13 09 2008

“It looks like Oz, just springing up out of the fields like that,” commented Planning Commissioner Victor Tyler, as Maytown Center supporters groaned.  One of them called out, “It’s European,”, but this is Nashville, American-only, we don’t speak no stinking European in this town, buddy, if there’s skyscrapers, there’s sprawl and that’s how it’s gonna be because this is America, by Gawd.

It was not a good day for the Maytown crowd, as commissioner after commissioner gave faint praise to the proposal–they appreciated all the conservation safeguards and the walkability of the proposed community, calling it visionary, architecturally stunning, ahead of its time–and then noting that there are far too many unanswered questions.

If it’s everything Tony Giarratana says it will be, isn’t it a lot of traffic for one bridge?  Do we really want to extend Nashville’s infrastructure in this very expensive way when there is no guarantee of payback and we’re having a hard time making ends meet already?  Is it really only going to attract tenants from out-of-county, and what’s it going to do to downtown? This is the last big rural area this close to our urban core–are we sure this is the right use for it?   Is this really “smart growth”?  There have been no independent analyses of the traffic patterns, economic impact, or fiscal realities of this proposal.  What if corporate campuses turn out to be just as illusory a financial driver as strip malls turned out to be?  Do we want to attract big business, or have good quality of life for ourselves?

Doubt carried the day.  The Nashville Planning Commission is not a bunch of tree-huggers. It’s peopled by engineers, real estate dealers, and business executives, the kind of folks who you would expect have never seen a development they didn’t like, but they weren’t buying Maytown Center.  They passed the Area Plan for Bell’s Bend-Scottsboro, and gave the “special use area” an indefinite deferment, meaning that Tony Giarratana is free to bring it back up any time he thinks he’s got better answers for their questions.  I’m sure he’ll give it a shot, but it looks to me like so many of those questions point to basic structural problems with the project that there is no way it’s ever going to get built.

And what will Jack May do with his twenty-three million dollar pied-a-terre there on Bell’s Bend?  According to the Tennessean, he uses his property in Mexico to grow organic agave, the basic ingredient for tequila.  Much of the tip of Bell’s Bend is prime bottomland.  It would grow great rye.   Maybe we’ll soon see “Mays Brothers organic. authentic Tennessee sippin’ whiskey.”  Who knows?

Well, one of the premises of Maytown Center was that it would attract more wealthy white folks to Nashville–yeah, I know, they didn’t say it that way, but we all know who it was pitched to, don’t we?  In another front in the class war, the wealthy white folks have won at least a temporary victory, as the Nashville School Board voted to return to neighborhood schools–i.e., to resegregate the city’s school system.  The School Board tried to justify it on the grounds of promoting parental involvement in kids’ education and saving money by not busing kids all over the place, but there seems to be a great deal of evidence that their real concern was that exposure to lower-class black kids was chasing white families out of Nashville and deterring new ones from moving in.

The sad truth is, that’s probably true.  Nashville schools lost nearly 20% of their white students just in the first year of desegregation, in 1971, and the city of Brentwood was built on the premise of white flight–hey, let’s just call it racism–because it was just over the Williamson County line and exempt from Nashville’s court-ordered desegregation, but still close enough to Nashville to be an easy commute.  Just think of it:  Cool Springs is there because of racism.  Isn’t that sweet?  But I digress…Nashville schools, which were nearly half white ten years ago, are now approaching the one-third mark.  Without black, inner-city students to fill it out, Hillwood High, the city’s most upscale high school, would be about half empty.  Rich white folks just ain’t havin’ babies like they used to, I guess….good riddance, a lot of people would say.

But here’s the thing:  studies have shown that what helps black kids out step out of the poverty-crime cycle, more than any kind of expensive facilities at de-facto segregated schools, is going to school with, and thus forming relationships with, kids who are not stuck in the poverty-crime cycle.  Conversely, exposure to lower-class kids is very good for middle-class kids, because it expands their horizons in a way that no teacher-produced classroom experience ever could, even if a lot of white parents don’t see it that way.

Let me tell you a story from my own past.  I went to high school in the mid-1960’s; the civil rights movement was hot, but it was something that was mostly happening somewhere else, at least in the early sixties.  I never thought twice about the fact that I was going to a 100% white, upper-middle-class school, where I was actually one of the more exotic people, being Jewish and the only child of a divorced mother who was, by middle-class standards,  just scraping by.  This was back in the days when hardly anybody got a divorce, y’know?  So anyway, I was walking down by the Miami River in my hometown of Dayton, Ohio, one chilly winter afternoon.  The Miami River was the divide between white Dayton and black Dayton, and sure enough I met a couple of black kids about my age.  Their coats were ragged and dirty, and one of them had something wrong with one of his eyes that turned the whole eyeball a kind of cloudy white.  They were picking up dead fish from the edge of the river, and they told me they were going to take them to a market they knew of and sell them.  I did not stick around long enough to find out which market!

In retrospect, I think they were putting me on, but at the time I took them seriously, and it put me through changes.  I had literally never encountered anybody like them before.  For me it was like the incident in the life of Gautama Buddha when, after having been protected all his life, he first encountered old age, sickness, and death.  Within a few years I would be working for civil rights organizations, reading Karl Marx, and moving in a trajectory that would take me as clear of mainstream America as I could get–and that was just one five-minute encounter.  Well, OK, I was a pink diaper baby, too….

But I think that’s just what white parents are afraid of, just what the school board is, after all, only responding to–that their kids will be exposed to something that calls into question the comforts they have been raised to take for granted.  This is a difficult, painful, and personal subject.   It’s why conservatives say you can’t pass legislation that makes people change their minds–if you put a lot of people (mainly conservatives, actually!) into situations where their worldview may be challenged, they will respond to their discomfort by attempting to withdraw any way they can–in this case, through private schools and moves to de-facto segregated enclaves like Williamson County.

It is unfortunate that Nashville’s school board, in confronting this conundrum, which admittedly is a bigger problem than they have the power to solve, chose to cave in to racist, classist impulses and throw lower-class black students overboard.  Their actions were probably illegal on a couple of counts:  mainly, of course, racial discrimination but also violations of the state’s open meetings law.   It is astounding that at no time did the school board seek a legal opinion about what amounts to resegregating Nashville’s schools; there will almost certainly be a lawsuit, currently threatened by the NAACP, and meanwhile, to the extent that our faltering economy allows, wealthier whites will continue to leave Nashville’s foundering school system for the still-viable, greener pastures of Williamson and other surrounding counties, where the economic realities of home prices, rents, and lack of public transportation effectively keep out all those scary low-life types.  They will have gotten themselves nicer deck chairs, but they’re still on the Titanic.

music: Michael Franti and Spearhead, “Poor Wayfaring Stranger”  (w/Joan Osborne)


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


11 05 2008

Last week’s Scottsboro-Bell’s Bend community meeting was not fun, except maybe for fans of the Jerry Springer show.  There was very little in the way of new information, but there was plenty of emotion.  People interrupted each other. Developer Tony Giarratana, in his red power tie, was openly contemptuous of the locals; and this time, planning commission representative Anita McCaig really did get driven to tears.

The first thing that came up, in terms of information, was that the Maytown crew had decided their best option for access was to cross the river from Centennial Boulevard with only one bridge, which will be six lanes wide rather than four lanes.  They’re waiting for the results of the traffic study on this.

My preliminary calculations say that, if they spread their “rush hour” over enough hours, and nobody has any breakdowns or accidents, and especially if there’s a lot of carpooling, this might kinda work. Maybe. Kinda. And a big if.

Then, of course, there’s the question of what spiraling gas prices will do to the practicality of commuting any distance, not to mention Life As We Know It. Both the pro- and anti-development speakers at the meeting seemed to assume that the future is going to be a lot like the past, in terms of development pressures and possibilities.  I think they could both be very wrong, but that’s not exactly good news for either side.

The Centennial Boulevard option has some upsides.  It does not involve neighborhood destruction and it provides direct access to Tune airport, which will be convenient if anybody can still afford to fly an airplane in a few years.  Well, the top !% of the US population has more money than the bottom 80%, and they’re getting richer, so maybe Tony Giarratana’s clients will still be able to make use of the airport.  Access via Centennial Boulevard will also involve driving by Nashville’s Cockrill Bend Minimum Security Prison, which is not exactly an upscale, inspiring kind of intro to the wonders of Maytown Center–which, Tony reminded us, will be constructed according to the highest standards of Green Building.

That leads to the repeatedly raised question of how “green” it is to put a development in a cow pasture. Planning Commission rep Jennifer Carlat clung to her assertion that, because Bell’s Bend is only 7 linear miles from downtown Nashville, developing rural land there is not sprawl, at least compared to paving farmland in southern Williamson County or any other, more outlying areas where a corporate campus might be induced to locate.  They went over the strengths and drawbacks of the several areas in Davidson County that are most ripe for redevelopment, pointing out that Bell’s Bend is the only location that fully fits all the criteria.

The criteria in question are “rural or upscale suburban,” proximity to executive housing,” and “premiere/gateway location.”  None of the other possible redevelopment areas–the Fairgrounds, Metro Center, the East Bank, or McCrory  Creek Road–qualify on all these counts, although the East Bank (across the river from downtown) is considered a “premiere/gateway location.”  The presentation also noted somewhat ominously that there is  “significant existing office development in the (McCrory Creek) area that is not entirely leased.”  That doesn’t bode well for Maytown’s projected “5 to 10 million square feet of office space.”  And with consumer spending in this country sinking like a rock, will another million to million and a half square feet of retail space really support itself?  America has ten times more retail space per citizen than any other country in the world.  Do we really need to add to that?
It seems to me that the reason corporations seek “rural or upscale suburban” areas has to do with wanting security–making sure that their buildings, personnel, and automobiles will not be the target of hungry locals.  As I have said before, the extraordinarily restricted access that Bell’s Bend offers probably looks very good to some forward-looking but pessimistic corporate officers, and, to repeat myself again, Bell’s Bend offers prime sites for new “executive housing,” never mind that it will tend to drive out the locals it doesn’t enrich.

Some of the information that came out of this meeting was that there is no information on some critical topics.  The Planning Commission reps admitted that they have not done a study on the potential financial benefits to Davidson County, and in fact do not have the funding to do such a study.  “We know that, in general, corporate campuses are a good tax deal for cities, but we don’t know the specifics of this situation,”Planning Commission rep Jennifer Carlat said.  To fill this void, the Scottsboro-Bell’s Bend home team has commissioned its own study, which will be ready in time for the Planning Commissions consideration on June 24th.

Now, as I said when I started talking, this was not a happy meeting.  The local crew literally drove Anita McCaig of the Planning Commission to tears, repeatedly interrupting her and questioning her competence and trustworthiness. Her words as she started crying were, “Will you please let me finish when I’m answering a question?  I know how you could defeat this proposal.  All you have to do is ask me.”  Nobody asked–but hey, the Devil himself, Tony Giarratana, was in the room, so nobody was going to tip their hand to him.  Maybe some folks asked her what she was talking about later.  I certainly hope so.

Ah, Tony.  He was not taking guff from anyone.  He was not being polite.  When people asked him questions that he felt they already knew the answers to, he just brushed them off with, “That’s a rhetorical question,” and even got openly sarcastic with some questioners.  But, to his credit, he stopped and turned on a dime when his taunt “How come you people haven’t done more to buy the development rights on these properties if you’re so concerned about it?” was met with, “Because it costs about ten thousand dollars a property owner to do it, most people can’t afford to donate their rights, and we don’t have that kind of money.”

Suddenly, Tony was quite seriously saying that this was something the Mays brothers would very likely be willing to help fund.  He certainly sounded sincere; it was a distinct switch from the middle finger approach he had been taking, and, since one of the things the Mays family is known for is funding the regreening of East Nashville after the tornado of 1998, this could be a way to make lemonade out of the Maytown lemon.  If it happens.

The most common, and obvious, expressed reason for all the venting at this meeting was the feeling that the community had been betrayed by the Planning Commission when the Commission started trying to write Maytown Center into the plan, but I think that’s only half the story, or maybe a lot less.

We are all starting to wake up to the fact that we have been massively betrayed at every level of our society.  Our expensive educational system is increasingly irrelevant.  We built a petroleum and automobile-based society as if we would never run out of petroleum and always be able to afford individual private vehicles, and now we are running out of both petroleum and money for consumer spending.  We have sucked up all the money and credit that could have been used to re-establish society on a more sustainable basis and burned it in a futile war of aggression, and the leaders who have masterminded this colossal trainwreck remain not only unapologetic, but thoroughly insulated from any consequences for their irresponsible behavior.

We don’t get to yell at Bush and Cheney, not in any way they have to listen to.  We don’t get to express our displeasure at the faceless suits who have moved our industry to China, our farming to Central America, and our dollars to the toilet.  They are segregated off in gated communities, safely inside the Beltway, or, like the May brothers, in some foreign country.  Their money, which used to be ours until they took it from us through some medical emergency or retirement home or stock market flimflam or corporate downsizing, is safely tucked away in foreign accounts so that no matter what happens in the USA, they’ll be OK.  They’re not going to see or hear us.  But the poor ladies of the planning commission were sacrificial lambs,  scapegoats exposed to the wrath of the masses and made to pay for every insult that anyone in Bell’s Bend has ever suffered from the faceless rich.  Their only sin was needing a job, just like the rest of us, and finding one that put them in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Fortunately, we’re all still civilized enough that the abuse was only verbal.  But, beyond the immediate issue of land use in Bell’s Bend, the April 29th meeting was a reminder that, as Mr. Obama has famously remarked, there is a vast well of bitterness in America’s heartland, a reservoir generally glossed over by the polticians, pundits, and mainstream media.  As long as it is ignored, it is only going to grow and deepen, until some accident of history turns it loose.  It will take some extraordinarily gifted people–thousands of them, all over this country–to transform this simmering rage into constructive politics that reshapes and redirects America.  Without those people and that redirection, we will instead see a social explosion of volcanic proportions.  It will not be pretty, it will not be constructive, and it will make Mad Max seem like the good old days.  I know which path I prefer, but I make no claim to be able to predict the future.  It’s up to all of us.

music:  Burning Times “The Only Green World”

%d bloggers like this: