Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Sulphur Dell "community meeting" made ballpark look like done deal, but audience posed hardball questions that require quality-of-life answers

Thursday afternoon's community meeting sponsored by Metro Planning and the Mayor's Office on the latter's plans--with an assist from the state--to build a new Sulphur Dell ballpark was a reveal of information they had been playing close to the vest. As quoted in the Tennessean, I came away from the meeting feeling guardedly optimistic, but not because of the info I got from the concept's unveiling. What impressed me most--regardless of the marketing spin put on a new ballpark by Metro planners, Metro Finance Director Rich Riebeling and a cast of architects and designers--was the quality of questions asked by the audience during the Q&A session after the pitch. At one point during the Q&A, Mr. Riebeling quipped that he was hoping for more "softball questions". I came away feeling that if a ballpark does get approved it will not be because ordinary Nashvillians neither failed to ask critical questions nor neglected to hold Metro government accountable.

South Davidson State Rep Jason Powell:
owns property in Hope Gardens
The questions asked were even more noteworthy than the turn-out, which the Mayor's supporters and pro-ballpark minions (many of whom met with the Mayor's Office before the 2p community meeting and donned red "Sulphur Dell" t-shirts) are spinning as impressive. Admittedly, the meeting seemed well-attended. There were approximately 100 chairs set up for the event. By the time the meeting started the audience was standing room only. I would charitably add 100 people standing to those seated. The total was likely somewhere around 200 (which is what the Tennessean estimated). Planning officials opened the meeting by saying that they were aware of the inconvenient scheduling of the meeting for working people and by promising to have more community meetings that others will be able to attend.

CM Walter Hunt: buoyed by campaign donations
and a catbird seat on the Planning Commission
According to Finance Director Riebeling's count, there were approximately 20 elected Metro and State officials present. I would add to that maybe a dozen from the news media. At least a half a dozen planners and around a dozen support staffers and assistants were also there. When I take those factors into account, I would guess that there were likely around 100-150 citizens, many in suits, there. The troubling question is: how many more could have shown up if this media circus were not held in the middle of the afternoon on a work day?

While I did not submit any questions myself, the audience queries touched on most of the concerns I expressed last week (planners asked the audience to present their questions on cards and hand them to the front). At least a dozen, maybe more critical and thoughtful questions oriented toward quality of life concerns in the community were asked.

Here is the information I learned that addressed the questions I asked last week:

  1. "Complete Streets" and parking?

  2. The planner receiving question cards from the audience observed that queries about impact on parking seemed the most popular. I would add, "As they should be". This scale of development has the potential to be a dramatic day-to-day problem for the communities along the Jefferson Street and Rosa Parks corridors to the north and west of the project (the Sounds are said to want the ballpark to be in use 365 days a year for "nontraditional" events). All that the planners and developers seemed to be able to hope was that people would be motivated to utilize 17,000 parking spaces Downtown that they said are available during evening ball games. They also said that the distance from the Gulch and from Downtown garages and lots is "walkable", without any reference to infrastructural changes to sidewalks and streets that would discourage auto traffic and encourage pedestrian traffic. Building a ballpark without sizable upgrades to thoroughfares would be purely symbolic as well as discouraging of Complete Streets.

    Mr. Riebeling said that he expects the impact on the North End neighborhoods to be "minimal" going into the first season. However, in the event that parking does start to be a problem for residents, "Metro will take steps to deal with it", said Riebeling. The problem with that is that it is probably too late for us to deal with it. At that point the Sounds and developers within the footprint will be lobbying and leveraging Metro to allow fans to park in any convenient space because their primary interest is in maximizing their attendance before, during and after ballgames. We need a plan for any scenario now. Not after the build happens and the profit motive blooms full.

  3. The North Nashville Community Plan?

  4. No mention was made of the relationship between a ballpark and the North Nashville Community Plan. Will it come up in future meetings Metro Planning said they will schedule in the community? The lack of consideration was further evidence to me that the first "community meeting" had more to do with marketing to the media and setting the tone for future discussions. I can say this: architects said that their intent is to blend the new development with the history of the area much like the ballpark will be blended with the greenway that currently slices through Sulphur Dell. The team insisted on the name "ballpark" instead of "stadium" based on their belief that a small facility connoted by the former can integrate the communities. They said that they see "a gap" between Downtown and Germantown and Salemtown. They intend the ballpark to fill that gap. If they do intend "to knit" these neighborhoods together, they will have to be cognizant of the North Nashville Community Plan.

    The Mayor's Office of Neighborhoods Director Courtney Wheeler was there bouncing between Metro big shots. I'll be interested to see if she shows up to the promised community meetings in the neighborhoods to interact with and listen to actual neighbors. MOON should be accountable for respecting the plans upon which the neighborhoods rely to guide and to check development and growth. MOON should not strictly be whipping up support for a brick-and-mortar accomplishment to suit the political aspirations of the Mayor.

  5. Flood mitigation and neighborhood impact?

  6. Mr. Riebeling said that the Mayor's Office is "keenly aware" of the need to "manage" potential flooding. He and the architects underscored the point that most of the built space on the footprint would be above the 2010 flood stage. Architects also said that the drains under the ballfield could handle some of the run-off. That may satisfy prospective tenants and business owners of a ballpark development, but it provides little assurance for those of us in the neighborhoods. If the ballpark is going to be built on flood plain, but high enough to stay above flood stage, the water will be pushed somewhere else, perhaps higher into Salemtown and Germantown than the 2010 crests. The notion that drains can handle a catastrophic flood that backed up the storm sewers in 2010 is insulting to the intelligence of those of us who lived here in 2010.

  7. Mass transit strategy?

  8. A similar type of shuttle service as that used for Titans games will serve a new Sulphur Dell from Downtown. Architects played up the south side greenway (which, as "integrated", will be opened to ticket holders and closed to the general public during ballgames) and several ballpark entrances facing pedestrian access to Downtown. The team did not mention any strategies to limit car access from Jefferson Street to the north, although they explicitly said they expect North End residents to walk to games. I am unconvinced that they have a real strategy outside of hope.

  9. Jobs strategy?

  10. Finance Director Riebeling deferred questions about team operations hires to the Sounds, although he did say that he believed the Sounds envisioned additional jobs at Sulphur Dell. He said he sees the construction jobs as more important to address North Nashville job needs. It sounded like the same pie-in-the-sky predictions of the Dean administration in the past. No bold strategies mentioned beyond saying that some council members would make sure that minority and women owned contractors would get a fair share of construction jobs.

  11. Youth programs and service opportunities?

  12. The question did not come up. The Sounds did not have a representative to speak.

One question that came up audibly 2 or 3 times from Germantown residents had to do with fireworks, which are a staple out Sounds games (or any other sporting event nowadays). Mr. Riebeling told the crowd that this was an "operations question" that the Sounds would need to address after construction of the ballpark. The planning team insisted that the situation of lights and amplifiers mitigate any bother for local residents.

The elephant in the room that generally went unaddressed as to specifics was the impact on the Metro budget and on delivery of other Metro services. Mr. Riebeling told those in attendance that the Sounds think Sulphur Dell is a good location and that they were willing to put "real" and "deep" financial commitment into the project. The devil is in the legislation that the Mayor's Office says they plan to introduce to a generally compliant council in the coming weeks. Once that happens we will start to see the potential impact unfold.

Finally, planners and architects were throwing around names like "Capitol District" and "Ballpark District", saying that they had heard that we were using them. I have already shared my view that "District" is the most overused and boring label for communities in Nashville. I don't use either term, and I have not seen either one used very much in our particular lifeworld. Why not be more creative? How about calling the surrounding neighborhoods, "Capitol Dell"? Anything that does not have the term "district" but mirrors who we are and have been historically suits me.

The impression I was left with was that this plan is a done deal just waiting to be tied up in a bow by the State of Tennessee. If this ballpark is inevitable, the neighborhoods had better start writing, calling and cajoling Metro Council now to make sure that their quality-of-life concerns are written into the ballpark legislation. It may be a waste of time and energy to oppose and to fight a new ballpark. So, I would suggest that we leverage and push to insure that architects and planners design the kind of ballpark that will be the best neighbor to all of us who will have to live with the burdens and the inconveniences it creates.

UPDATE: video of the entire hour-long meeting posted on YouTube.


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