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”


13 07 2008

On July 24, at 6 PM, in the Green Hills Room at the Metro Southeast Building at 1417 Murfreesboro Pike, there will be a public hearing for the “Detailed Design Plan for Scottsboro-Bell’s Bend,” which you can bet your boots will mostly be about the Maytown Center proposal.  Opponents of the plan are working on massive citizen turnout, even going so far as to be selling “Bell’s Bend–Keep It Country” T-shirts for people to wear at the meeting. They plan to sell them at the Southeast Building, just before the hearing.  There will be only limited time for statements at the meeting, so please send your written comments on this to Metro’s planning commissioners and city council members.

The last Bell’s Bend Community meeting, in June, provided the information that the Planning Commission had decided to let the office and condo towers go to 18 stories instead of the original fifteen, because they would “be in harmony with the rural theme of the area.”  Nobody got sarcastic with the planning commission representatives about this, but it was cause for speculation–will they be designed to look like giant silos?  Or sheathed in something that resembles tree bark?  My dentist, a rowdy kind of guy, thought of highrises designed to resemble giant outhouses.

It’s hard to say what the planning commission will decide.  I sat at a metro solid waste meeting a few years ago and watched them approve a dump on the banks of the Harpeth River that was clearly illegal, and they knew it.  It took a little citizen activism, but we stopped it.  This time, the stakes are much higher.

The developers are waving the promise of big bucks in tax revenues for Metro, which is currently in tight financial straits, but even they admit that possibility is years in the future, and unless they have signed contracts from companies willing to move in on completion, that’s so much hot air, and I would like to think that Mayor Dean is smart enough to see that.  Rumor has it that both he and Jim Cooper don’t like the plan, and if that’s really true, then Maytown Center is most likely dead in the water.  Like Tony Giarratana’s previous hype-and-dump, the Signature Tower, this plan is a delusion dreamed up by people who think the American Gravy Train is just gonna roll on forever.  Meanwhile, that ol’ train has left the tracks and the cars are about to start tumbling, to the great discomfort of all us passengers.  Metro would be much better served by consolidating the infrastructure it has already than by chasing pie-in-the-sky plans that depend on unfettered eternal economic growth, and the state highway fund will serve taxpayers better by spending its limited money maintaining the roads and bridges that are already built than by throwing a big chunk of its capital at a brand new bridge to nowhere.

Development opponents, on the other  hand, don’t have the greatest case either.  The study they are doing to contest the developer’s economic assertions will be easy to dismiss as biased.  It is bizarre that the city is not doing their own study and taking the developer’s assertions at face value, but that’s what’s happening.   Maytown Center is the kind of thing that has worked in the past, so a lot of people are willing to believe it will work now.  The May family already owns the land, which they paid an inflated price for, so they are going to want to get their money back out of it somehow.  Practically speaking, the smartest thing the preservationists could do is come up with a counterproposal, such as an institute for the promotion of local agriculture, that would be more of a turnon for the May family than all those phallic towers.  Unfortunately, teaching people to grow their own food is not nearly as glamorous, financially rewarding, or taxable as high-end highrises, at least in theory.  The reality of launching such a massive development in the face of this country’s ongoing collapse may be something else again entirely.

Then again, Maytown Center may be aimed at the Belle Meade crowd, the one percent of Americans who are still doing well in the middle of this mess.  In that case, they may find Maytown’s isolation and easily controllable access very secure. If the proposal is approved, and if the uberwealthy are the target demographic, then Maytown Center could “succeed,” and would also succeed in transforming the rest of the Bend into a checkerboard of high-end “executive estates,” as desperate residents, having a hard time paying their escalating taxes (somebody’s gonna have to pay for all that infrastructure!), cave in and sell land to the only people who still have money.

Barring a road-to-Damascus moment for Jack May, he is likely to create something environmentally destructive in southern Bell’s Bend, even if he only bulldozes it up to create a housing development that never sells a home.  Maybe the collapsing economy will curb his enthusiasm, but he is in that one percent of the population who are well-heeled enough that they are not living in the same reality as the rest of us.  Well, tract homes will compost quicker than highrises.  Let’s stop Maytown Center and then figure out what, in this rapidly shifting American landscape, we need to do next.

Don’t forget–July 24th, 6PM, Green Hills Room at Metro Southeast, 1417 Murfreesboro Pike!  See you there!

music:  Terry Allen, The Doll


18 04 2008

(Note: this is substantially the same story I posted in late March, with some updates for the show.)

I was witness to and participant in another heated community meeting in Scottsboro last month. Without Tony Giantarra and his suited cohorts present, the ladies of the Planning Department had to bear the community’s wrath all by themselves. They stood up nobly under the barrage, but I suspect that afterwards there may have been a few good stiff drinks poured in the privacy of home. The people were not happy, and with good reason.

I would have to admit that, along with the good reasons, there were a few clunkers. For instance, the Planning Department, as a government agency, has to balance the needs of all parties in a dispute, whether they live in Bell’s Bend or, like the Mays brothers, in Mexico. The neighborhood wanted partisanship from the Department, and that was not forthcoming. On the other hand, the planning commission had made some judgement calls, and these were rightly unpopular with the populace.

One call was that there ought to be access between Maytown Center and the rest of Bell’s Bend via Old Hickory Boulevard. This concession, coupled with stories that the Mays family has been offering up to $20,000 an acre for large tracts of land “all over the Bend,” clearly demonstrated to the crowd that the initial proposal was just a beginning, and that what the Mays had in mind was (although nobody used the word) the gentrification of Bell’s Bend, which in their vision would be host to upscale executive housing developments (Hey, who else is going to be able to afford a new country house in the post-meltdown economy?)

One of the planning commission representatives said she visualized Scottsboro turning into “another Leiper’s Fork,” which sounds nice, but I have to point out that what has happened in Leiper’s Fork is that it is no longer affordable to its original inhabitants. As you travel down Tennessee 46 and cross the bridge into town, you are not driving through real country, you are driving through an extremely wealthy neighborhood, where front lawns are measured in acres rather than square feet, and any farming that is being done is strictly for the tax writeoff. Leiper’s Fork has become a Disneyfied faux-small town where the wealthy come to play and the poor get to bus their tables. That’s what I’ve seen in the twenty plus years I’ve been passing through there. I don’t want to see that happen to my neighbors in Scottsboro.

Another judgment call that the Planning Department made was that, while the significance of Bell’s Bend as a rural area had trumped attempts to place subdivisions, a dump, and a large manufacturing facility there, because all these activities could be located elsewhere, the possibility of a major new revenue source for Davidson County bore equal weight with the importance of keeping Bell’s Bend rural, and so they wanted to see if a plan could be drawn with safeguards that would sacrifice part of the Bend and insure the preservation of the rest of it. I’ll get to those safeguards in a minute, but first let’s look at the “major new revenue source” claim, and the claim that Bell’s Bend is the only appropriate place for it.

The Maytown crew posits a $75 million dollar a year increase in Davidson County tax collections from their project, which comes to $150,000 per acre on the 500 acres they propose to turn into a new town. That comes to $4 a square foot just in taxes. No wonder they want to build all those highrises!

But…one very important fact that emerged in the course of this meeting is that there has been no independent study done on the economic benefits of this proposal. The only word we have on the subject so far is the word of the developers. Would you buy a used car strictly on the sayso of the salesman, without not only test driving it, but taking it to a mechanic you trust for a thorough inspection? I didn’t think so, especially not a used car this expensive.

And it is getting more expensive. Tony Giantarra now admits that it will take two bridges to handle all the traffic the project is likely to generate. Somebody at the meeting pointed out that Maytown’s projected daytime population of 44,000 people approaches the daytime population of downtown Nashville, which gets seriously congested every day in spite of having about 18 exit routes, as near as I can count.

And we should not lose track of the fact that the US has an infrastructure maintenance crisis. Over a quarter of this country’s bridges need maintenance, with the bill estimated at $180 billion back in 2005. This is just a small part of a larger need for $1.6 trillion to keep our nation’s water, electrical, sewer, and transportation systems functioning—and that was three years ago, and you know how public works estimates go, and you know that when mechanical devices start to go downhill , they deteriorate faster and faster.

We could have fixed up America, but NO! we spent the money tearing up Iraq, instead. Well, actually, we borrowed the money for that. That’s even worse. But, I digress. The point here is that, in the face of such needs, building two more bridges to aid a private developer seems extravagant, at least to me, but hey, I’m not the developer. And let’s give the Mays boys some credit. At least they moved to Mexico, where they don’t have to worry about hiring illegal immigrants for their domestic help, y’know? And besides, they work even cheaper down there! Damn, I’m still digressing.

Residents took exception to the notion that Bell’s Bend was the only place such a project could locate. They pointed out that there are hundreds of acres in urban Davidson County that are underutilized, already have sewer, water, electric, and road services, and are much more accessible than Bell’s Bend. Not having to build two bridges and run in all those utilities really cuts the cost, doesn’t it? How much of that projected $75 M a year would get eaten up by additional infrastructure costs? Nobody really knows.

Perhaps what makes the Bell’s Bend site unique is that the Mays brothers have bought land there and are used to getting their way. To their credit, the Planning Department representatives said that they regularly point out to the Mays brothers that they are trying to change rural zoning in an area that has been historically highly resistant to it.

In one telling exchange, a Planning Department rep said, in response to a comment about Bell’s Bend being a “potential breadbasket,” that she saw Nashville as being the governmental and business center of middle Tennessee, not its breadbasket. What I think we have here is colliding world views. Some of us are pretty sure that the global commercial web that has been built up over the twentieth century is going to break down over the course of the twenty-first, and that Nashville will need its own breadbasket if it wants to have bread. Other people, all too frequently the ones in power, believe that we are going to be able to continue on more or less as we always have, only with LEED buildings and hybrid cars. I suspect that they are in for a serious shock in the next few years, but I wish I could change their minds first.

And along in here comes the question of maintaining Nashville’s revenue stream, so that we can keep on having schools and garbage pickups and roadway maintenance and streetlights and libraries and police patrols and that sort of thing. In the short run, I am sure there are other ways to “enhance Nashville’s revenue stream” besides sacrificing the county’s last major unspoiled rural area.

In the long run, I don’t think Nashville, or any city, is going to be able to “maintain its revenue stream.” Property values are going down, sales tax collections are going down, incomes are going down–for most of us, anyway. Sooner or later, hard choices are going to have to be made, and no, it’s not going to be pretty. It almost feels like science fiction to inject a paragraph like this in a story about land use in Bell’s Bend, but this is where theory meets practice, folks.

Another major bone of contention between the neighborhood and the Planning Department surfaced when the planners insisted that, due to the dense, compact nature of the proposed development, it could not be called “sprawl.” I’m sorry, ladies, but when you ignore underdeveloped but already urban areas in order to build two new bridges, create a network of roads, sewer, water, and electric lines, and introduce 44,000 people into an area previously inhabited largely by cows, and are presented with conclusive evidence that the developer’s plans don’t stop there, you are sprawling. Any questions?

There was a fourth judgment call that the Planning Department made that was largely overlooked by the meeting. On page 12 of the “Detailed Land Use Policy Descriptions” document that they handed out, one of the specific “triggers” that would allow development of Maytown Center reads “development of the Alternate Development Area (e.g., Maytown Center) should be tied to specific preservation triggers to the north…..Preservation of the ridgelines and area to the north…could be accomplished by purchase of conservation easements, purchase or transfer of development rights or other methods with the end result of limiting intensive development to the north …and along Old Hickory Boulevard and preserving the natural/rural/residential feel of the rest of Scottsboro/Bell’s Bend.”

I appreciate their attempt to build some safeguards into the plan, but those safeguards have already been undermined, both by the Planning Department’s decision to feed Old Hickory into the potential development, and by the Mays’ search for development property elsewhere in the Bend. Furthermore, when, after the meeting, I asked one of the planners whether she knew how many property owners were amenable to such an arrangement, and whether there was money available to buy the rights of those who are not in a position to donate them, her answer to both questions was “no.” This was not reassuring, and she did know that.

There will be another meeting Tuesday, April 29, at 6PM, once again at the Scottsboro Community Center. I think we can be reasonably certain that nothing will have been decided by then. On the other hand, we can be reasonably certain that the economy will keep on deteriorating, making it less likely that front money will be available for the city and state to start the infrastructure extensions that will be necessary before this project can move into the construction phase, and making even more hollow the Mays’ brothers threat to subdivide their property into two acre lots and turn it into a subdivision if the Maytown Center proposal gets shot down by the Planning Department. Six miles down a winding, two-lane, dead end road? Twelve miles from shopping? The end of a long, skinny water line? Four dollar gas? Five dollar gas? That subdivision is dead in the water and they know it.

At a certain level, the Mays brothers are in the same position as Bear Stearns. They have made a big, foolish investment, and they want the government to bail them out. Now, the government bailed out Bear Stearns, but the government does not have enough money to bail out every rich, influential schlemiel in America, no matter what Ben Bernanke says or thinks. A line has got to be drawn, the buck has got to stop, somewhere. Bear Stearns got lucky, far luckier than they deserved. Saying “no” to the greenwashed sprawl of Maytown Center is where the buck should stop around here.

music: Drive-By Truckers, “Uncle Frank

%d bloggers like this: