OUT WITH THE OLD?

14 01 2007

One of the things I remember most clearly about my first visit to Nashville, thirty-five years ago, was seeing an outhouse in the back yard of a home about a mile south of downtown. I don’t know if it was still used—in fact, I doubt that it was; but that’s a keynote for the Nashville that used to be. I remember when Old Hickory Boulevard’s southern loop was a rolling two-lane road through fields and woods, and friends of mine lived in the funky, low-rent neighborhood that used to stand where Vanderbilt’s athletic fields now lie. My wife went horseback riding on the old railroad bed that is now I-440. It was a great place for a kid to have adventures.

All that’s gone now, and it ain’t coming back. What is left of an older, slower, less crowded Nashville must be consciously and conscienciously preserved from the economic fundamentalists who understand no value that is not short-term financial. The latest example of this is a proposal to build a 19-story hotel/condominium in the middle of Nashville’s historic lower Broadway district, with a thin veneer of historic facade left on Broadway to preserve the appearance of preservation. The proponents of this building say it has to be that big in order to pay back the money they are laying out for the land.

Now, I am not a devotee of the religion of economics, as most of our politicians are, but, like the devil, I know how to quote scriptures when it serves my purposes. So, let’s look at some economic facts about this proposal and its context that, I think, have not been seriously enough considered in the debate.

First, let’s look at the developer’s claim that he needs to build a nineteen-story building on this site to repay his investment. It turns out that Westin paid “several times the going rate” for the property, according to the Nashville Tennessean, in an article citing Metro Historic Commission Director Ann Roberts. Ms. Roberts pointed out that this inflation of property values is likely to have a domino effect, raising assessments, taxes, and rents in the neighborhood, and making it financially much more difficult for the small businesses—music stores and cheap bars—that give lower Broadway its character. Now, I am not a big fan of cheap bars, but I believe people who want to engage in relatively harmless behavior ought to have place to do what they like to do, and I’m a great believer in locally owned businesses, so I don’t think it would make Nashville a better city to start to undermine this reason for people to go downtown. Opryland couldn’t make it, but lower Broadway is still functioning as a tourist destination, so why mess with it? Setting a precedent by granting this variance will just open the door to more exceptions, and there goes the neighborhood—which is kind of a funny thing to say about a semi-red light district, but I think there’s a time and a place for everything. Lower Broadway is honky-tonksville, and it should be allowed to stay that way.

OK, the tourist thing—I have strong doubts about the long-term viability of tourism as a revenue source. I think that over the next ten or twenty years, it’s going to get harder for people to move around, because the infrastructure is going to go downhill. We will see higher fuel prices, poorer roads, no money to develop large-scale public transportation—and fewer people will have the financial means to undertake travel of any sort—including business travel. The backers of this hotel are also backers of a new, larger convention center here in town, a project which I think is also sadly misguided. Nobody wants to look at the long-term trends, because they’re so scary. It is not going to be business as usual any more, people, and it’s time to drop the denial and get ready for a future that’s going to be local and hands-on rather than global and high-tech. That’s what I think. I’ve been hollering about peak oil and climate change for a long time, now, and you’ve had to admit those wild-eyed hippie visions turned out to be on the money, after you blew me off for so long. Those were just topic sentences. Now, take a deep breath and start paying attention to the details. “Think globally, act locally,” right? Well, this is the local skinny. Heads up!

Now, it turns out that the Westin project is one of at least five new hotels planned for the downtown area. Five or more new hotels. Now, the local hotel biz has actually been pretty good lately, even without Opryland, with occupancy rates running high and a going average price of about $125 per night per person, but I think five more luxury hotels might just saturate the market, even at our current level of prosperity.

I am a member of the economic class that finds the idea of paying $125 a night for a place to sleep, shower, and stash my suitcase simply bizarre. Unfortunately for the builders of the Westin, my kind of people are on the increase in this country, and their clientele is barely managing to reproduce itself, let alone grow. Where do they think all these rich suckers are gonna come from? They’re waving around impressive revenue and tax projections, but they will have no money without people to spend it, and I think they’re living in a deluded dream if they think the future is going to be just like the past. The roller coaster does not go up and up forever, guys. Don’t the dark, closed carcasses of Planet Hollywood and the NASCAR Cafe tell you anything? The party’s over. Do you think I’m a jerk for saying this? Too bad. We need to be thinking very differently about preserving Nashville if we’re going to have a liveable city in another twenty or thirty years.

The first thing we need to do is to encourage urban and suburban gardening, especially projects that feed more people than just the gardeners. Tax credits for vegetable gardens, guys. And let’s repeal the zoning ordinances that prohibit people from keeping household livestock. Yeah, feedlots suck, but if folks want milk and eggs they oughta be able to keep a cow or goat and a few chickens around without getting hassled. And, while we’re relaxing zoning laws, let’s not be so fussy about the home/business divide. Making it easier for people to work at home cuts down on automobile traffic and increases neighborhood cohesion. And parking lots…we got too much parking space in some parts of this town. I look at that colossus by the river and all the flat space around it, and I think, “Cumberland River bottomland….used ta be fertile as a foot up a bull’s ass ( as an old Tennessee farmer I knew liked to say)…how ’bout some farmland restoration?”

Professional sports is such a waste of time and energy. Excuse me, do I sound like a hopeless Puritan? No, I just appreciate direct pleasure more than voyeurism. If you like football, get out and play football, dammit, don’t sit on your fat ass and watch somebody else do the work for you. But, I digress.

I will give the Westin developers some points for green building design, but green building design, for me, has to include the context of the building, and this proposal is out of context. If they want to try their luck with a 19-story hotel near downtown Nashville, there are other locations, some very close to this site, that wouldn’t hang anybody up. And that overpriced land they bought? Caveat emptor, as the Romans used to say. And good luck. It’s a free market, guys. Nobody guaranteed you a profit.

music:  James McMurtry, “The Old Part of Town

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