Why is everybody in this town so damned pissed off all the time? What's there to yell about?
-- Developer during a community meeting, Treme (HBO, Season 4, Episode 1)
The juxtaposition between the community meeting portrayed on the HBO Series about post-Katrina New Orleans on Sunday night and the community meeting actually held in Hope Gardens the previous Saturday morning on the Mayor's proposed ballpark could not have been more stark. When Treme's community meeting scene opens venture capitalist/developer Nelson Hidalgo is sitting at the back of a crowd itself angered by the proposed closing of live music venues to make way for a new jazz center. A local resident is standing and shouting at a panel of planners against having what "rightfully" belongs to the neighborhood "gentrified" instead of "rejuvenated". That's when the developer leans over to another character wanting to know why a project that raises people's property values pisses those same people off.
Saturday's meeting in Hope Gardens was attended largely by Metro Council members and Metro government insiders, but I would characterize the community turn-out as anemic relative to other community meetings I attended over the years. There was no shouting from the floor. There were no off-the-cuff questions raised from those in attendance. Instead, CM Erica Gilmore circulated question forms that were filled out and passed to three of the four presidents of local neighborhood associations (the three that had already declared unqualified and unquestioned support for a new ballpark). There was PowerPoint. There were baseball metaphors. It was all monitored and controlled.
Don't misunderstand me. I had a sharp exchange before the meeting started with CM Gilmore who is not happy with my online criticism her recent projects. And then after the meeting was over I was bull-rushed by a free-range rude council member. But the meeting itself was sedate, polished and banal.
During our conversation, CM Gilmore acknowledged that she had gotten the questions I have raised previously in email correspondence, and she encouraged me to write them down on her yellow slips of paper for the presidents to ask. I told her that I was not going to rewrite any questions there because I considered the meeting a circus designed to generate an appearance of community engagement without having to deal with the real messiness of the democratic process. It came across as a filtered farce requiring no accountability to North Nashvillians, many of whom resent being left out of the planning process most of the time.
She has my questions already. I have yet to get her answers. Saturday's meeting was meant to dress the windows.
So the contrast between the realistic meeting I saw portrayed in fiction on Sunday night and the concocted community meeting actually held the Saturday previous was unmistakable.
I came away Saturday morning with growing perception that there is so much about this proposal that we do not know. It was generally the same presentation that was made in October at the Farmers Market. My impression was that most of the same people there on Saturday were at the October meeting. That would make sense given the ridiculous timing of both meetings.
Would the unknown agreements and hidden agendas likely driving a plan introduced less than a month ago cause popular backlash if information did get out over time? The Mayor's supporters are not taking the chance by extending the planning process out past mid-December. They are ramming this through. I hear ballpark supporters talk of having to show up for council's public hearing. I am not sure anyone else can slow it down at this point. The community and concerns are boxed out.
However, there were a few new developments that I did learn about Saturday, some of them prompted by questions from the floor (which were generally good, but not nearly as good or as many as the ones I heard during the October Q&A):
- Architects and planners had not considered pedestrian access across Rosa Parks Boulevard in the initial proposal. The question about Rosa Parks came from the floor. Finance Director Rich Riebeling admitted that they had not looked at Rosa Parks in the the original plan, but that they would. The architect present nodded his head and quickly started jotting notes. They did say that they do have access plans for Jefferson St, although they were not specific about what exactly they were going to do to make it safe for pedestrians (it is an acknowledged death trap).
- MDHA funds are available to help finance the ballpark. Presenters did not disclose what those funds are currently being used for or the impact elsewhere of freeing them up to pay for a ballpark. I have said it before: MDHA is a shadow government, and we may never get any accountability as to how those funds are deployed and distributed.
- The architect acknowledged concerns about flooding and said that we should consider the ballpark a "retention pond" in any future flood. While he told the gathering that his team is very well aware of the flooding in the ballpark area, he gave no specifics on how much more or less water the ballpark might contain than the flood plain currently holds. This continues to be a big question in my mind. I will not feel safe unless the "retention pond" holds at least as much as the vacant land does now.
- Mr. Riebeling acknowledged growing concerns about parking in Germantown. He repeated the same wishful thinking that if developers orient the park towards downtown and build a parking garage, then ballpark patrons would be more likely to stay out of the neighborhoods. He did add that if after construction parking begins to be a problem in Germantown, then reserved residential parking would be an option this administration would pursue. Unless CM Gilmore has a change-of-heart, she would seem to be at odds with Mr. Riebeling on this point.
- Mr. Riebeling said that both private developers (including Nashville Sounds owners) will make major announcements in the coming week about their contributions to the project.
- The Sounds ballclub remained as conspicuously absent from this meeting as they have been from every other meeting regarding a ballpark that Metro would build for their benefit. We now have a context for that cop-out: the owner equates minimal public exposure with staying out of politics. I see their evasion (or is it neglect?) as the extension of politics by other means (with apologies to Carl von Clausewitz).
- Mr. Riebeling said that Metro is pursuing the private-public partnership because he is not aware of any other city with a stadium where it is not being done. Maybe he should do some more homework, because there are cities where such a partnership does not play.
Joint council committees are expected to discuss this plan early in the coming week. Little time left for any yelling. That likely suits the developers just fine.