Monday, January 13, 2014

What goes for NYC goes doubly for Nashville

New York City has a new progressive mayor to replace the neo-liberal Republican Mike Bloomberg, and noted architectural critic Michael Sorkin acknowledges the transition with an open letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio. I excerpt significant parts here because Nashville Mayor Karl Dean tends to mimic the "public-private partnership" approach to governance that Bloomberg exercised and at which Sorkin takes aim, calling it the "post-Reagan turn against government":

It's time to reintroduce communities into the planning process. New York must move beyond the oppositional model of planning that has too long dominated .... Although there is no contradiction in planning both inductively and deductively, our process is too skewed toward money and away from people: the capacity of neighborhoods to meaningfully participate in planning their own destinies—and that of the larger realms we all share—is fundamental. Wisdom doesn't belong to any particular group (although needs are best assessed locally), and a mayor must empower everyone ....

Let the de Blasio planning department pay better attention, return to the task of physical planning attuned to local desires, and more aggressively pursue architecturally significant outcomes. Instead of simply being the adjudicators of the circumstances for construction, our planners should produce more facts, more designs—and should set priorities that are both concrete and truly visionary.

For the past dozen years, the real power to plan has resided with the city's Economic Development Corporation, which, operating more like a private entity than a city agency, stands outside full scrutiny and control and acts as the mayor's creature. This tilt toward understanding government's role primarily as the facilitator of private initiatives has special consequences for the public realm—a space shared by the city's many publics—and it's time for a more transparent use of public money. There's something dispiriting about celebrating the fact that the beautiful Brooklyn Bridge Park was produced not by the Parks Department but by a special corporation financed by the inclusion of superluxe condos and a hipster hotel within it. Forcing the public realm to effectively produce its own revenues on the spot is a formula for assuring that the best public spaces will be in neighborhoods that can most afford them. The role of planning should be to equalize opportunity and community assets, and any system that either privatizes revenue collection or steers it too locally risks deepening the rift between our “two cities.”

The past two mayoral terms in Nashville drifted away from sustaining agencies in Metro government that advocate for community-based and neighborhood-based interests.

Says Dean: "Maximize tourism and entertainment"
Before Karl Dean took office and started remaking government into a public-private composite, the Mayor's Office of Neighborhoods acted as an arbiter between the community and municipal departments. Now most of the energy is going to the Mayor's Office of Economic and Community Development, an intimate partner of the Nashville Chamber of Commerce, which spearheads much of what passes for Metro policy. The Office of Neighborhoods has shrunk to the standing of PR gadget.

Consequently, Mayor Dean is experiencing blow-back from his seemingly singular dependence on economic development, and he is having to stave off questions concerning his spending on public infrastructure. There are perceptions that the Mayor is the Mayor of the more privileged parts of the city, but not of the entire city. Nashville has it's own reputation of being "two cities" to live down, but the leaders are not living it down gracefully. Take last week's Nashville Ledger:

Dean is quick to point out that the bulk of his spending plans have focused on basic infrastructure needs, such as sidewalks and paving, as well as projects that provide direct services to residents, including new police precincts, libraries, schools, parks, greenways, bikeways and open space ....

His capital spending plans have also invested $373 million in schools and allocated more than $40 million to improving Nashville’s walkability.

And a capital program begun in 2010 will spend more than $1 billion on a backlog of water, sewer and storm water infrastructure projects throughout Davidson County that were needed to preserve safe, clean drinking water.

But Hizzoner overplayed his hand. If I were Mayor and taking some heat for spending more on subsidizing big business than on serving the community, I would point out if I could how much more I have spent on sidewalks, library buildings and schools than the previous "Neighborhoods Mayor". To me it is telling that Karl Dean does not.

As for the spending on schools, what Mayor Dean failed to mention was that chunks of the $373 million went to aid his program of privatizing public schools by helping charter corporations and corporately-partnered "academies" effectively designed to limit public education for all.

Also, keep this in mind about the water infrastructure: it had been violating the Clean Water Act and getting negative attention from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation for years before Nashville made a concerted effort to upgrade components that predated Abraham Lincoln's administration. The Mayor was forced from the top-down to make changes to Metro Water infrastructure to avoid costly and embarrassing EPA fines that threatened the Nashville brand. There also might be a couple of Metro Council members who should get credit for their efforts at shepherding water upgrades and sensitizing constituents to the need for changes.

If Hizzoner really is not getting the benefit of the doubt on policy that seems focused on handing entitlements to wealthy special interests, then he has earned the reputation. The current planning process is overrun and corrupted by Mayor Dean's exclusive commitments to business over community. Developers continue to enjoy greater advantages over communities than ever before. Wealth tips the balance of power.

If reintroducing communities into the planning process and taking the spotlight off public-private partnerships goes for New York City, the idea goes doubly for Nashville. We have seen a 2-term stretch in which Karl Dean has acted like a mini-Mike Bloomberg and asserted business models over a more democratic community process that should have more influence over growth and development than currently allowed.


  1. I would agree that Dean is a corpocrat and favors welfare for wealthy corporations at the expense of average citizens.
    I also wonder where these "sidewalks" are? Neither he nor The Sidewalk Mayor did much of anything in my area.

    However, he has done some big things for ordinary neighborhoods.
    In 09 Metro bought 388 acres of farm land in Madison and incorporated it into Peeler Park. This year has seen the addition of 2 miles of greenway as well as more unpaved foot and horse trails at Peeler. However much credit must go to the Councilperson for Madison who tirelessly labored for this park.

    Also the acquisition of 600+ acres of farmland in Donelson, a magnificent tract which I have visited myself.

  2. While Dean and Riebeling purchased 600 acres in Donelson, these two absolutely refused to build city water lines to a handful of Hermitage homes whose owners have paid taxes for half a century. They must continue to use well water contaminated with e-coli. Why do we continue to give away millions to big business while ignoring loyal longtime citizens? The Hermitage councilman fought and fought for his constituents to have the basics, yet our mayor blew him off in favor of his rich millionaire buddies. Ask West Virginians. Fancy buildings, stadiums, bridges, and buses don't mean much if you cannot drink,bathe, or flush. Let's get our priorities in order Karl.