Friday, January 30, 2015

Trust, but verify: construction contractors might abide by rules agreed upon with neighborhoods

Since the dust-up between neighborhoods, existing businesses and construction companies in downtown and Midtown over noise that continued unabated into the night, a mutual (and tenuous?) understanding seems to have been reached:

... the working group of residents and contractors ... got together and talked through the problems. They landed on a compromise that won’t need a change in law ....

The final draft is still being drawn up. But broadly, the rules require contractors to get special permission to blast between the hours of 9 pm and 7 am. And for other noisy activity – like pouring concrete – the builders have to submit a plan regarding their efforts to minimize the disturbance and notify the neighbors.

“We’re hoping that it works," [Erica] Gilmore says. "But if we hear complaints, we will revisit it.”

Recall that existing hotels are losing money because they are having to comp tourists and visitors who are unhappy with the night ruckus nearby. It seems that existing hotel companies are getting a dose of their own medicine, given that their construction projects were likewise hyper-local nuisances. But let's put aside for now the question of whether this deal would have been struck had the tourism industry not been pitted against itself.

I want to focus on the contractors and developers.

This week a manager from one of the huge Midtown projects told me that his company was going to continue 6:00 a.m. dynamite blasting for important utility lines, but that he did not have a firm schedule yet because the construction contractor brought in a bunch of heavy equipment and blocked some blasting areas. Reportedly, the blasting contractor could not convince the construction contractor either to move the equipment or to give him a schedule that he could set for blasting.

So, there is no firm blasting schedule. Area residents have just have to be prepared every morning "at sunrise" for the next few days for blasts that may or may not occur because some contractor cannot move his equipment or give other companies a firm idea when it would be moved.

If the bosses on these Midtown construction sites cannot even bother to work with one another to coordinate action in order to complete necessary tasks, why should we have faith that they are going to live by rules that prevent the erosion of the quality of life outside of their moneymakers? They seem to be too busy internally patrolling their own turfs to give a crap about the welfare of the surrounding community.

UPDATE:  A Midtown resident tells me that there was another sunrise dynamite blast today (01/30/15 -- 6:05 a.m) at a nearby construction site. Does the new curfew apply to Midtown or not?

The naivete of simply solving anything where power is concerned

From a local news story on where the mayoral candidates stand on gentrification and developer-driven growth:

"When the conversation can exist between a neighborhood and developers, good things happen at the end of the day," [Jeremy] Kane says, adding that the gentrification problem could be solved simply through better communication.

Well, yeah. But the trick is getting developers to the table in order to willingly negotiate and compromise on rezoning deals. Another trick is getting them to go beyond anything but what they are strictly required to do, which is a problem that plagues the question of affordable housing.

In my experience, I can think of a small number of developers who were proactive enough to launch the communication with the community. Many developers did not bother until they faced some outspoken community concerns or resistance to their plan (see, "We were moving smoothly until some guy blogged on us"). Once the threat of derailment due to transparency and organized opposition becomes real, they discover communication. I can think of only one who initiated conversation even though he was not seeking rezoning and thus did not have to. That is not a promising track record for those of us who want to make sure that the growth that occurs in neighborhoods compliments the character of the community in question.

So, the challenge is to broker power fairly, which is step beyond mere communication. However, I do not blame developers strictly for not seeing this. I also blame politicians in general and council members in particular (especially when the latter do not frame community engagement as the central part of the planning and zoning process).

"I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse."
Better communication depends on the willingness of developers and politicians to meet with neighborhood organizations and hash out mutual understanding. It's a predetermined or prearranged developer willingness to meet halfway, to lose a few things in order to win most of what they want. But since very few developers actually do that they're going to need more than a simple invitation.

They're going to need an offer they can't refuse.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

More broken promises at the Tennessean

Last June, the Tennessean made a concession to Metro Council (in exchange for defeating an ordinance that would have regulated delivery of their unsubscribed "free" editions) that employees from the newspapers' offices would do "ride arounds" with the delivery help and pick up unclaimed papers littering sidewalks and streets. The Tennessean is not keeping its promise in Salemtown.

I took the photo below this morning near my house. The rolled-up, plastic-packaged Tennessean at the foot of the steps in the background is yesterday's edition. The rolled-up, plastic-packaged Tennessean at the curb in the foreground was delivered on December 24, 2014.

The Tennessean is not keeping its promises to Metro Council. CM Megan Barry championed the defeat of litter regulations in our neighborhoods last June by describing the concession of the Tennessean to reclaim their unclaimed papers as a "good thing." This is the same Megan Barry who is running for mayor this year promising "not to lose sight" of neighborhoods by permitting economic activity to "degrade quality of life."

Well, as you can see, the Tennessean continues its quest to make more money by littering my neighborhood's public spaces with unsolicited advertising. Litter degrades Salemtown's quality of life.

Promises broken by the news corporation. Promises broken by the corporation's political patrons on the Metro Council. Promises broken all around.

If Nashville really wants to keep its sports teams, why not eliminate the middle man, namely the team owner?

If a pro sports team is such a unique expression of a city's identity, a unifying force and an engine of economic expansion, then why aren't cities assuming control of them to keep them from bolting to other cities?

It is not like it would be unprecedented:

You're probably familiar with eminent domain as the means by which the government forcibly takes private land to make way for a highway or public building or hyperspace bypass, having only to pay whatever a court decides after the fact to be fair market value.The legal principle goes back hundreds of years, and doesn't have a great rep, especially as courts have expanded the notion of "public use" to include taking people's houses to hand over to private developers so long as it would promote "economic development"—even if there was no guarantee that the development would stick around more than a few years.

In the eyes of the courts, though, there should be no legal difference between a few acres of dirt and other private property such as, say, a pro sports franchise ....

Say you're a city council with a pro sports team demanding $200 million or so in public cash for a new building—let's call them the "Milwaukee Bucks"—under threat of leaving town if its owners' demands aren't met. Instead of reaching for your municipal checkbook, you respond by drawing up eminent domain paperwork.

In the best case scenario, the mere threat is enough to force the team owners to lower their subsidy demands. In the worst, yes, you're stuck paying close to $600 million for an NBA franchise, but keep in mind two things: first off, that's how much the current Bucks owners just paid on the open market for the franchise, so presumably somebody thinks they'll bring in enough revenue to make that worthwhile. Plus, if you don't want to be stuck with the risk of the Bucks not earning back your investment, you can always re-sell the team to new private investors—even if you need to sell for $50 million or $100 million less in order to get new owners to agree to an ironclad lease, that's still cheaper than handing over $200 million for nothing.

In my opinion, the Metro Nashville mayor's office and the metro council both failed to do their due diligence in exploring the possibility of filing eminent domain in response to Sounds' and Brewers' (the Sounds' previous parent club) insinuations that they could always go elsewhere if they did not get a new ballpark. We already saw them back off the west bank downtown when Karl Dean made it clear that a new amphitheater was going in there. I will forever hold against Hizzoner and whipped council members that they did not call the team's abandonment bluffs.

Public ownership of sports teams is not such a radical proposal. Local sports reporter, J.R. Lind, proposed public ownership for when the Nashville Sounds deal was announced in 2013:

[Karl Dean's plan] also includes $750,000 from a $50 million mixed-use development the Sounds owners — developers by trade — promise they will build.

Promise based on what? According to Mayor Karl Dean, little more than their word. There is not, and will not be, a contract pledging the Sounds to build this project. Pressed on that, Dean said if the Sounds didn't build the development, somebody would. Probably.

For the city — any city — to make a three-decade, $65 million [now $70 million and rising] commitment based on a handshake arrangement with absentee ownership is head-scratching at best and mind-numbing at worst.

But if that's the level of commitment the city is already willing to make, why not go whole hog?

Why not just buy the team?

The value of the Sounds is hard to pin down (though, presumably, it's gone up with the promise of a new stadium). But Forbes' recent estimate of the 20 most valuable minor league teams did not include the Sounds. The 20th ranked team on that list — the Oklahoma City RedHawks — came in at $21 million.

For, say, $20 million, the city gets the team ... and it gets the revenue. Not just the increased sales taxes budgeted in the financing plan — all of it. Ticket revenue, beer money, parking costs. All of it.

And if the mayor is to be believed, the city doesn't even need the Sounds for the $50 million ancillary development. It's going to happen anyway.

Right now, the city is spending at least three times the total value of the Sounds — that's being generous — to build a stadium. Doesn't it make more sense to own the entity outright?

Instead all of the pie-in-the-sky Jefferson-Street-rejuvenation wishful thoughts they have been spreading around in PR campaigns, Metro government could have been working on ways they would start spending the revenues that have already started rolling into team owner Frank Ward with season ticket sales and merchandising profits.

Despite the option that taking the Sounds by eminent domain or buying them would have been a more financially responsible act on Metro government's part than subsidizing their private enterprise, the Mayor likely never would have considered public ownership because he might have angered wealthy campaign donors who have financial stakes in the Sounds' ownership team. A deal that would have been more financially responsible to and more demonstrably lucrative for Nashville taxpayers probably never surpassed his own self-interest. Angering the special interests might risk Hizzoner's future political aspirations for higher office.

Things could have been done differently. But they were not. And Nashville missed its shot at a title.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Moving pictures

The Mayor's self-funded, sketchy, astroturfed
501(c)(4) created to pose a tax increase as grassroots popular (2012):

Hizzoner's failed attempt to dedicate rapid transit to West End hotels & Downtown tourist stops (2013-14):

The extension of the Dean administration by other means (2015):

Monday, January 26, 2015

Two points on the local aftermath of Charlie Hebdo

On the one hand, Mayor Karl Dean refused to attend the predominantly African American town hall meeting in North Nashville last August focused on local apprehensions and tensions in the wake of the Ferguson, MO protests over the shooting of Mike Brown. On the other hand, Hizzoner made every effort to attend a predominantly white rally this month called by the "honorary French consul" in Nashville to protest the shooting at Charlie Hebdo headquarters.

Photo credit: Sister Cities of Nashville
I don't even know what an honorary French consul does, but she only pulled together 75 people for her rally. Hundreds packed into Mount Zion Baptist Church last August.

As he co-captained the rally and march with Amélie de Gaulle, Monsieur Dean told the press:

When basic freedoms are attacked, when journalists pay with their lives for exercising their profession, for speaking out, for exercising their right to give their opinions, citizens can't walk comfortably.

So, basic freedoms matter in France, but not in the protests of Ferguson, MO? Not in the press coverage of the suppression of protest against St. Louis County police? Not for a Nashville community shaken by the brutal responses to Black Lives Matter?

The contrast in the Hizzoner's selective attendance of protests points to the reality once again, that Karl Dean prefers not to be the mayor of all of Nashville, but to play the plenipotentiary for the local aristocracy.


There has been remarkable reaction to the Tennessean's choice of editorials on terrorism in France. I want to focus on one that has not received much attention. A little over a week ago the paper's vice president, Stephanie Murray wrote a column that can be easily reduced to three points:

  1. "The Tennessean strives to protect free speech and the First Amendment every single day. It is our duty. And it is our passion."
  2. "But at the end of the day, we work for you. We work to ensure democracy is an open process with citizen input. We strive to hold officials accountable."
  3. "And that’s part of the reason why today, I ask for your subscription. Please help support quality journalism in Middle Tennessee by purchasing The Tennessean."
We have heard this kind of logic before. George W. Bush told Americans to exercise their freedom and support their country by "going shopping." In the Tennessean's case, Stefanie Murray encourages the further commercialization of constitutional freedom in the purchase of her company's product. It's not that far removed from telling us to go shopping.

Mainstream, corporate journalism acts like it should enjoy a special place (remember "the 4th estate"?), but also it also treats its content as a product sold in the marketplace, even as it pays its labor force very little for the value they add. For all of their self-promotion as being community-minded and dedicated to open process, back in 2007, the local papers trotted out lawyers and PR flacks to blunt organized neighborhood dissent to their mythology that the First Amendment guarantees long, cluttered rows of unregulated news racks.

If they really wanted to support the democratic process, they would not bring in legalistically-minded professionals and lobbyists, but would negotiate and compromise with citizens directly on the commercialization of information. Instead, mainstream journos tend to confuse the grey zone of commerce with the unalienable right to transparency, fair dealing and openness.

Black's Law Dictionary defines unalienable rights as those rights "incapable of being alienated, that is, sold and transferred." So, how is it that our freedom of speech hinges on the purchase of a commercial product, in this case an advertising circular moonlighting as a newspaper? And frankly, if you buy without question the logic that Tennessean reporters and editors exercise freedom beyond the reach of political influence of their Gannett corporate check-signers, then you have already surrendered your freedom of critical thought to self-delusion.

Money exercises influence. Public relations sugarcoats that influence. Wealth may not be able to threaten freedoms as provocatively and visibly as terrorism, but may erode them more persistently, more efficiently and more effectively.

And frankly, it is a smarmy hucksterism to use a tragedy so explicitly to sell more papers. There is too much at stake in the historic struggle to defend freedoms to fall for Ms. Murray's sales pitch.

Communication fail

If you, like me, got Erica Gilmore's only notification of the community meeting on a Salemtown SP this afternoon you may be scratching your head over her late-breaking communication habits. If you, unlike me, did not know about today's meeting because you are not a member of Salemtown Neighbors, then you should know that you have less than two hours to get ready for the meeting:

This postcard is very misleading about the zone change request. The developers are not only responsible for answering questions about this rezoning request. An SP requires them to get community feedback in order to gain community support for their request.

Not only is this communication late in the mail (postdated January 23), but it is deceptive in content.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Is the Farmers' Market growing more exclusive by jettisoning the flea market?

The Piraeus, home of ancient Greek schlock
In Plato's Republic, Socrates goes from Athens to the Piraeus, a port side passage where the masses thronged. He went down from high society to the places of parades and cheap entertainment. More importantly, it was the place of commoners, outsiders and those considered barbarians. From Plato:

I went down yesterday to the Piraeus with Glaucon the son of Ariston, that I might offer up my prayers to the goddess; and also because I wanted to see in what manner they would celebrate the festival, which was a new thing. I was delighted with the procession of the inhabitants; but that of the Thracians was equally, if not more, beautiful.

The Piraeus was a liminal space for a free philosopher of Athens: a threshold out of high society to the mundane world of people of much lower status. If Athens was the one, then the Piraeus was the many.

The Piraeus leaped to mind when I read the news that the North Capitol area Farmers' Market is now terminating its flea market in favor of what sound like bigger ticket vendors more stringently selected:

After spending more than a year visiting and collaborating with other successful markets across the country, the staff has developed a new system of standards that will ensure that shoppers will know the source of all items sold in the market and that the vendors will have been involved in the creation of their products.

“There are other places to go if you want a flea market experience,” says NFM Executive Director Tasha Kennard. "We recognized that in order to be the best market we can be we have to do things differently. The actions of the staff and the board show our commitment to and appreciation of the value of local farmers and products.”

What other flea markets exist within walking distance of North Capitol neighborhoods that allow the experience of the Farmers' Market adjoined by a great public park like Bicentennial Mall? I do not know of any. The article goes on to say that Farmers' Market flea market vendors are to be exiled to the Fairgrounds in south Nashville. Is a gated-community consciousness growing in North Nashville?

I'm not a buyer of kitsch, but I recognize that there is a reason it exists. It is a form of cheap art or expression that those middle-class-and-below can afford without a line of credit. Will those same commoners still be able to enter the Farmers' Market and browse with the idea of buying? It does not sound like it. A member of Urban Planet criticizes the move:

I agree that the produce and flowers should be local, but I disagree with kicking Flea Market vendors out. Growing up in the area - before it was hip and cool - the flea market has always been a part of the Nashville Farmers Market, even when it was on the other end of Bicentennial in open air tents. If the vendors pay their rent and don't sell knock off items, why should they have to move. I love going to the Asian couple tha has the $1 bins of little household items and wudknots. Many of these people make their livelihood at the Flea Market and displacing them because of a "few" that do not like cheaply made items is a shame. That's what a Flea Market is - I would rather have these vendors at a facility where they pay montly rent/taxes, than to have them posted up on the side of a road or in vacant lot selling their items, because that is what's going to happen.

So the Market will be displacing 50+ vendors in the flea market for a handful of "artisan" vendors that will sell $10 handmade soap, $20 soy made candles, and $30 hand-made scarfs. I'm all for supporting local-made products, but not everyone likes those type of things. Being that the market is located in a historically and predominantly black zip code, I would think they would want to cater to all residents - not just the folks in the new apartments, condos, and million dollar shotgun houses.

Their is plenty of space at the facility for everyone to coexist. They have already gone up on their rents three-fold now I guess this the last straw to kick them out [SIC].

I understand why many gentrifiers look down their noses at cheap tacky stuff that has been sold in the same place for decades, but I have no problem with flea markets because there are common goods that are higher than stuffy taste or stiff-necked wealth. Inclusiveness and respect are two such common goods.

What stands out to me is that First Tennessee Park, the Nashville Sounds' new ballpark, is specifically mentioned as a catalyst changes at the Farmers' Market. Some of us have warned that the new ballpark may not have the desired effect of growth in existing Jefferson Street businesses. Instead, it may leverage relocation of larger businesses that drive out the smaller ones. Is that good? It depends on what your expectations are. The Farmers' Market is like canary in a coal mine on that score.

Make no mistake: the Farmers' Market is a Metro owned public space. Make no mistake: if the Farmers' Market discourages buyers who cannot afford handmade artisan crafts, they will not visit the Farmers' Market, which will make it a less diverse place. Make no mistake: a space that no longer welcomes diversity, including class diversity, is no longer legitimately public.

I've been a neighbor of and a regular customer at the Farmers' Market for a decade since moving to Salemtown. I did not patronize the flea market, but I also never saw the need for it to go away. I do not understand why later arrivals (and apparently a neighborhood association) do.

By the way, I would be deliriously pleased if the Farmers' Market could certify that all of its produce comes from local, organic, family farms (like those in Scottsboro/Bells Bend) and not from Tennessee's powerful agribusiness plantations. I'm not deluded enough to believe that the schlock-haters are clamoring for a bridge that far. They seem satisfied enough with elbowing out the riff raff.

Disclaimer and full disclosure: This blog has been a donor to past efforts to preserve and to develop the Farmers' Market.