Friday, September 26, 2014

The Gulch's suspended luxury sidewalk--reanimiated by a new funding scheme--is still a bridge too far

It's back. The Mayor's audaciously opulent pedestrian bridge--which is actually a terraced sidewalk suspended across Gulch train tracks by cables--is back. And it now has a higher price tag than it did last winter (up to $18 million from $16 million), when the proposal went down in flames in Metro Council due to Hizzoner's attempt to raid the funds dedicated to bridge and sidewalk maintenance, endangering the upkeep and installment of routine sidewalks everywhere else. Jerry Maynard jumped in to request a deferral of the bill, which probably averted an embarrassing trouncing for the Mayor. Reluctant project sponsor, Erica Gilmore, agreed to defer.

Rather than relying on the council this time, Hizzoner took his case straight to The Gulch's business and residential community under the banner "Connect Nashville." At last count, the Gulch had 2,000 residents, mind you, but somehow connecting them to downtown constitutes "Connect[ing] Nashville".

On a parallel note: the Mayor skipped a packed townhall meeting last month in North Nashville called "Nashville Unites" regarding police militarism and brutality in African American communities. That Jeff St. meeting was focused on bringing Nashville together for positive change. But the Mayor could not make time for that meeting. Somehow he made time for the "Connect Nashville" meeting, despite the fact it had nothing to do with bringing Nashville together. He would rather connect than unite.

He always has been a risk-averse Mayor more focused on new and neat capital projects than on messy interaction with dissatisfied constituents. And his comments indicated that he was right at home at The Gulch pep rally:

The pedestrian bridge would serve as a critical link in that network of walkable, bikeable paths. It's the difference between the Gulch being included in the vision of a better downtown or not .... For pedestrians the Gulch is virtually isolated from downtown, and the pedestrian bridge would solve that. It would also serve as a destination itself, much like a park. It would attract people to relax or to be entertained with green space and seating areas. It should not be a plain straight bridge when it can serve a much greater purpose.

What a departure from the North Capitol community meetings on the new Sounds ballpark plan, where the Mayor's representatives and Metro planners barely even addressed the community's auto traffic concerns. Despite the fact that many of us here want to see a real dedication to complete streets (which integrate safe walkability and bikeability) at First Tennessee Park, the Mayor's forces bulldozed through our concerns to get quick approval for the development so that he can throw out the first pitch next April 17 when the Sounds take the field for the first time. But when it comes to the Gulch and approval of a luxury sidewalk, complete streets are critical.

The Mayor's other point--that the sidewalk would be be more park or greenspace than sidewalk--is a hard sell. Greenspace-starved Jefferson Street in North Nashville could use a park-over to minimize the blighting effects of the interstate that cuts through neighborhoods (our lone pedestrian bridge reflects that blight) Park-overs are generally super-sized land bridges, not pedestrian sidewalks with a few places to sit. To ask us to believe that Mayor Dean is creating a park with a sidewalk is an insult to our intelligence and to real park-overs everywhere.

Hizzoner's brave new proposal is not to raise taxes but to dedicate the taxes already collected from business and property owners to the project.

So, is this proposal any different than the first? Not really. Mayor Dean is merely robbing Peter to pay Paul. The bridge funding plan really is a gimmick, catalyzed by smoke and mirrors. It is budgetary sleight of hand, making it seem like no one gets hurt.

In his Gulch speech, the Mayor defended spending the money on the new Gulch sidewalk insisting that it would promote growth downtown whose benefits would then trickle down to suburban Davidson County. He encouraged Gulch residents to argue that point with critics of the plan. It is the same argument he lobs to promote lavishing public funds--without raising taxes, but with diminished Metro budget returns--on any of his big ticket capital items downtown.

With a sufficient number of sexy downtown builds to judge now, the question we should be asking ourselves is, "Do you feel the benefits trickling in yet?" From where I sit in North Nashville, I'm not seeing benefits that serve citizens trickling into Salemtown. Libraries and community centers are still on restricted hours. Schools in the area want for resources. I have to wonder when our brush pile will be picked up, proper bus stops will be installed and pot holes will be fixed. So, why should I support a luxury sidewalk for tourist-oriented downtown if North Nashville does not get one, too?

The taxes that would have otherwise gone to help fund services that all of us benefit from are going to be held in abeyance to pay for infrastructure enjoyed only by Gulch residents and the tourists who frequent the hotels and downtown hot spots. Could near North Nashville (or any other urban ring neighborhood) get the same deal? Could our taxes be withheld from the Metro budget to build a luxurious pedestrian bridge even without the same concentration of tourists enjoyed by the Gulch?

I doubt it. Karl Dean would not make the offer to any neighborhood outside downtown that does not have the cash flow in hand. Dedicating these funds is a net tax break for the Gulch: the buying power of their revenues gets a bump with this assist from Karl Dean. So, again, why should I support Metro's latest gilded excess designed to indulge downtown's bloated elite class? Rather than expressing the avarice of trickle-down benefits, why can't the Mayor spread the wealth around liberally? Why can't Gulch land owners and merchants continue to kick in their share of revenues for the benefit of us all or be decent enough to leverage their own tax increase to pay for this sidewalk?

The Mayor's argument that he will not be raiding Metro's bridges and sidewalks fund--as he proposed to do last winter--is moot. The fact that it took an embarrassing defeat of one of Mayor Dean's more titillating capital projects for him to kick in money for ordinary sidewalks in neighborhoods should tell you what you need to know about him: he does not care about communities beyond those that attract tourists, beyond those with the money to finance campaigns.

So, Karl Dean is going to start working to peel off votes of CMs who previously expressed opposition, likely with promises of future spending on neighborhoods in various districts. He seems already to have peeled off one CM who shouted the loudest against the bridge last winter: Charlie Tygard, who has always crumbled at the slightest hint of giving tax breaks to developers anyway.

Bridge or no bridge there is a silver lining. The positive takeaway from the coarseness of this plan is the insight of what it takes the get this Mayor to consider spending money on infrastructure outside of downtown: vocal, organized, sometimes angry opposition. There is no courthouse good will absent the pressure to make him care. Neighborhood leaders have to stay well-organized to stop not just the actual bulldozers but the virtual ones, too.


  1. "Greenspace-starved Jefferson Street in North Nashville" Really? Ever heard of the Bicentennial Mall?

  2. You mean the mall that is at the very eastern end of Jeff St.? Hadley Park is on western end. What about the other over 2 miles of roadway with very little greenspace nearby?