9 07 2009

Was there any one argument that tipped the balance for the Planning Commission?  There were so many good ones.  Call it “a death of a thousand cuts.”

At the June 25th Planning Commission meeting, witness after witness stood to give a different reason why Maytown is a bad idea.

Councilwoman Megan Barry pointed out that including Maytown Center in the neighborhood plan, at the developer’s behest, after a long series of open meetings spent developing a holistic, rural vision for Bell’s Bend, was a violation of the community’s good faith and trust and would seriously damage the Commission’s credibility when it came to working up other neighborhood plans.

Councilman Frank Harrison expressed concern that the infrastructure development involved would take Metro’s energy away from existing priorities at a time when money is tight.

Councilman Eric Cole cited the “great degree of risk” involved in the plan, pointing out that

“if it fails it leaves behind a string of massive infrastructure ‘improvements’ that benefit nobody—it will scar the landscape and we will pay the consequences for generations.”

Councilman Jason Holleman echoed Eric Cole’s concerns and elaborated on them, arguing that the real cost to the city had not been determined and that there were “too many unresolved puzzle pieces,” such as how much road widening, how many homes and businesses would need to be taken by eminent domain?  How much would all that cost?  And, of course, how would the cash-strapped city pay for it, with Maytown’s promised boost to the city’s revenues not coming for fifteen or twenty years?

Councilman Lonnell Matthews argued ineptly for the plan, drawing laughter when he insisted, “We have to put the cart before the horse.”  Oops.  About all he or the others who would later speak out for it could say was that it was “bold” and would “provide jobs.”  This seems to me to be a kind of wishful hoping for a return to the bubble economy, when we could borrow money to pay people to build things and call it economic growth.  Those days are very, very over, even if a lot of people haven’t realized it yet.  Denial…hopefully, it’s the first stage in a journey of acceptance, and not a permanent state of psychosis….but I digress.

Tony G and Melvin Johnson did a pro-Maytown presentation, waving all the tired buzzwords of jobs and growth as if it were still 2007, and then it was time for the opposition to make more points.

David Briley led off.  joking that there are so many unknowns involved in the project that perhaps we should call it “Maybetown Center.”  He noted that there were only two corporate relocations in the whole country last year, that the developer of Cool Springs, often cited as the example Maytown is following, is in bankruptcy, and that neither the state economic development people nor the mayor had endorsed the project.  “Nobody from the city is here to say ‘this makes sense’, ” he pointed out.

Urban planner David Eisenstadt said that the “benefits” of Maytown were “highly speculative,” and that the numbers presented to the planning commission in a University of Tennessee study  were based on the developer’s figures, not on independent numbers, and were inconsistent with the city’s actual real estate market, business cycle, and population settlement patterns.

Kay Swartz identified herself as “a career aviator” and pointed out that Maytown would be directly in the approach pattern for Tune airport, which would create a hazard for approaching aircraft, noise complaints for Maytown residents, and necessitate special urban-area training for all pilots who use Tune, which is Nashville’s preferred private aviation hub because it can be approached without flying over any urban areas.  The image of an airplane crashing into one of the highrises  was, if unmentioned, on everybody’s mind.   “If Maytown were already built, would you locate an airport where Tune is?” she concluded.  Implication:  no.

Several residents of neighborhoods on the south bank of the Cumberland talked about the negative impact the proposal would have where they live, and complained that the Planning Commission had apparently held up approval of their neighborhood plans in order to improve Maytown’s chances  “because if our area plans were in place, this proposal would never go through.”  More eroded credibility.

Robert Brant of the Metro Parks and Greenways Commission decried the proposed four-lane road through Bell’s Bend Park, saying that Planning Commission head Rick Bernhardt had assured him that there would be no road through the Park…still more eroded credibility.

A realtor pointed out that the cost of doing business in Maytown was going to be high enough to make it noncompetitive–that two major projects in downtown Nashville had recently gone into receivership, and that,  in spite of cutting prices from $32 to $22 per square foot, there’s still a lot of empty space in the new Pinnacle Building, while the cost of office space in Maytown was projected at between $30-$40 per square foot.  The high cost of the May property came back to bite them again later, when Sumter Camp addressed the fear that rejection of Maytown would lead to 500 tract homes being built instead by doing the math and pointing out that the land cost to the Mays  (around $14K per acre) virtually insured that they could not build competitively priced tract homes at the tip of Bell’s Bend, miles from gas stations and food stores–even if there were still a market for tract homes, which there isn’t.

A number of TSU alumni had spoken in favor of the project, due to the carrot offered to the school in exchange for support, but one alum broke ranks to observe that, no matter what the developer was promising, once the zoning changes had been made, there would be no way to enforce the “agreements” that had been made.

And so, one nail after another was driven into Maytown’s coffin.  I left as the hour got late, but I am sure someone parsed Maytown’s claim that they would “preserve” 900 acres, noting that that 900 acre figure included up to

6 “estate homes,” each on 5 acres.

227 acres of corporate campuses.

103 acres of “ball fields, tennis courts or other similar recreational amenities” and “future schools, churches, fire stations and similar uses.”

200 acres of floodplain for the TSU agricultural center

In addition, a certain part will be reserved for a “future marina and related development.”

If you do the math, that list adds up to about 600 of those 900 “preserved” acres, and a chunk of the remaining 300 is under a power line.  What was I saying about trust, credibility, and promises?

Well, the upshot of it all was that the Planning Commission voted 5-4 not to approve Maytown, “because it is not in accordance with the Area Plan,” which was a diplomatic way not to call Tony G. and Jack May a couple of shameless hucksters.  At Metro Council last night, it all ended “not with a bang, but a whimper,” as Lonnell Matthews asked for the proposal to be “indefinitely deferred.”  As the economy worsens, the likelihood of resurrection diminishes.  I think we can all breathe a big sigh of relief.

Well, them’s the facts.  Rural preservationists take on developers and send ’em packing.  Hallelujah, a happy ending! But–what’s my “deep green perspective” on the whole affair?

This was a classic case of the craziness that ensues from adherence to the twin legal fictions of “land ownership” and “profit.”  These are concepts that we take for granted, hardly realizing the depth and complexity of the problems they have engendered in our society.  I think they are a form of mental illness that we need to cure ourselves of, individually and collectively–individually through personal reflection and reconditioning, and collectively by revising our laws to end these impositions on the planet and our fellow humans.

We live in a radical fundamentalist materialist society in which no thing is sacred–not the air we breathe or the water we drink, not the land we walk on or the voluptuous curves of a young woman’s body or the perspective that comes with advancing age.  The abstraction of financial profit is the only sacred point in our culture, and all must give way to an individual’s right to financial gain.  Everything must be monetized in the cultural and legal web we have woven for ourselves–land, education, food, child care, sex and any other simple pleasure you can think of, have no “value” unless they are monetized, commercialized, and turned into tawdry imitations of their true, free selves.

Thus, our culture views “undeveloped”  land as a blank slate, valuable only for its ability to be turned into something else for the benefit of its human owners.  In this view,he deer, foxes, bald eagles, herons, field mice, fence lizards and lillies of the field who inhabit “undeveloped” land have no legal rights, no claim of ownership, no “right to life,” to steal a phrase from our so-called “fundamentalist” Christian bretheren.

And so the vote against Maytown Center was not so much a victory for those of us who fought against it (and Maytown proponents were correct in observing that most of us don’t live on Bell’s Bend) as it was a victory for the natural world, a victory for the right of the trees to be left alone.

I don’t want to get my hopes up too far–but maybe, just maybe, Maytown Center was the Pickett’s charge of radical fundamentalist materialism.  Maybe, just maybe, this was a turning point.  Maybe, just maybe, we have crossed the pass and are beginning our gentle descent into a saner future.  May it be so.

Maybetown Center, R.I.P.–but I will keep watch on your grave to make sure you stay dead.

music:  David Rovics, “The Commons



2 responses

13 07 2009

I quick look at the satellite photos on google maps shows empty lots right down the road at metrocenter, and it was started back in the late seventies. Every aspect of this development deal was completely half baked it is no wonder that it didn’t go through in the end. On the other hand never underestimate the power of greed and the greed of those in power. As the 5-4 decision shows, it was far closer to passing then the evidence warranted. Keep your eyes and ears open, If the economy improves these scoundrels (or others) will be back to try again.

12 03 2010

[…] there’s one problem with this idea–the May family paid $14,000 an acre for that property, and there’s no legal way a farmer can make enough money to buy land at […]

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