MAYTOWN: DOWN BUT NOT OUT

7 08 2008

Last Thursday, I threaded my way through Nashville rush hour traffic to arrive at the Metro Southeast building in time for the scheduled start of the Planning Commission’s hearing on the Bell’s Bend-Scottsboro Area Plan, including the “Alternate Development Area,” aka Maytown Center.  I was sure it would be a circus, and I was not disappointed.  In the parking lot, I found a young lady offering light green “Bell’s Bend–keep it country” T-shirts out of the back of a pickup truck.  Because of some regulation or other, she couldn’t “sell”  the shirts–but she could give them away and I could give her a donation of $10 or more.  So she did and I did, and I went on my way with a new t-shirt.  I’ve got a box or two of cotton t-shirts at home that  I haven’t worn in years, but hey, this one was for a good cause.  After passing through a metal detector to enter the building, I discovered another source of T-shirts inside–darker green, bearing the legend “BALANCE–conservation and development,” offered for free by Maytown advocates, who seemed to be present in surprising numbers.  I didn’t ask for one.

I talked with Bell’s Bend organizer Barry Sulkin, who asked me to see if I could find out what had drawn so many apparently college-age folks out to this hearing on a Thursday afternoon in support of Maytown Center.  “I’m sure they’re getting paid to be here, but they won’t talk to me,” he said.  Indeed, he was wearing one of those light green t-shirts, and I wasn’t yet–altho I suppose my hirsute appearance pretty much telegraphed my opinion.  Indeed, when I approached one of the young people, all he would tell me was, “personal reasons.”  My friend Glenn got a more specific answer:  “Free beer,” and Tony probably gave the show away later in the evening when, in an apparent slip of the tongue, he said to the Planning Commission, “You’ve received thousands of notes from our employees.”

Glenn also attempted to talk to someone he knew as one of the contractors who is in line to do site prep for the May project, but found his friendly greeting and query interpreted as a challenge to a fight.  Sometimes I think the people who say there are reptiles among us are right.  Fortunately, there were two rooms where we could wait for the hearing to begin, and confrontations were kept to a minimum, as the Maytown crowd took the hall and we congregated in the lunch room, where an unguarded door to the outside kept swinging open long after word was out that the building was filled to capacity.  We circulated and talked among ourselves, waiting for the clock to strike six.

The planning commission decided to deal with the overflow crowd by having a lottery for the seats in the council chamber.  There was room for 150 people inside, and there were easily twice that many on hand.  We all lined up and, one by one, drew numbers.  Mine was not a winning ticket, and I was resigned to watching the meeting on the TV in the lunch room.  However, not all the “winning” numbers had been drawn, and they started calling higher numbers for seats in the main room.  A friend of mine gave me her winning ticket, and I found a seat next to where a dozen reporters (or should I say “other reporters”) were tapping away at their laptops.  I was the only person taking notes by hand.  It’s not that I’m old fashioned, it’s just that a portable computer is way down on my list of priorities.  Interestingly, all of the other reporters were gone long before the meeting actually ended.

But first, at seven instead of the declared six, it began, with a presentation by Anita McCaig and Jennifer Carlat, who both stressed the extensive nature of the community consultation process, the safeguards against further sprawl, and the fact that the Mays were only planning to develop 500 acres of the 1400-acre property, and would put conservation easements on the remaining 900 acres–much of which is undevelopable floodplain anyway.  They almost made Maytown Center sound like a good idea and a done deal.

Then it was time for comments from the public, starting with members of Metro Council.  Lonnell Matthews, Jr., the Metro Council member from ground zero, was the opening speaker.  When last queried, he had been firmly on the fence about the proposal.  To our great relief, he declared that 1)there were far too many unanswered questions about the nuts and bolts of Maytown Center, and 2) the preservationists needed more time to prepare their “Third Vision” proposal, which involves creating an agricultural district in the Bend, where farming is, at this point, at a bit of a low ebb.  He suggested that any decision on “the special use area” be deferred for  year in order to allow time for studies to be done.

This call for delay was echoed by all six Metro Council members who spoke, although each added his or her own touch to the deferral.  Emily Evans, of District 23, pointed out that the main thing the Maytown Center proposal needed in order work was “people with lots of money,”  and that Reston, the development Tony G is fond of comparing it to, has a median income of $100,000, which is about twice the median income of even the wealthiest council districts in Nashville.  The median income in District One, by the way, is 18 thousand dollars per household.

Tony Giarratana would later speak expansively of the likelihood that Maytown would create 50,000 jobs that would average 40K a year each.  That ain’t big money anymore, Tony.  People making 40 thou a year have a hard time sending their kids to college.  They are losing their medical coverage, their cars, and their homes.  Tony, I began to realize, is a magician, a magician who enchants people with spells in which he repeatedly names large sums of money and promises prosperity–but I suspect that ultimately, the only prosperity he is really concerned about is the prosperity of him and his immediate circle of backers.  Tony works for whoever can afford to pay him, y’know?

But I digress.  Mike Jameson, the Council member from downtown Nashville, was next up.  He did not like the Maytown idea, pointing out that the downtown office vacancy rate is likely to hit 20% soon, altho maybe not for long, since Nashville is already one of the top corporate relocation destinations in the country, so why open up an area that will compete with downtown?  The east bank of the Cumberland is ripe for redevelopment, he pointed out, and “it already has plenty of bridges built to it.”

Then Jason Holliman, who represents the lower-income district along Charlotte Pike, just south of the Bend, got up and pointed out the chaos that would be caused by pouring tens of thousands more commuters into the already-jammed Charlotte Pike-I40 corridor.  “It’s great that Bell’s Bend has an area plan,” he said, “but we need a plan for Charlotte Avenue before we just go ahead and develop an area adjacent to it.  We need to co-ordinate our plans.”  In closing, he declared, “If you build a strip mall in the middle of a forest, using compact florescent light bulbs doesn’t make it a green building.”

Eric Crofton was the next Council member to speak at length–Councilman Buddy Baker only got up to say that he hadn’t planned on speaking, but definitely wanted to add his voice to the call to defer a decision for a year.  Eric was an interesting study.  He talked like he might have been drinking.  He confessed that he does most of his shopping in Cool Springs, not Davidson County.  He seemed to be coming from a Republican/Libertarian point of view, saying that he mostly thinks the government shouldn’t be in the business of telling developers what to do, but that in this case, so much city co-operation was being asked that the city needed to ask some serious questions before spending any money, “because we ain’t even got enough money to pay attention in this town.”  What if, he asked, the bridge and infrastructure all get installed, but then nothing gets built on the other side of the river?  Will corporations relocate without “incentive packages” that free them from paying the taxes that are Nashville’s incentive for agreeing to this plan?

Councilman Mike Craddock from Madison was the last councilman to speak.  He said that in his district, he hears from people who are already having to choose between paying property taxes and taking care of themselves, so he knows we can’t raise property taxes any higher, but at the same time the city needs more money.  There might be some merit to the Maytown proposal, he thought, but it needed to be studied much more carefully before it is approved.

Now, my sense of how things run in this town is that, if six members of Metro Council get up at a planning commission meeting and ask for a proposal to be deferred for a year, that’s what’s likely to happen, and that’s probably why all the professional reporters left not long after this part of the meeting.  Maybe I could have, too–it was already 8PM, it hadn’t occurred to me to eat before I came, and the only snack machine in the building was out of order.  Hey, I’ve got enough fat on me to make it through a missed meal or two.  I chose to hang in there.

The next part of the meeting was tricky–it was intended to be public comment on the whole Bell’s Bend-Scottsboro plan, with no allusion to the “Alternative Development Area,” and indeed the chairman’s gavel rang out on several occasions, as people with both shades of green t-shirts stood up to testify, and wandered into talking about Maytown instead of keeping it general.  This prohibition made development opponents’ remarks seem a bit beside the point, since both the Planning Commission and Tony Giarratana had emphasized the importance of conservation and restricted development outside Maytown’s perimeter.  We may not have enough money to pay attention in Nashville, but we are well enough off to pay lip service!

Unable to talk about Maytown, the 18-story elephant in the room, nobody could say what everybody was afraid of–that Maytown was the opening move in a series of events that would drive up land values and taxes in the bend, create more development pressure, and ultimately lead to the suburbanization of the whole area.

At this point in the proceedings, we took a short break, and so let’s do that here, too, with a little musical commentary from James McMurtry

music:  James McMurtry, “Candyland

Finally, at around 9 PM, we got down to the Maytown nitty-gritty.  Tony opened with an animated video tour of the development as it would theoretically look when it’s all built out.  It looked like big city, anywhere, USA, or really a lot of places–big city China, Singapore, Hong-Kong, just another corporate center.  And that, I think, is the other 18-story elephant in the room when you’re talking about Maytown Center.  It’s a vision of the triumph of corporatism.  According to the Nashville Scene, the May family is planning to realize eight hundred million dollars from the sale of five hundred acres of land to the developers who will do the actual building.  That means that they are planning to sell those five hundred acres for 1.6 million dollars an acre.  There may be suckers who are willing to pay that kind of money for a building site in Tennessee, but none of them are mom-and-pop operations.  Only a major corporation could be that rich and that dumb.  I used to think you couldn’t be that rich and be that dumb, but the way the US economy is unraveling has demonstrated to me that I was wrong.  I always knew that “clever” was not the same as “wise,” but….but I digress….

So Tony got up and did his magic money dance, said the Mays would pay for the bridge and the police station and the fire station and the school, said there would be 20% affordable housing, displayed a map that purported to show that those who own a majority of the land in Bell’s Bend support his proposal (which, if he had thought about it, doesn’t bode well for his promise to support preservation of the rest of the Bend), talked about how Davidson County really doesn’t have any good sites for “corporate campuses” of 50 acres each–and I wonder, how much of what he plans is going to be “downtown” and how much is going to be “corporate campus”?  Five hundred acres, less a chunk for residential and “downtown” areas, won’t hold many of those, y’know?

After Tony, a parade of Maytown supporters followed, all waving the money flag and doing the money dance, and then it was time for the development’s opponents to speak.

David Briley led off, pointing out that Maytown is purely speculative–we don’t know for sure that anybody will take the bait.  “The bait,” he pointed out, usually includes tax breaks for relocating corporations, which would negate much of the financial benefit to Metro.  He also pointed out that allowing speculators to subvert the community planning process worked to undermine confidence in local government.

Investment realtor John Noel invoked rising energy costs, suggesting that it will be more and more important to keep development close to existing infrastructure, and pointing out that a rural area like Bell’ Bend is a treasure few cities enjoy, that “the greatness of cities is in what we don’t destroy.”

Then David Eichenthal, from the Chattanooga-based Community Research  Council,  who has developed a detailed critique of the Maytown proposal, stood up to take a few swings.  He said that the underlying assumptions behind Tony Giarratana’s claims are flawed, since they presume fifteen years of steady growth in the real estate market, which is cyclical even in the best of times–and he didn’t have to say that these are not the best of times.  He pointed out that for Maytown to fill up as projected, it would have to be the place where 82% of all new office space in Davidson County is rented, and that none of these could be relocations from elsewhere in the county, and that IF this happened, it would depress the commercial real estate market in the rest of Nashville, and that furthermore nowhere in Tony Giarratana’s figures were any allowances being made for operating and maintenance costs (like the cost of equipping and staffing the fire station, police station, and school, f’rinstance). The projected benefits, he concluded, “are likely to be overstated.”  Metro Center, he reminded us, made the same promises about a much more central location and has fallen flat on its corporate face.

Here’s the rough numbers–Nashville’s 2008 budget totals a little over a billion and a half dollars.  Maytown proponents claim their project will contribute about 60 million a year in taxes–when it’s all built out, and that’s a gross contribution, which doesn’t take any costs into account–like providing and staffing city services–i.e. schools, police, etc., or road maintenance.  Giving up this major chunk of greenbelt for such a small increase in the city’s revenue–even under the best-case scenario–really does seem to me to be a form of selling our birthright for a mess of pottage.

Kim Shin – a member of the Middle Tennessee chapter of the US Green Building Council – said Maytown failed to meet USGBC’s smart growth principles, because it is not regionally integrated, doesn’t infill, and “relies on too many contingencies.”

“This is continued sprawl,” he concluded.  “LEED building standards in this situation are just lipstick on a pig.”

More speakers followed, pointing out that Maytown deviates from the community-developed “Plan of Nashville,” that it will Atlantize Nashville by creating a second downtown, that  the “dark skies” street lights will still create glare where there was none before, that conservation easements have been overturned in the past, and that Jack May, in a 2003 interview, had disapproved of developers who asked for zoning variances because it was a kind of government handout–and here he was, asking for a zoning variance so he could make another billion dollars.  Hey, most everybody has their price….

Then it was Tony’s turn for a rebuttal.  The old lawyer’s saw is, “when the facts are against you, argue the law; when the law is against you, argue the facts, and when the law and the facts are both against you, try an ad hominem attack.”  Well, that’s pretty much what Tony did, besides more of his money magic.  He said nobody cares more about downtown Nashville than him, that he has brought a thousand residential units and 250 million dollars of investment to downtown Nashville, and that his proposal would bring two billion dollars in wages into Nashville’s economy–that’s 50 thousand jobs averaging 40K a year–and that the guy from Chattanooga didn’t understand their economic models and most of the folks who are protesting Maytown live ten miles away from it and will never even have to see it and a lot of them just moved into the area recently anyway so who are they to complain and why don’t they just sit down and shut up and let him and Jack May do their thing and make their billion dollars?  Oh, and he agreed to a delay while further studies were done.  “But it probably won’t take a year,” he protested.

It was nearing eleven o’clock when Sumter Camp stood up to give the preservationists’ final response to Tony.  He pointed out that everybody says they don’t want Nashville to turn into another Atlanta, and what that means when-push comes to shove is, don’t build satellite cities like Maytown Center.  He pointed out that, even without Maytown or “coroporate campus” sites, Nashville has attracted 85 new companies in recent years, more than any of the surrounding counties.  And he reiterated that open countryside is a precious commodity that cannot be restored once it is built up, and that approving Maytown Center would crack open the door for further development of Bell’s Bend.

And then it was over.  The planning commission announced that, some time in the next two or three weeks, they would reconvene to have their own discussion and decision, and we all staggered out and went home.  We now know that meeting will be Thursday, August 14, at 4PM, same location.  Doors will open at 3:30, and seating will be first come, first served.

As I said earlier, my best guess is that the Planning Commission will follow the Council members’ suggestion and defer a decision, at least on the “Alternative Development Area,” for a year, and a lot can happen in a year.  The preservationists will have time to create a comprehensive vision for the area, and by then the idea of local food and energy production may look a lot more attractive to most people than an network of 18-story office towers and corporate campuses.   We shall see.

Meanwhile, this next song goes out to Tony G…..

James McMurtry, “I’m Not From Here”

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