Mark Deutschmann, The CityLiving Group’s fearless leader and founder and CEO of Village Real Estate, was recently featured on the cover of The Nashville Post Boom Issue. Read the entire cover story below. Congratulations, Mark!
Source: The Nashville Post
Since he started working in real estate nearly three decades ago, Mark Deutschmann has broken new neighborhood ground, built Village Real Estate into an organization with more than 300 agents, launched Core Development and played a key role in initiatives that are changing the look, feel and use of our city. Deutschmann sat down recently with Post Editor Geert De Lombaerde to talk about his career, Nashville’s development and what’s next on both fronts. Here are some excerpts from that conversation.
I thought we could start with Wedgewood-Houston and then work our way back. Take us back to the beginning of when you had the idea to get to work there. When did the light bulb come on to make you think there was something there to explore?
I was finishing up with the last sales at Werthan Lofts. That had turned into the 10-year project. We took it off in chunks and the last phase of 98 units, we were in the process of selling it out. We were looking for the next big thing and my CFO actually is an artist on the side. He builds sculptures and he had a place down in Wedgewood-Houston. There was already a nice artistic and maker community so there was sort of a seed of some goodness. Couple that with some very underutilized industrial property and we felt like it was a neighborhood that could be embraced.
Did it remind you of your work in 12South or of Werthan? Was it something where you said, “I’ve seen this before, and I think I know how this is going to work?”
There’s always some of that. You definitely learn from your experiences. I sort of started looking at my work in terms of the one-mile radius. What’s happening in a one-mile radius? If I start to get involved in this, what are the assets available? Who’s here already? What can we build upon? What are some major things that we can do to move things along? What are the profit interests that are there? What are the greenways, the natural resources? And so this is when you can size it up and go about one mile to the Music City Center and you have access to the park [Fort Negley] because there’s going to be something happening there. You have artists, makers, a community that they want to develop so they’re welcoming in this way.
And I guess at that moment in time, the land was very readily available, looking at price. So it was something which would allow us to do what we’d like to do — not the ones and twos and single builds or the 20-story high rises. We can do something that’s sort of small and nimble and, hopefully, help create a neighborhood.
You’ve long been active in neighborhoods close to Nashville’s core. How did you come to it?
I have Village Real Estate, started that in 1996. But even previous to that, I had sold real estate. I had worked with a company called Renaissance, a real estate company located on Woodland Street. And they divvied up the city by geographic zones. And I had purchased a house over off 12th South, on Caruthers Avenue, and I wanted that zone. Somebody had that zone but there was available the area between Belmont and West End.
So I took that and my first thing that I got involved with was Hillsboro Village, which was then still somewhat vacant and had faltered. I started thinking in terms of, “I sell real estate within a one-mile radius of Hillsboro Village.” When people asked me what I did, that’s what I told them. I started thinking, “If I can help energize a commercial district, it’s going to be a little jewel. And people will want to move back to the houses, and it will help my sales career.” I helped organize the first home tour with Jane Cleveland of Vanderbilt University. We got together and had a home tour and Halloween party — that’s way back in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s.
Then, since I had moved to 12South, I asked for and received that as part of my sales territory. I started studying that and, by the mid ‘90s, I realized that energizing a commercial district was going to be critical to the continued renovation of houses. So I started a partnership with Joel Solomon and we bought up 11 properties on 12th Avenue South for between $40,000 and $150,000, which seemed like a great deal at the time. But people thought we were sort of crazy, too.
We weren’t trying to keep the buildings. We were trying to attract merchants. We could buy buildings for $80,000 and sell them for $80,001 just so somebody was going to use it.
In a lot of ways, though, it’s become the model. When you look at the districts that are trying to get re-energized now, people kind of look at 12South and say, “Okay, we’re going to do that.”
Yeah, it was great because it was a skinnier street. So you could do traffic [control] measures. People were concerned about safety, bad sidewalks and lighting, so we slowed the traffic down so people would stop. We did one section of the street just to showcase what we could do. Later on, we got the street finished and put in place lighting standards and the whole thing to make it what it is now. It seems like an instant success 20 years later.
You worked with Bill Purcell on the 12South improvements and you’ve had the chance to work along the way with everybody from Phil Bredesen to Megan Barry today. There has been a real continuity in terms of public investment in neighborhoods. How much has that played a role in what you have been able to do?
There are probably different stages of my career with each of them. Bredesen put together the system for greenways. And now, how many years later, I’m the president of Greenways for Nashville. We have laid down 215 miles of paved premium park trails and we’re about to have a trail-oriented development discussion with the Urban Land Institute. You have the riverfront parks in place.
Purcell did a lot of work with sidewalks and improvements so that the neighborhood commercial districts could improve, so they could come back and see more retrofits of housing. And then, Dean came in and set the course for four major park systems. I’ve been able to help out with that. We also did all the riverfront parks during his term, which arguably is one of the best things that’s ever happened for us — and also for our Music City Center guests coming in and our tours. People see the city through a different light with all that done.
And now you have Megan Barry. She’s just laid down some money for The Fairgrounds and she’s doubling down on being the greenest city in the Southeast.
And it all plays a key role in the development of our economy.
Well, going back to greenways: How important is walkability becoming? How much more is a house or development valued if it’s next to something? And that could be a neighborhood commercial district or greenways and parks. All those things become more important in people’s housing choices. So we’ve laid down enough of it, and it keeps coming.
Lay out, if you would, the vision for completing a circle of greenways. You’re building on what’s already there on the north side.
There are two pieces of it. One, you have an interstate that got laid in starting in the ‘70s. There was supposed to have been a greenway as part of that system. It got value engineered out or possibly some people decided that having a greenway in their backyard wasn’t something that was going to be attractive. Now everybody’s come together and realized that you have a lot of TDOT easements and TDOT favors getting those to Metro and letting us use them for a greenway system and even some parks.
We have an interstate that connects Nolensville Road to Franklin Road to Belmont to 21st and West End. Why not use it to connect people to corridors and connect people to work and connect the parks that exist from Sevier Park to Centennial Park? And then if you look at it as a piece of a bigger loop, you’ve already got the 28th-31st connector, you can connect to Hadley Park and then back to the Ted Rhodes trailhead. Then you can get back downtown, come through the city and go through Rolling Mill Hill, where we already have the greenway. From there, you can link up with Brown’s Creek, take Brown’s Creek back to 440, and you can get all the way around the city.
This project should create opportunity for lots of the populations that should be benefitting from the economic lift that’s happening right now. Chestnut Hill, that whole area between basically Franklin Road through to Nolensville is underserved as far as greenways and access to park systems. It’s the same thing if you go north up towards TSU; you have opportunity to create more connections for those communities. I think that’s an important piece of this big loop. We’re not very good yet with our feet and our bikes in the city. But we can learn.
And with the easements already there, there’s potential to build clusters of communities that link to existing amenities and existing communities. That might be the fastest way to get to an affordable housing solution.
Well, NashvilleNext is promoting the identification of corridors, which makes a lot of sense. You also have a pushback starting in Green Hills and East Nashville about development in those neighborhoods. Well, then you have to allow development of the corridors and you should aggressively pursue it.
You can look at a corridor and say this is an opportunity to create the housing next to the transportation, and also you can add density and put TIF districts along the corridors. Then you can pretty much count on some affordable housing when the developers get in to make their developments.
If you do that coupled with a trail, you have double. You have corridor transportation and then you have another viable asset nearby. And if you upzone, it’s a great opportunity to create and to protect the wetlands and have tech corridors, to create soccer fields and different kinds of things for the residents with the big park system. It’s just a great opportunity.
Where do you think the pulse of the city is these days in terms of that push for redevelopment? Many people say, “Yes, we want to invest in this corridor and that neighborhood.” But there also is the opposite thought that says, “I don’t recognize my city anymore.” What’s your feel for where that pendulum is?
There are always going to be people who say, “Slow down, we don’t want to change.” But I don’t know that we can. We could control it. We can shut everything down and put a moratorium on building and just not receive anybody else. But I don’t think we’re doing that.
And did I not see a $6 billion transit announcement the other day? That’s what we’re thinking about doing. We have to create bigger solutions for what’s happening before it gets ahead of us. I really think it’s easier for people to digest development of the corridors. It’s easier than having something pop up next door in the back yard.
There’s a place where, as a city, we have to have some backbone. You can’t just block the development on corridors just because neighbors didn’t want it. That is the place where you have to say “yes” and say the NashvilleNext process determined that’s where we’re going to put it and that’s the right place to put it. It’s called transit-oriented development. It’s called trail-oriented development. It’s called walkability. And it’s going to be the more efficient way for humans to live.
On the flip side, I’ve been working through the Village Fund and Hands On Nashville, putting a lot of money into their home energy savings program. We’ve retrofitted maybe 200 houses in the Wedgewood-Houston neighborhood for energy savings, to make sure that the roofs weren’t leaking, that the plumbing was okay. That was so people could stay in their houses, allowing the housing that exists right now to remain and making it maybe a little more valuable so that they don’t just go down.
Right, to keep a healthy mix.
That’s going to be one of our best housing solutions. Keep what you’ve already got if you can. If you can allow seniors to age in place and stay connected to their communities, you can create multigenerational housing opportunities so that maybe three generations are living in that house and people can come back. As we have the affordable housing conversation, you can look at doing that all around the city.
It sort of slows the gentrification process and allows us to continue to have a better community. And the city could — when you think of the Barnes Fund and stuff like that — put money there. It’s going to be a lot cheaper to do that. You can come in for $1,200 and reduce the energy flow in a house 25 percent. You can come in with another chunk of money and you can fix things and just keeps it all in place.
That does bring up the bigger issue of affordability. Advocates for existing neighborhoods say that every time a new development comes in — whether it’s 20 homes or 200 apartment units — there’s going to be some displacement. It’s almost inevitable. What can the development community do differently to be more mindful of that dynamic?
Again, I think corridor development’s a good thing. The Urban Land Institute just did a healthy corridor study and we used Charlotte as an example. There’s lots happening on Charlotte, but if you drive up and down it, it’s still pretty ugly and most of our corridors are pretty ugly. Poor zoning practices, poor codes, not enough density, ad signage everywhere, too difficult to cross, dangerous, no sidewalks, no pedestrians, no biking.
We abandoned our cities, went to the suburbs and created ugly corridors to get us there. Now we need to recreate our corridors with walkability and bikeability access in mind and have them be continuous. You have to have neighborhood commercial at the base so you don’t create a gap. Create something so that it’s interesting for people to get from point A to B and don’t allow developers to come in and create dead zones with big walls.
I go to Vancouver all the time; my friend’s the mayor of the city. It’s his third term and they’re having all the issues that we have, and more. Their affordable housing crises is serious, but when they think of transportation, they think of corridors. They think of transportation and zoning in the same breath. You can’t have transportation without the zoning. Cambie Street there goes out towards the airport from downtown. They basically rezoned the whole of Cambie Street because they were going to put in a major transportation system. They upzoned, created the heavy density on the road and buffers and density just outside it and then back into the neighborhoods. It was not necessarily popular, but now you’re watching everything happen, and it’s going up and intensifying and there are criteria for affordable housing within the whole thing. It took some political will to get that done but it’s the way they created walkability — and all the things we need as a city — with transportation.
Is there enough collective political will here in town to make real progress on transit?
I suppose we have the regional transit group that’s working together and hopefully everybody’s on board. But I don’t really know the answer to that question. This mayor is strong and can align with all the people that need to align because it’s her number one issue, really.
Are you having fun these days versus trying to make money? Is that a fair characterization of you in your career now?
It’s gotten really fun now. It gets more fun all the time. I already have sort of a network of all the different kinds of pieces in place. For instance, we just bought two properties right at the Fairgrounds. Who’s the councilperson? Colby Sledge. OK, I’ve worked with Colby in the past. The Civic Design Center has done the study, the Urban Land Institute is interested in helping us think through the development, Greenways For Nashville has the best interest in getting this section of greenway done.
You’re making it sound really easy.
Well, it is easier because you put in all the time to get involved in all these organizations. I have the Village Fund, which has gotten more robust, so I can come in and seed nonprofits I’d like to see do the other work that I can’t do. So that’s another piece of it. Five percent of the company and of Core goes into the Village Fund and just keeps popping out a little here and a little there. You can just keep feeding these organizations that are doing that important work. You need to enrich the arts, environmental issues, housing, affordable housing, senior housing and all the things that you would think needed taken care of to have a good city.
So yeah, you have more fun. And also my wife, Sherry, is doing her thing with LetterLogic. Since we’ve been together, we both have grown up, grown up our organizations and grown up our impact in community. She’s really into fair wages and putting her employees first. She’s a sought-after speaker and just dynamic in that way. And we do like to just talk about those things. We come in and we get excited about what we did today with our businesses.