Monday, March 02, 2009

Developer's donation to Tennessee State University amounts to low-risk campaign contribution to help build May Town Center

Lacking from last week's media showcase of a bid by Jack May and Tony Giarrantana to take the wind out of a General Assembly bill--that would preserve Bells Bend acreage as rural and natural parcels--by making a money and land donation to TSU was perspective. When the media broke the story that the Bells Landing Partners team was going to give $400,000 and 250 acres to the university to start an academic program on sustainable agriculture, it did not bother to ask whether the cash would bring Jack May a hefty tax deduction or whether it might constitute the actual purchase of influence from friends of TSU. As for the acreage, the mainstream media neglected to point out that a donation of "riverfront" property on the Bend means giving away flood plane parcels on which no high-density residential or mixed-use corporate campus could be built.

So, leave it to social media to point out the May Town Center warts that the mainstream media ignores. A commenter at the Nashville Charrette questions the risk assumed and opines:
A real risk would be buying up the east riverbank land, between the interstate and the river north of the Ellington interchange, and turning it into a model urban class-A office space redevelopment. Being honest about the impact of MTC, and asking the public to weigh the costs of development against the costs of NOT developing MTC: that would be real risk. But buying up farmland that another developer was already told to leave alone for a fraction of what convenient, commercially zoned land with updated infrastructure would cost, making laughable claims about the public cost, access, traffic, future plans, and environmental impact: that's not risk. It's cowardly stuff, and the days when threats and mockery and sowing fear of what happens when we don't give the wealthy everything they want could distort the public interest: those days are over. To MTC supporters: be honest about the effects of Bells Bend development, pro AND con, and be honest about your motives, or go home like Tony G (whose primary motive seems to have been a lobbying payment from the Mays).

And local culture critic, Aunt B, speaks to the matter of the quality of the land given and its potential for flood damage, which restricts what could actually be built there:
I’d also like to point out that giving TSU 250 acres along the river is nice, but let’s not kid ourselves.  We have one dam upriver from us that the Corps is extremely concerned might break and they’ve just decided that the Stone’s River dam that holds Percy Priest Lake back is not performing like they’d like it to.

Now, I invite you to look at the terrain map of Bell’s Bend (if this Google link works).  The Mays family is giving TSU land along the river front.  They, however, will be building May Town Center up on the hills.  Hmm.  Gee, I wonder why that is?  And really, how much of a gift is it going to be to TSU if it’s in the floodplain.  Yes, you will be able to do agricultural work there, especially if you keep in mind that you could lose some of it to minor flooding pretty frequently and all of it to a major flood.  Unless you’re going to put up levees, but then we’re really talking about changing the landscape.

But the truth is that the May family gets to look generous–”Oh, we gave 250 acres to TSU, aren’t we great?  See, we do love Nashville!” while really giving them 250 acres that are designed by nature to flood (and, frankly, as someone who grew up along the Mississippi can tell you, are necessary to the health of the river to be allowed to flood).  I guess if TSU is gung-ho for studying agricultural techniques for floodplanes, this will be a great boon, but as an outside observer, I find it a little strange that this seems to be being framed like the May family is giving up something that they otherwise would have used.  For what?  The only thing a sane person would put there would be farmland.

Indeed, Army Corps of Engineers has online maps of the flood inundation zones that would result from the catastrophic failure of dams upstream from Bells Bend. The map that captures portions of riverfront holdings of the May Family graphically portrays that TSU's parcels would be underwater with Cumberland flooding:

Given that the new TSU property would likely become an extension of the aquatic lifeworld of the Cumberland River, it is clear that the developers were not going to have big plans beyond agriculture or selling it to Metro. TSU would be assuming some risk by taking control of the land. A huge portion of the 1,400 acres that the May family owns on Bells Bend is this kind of flood plane, and their bid to devote a large percentage of their holdings to a "conservation easement" in exchange for being allowed to build a second downtown does not look so genuinely green or highly principled after all.

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