8 03 2008

Last month, I reported to you about Bell’s Bend, a part of metro Nashville that had seemingly succeeded in insulating itself from the rampant sprawl that has overtaken most of Davidson County. Oops. I was wrong. Now another developer has set his sights on the Bend, and may just have the cojones to do what he wants.

When Jeff Zeitlin lost his bid to build 1400 homes in the Bend, he sold the land he had purchased to the Mays family, longtime Nashville movers and shakers, who made a fortune running a hosiery mill here in Nashville in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and then invested that fortune in enough different directions, mostly real estate, to turn it into several more fortunes. They own big chunks of the city of Nashville, and that’s a lot of rent money, honey. One non-real-estate venture that they struck gold on was Transcor, a private company that specializes in prisoner transportation, which they sold to Corrections Corporation of America in 1995.

So, the Mays family has very deep pockets. The rest of us are dealing with a credit freeze. They don’t have to talk a bank into financing their plans. They are the bank. They have their own money to play with, and they are playing smart with it. You don’t get that rich being foolish. What they have done is pitch a proposal to where the money is–they would like to create a five-hundred acre, high-rise corporate headquarters “new town” there at the tip of Bell’s Bend, serviced by a new bridge across the Cumberland and a new interchange on I-40.

Very smart. The reason the rest of us are getting poor is because the big corporations are succeeding in their aim of sucking up all the money. But, I digress….

This new town will be pedestrian-friendly, small enough to walk from home to work and shopping. There could even be market gardens in the floodplain bottomlands between the development and the river. How much more local could it get? The buildings will all be designed with the latest “green” technology and the streetlights will be built to “dark skies” specifications so that they don’t dim the night sky. Wish they’d do that at the prisons across the river!

Oh, yes, and the highrises will be designed and positioned so that they will be shielded from the view of the rest of Bell’s Bend by a low range of hills. And, to cap it off, the developers propose to have no public access between their development and the rest of the Bend.

That’s the pitch. Now, let’s look at some aspects of the plan that developer Tony Giarratana doesn’t mention. First of all, is it really practical to have a projected 5,000+ residents plus tens of thousands of commuting day workers access this development via one bridge over the Cumberland that feeds into one interchange on an already overcrowded highway?

Second, nobody believes for a minute that the disconnect with the rest of Bell’s Bend will last for long. One person I spoke with who is familiar with the area commented that, while some big land owners in the Bend are staunchly anti-development, others “are just waiting for the right offer.” My friend thinks the Mays family is well enough connected to make the project happen, and that it will lead to the development of the rest of Bell’s Bend. He said “By cutting themselves off from any compromise, they (opponents of development) will get just that–no compromise–and no preservation.”

Now, in a way, I think my friend is being optimistic to think that Nashville is going to continue sprawling out into the countryside as if gasoline and money were still cheap and plentiful. On the other hand, if long-distance commuting becomes financially unsustainable but the wealthy corporate headquarters at May Town Center succeed, there will be plenty of pressure to build homes close to work for the thirty thousand projected commuters that this project could generate.

Two other potential problems for May Town Center involve airspace. The first is that a pair of Whooping Cranes seem to be considering the Bend as a nesting spot, and development would not be healthy for this fragile species. The other airspace question relates to Tune Airport, just east of the Bend. The proposed development is right in its flight path. At best there would be frequent loud jet noise; at worst we could have an airplane crashing into a densely populated area.

There’s also a kind of almost sinister aspect to the May Town Center proposal. When you see the video on their website, the first thing that strikes many people is that May Town Center looks like a castle, and the Cumberland River looks like its moat. Is this why they’re only proposing one bridge into the place? Is it going to be a drawbridge? Is this why they want to surround it with a thousand acres of open land–to make it easier to create a security perimeter? Do I sound nuts here? Look, there’s a lot of buzz about government contracts to create internment camps in this country. The Pentagon is predicting that climate change will create widespread “civil unrest.” Putting your corporate headquarters and its bedrooms in a small, easily securable area could be a good way to protect your assets from mob violence, kidnappings, or just plain petty thievery. Furthermore, “May Town” will be on private property, which means that it will be completely legal to restrict access and Constitutional rights in general. Hmm…..(Update:  when I talked to a member of the Metro Planning Commission at the March 25th meeting, she assured me that the streets and sidewalks of Maytown Center would be public streets and sidewalks, where we citizens would be free to exercise our Constitutional rights–“not that you’d necessarily get a good reception,” she quipped.)

The May Town folks have not done well at reaching out to the Bell’s Bend community, either. I went to a neighborhood meeting to discuss the plan, and just before it started, Tony Giarratana and his assistants (the only people in the room wearing suits) had to leave briefly to move their cars. They had parked in a way that blocked everybody else in. That’s not a good sign. On a broader scale, they could have made offers to the community to help the Tennessee Land Trust buy development rights, or to help establish the infrastructure needed to promote vegetable farming in the Bend, but they haven’t. What they have said is that if their plan is rejected, they will subdivide the property and put in tract homes. In today’s housing market, that seems like an empty threat.

The plan’s opponents are playing their cards close to their chest. They are up against a well-financed, well-connected, strong-willed opponent. If they are going to stop Nashville’s sprawl from breaching the Cumberland, they are going to need every break they can get.

music: Exene Cervenka, “Real Estate”

%d bloggers like this: