Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Breaking: Nashville Sounds owner scrubs the historic title "Sulphur Dell" from the name of the new ballpark

Mayor Karl Dean even gushed:
"Nashville won't make a cent off this!"
Sometimes I really hate having my healthy cynicism about people in power confirmed, but it was this morning. Wealthy real estate developer and owner of the Nashville Sounds Frank Ward just announced the naming rights of the new ballpark at the Sulphur Dell site. The name announced is, "First Tennessee Ballpark, Home of the Nashville Sounds" (named after the bank).

Mr. Ward and First Tennessee seem to have agreed to purge the historical moniker "Sulphur Dell" completely from the official title of the new ballpark. Obviously, the brand won't stoop to bear the historic context of the area adjacent to my neighborhood.

Looks like I was not exaggerating last week (in reporting the demolition of the state fountain commemorating the old sulphur spring that gave birth to a city) when I intimated that developers are willing to wipe away history to squeeze a few more bucks to add to their obscene piles of cash. I keep looking for the ballpark/mixed-use development team to prove me wrong about my concerns with this agreement, but today's announcement is the latest sign that these folks are willing to use our history as a sales pitch to grease the skids of politics, but they are not necessarily serious about embracing it.

We have been told to trust an accelerated process. We have been preached at over and over by Friends of Sulphur Dell, by the Mayor's Office, by opportunistic Metro Council members, by supporters far and wide that building a new ballpark as quickly as possible without proper public process is the best way of honoring the history of our area and the history of baseball at Sulphur Dell. With one morning press conference Metro, the Nashville Sounds and a bank just wiped all of that away.

UPDATE: Couldn't resist broadcasting this little dig at the now extraneous Friends of Sulphur Dell as it appeared on Twitter

Suburbanization is a failing development model in Tennessee

Charles Marohn describes how a city like Memphis got itself into a bind by relying on subsidized suburbanization as an answer to the ills of industrialization. Now with "soft defaults" (vs. hard defaults in Detroit) the chickens are coming home to roost:

Relying on the automobile to facilitate growth by horizontally expanding the city, Memphis shifted away from the traditional pattern of neighborhood development and played its part in building the American Dream of large yards, easy driving, and free parking.

Suburbanization, sold as a way to cure blight and promote prosperity, was radically new and untested. It was also irresistible. Driven by federal programs and financial incentives, Memphis – like most American cities – built highways through the middle of the city, annexed property and extended public utilities outward.

In the process, core neighborhoods were destroyed and residents relocated to neighborhoods built in the new, experimental style. Streetcars were abandoned and the economic activity at the old stops shifted to new commercial corridors. Old buildings were torn down to provide parking and millions of tax dollars were spent widening streets to accommodate the automobiles now necessary for daily life.

Eventually, the vitality of the city was inverted from its traditional historic pattern of a strong core surrounded by incrementally growing neighborhoods to one where most economic activity took place on the edge. While this shift left many people behind and devastated the historic neighborhoods of Memphis, the result was seen largely as a social problem, not an economic one. Easy growth on the periphery – where land is cheap, the development community is ready, and all the government incentives are in place – was then, and remains today, the community’s default strategy for economic improvement.

Somewhat unhindered by the levels of industrialization borne by Memphis, Nashville is no less exposed by its overreliance on exurban expansion and what Mayor Karl Dean embraces as "regionwide growth". Nashville recently depends on gimmicky baubles like the new Music City Center, a "We Are Nashville Promenade" and an east-west rapid transit connector ("The Amp") in order to spike short-term economic activity without reference to long-term viability in the city for its inhabitants.

Marohn warns of "new massive gambles" undertaken by sprawling metros to keep heads above water: convention centers and retail complexes driven by municipal debt and tax breaks for already wealthy corporations. Likewise these conditions also apply to Nashville, where it feels like we are mortgaging our future sometimes to fund huge new capital projects that enable the Dean brand more than aid Nashville proper. We are definitely sacrificing urban services, from which the Mayor perennially demands cuts, in order to bankroll the diversions.

In the end, an emphasis on regionwide growth seems like warmed-over, evangelical suburbanism. It constitutes a doubling down on failing economic policies that hurt both Memphis and Nashville in the long run. Once the smoke-and-mirrors floor show of the Dean administration ends, what will be left with?

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