Friday, February 18, 2005

Is Belmont University a Partner or a Power Broker?

This morning’s Tennessean had a story of neighborhood interest. It seems that the residents who live around Belmont University—particularly those on 15th Avenue—are beginning to organize to fight the university. Belmont’s legal counsel reportedly told the Tennessean,
I don't have an explanation for their anxiety. There have been personal calls and personal letters to folks (in the neighborhood) well in advance. We're available to meet any time with any group or any of the neighbors. We've sent students out into the community to rake leaves and wash windows. We're involved in the neighborhood.
Universities can be involved in neighborhoods in many different ways. One is as an equal partner who treats its neighbors with respect and without trying to take advantage of others. Another is the way that Vanderbilt treated its neighbors in the 1970s by using urban renewal to take chunks of real estate and by driving down property values to take more land from residents. It was legal, but it was not very savory. The question in the Belmont situation: are they closer to treating their residents as partners or are they closer to behaving as disgracefully as Vanderbilt did?

Belmont cannot use urban renewal to change things, but the university is going to the Metropolitan Planning Commission to ask for re-zoning. Are they approaching the MPC with the welfare of their entire neighborhood in mind or as the biggest power broker in the neighborhood, acting merely on its own behalf because it can?

And Belmont’s legal counsel’s comments concern me. Is he suggesting that Belmont is an equal partner and neighbors should not be concerned? Or is he suggesting that the neighbors should not be concerned about being steamrolled simply because Belmont has sent students out to rake leaves? (That is not exactly a one-sided benefit; fraternities and sororities are required to participate in service projects; the neighborhood provides a readily available service field for Belmont's student life). Is he suggesting that philanthropy comes with strings attached?

Perhaps the lesson for the rest of us who do not live next to Belmont is to be prepared and be organized so that we can be sure that our own power brokers will treat us as partners, not as pawns.

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