push for expansion means much more.
Since developing a campus expansion plan in 2005, Belmont has expanded from 65 acres to approximately 70 acres by acquiring 19 new parcels of land, primarily residential lots.
That brings the university’s total to 99 separate “lots,” an essential way to acquire property when the campus is surrounded by residential neighborhoods. The tally is not quickly accessible by a search of Davidson County property records. The ownership is split among three entities: Belmont College, which the main campus from the school’s Baptist beginning in 1951 falls under; Belmont University, which denotes property acquired from roughly 1995 to 2010; and Belmont Real Estate Holdings, which is on the deeds for plots zoned residential.
According to the Master Development Plan the university created in 2005, the expansion plan reflects Belmont’s transition to an urban campus “with uses that are complementary and integrated with its residential, businesses and institutional neighbors.”
For 40 years, TeSelle, a retired Vanderbilt professor and unofficial Belmont-Hillsboro neighborhood historian, has watched the growth of the campus and its effects on the community.
“My impression is that a lot of neighbors are resistant and resentive of the expansion,” TeSelle said. “On the other hand, the university has been able to offer attractive prices to the sellers.”
Click to enlarge
Numbers for the discrepancy between the purchase and sale or market value of a piece of property and the price Belmont paid are unavailable, but Belmont does acknowledge paying more than the appraised value, and often significantly more.
“The university has been willing to pay a premium both to maximize the chance that the university will be offering the best deal to the sellers and the sellers will be motivated to accept the university’s offer,” said Dr. Jason Rogers, vice president for administration and university council.
View Property Listings under Belmont University in a full screen map
Areas like 15th Avenue South, Bernard Avenue, Compton Avenue and Belmont Boulevard are high on Belmont’s wish list, but the university does little legwork within the community to make its intent known.
“There is nothing that we have to do to tell people, the word is out,” Rogers said. “And word of mouth is really powerful among the neighbors and inevitably what happens is neighbors talk to neighbors.”
Belmont has adopted flexible guidelines for growth that depend completely on when property is acquired. The Master Development Plan has generalized specifications for certain zones on campus, but no plans are set in stone.
“It’s one thing for a single family to go into a neighborhood and say, ‘Ooh, I like that house.’ It’s another for a university or a large institution,” Rogers said.
Belmont started purchasing property on Bernard and Compton in the mid-1980s. 30 years later, Belmont is still purchasing on the same streets.
“So in that campus plan, if and when we do secure enough property to do something with it, the university will,” Rogers said.
Just acquiring the property is not enough. Each parcel is zoned by Metro for a specific type of development that limits the use of the property as well as the heights of structures on the property.
Prior to the adoption of the Master Development Plan, building was hindered by the need to re-zone newly acquired property that was mostly residential. To overcome this, Belmont adapted an I-O, or institution overlay, to “create a defined area for expansion.” Once overlay property is purchased within the zone, it takes on the zoning of the area.
“When people ask how can Belmont do these projects so quickly, the secret really is the I-O,” Rogers said.
Belmont’s I-O has a defined expansion area of 75 acres that is separated into zones: Wedgewood & Magnolia Avenue Grand Entry, Academic Core, Belmont Boulevard Arts & Entertainment, South Campus Mixed Use and Residential Campus zone. Each zone has been developed “to address the specific context of the adjoining neighborhoods while providing a unified sense of place and appearance for the overall campus,” according to the master plan.
A faster process might ease the burden on the university, but to the neighbors, the speed just causes more concerns.
“The university has tried to work with the neighbors, but with such a difference in goals, things don’t always match up,” TeSelle said. “Belmont is very fortunate to have wealthy donors that want to help build, but with new buildings there are more issues.”
Some of those issues arose when a roundabout, soon to be built at 15th and Acklen avenues, was proposed nearly two years ago.
“It was a quick process; a lot of people still have doubts,” TeSelle said. “The feeling is that it’s not a good design to have those roundabouts so close to residences.”
According to the plans proposed by traffic engineers, the roundabout design is meant to help alleviate some of the traffic woes. Several discussions in Metro Planning Commission eventually led to the approval more than a year ago.
“The university is very proud of its efforts to improve communications with neighbors in recent years,” Rogers said in an email to the Vision. “Indeed, we have received numerous compliments about our communication lately. If anyone has concerns, we encourage them to contact us.”
Members of the community do recognize the established communication avenues, but they also point out there is still work to be done.
“There is communication, there is the advisory committee,” TeSelle said. “But sometimes even the advisory committee feels like they’ve found out too late on a basic decision.”
Click to enlarge
The Honors House is anything but new.
From the 100 year-old original flooring to the intricate crown molding, this quaint building, which has housed the program since 1998, is just a bit more homey than the other office space on campus.
Every year, the house serves between 120 and 150 students in the program for seminars and as a hangout but once the necessary property is acquired that’ll change.
“We all have that sense that this location, this area, with the road front on Belmont Blvd, would be a primary building spot but at the present we are still treating this as our permanent digs,” said Dr. Devon Boan, director of the honors program.
Along with Social Entrepreneurship and Service Learning, the Honors program is housed in university owned property on Compton Avenue. Property marked for eventual development.
The house itself straddles the zone marked in the Master Development plan as the Belmont Blvd Arts & Entertainment zone, but little is known about what will replace it in the future.
When the time comes, the Honors program will be looking for a new home but when and where is not yet known.
“That decision is so far off … I’m sure that decision will be made at the time,” said Dr. Jason Rogers, vice president of administration and university council.
Until that decision is made, the Honors House is being treated as a permanent solution by all parties involved.
“They still treat this as we are going to be here for a while,” Boan said. “About two years ago, maybe less, the university installed a handicap parking space with a ramp that leads right up to our deck. We recently got a new roof too. … It all suggests the university’s long-term commitment.”