Tuesday, April 15, 2014

In order to incorporate Sulphur Dell history, the ballpark architects have demolished its commemoratives

If memory serves, what was pitched to people about the section of state greenway that bordered the spot designated for a new Sulphur Dell ballpark was that it would be incorporated into the new facility. What I distinctly recall from the scant community meetings sponsored by Mayor Karl Dean and Council Member Erica Gilmore was that the greenways would remain intact, but their use by the public would be limited on baseball game days.

If any ballpark architects from Gobbell Hays and Populous ever mentioned demolishing the state greenway along with a water feature that commemorated the sulphur spring and creek that marked both the history and prehistory of an area that was the cradle of the city of Nashville, I missed it. But I discovered today that the greenway and fountain are gone.

June 2007: an attractive homage to the sulphur spring that once fed
French Lick Creek, whose course was commemorated with an adjoining greenway

April 2014: the spot where the water feature once stood,
now reduced to rubble and landfill left by the new ballpark/mixed-use project

Make no mistake. Nashville has a permissive track record of enabling developers to wipe its history clean in order to embrace growth. And builders rush in to reduce the historic and the prehistoric records to virtual moonscapes before building something else. Like some coursing need to wash itself clean of its own history, good or ill, Nashville hands development over to developers to largely tear down and build anew at will.

So, maybe I should not be surprised to see today that the fountain and greenway have met the same fate as demolished state parking lots and city roadways. The profit motive overruns any preservation mandate. There is no onus on the architects to acknowledge the significance of the sulphur spring for which their concept is named. It certainly won't come from this Mayor or this district's council member both of whom have ingratiated themselves to the real estate industry. Having been a Nashvillian for 25 years, nothing Metro allows surprises me anymore.

But what sticks with me now is that nobody bothered to be transparent about the demolition beforehand: not the architects, not the sponsoring council member, not the Mayor. I don't remember a word uttered about it. Hence, I wonder if what we are going to get--once something is built on top of the demolished debris, on top of the dust heap--is privatized infill rarely open to the public and forgetful of what was there before baseball or hipster urbanism were ever imagined in Nashville. Is the small corridor where there was once a greenway and a water feature going to be flipped to a sterilized, generic pass-through for people on the way to somewhere else? That would be a cynical re-write of local history.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Sulphur Dell area was once an important "production workshop" in a "major prehistoric metropolis"

One of the only external expectations that Mayor Karl Dean agreed to when it came to his fast-tracked construction of a new ballpark/mixed-use development at Sulphur Dell near Jefferson Street was an archeological survey of the site for sensitive historical artifacts before construction began.

Sulphur Dell is not just an important place in baseball and civil rights history. It is an important place in the history of Nashville's founding (Timothy Demonbreun's cabin was located nearby at Sulphur Spring Bottom). It is also an important place for in the history of ancient tribal cultures.

While a careful community-based planning process was a casualty of Hizzoner's rush to build and of the team owner's allergies to engaging the community townhall-style, we can be thankful that Mayor Dean at least felt compelled by something or someone to slow up enough to preserve some important finds:

Archaeologists made an important discovery over the weekend in the area that will become left field, including artifacts that could even hint at ancient human burials.

The state believes the artifacts could be 800 years old, and experts are excavating the area now.

In an email obtained by Channel 4 News an archaeologist working on the project says he found pottery, animal bone and pieces of ceramic vessels.

And he raises another issue, writing, "given the high artifact density, there is a heightened possibility of human burials."

There are revised details at the archeologists' Facebook page. Kevin E. Smith writes that in March they uncovered a "relatively intact land surface" representing what he believes to be a terrace that held "a giant prehistoric salt production workshop area" rather than a place for human burials:

The enormous saline spring located to the southwest of the [ballpark] project area was one of the largest gushing wells of mineral water in the interior south -- filling Lick Branch with a mineral resource valuable to both prehistoric and historic peoples until the branch was buried in a brick-lined conduit .... The vast majority of features exposed and investigated thus far reflect a large and overlapping series of fire pits -- almost all probably related to the evaporation of water from the adjacent branch to produce the valuable commodity of salt.

According to Mr. Smith Metro Nashville was under no legal obligation to allow this important study to proceed, and he digresses to gush about the new ballpark giving them this opportunity. Then again, most of the area was covered with surface parking lots and there is no reason--given the broadly acknowledged importance of the Sulphur Dell area to history and prehistory--that this study could not have occurred if and when these state lots gave way to anything else.

Mayor Karl Dean was under no legal obligation to allow this survey, but it should have been a moral imperative to be discreet in developing such an important place as "swampy" Sulphur Springs Bottoms. It was more than just good fortune. It was the right thing to do. As was including the local community in the planning process, which Mayor Dean failed to do.

Otherwise, this is exciting and important news for our end of Nashville. It should be a source of pride to local residents, thanks to the hard work of the archeologists. Check out their photos and further descriptions at the Facebook page.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Nashville said to be possibly taking a giant leap ahead on Tuesday (but likely leaving North Nashville behind)

The Obama Administration is reportedly going to roll out its 2015 budget today, and the Mayor's minions are all abuzz that POTUS may drop $75 million on Karl Dean to run his bus rapid transit line down West End almost to Belle Meade. The excitement and the predictable blowback at Hizzoner's self-imposed blindness catalyzed by power and money has gone national:

For Nashville, the backlash calls to mind a recent battle over the planning of the city's half-billion-dollar convention center, which opened in May, and was a cornerstone of the administration of Dean, the second-term Democrat who has the support of the chamber of commerce and the business community writ large. Some residents and elected officials derided the project as a publicly funded gift for tourists. A similar line of attack has been heard over the particular route planners chose for the Amp.

"This bus gets the tourists from downtown to the nicer restaurant/bar district," as one elected official recently put it. "The concept is: we're not building a transit system for Nashvillians. We're building a fun bus to run tourists out to West End and the cool bars."

If President Obama does award Karl Dean a huge grant to build a new transit line for a corridor that needs it less than any point north or south of downtown, it will merely the latest stanza in the dirge I sing for the support I once held for Barack Obama.

The President's stimulus package, if properly funded, could have been a dramatic turnaround for our nation's cities and our national workforce. It was constricted by a leader who has preached the virtues of bringing the unrepentant, uncivil GOP along.

Obamacare is not much more than Romneycare.

Federal education policy has been directed at privatizing public schools and managing high-stakes testing with an eye to giving big business more control in school districts.

Our foreign policy continues to be marred by Bushian tactics, including the civil-rights-violating detention of prisoners. Mr. Obama's drone-slaughters of civilian targets have far exceeded anything Dubya ever did.

And now, instead of granting rapid transit in working-class communities or in neighborhoods predominated by people of color, President Obama may reward Nashville for serving the entertainment and tourism industries one more time before Karl Dean leaves by subsidizing party buses to run visitors to-and-from their hotels, bars and honky tonks quickly.

A President who has been more comfortable serving up tepid Republican pablum may enable a Democratic Mayor who is himself a nice fit for red-state, neo-liberal Tennessee politics.

If Nashville wins this grant today, then it could complete Karl Dean's tenure of serving Nashville's wealthy and influential while leaving communities like North Nashville behind. The Amp is the perfect compliment to the Music City Center. If funded it will be a subsidized pleasure line on which tourists can depend.

And those who make promises that it is only the first step in BRT extended to underserved communities cannot back up those promises. Despite their empty promises, they are going to stand by this Mayor to the end. It's not illogical. If you want to play, he's the game in town. However, Mayor Dean--being term-limited and having higher political aspirations--will never have to be accountable to deliver on those promises.

If the federal government does come through, I predict that in a few years, when we're told there is no more grant money and the budget is too overextended to serve places like North Nashville, Amp supporters will be eating their promises. The best thing that can happen now to bring everything and everyone in Nashville back down to earth is that Obama finds another neo-liberal Mayor elsewhere to support in 2015.

UPDATE:  The Obama transit dept. is recommending $27 million next year for the Amp. If approved it is a little more than 1/3 of what the Mayor's Office wants. So, which 1/3 of the project will get built and which 2/3's waits to see if federal money shows up in 2016, 2017, 2018? Downtown to West End gets BRT first? Without $75 million in 2015, how much longer does North Nashville have to wait for its promised bus rapid transit lines to materialize?

Also, consider this one: “Evidence suggests expanded rail operations produce higher ridership gains than more bus service.” There is a reason the BRT grant is called "Small Starts". It is not nearly as bold as rail, which would create more ridership. The fact that BRT is cheaper, but limited to the hotel and entertainment corridor suggests that the Mayor's Office not only plays it safe in choosing locations, but does so on the cheap. Rail would have made a bolder, more attractive statement.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Friday, February 28, 2014

Was I sold a bill of goods on Salemtown's overlay a year ago?

About this time last year I expressed opposition to Salemtown's conservation overlay (now approved) based on my sense that it was being rammed through without regard for democratic process (full disclosure: I am generally an overlay/preservation supporter).

One of the claims that I heard overlay supporters make was an acknowledgement that ignoring democratic process in the name of other ends is generally not desirable, but that Salemtown's overlay was an extenuating and urgent circumstance, because it might be "the last conservation overlay that Metro's planning and zoning departments would approve." People I listened to told me straight-faced that Metro was going to move away from conservation overlays.

Almost exactly a year later I feel a bit betrayed by those in whom I placed trust. I am reading the following in the latest newsletter from the Metropolitan Historic Zoning Commission newsletter:

Neighborhood Conservation Zoning Overlays More Popular Than Ever 

Due to the booming local economy and the increase in infill development, more and more neighborhoods are seeing the value of historic zoning. 

The purpose of historic zoning is to guide change in a neighborhood in a way that preserves its historic character and fabric. It does not change use. Most property owners want the additional zoning because it has been proven to protect property values ....

Most neighborhoods prefer the Neighborhood Conservation Zoning Overlay (NCZO) where the goal is to preserve historic “character.” Only demolition, new construction and moving a builidng [sic] are reviewed.

Holy moly. That is no where close to the dire pitch presented to me a year ago when Salemtown's overlay hung by a slim thread with community meetings threatening to kill our chances at an overlay. Were overlay supporters just blowing smoke up my skirt to get me to drop my principled and public objections to Salemtown conservation overlay? Your guess is as good as mine.

I just know that I'll take their red flags with a grain of salt next time.

Whites Creek lost a battle but not yet the war

You can bet that these 43 lots are only Phase I.

Community opponents of Ole South development's plan to sprawl 43 suburban-style homes across previously tree-canopied rural properties held a brave stand at yesterday's Planning Commission public hearing, but they had the weight of law and zoning against them. As an outsider-looking-in with a little experience with planning process, it struck me as a long shot to stop Ole South from building a cluster subdivision approved by the Planning Department without any requirement to rezone.

And Ole South did not even bother to have one of their owners speak at the public hearing. Tom White, real estate lawyer and lobbyist, took care of the developers presentation and rebuttal (and Mr. White reserved his right vocally to end the public hearing with a rebuttal several times during his presentation). For their part, dozens and dozens of community opponents rose to speak against the subdivision to a commission that has been described to me as "the most developer-friendly commission in Nashville history".

Commission Chairman James McLean dished a not-so-veiled warning to opponents that he would stop the public hearing if speakers started repeating themselves because the commissioners wanted to get home at a reasonable hour. As if regular folks out in the gallery had not taken time out of their busy schedules, away from their families to sit for hours through other planning business that did not involve them in order to have their 2 minutes to speak their minds at what was ultimately the end of the meeting. As if commissioners have more important things to do than to hear the expressed interests of a Whites Creek community that is watching their character change without much control--beyond the hearing--over it. Given that most commission business involves relatively uncontroversial, unemotional work on planning, I thought Mr. McLean (who is himself a developer) showed little patience, humility or humor with that warning. Who isn't busy in their own personal lives nowadays, Mr. Chairman?

But the opponents stood out by emphasizing plural concerns, admitting and shortening their comments when they sensed that they were repeating what had already been said. The difference in the public presentations for and against could not be more stark. The emphasis from supporters of Ole South was strictly on the legal side of the argument: the company had complied with what zoning requires and they had toed the line Metro planners and CM Walter Hunt set for them, so at bare minimum they deserved to build their cluster lots. Their basic message was that they achieved the lowest common denominators developers have to, and they saw no need to strive for anything higher than their bottom line.

For their part, the opponents of Ole South appealed to a wide range of arguments to make the basic case that they expect development (no one whom I heard expressed NIMBYism), but they wanted something higher than what developers were offering. They appealed to their history, to consistency with the village-like character of Whites Creek, to the idea of quality in building materials, to the common sense notion of fairness that they ought to have the same planning opportunities as other communities, to environmental protection, to a unique and attractive culture comparable with few other places (Bells Bend, Leipers Fork were mentioned), to tourism, to the culture of land and green space and to their diverse community. Their appeals were thick and rich compared to the rather cold, calculated and cynical statements by an attorney who seemed to me ready to pull a trigger on a lawsuit if Ole South did not get commission approval.

Keep in mind that Tom White is the same lawyer who told the Tennessean that the suburban sprawl plan had plenty of community support for passage. The turnout of opponents at the public hearing proved that false. Tom White is also same lawyer who argued at last week's Whites Creek community meeting that he believed commission support for the plan was "highly likely".

This particular statement from the Old South side proved to be true, but not before questions were raised, mostly by commissioner Stewart Clifton, who acknowledged CM Hunt's interest in approving the plan while also asserting his interest in making sure that Ole South was consistent with the properties on the same side of the streets it would sit on. CM Hunt seemed to want to refer the commission to a completely different development rather than consider the streetside consistency. Mr. Clifton wanted to defer until he could get some answers from planning on whether creating 43 plots was consistent with the adjacent properties. Chairman McLean denied Mr. Clifton a vote on a deferral, called for a vote on CM Hunt's motion to approve the Ole South plan (amended to prohibit duplexes) and the commission voted 4-2 to approve.

It is worth noting that Mr. Clifton pointed out that 3 commissioners who "should be" voting on the Ole South bid were not present. One of those was Andree LeQuire, who had sent a request announced to the commission for a deferral of Old South's plan because she wanted more information about the water and sewer infrastructure Ole South was planning. Chairman McLean waved all of that off before holding the vote to approve.

But there is another significant, but understated fallout from this hearing. During Mr. Clifton's questions, Planning Director Rick Bernhardt noted that the commission had asked for urban character infill regulations but had not requested rural character infill regulations from planners. It was acknowledged that Ole South's approval hinged on old, outdated zoning regs and that there was a lack of infill regs for agricultural communities. After the vote, Mr. Bernhardt asked the commission whether they wanted Planning to pursue those regulations and I did not hear much of a response. Might this be where a concerned Whites Creek community can wage their next battle for growth consistent their community character? They lost this battle, but there still seems to me a war to wage in defense of their way of life. Ole South's holdings in Whites Creek are much larger and perhaps Metro Planning needs more prompting for infill regulations before the developers completely suburbanize backcountry.

In the end, this proposal was CM Walter Hunt's to lose. As ugly as the Whites Creek community meeting was, as impressive as the turnout to the public hearing was, CM Hunt seemed to have Metro planners (in fairness, Planning's hands seemed tied) and commission votes on his side. He did not need to do much compromising with constituents to get approval. Having a land holdings lawyer pounding away on what was legal from the podium is also effective leverage, given that Metro is likely not looking to get caught up in one more lawsuit. While CM Hunt promised to have a historical survey of the properties conducted (no traffic study has been done), I was disappointed myself that he did not at least extend an offer to opponents to start working to revise their outdated community plan, which is a reasonable request regardless of Ole South.

Moreover, take a look at how CM Hunt's campaign for office has been the beneficiary of donors with direct interests in land development, construction, new housing starts and housing market. Follow the money form some of the donors I culled from his campaign finance records since 2011:

  • Robert Colson, real estate broker and property auctioneer ($100)
  • Tom Cone, Sr., owner of Cone Oil convenience stores ($1,000)
  • Roy Dale, engineer to developers ($250)
  • Howard Eley, Jr., highways and ramps contractor ($250)
  • Joe Hall, lobbyist for cable telecommunications assc. ($200)
  • Ronald Ligon, Realtor ($500) and Susan Ligon ($500)
  • Alexander Marks, developer ($250)
  • William Massey, Jr., electrical contractor ($100)
  • Jim McLean, developer and Planning Commission Chair ($100)
  • Gregory Richardson, developer ($500)
  • John Ring, developer ($500)
  • Glen Wallis, Realtor ($100)
  • L.H. Hardaway, Jr. construction company owner ($100)
  • William Freeman, real estate investment company owner ($100)
  • James Smith, developer ($250)
  • Bernard Werthan, developer ($100)
  • Feller Brown, realty and auction company owner ($100)
  • Odell Binkley, waste management ($100)
  • H.G. Hill Realty, PAC ($100)
  • Tennessee Realtors, PAC ($250)
  • Precision Plumbing, Whites Creek ($1,000)

That kind of money is more incentive to shepherd subdivision plans through rather than incorporate community concerns if one is not required to. This list is something for the rest of us to keep in mind should CM Hunt run for at-Large council in the future. He may be our council member someday.

But there is also something else to keep in mind as far as I am concerned. One of the supporters of Ole South said during last night's public hearing, "Whatever Walter Hunt wants, Walter Hunt should get." That prospect itself is troubling given campaign finance, because it won't be just what Walter Hunt wants. It will also be what his most influential campaign donors want.

And those of us without the money (or the community organization) to keep up with his donors will likely be left behind.