Thursday, January 30, 2014

While Nashville subsidizes a convention center for tourists it may end subsizing long-term care for its own elderly

Cities don’t have the expertise.
--Mayor Karl Dean's excuse for proposing to sell Metro-run
Bordeaux Long-Term Care to a private corporation

Taking care of tourists, selling out the elderly.
I do not know the history of public nursing home care in Nashville. I would not be surprised to learn that it grew out of the Depression-era New Deal or out of the civil rights revolutions of LBJ's Great Society. But I cannot say with certainty for now that I know those possibilities to be factual. [Note: see "Historical Update" added below].

I can say that when I started following a community-based organization here in Nashville in the early 1990s, Metro-run nursing homes were in existence. That organization, Tying Nashville Together, conducted public hearings with official's regarding Metro's nursing homes and even challenged Mayor Phil Bredesen to raise the pay of Metro's nursing home workers to help assure quality care for the elderly.

So, Metro has been about the business of operating nursing homes for some time now to my knowledge. Unless at least 3 administrations have been malfeasant--including Karl Dean's 2 terms in executive office--and they all hired assisted living staffs that were not qualified for the positions, then how can Mayor Dean now claim that our city has no expertise at running nursing homes? The city has a track record and institutional knowledge in the field. What exactly is he expressing to past residents and their families about the care they received from Metro Nashville's employees?

The context of Mayor Dean's quote is plain, according to the Tennessean. They are clear that, by selling, Nashville will join a list of other red-state cities to bail on public nursing home care, and in the process Nashville will save $10.5 million (maybe to help offset a more expensive new ballpark at Sulphur Dell?). The entire quote from Karl Dean then follows: "In this environment, city-operated facilities just aren’t competitive....Cities don’t have the expertise."

The Mayor's comments belie the Bordeaux facility's own introduction:

Bordeaux Long-Term a regional leader in the provision of intermediate and skilled healthcare, rehabilitation therapy and palliative care. We are committed to providing our residents with the highest quality healthcare in a comfortable and caring environment. With an impressive team of compassionate caregivers, the Bordeaux Long-Term Care staff is trained to provide a broad range of healthcare services and rehabilitative therapies while promoting creativity, innovation and clinical excellence.

Again, how can residents and their families at Bordeaux have faith in any of these words they might have read in the past when the Mayor himself insinuates that Metro does not exactly know what it is doing in assisting living treatment? What would the Mayor say about Bordeaux's authenticity when he claims a private company can serve residents better than they have? That Metro Nashville was never really genuine about the high quality of care provided to its own residents?

Besides Karl Dean poisoning his own well with the claim that the city's nursing care delivery cannot keep up with private companies, his logic is shot full of holes. Did the city have the expertise that tourism industry giants like Gaylord Entertainment have when it subsidized the building and maintenance of a new convention center and hotel? He did not think twice about Nashville competing with private companies for tourism dollars when he built and operated Music City Center, which serves actual Nashvillians measurably less directly than long-term facilities do.

Maybe it is just easier for Karl Dean to give up on elderly Nashvillians because they have a lot less disposable income than tourists and the tourism industry does. Lest you assume this is no big deal, just remember that governments, in privatizing their services, have screwed up service delivery: utilities, prisons, schools, the military, you name it. There is some kind of horror story involved in every effort to privatize that I am aware of. And the casualties are usually common folk.

I await further details on Hizzoner's latest privatization plan, but it looks despicable, even vicious, right now.


Bordeaux Long-Term Care, Metro Nashville's current 420-bed nursing home on 121 acres northwest of downtown, began in 1893 as the successor to the poor farm. It provided various medical services to residents as Bordeaux Hospital until 1967 when its focus became long-term care.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

An urban core mindset extends beyond one generation regardless of what developers say

The times Tennessean real estate reporter Bill Lewis has written about Salemtown he shows a habit of going back to the same recently arrived developers rather than talking to different people around our neighborhood. As a result, he tends to write slanted and unrepresentative copy about what happens here.

One of the developers on whom Lewis relies is Aerial's Britnie Turner, who saturated Salemtown with homogeneous three-story "umbilical chord duplexes" in order to attract young buyers. Last September Lewis gave her credit for morphing Salemtown from "fringe" to a "community of rooftop hot tubs". Of course, we are so much more than a community of rooftop hot tubs.

In Lewis's latest piece on Salemtown, he quotes Turner as saying that the "mindset" to move to the urban core is that of "a generation". She does not specify who that generation is, but we can deduce from her comments in last year's article and the context of this one that 20-to-30-year-olds are those to whom she markets her product.

Given that we moved to Salemtown a decade ago and I am 50 years old, the claim that the mindset is exclusively that of the younger generations is patently false. I know Salemtown residents who also do not fit in Turner's one generation.

Although, it may fit in with Aerial Development's agenda: to only build homes for an exclusive group of young adults not looking to lay down roots here and not likely to have children of school age. The absentee developer's agenda for growth in the urban core may be as homogeneous as her building stock is. Aerial also seems to be getting criticism in East Nashville, according to a separate news report:

Jerry Vandiver has lived in east Nashville for 28 years. He owns three homes there and is proud of the area.

"We want the people who move into it to be proud as well," Vandiver said.

But, lately, he said he has seen historic homes replaced by brand new two- and three-story duplexes.

"They don't fit the look of the neighborhood and the charm of east Nashville," Vandiver said.

Now, his homeowners' association is collecting surveys from neighbors and plans to ask Metro for a conservation overlay expansion. It would require special permission and standards before tearing down historic homes.

"You cannot build umbilical cord duplexes once the overall is in place," Vandiver said.

Britnie Turner, the owner of Aerial Development Group, builds those types of duplexes and says they help accommodate growth.

"Nashville is working very hard to welcome newcomers. Where are they gonna go? Most of them want to live within the urban core," Turner said.

She also says growth is a good thing.

"It's better for the city's tax base. It increases the walkability, and that promotes healthier lifestyles," she said.

Salemtown received a conservation overlay last year, so Aerial and other developers have to slow the pace of tear downs and the insipid cloning of their hot-tub towers. Time will tell whether they have taken us to the tipping point of losing diversity.

In her comments about growth in East Nasty, Ms. Tuner mentions nothing about diversity or other quality of life issues as fitting within her priorities. Growth can be good when it is balanced by these other priorities. But growth is not good in and of itself. It is neutral in and of itself. It can be good or bad depending on whether it is allowed to explode in extremes.

Salemtown has been diverse ethnically, culturally, economically and generationally in the time we have lived here. It is getting less diverse, and I am concerned that one of the reasons is the development that has happened recently by companies like Aerial who admit that their offerings are suited to a single generation. Salemtown has been more than just a temporary layover for lifestyle-oriented young adults between their cap-and-gown commencement and the grown-up gravitas of a future home in a Franklin or Brentwood exurb (thus, the Mayor's calls for a regional transit plan to help them to keep transitioning out of town without the cars). I believe that some companies, strictly bent on money, would like to flip Salemtown from a plural community to a stage along the path to somewhere else.

We need developers committed to market to many different types of people, not just one generation. Or maybe we just need more builders to check Aerial Development's attempted cornering of the housing market here. A diversity of developer priorities would be healthier for us. That way people will choose to move here and stay, even when they tire of their rooftop hot tubs or their wishes for a simple place to crash close to their clubbing spots.

There is enough of a niche for a young adult generation here without reducing the entire neighborhood to that niche. One way or the other, Salemtown is not going to survive, let alone prosper, on just one generation.

Monday, January 27, 2014

A few reflections for today's ceremonial groundbreaking for a new ballpark at Sulphur Dell

Leading off in the wrong direction: new ballpark's plate will face other way.

This evening Mayor Karl Dean is holding his soiree (today shutting down 4th Avenue and two state parking lots) to break ground on his new underwhelming ballpark for the Nashville Sounds. He has ordered infield dirt and home plate be set up on 4th, about a less than block away from where the new home plate will likely be. Fittingly, home plate is facing the wrong way. It is a metaphor for me on how this process has started on the wrong foot. Token, purely symbolic attempts were made to invite community buy-in. If this project starts going pear-shaped with cost overages or construction delays, Hizzoner and a few North Nashville council members are likely going to regret not getting more popular support before moving forward.

Instead, they have expressed garden variety meanness toward anyone with a critical question. Admittedly, it comes with the territory in politics. You ask questions about the Mayor's rapid bus plan, you get labeled as conservative and anti-mass-transit. You ask questions about the Mayor's Fairgrounds sell-off, you get labeled as anti-neighborhood and regressive. You ask questions about the Mayor's new convention center, you get accused of wanting to hold back growth in Nashville.

Likewise, you ask questions about the Mayor's ballpark and the process he undertook to make it happen in less than 6 months, and your love of baseball is questioned. (In some cases the invective is uglier). What is particularly troubling is when the meanness is expressed in emotional moments by your own council member, whose public comments seem to suggest that she only considers the emails of supporter of projects that she supports. It may be, as Erica Gilmore argues, "a strange kind of love of baseball" that insists that Metro government be accountable to constituents for its capital projects even when they involve the national pastime, but to question people's deeply held devotion to something when you cannot even seem to spell correctly the name of the ballpark whose history you claim to be celebrating in your new capital project smacks of hypocrisy. Questioning someone else's love of baseball or history when you don't seem to have a grasp on either yourself amounts to being the bad sport.

For her love of the game, I'd be interested to know whether CM Gilmore has put her deposit down on season tickets in order to financially support the new ballpark she claims will "revive" Jefferson Street.

Are you crying?
There's no crying in baseball!
That is merely one of the questions I have going into this afternoon's groundbreaking. They deserve answers, not more hyperbole. Has the Mayor done the work on examining the area for archaeologically sensitive sites? Has soil analysis been done to test for contamination? Where will any toxic soil be dumped? What is Mayor Dean doing to protect historic buildings nearby? What will we do about traffic and parking? What are contingency plans for future catastrophic floods? There are a host of other questions I have heard asked that have yet to receive answers. Rather than lashing out at people who ask questions like this, rather than impugning their motives the Mayor's Office and its minions in Friends of Sulphur Dell should offer clear answers. This is baseball. It concerns our neighborhoods. We deserve more than tempestuous politics.

UPDATE: The Associated Press in a story on today's event repeats a meme that a new ballpark will end the 50-year-old deterioration of Jefferson Street. It also makes a claim that I have never read before: that Sulphur Dell was demolished due to the construction of the interstate, which is a dozen or so blocks away from the old ballpark site.

Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and the Nashville Sounds baseball team are hosting a ceremonial groundbreaking for a new minor league ballpark that will return Nashville baseball to its historic home.

The new park in Sulphur Dell will be near the site of an old downtown ballpark that was demolished more than 40 years ago to make way for an interstate and redevelopment. Those changes cut off the historically black neighborhoods of North Nashville from downtown, helping to drive those neighborhoods into an economic slump.

Residents and officials hope the new ballpark will help revive North Nashville, especially the central business district on Jefferson Street.

It looks like whoever wrote this piece is drawing information from a December report which made the debatable claim that our community "never recovered" from demolition of Sulphur Dell and the construction of the interstate.

The Tennessee Tribune offered a contrasting point of view to the AP last year:

“The interstate was only the beginning of the problem,” said Janice Jones, a retired nurse who lived in North Nashville for 55 years. “These hooligans moved in and starting committing crimes. It used to be safe here 40 years ago. Black folks were supporting each other and businesses were thriving.”

Jones paused to collect herself. “Now they’re over here killing each other and abusing drugs. It’s ridiculous.” Kassir agrees. “We showed unity back then. We supported each other. But somewhere in the years after segregation and Civil Rights, we lost our way and turned on each other. This neighborhood hasn’t been the same since.”

Not everything on Jefferson Street has gone downhill. In 1994, an organization was formed by longtime Jefferson Street residents, business owners, homeowners and developers called Jefferson Street United Merchants Partnership to provide a jump-start to Jefferson Street.

I am sure that the Mayor's Office has no problem with the AP notion that a ballpark may save Jefferson Street neighborhoods after 50 years, thus making Karl Dean our superhero, but the facts and the truth seem to be more complex and nuanced. And the Mayor has not been attentive to North Nashville as a rule of his two terms.

As far as I can tell the folding of the previous minor league fanchise had more to do than the building of the interstate with the demolition of Sulphur Dell. And to claim that in 50 years Jefferson Street neighborhoods have done nothing but decline is blind to reality. The AP should get a grip and stop inventing news.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

What do crime stats really tell us about crime in Nashville?

Recently, a local law firm got my permission to use one of my photos on their website. This happens periodically with the volume of photos I take along with my general willingness to share. A couple of years ago a Starbucks art designer asked for permission to use another photo.

I visited the law firm's website to get a feel for how they used the photo, but once I got there I was more interested in a recent post to their blog regarding crime in Nashville.

The gist is that we are told that crime is down in Nashville, but we should not let appearances fool us. Crimes stats, as with any stats, can be manipulated to express messages that we would not necessarily take away if we viewed them raw or packaged in other ways:

Some of you may already be familiar with COMPSTAT, a statistics based approach to crime fighting employed famously in the fictional Baltimore Police of HBO’s The Wire ....

I found out that the Metro Nashville Police Department had engaged the COMPSTAT program in its war on crime, which left me wondering where the similarities ended. If you believe the Nashville Police Chief, and his press release repeated in the Tennessean, Nashville crime is low. However, this recent New York Times article, in which retired police officers admitted that police officers, and even detectives, manipulated statistics under enormous departmental pressure, makes me question: is crime really down? Doesn't feel like it to me.

Importantly, I think the post is also suggesting that we rely on our own experience and anecdotal knowledge of the impact on the lives of those connected to us. While packaged as more objective and reliable, stats can be juiced and interpreted to pull talking points benefiting Metro officials who present them to us.

Do you believe crime in Nashville is really down? Or are the stats glossing over real problems that go ignored in your community?

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Do ballpark "partnerships" shelter developers from meeting their public obligations?

Mayor Karl Dean loves him some public-private partnerships. He touts them consistently when he is speaking from the stump. No less about the new Sulphur Dell ballpark "partnership":

I think the great thing about this is, because this is a public-private partnership — and it truly is a public-private partnership — you have two public entities, the state and the city government, along with two private entities involved. And because of the revenue generated and because of the contributions made by the Sounds and because of some different payments that we're already making that will go away, that will largely cover the cost of issuing the bonds.

Given his perennial commitment to them, I just always assumed he believed that all of those emerging on his watch were "truly public-private partnerships."

But for all of the positive spin of public-private partnerships, they have a dark side, which is rarely expressed in the media until after damage is done. Partnerships usually are not representative of or accountable to constituents since they rely on executive fiat behind closed doors to happen. By the time they get to legislative branches where constituents have more influence they are full-steam juggernauts. Sympathetic and loyal legislators run interference for the execs and kill most chances for public vetting.

Sports venue projects, even minor league baseball parks, are allowed to operate under the security of public-private partnerships, especially when they are run as non-profits, especially when they are overseen by tax-exempt governmental agencies. In Reno, Nevada the triple-A baseball team has a new ballpark, but the county government has been unsuccessful collecting unpaid taxes from the ballpark developer because of the partnership:

The “available legal remedies” for collecting the debt, however, are limited because of the public-private partnership involved in the ballpark’s construction, according to Assistant District Attorney Paul Lipparelli.

Typically, if a property owner stops paying taxes, the county can file a lien, auction off the building and use the proceeds to collect on the back taxes. But in this case, the Reno Redevelopment Agency — a tax exempt governmental entity — owns the ballpark. The agency leases the ballpark back to the developers for $1 a year.

Because the developers are using the tax exempt property for a profit-making enterprise, they owe property taxes....But the county can’t just file a lien, it would need to file a lawsuit to collect the back taxes.

At the heart of the tax dispute are the terms of the original deal the developers has with the Reno Redevelopment Agency to build the ballpark. Under that agreement, the developers expected up to $50 million in property tax revenue generated by growing tax collections within the redevelopment district to repay the construction loan. But property values tanked in the recession, leaving the agency in severe financial distress and with no way to make the payments to the developers.

In lieu of not receiving that money, Nevada Land LLC simply stopped paying property taxes on the ballpark.

So, the speculated wealth, guaranteed by ballpark boosters to come back to the local community when they were drumming up support, failed to come back. The maze the returns on investments have to run is more convoluted than ballpark supporters divulge. The money has to negotiate quagmires caused by turns in the economy, make its way through minefields of legal stipulations and contract disputes and avoid obstacles put up by partnerships that do more to protect the partners than the constituents who may or may not enjoy benefits that trickle out.

Because of the speed and secrecy of the Sulphur Dell deal, because of the work of Karl Dean's loyalists on the council, we still are learning about the details of the arrangement. I do not know whether a foundation will oversee the for-profit activities of the Nashville Sounds or the developers. I do not know what sort of oversight Mayor's Office of Economic and Community Development will have over the development. For better or worse, we will eventually catch wind of the details, wherein the devils lie.

But the unpleasantness in Reno makes me wonder if Nashville is set up to lose a few shirts in the Sulphur Dell deal as well.

Friday, January 24, 2014

What is wrong with this picture?

I just received an email from CM Erica Gilmore announcing a reception. Despite the fact that she co-sponsored the bill for this ballpark project, there is an error that keeps coming up. See if you can spot it:

If the problem does not immediately leap the page, jump to a previous riddled ballpark email from her for hints. Again, this is not a new project for her; she has been lobbying for this for years. I assume that she, as co-sponsor, helped craft the council resolutions on it. So, what gives?

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Someone needs to kick this ballpark concept until it bleeds baseball

Practically no culture critics that I am aware of have weighed in on the Mayor's new Sulphur Dell ballpark design. That was not the case in 2006, when the Sounds and developers had a design for the Riverfront. I recall weeks of discussion about the design.

Christine Kreyling, co-author of The Plan of Nashville, wrote of the Sounds proposal at the time that it did not integrate the ballpark facility successfully with the other mixed-use development that was part of the project. Looking over the images released for Sulphur Dell, I wonder if Kreyling's opinion would be that different of Mayor Karl Dean's project for North Nashville. Rather than creating a cozy fit between ballpark, residential and parking garage, Sulphur Dell could be accused of repeating the "willy-nilly wedged blocks" of 2006 "Soundsville". Designers seemed to have fit the garage and the residential buildings more carefully along the greenway beyond the outfield wall, but the ballpark seems dropped down with little thought to continuity.

The ballpark in the Sulphur Dell plan itself looks like a low-profile afterthought, almost like the mission here is to express that this is strictly a real estate deal and not the resurrection of hollowed ground of primordial baseball diamonds of old (as went the marketing campaign went before the proposal was approved). In 2006, Kreyling reported that developers intended that residential and ballpark not strive for integration "in case at some point in the future the stadium is demolished." Is the same logic in effect at Sulphur Dell in 2014? Because the new ballpark seems to be strictly an expendable utility player on this field of dreams.

Kreyling also criticized the awkward way that the rounded shell of the 2006 grandstands "stuck on" a squared porch "diluted the strength of the building form." The Sulphur Dell proposal differs in that the rounded wall behind home plate is centered between blocks of its own squared porch instead of pulled toward a corner, but the style looks similar: the Dell's squared off porch seems to nullify the classic ballpark form.

Rather than emerging unmistakably streetside as a ballpark, the form seems to be swallowed into a blank stone wall. If you took the literal reference of the name of the place off the Jackson St. windows, would the building itself communicate "ballpark" or "baseball"? Or could the rounded shell that peeks out from its sandwich between blocks merely seem to be any building suiting any purpose at all? Indeed, the Jackson St. exterior looks like a hoary back wall to the development footprint to the degree that they could add to it a loading dock that would not appear to be out-of-place.

After the blight of Greer Stadium, Nashville may feel lucky to have any new ballpark design at all. But the one they are planning at Sulphur Dell seems to recede to the point of insignificance relative to the real estate around it. One reviewer of stadiums across the USA referred to the exterior of Titans' LP Field as "unspectacular", and I am struck by how the stone and glass skin of the new baseball park resemble points along the blasé hull of LP Field. If baseball in North Nashville history is as venerable, is as important as boosters of the Mayor's plan have insisted for weeks now, don't we deserve a more robust and unmistakable baseball aesthetic for the old ball game, befitting the history of Sulphur Dell?

UPDATE: one of the reasons that the ballpark part of the Sulphur Dell development is more utility than frontline may be because the Sounds club owner, Frank Ward, is more of a real estate mogul than a baseball guy. In a November interview, Mayor Karl Dean emphasized the Ward family's real estate credentials to insist that the real estate would succeed:

I think people need to remember that the current owners of the Sounds came into baseball with a background in real estate development. In fact, the son of Frank Ward, who's the principal owner of the Sounds, that's how he makes his living is real estate development and building student housing. So they have a lot of experience and we're very confident that they want this to move forward.

I don't have a problem with this family wanting to make some money on their real estate business, but the reality that the ballpark element in the development is downplayed and the appointments in the ballpark are meager suggests that baseball is not the focus that it should be.

When I look at Memphis's Autozone Park in contrast I think, "This looks like a park baseball people would build":

Monday, January 20, 2014

Civil rights not quite enough for Cooper?

Always anchor our external direct action with the power of economic withdrawal. Now, we are poor people, individually, we are poor when you compare us with white society in America. We are poor. Never stop and forget that collectively, that means all of us together, collectively we are richer than all the nations in the world, with the exception of nine.

Conservatives never seem to fail to express themselves awkwardly toward Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. We have seen it before among red-state Republicans, but it is no less true for Blue Dog Democrats. Nashville's Jim Cooper reportedly attended a local law firm's annual MLK fellowship breakfast today and asked one of Dr. King's comrades the following question:

What I hear driving questions like this is the Blue Dog assumption that market-based principles generally provide solutions for social problems better than government action does. The fiscal conservativism at the heart of the logic of Democrats like Rep. Cooper ideologically dresses down every other priority. Hence, "economic opportunity" is code for never binding an economic system that hums along on inequality, on inequities, on profound imbalances of power and influence, wealth and privilege, because the market fixes everything if allowed to.

Left wanting more?
To tell the truth there was rarely the bifurcation in the Civil Right Movement between economics and politics that Jim Cooper seems to be insinuating in his question. In fact, black history is filled with attempts to advance economic opportunity beyond the movement that showcased Dr. King's work, but that is a subject for another time.

The question of economic opportunity for people of color and poor people runs like a distinct thread through Dr. King's speeches and writings. All Rep. Cooper has to do is listen to or read them. Take the last speech MLK gave before his death on behalf of 1,300 striking sanitation workers in Memphis. The last half of that speech has two primary expressions. One is well known because it is recited over and over due to the tragedy of April 4, 1968: Dr. King tells his audience that despite threats, he does not fear anyone because he has been to the "mountaintop", looked over and "seen the Promised Land".

But the second aspect of the second half of that speech contains express appeals to the people's practicality and economic power to make the changes necessary to bring them greater freedom. Dr. King encourages them to stop buying Coca-Cola and Wonder Bread. He tell them to quit the banks of Downtown Memphis for ones that treat workers more equitably. He mentions black-owned insurance companies that would be more worthy of his movement's money than white ones.

His last speech prescribes economic opportunity. It expresses solidarity with underpaid, mistreated city workers. It constitutes a jeremiad against the city of Memphis and its mayor, who prohibited a union, refused to raise wages and allowed African-American workers to toil in unsafe conditions. The only way you could insinuate that this civil rights speech is not about economic opportunity is to ignore the speech (as well as every other speech that gives this one broader context).

I was not at this morning's breakfast, so I do not have knowledge of everything that Rep. Cooper said. Tweets are notoriously unreliable, even when posted by a pro journo, for judging comments in their entirety. However, I do understand the flawed Blue Dog logic. I have also been exposed to political hemming and hawing about Dr. King's beliefs, especially in January when it is politically expedient to seem pro-MLK with no strings attached.

However, when Metro Nashville Schools destroyed its custodians union by outsourcing service work, we did not hear a word from fiscally conservative Jim Cooper. Some might argue that collective bargaining is a civil right. Regardless of that question, others prey on my mind: does Rep. Cooper believe that cutting and outsourcing school custodians gives them greater economic opportunities? Does he believe that Dr. King was not striving toward economic opportunity for sanitation workers by standing by their strike? If we honestly strive to be like MLK, shouldn't we stand by unions in their hour of economic need?

The Civil Rights Movement did not need an economic opportunity movement to complete it. It was always about economic justice as much as it was committed to nonviolent dissent and political reform. It supported unions who fought for greater economic opportunities. For any Democrat to insinuate that it was incomplete without the Blue Dog brand of snake oil is in poor taste on this Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday.

Arguably, the Blue Dog could have done worse. At least Mr. Cooper did not hijack the commemoration to pimp a new bus rapid transit plan.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

"Cleveland's curse" could be North Nashville's curse if Amp is built

For the sake of argument, let's grant without question the major points east-west connector supporters are giving for building the Amp:

  1. Since Cleveland, which some ballyhoo as a success, is the model for Nashville's Amp, the odds are good that BRT on West End will succeed.
  2. Amp will increase growth along its corridor because all transit stops drive up the value of nearby land.

Even as I grant these arguments, the reality that remains represents the motive of my opposition to the east-west connector: it is not equitable transit. Proponents can call it "the first step" in regional transit if they wish, but repeating it over and over is no guarantee of more than one step. In fact, the logic of development would encourage keeping BRT rare to maximize the riches along a wealthy corridor. And who would blame East Nashvillians for trying to keep their Amp funds away from the risk of future northward BRT expansion? So, believing that Amp is a first step would be the height of gullibility.

And, ironically, Cleveland provides the case for being wary.

There are indications that Northeast Ohio is having problems expanding past the initial progress they have made. As proud as Clevelanders are reported to be of their BRT line (a.k.a., "HealthLine"), there are real questions as to whether they have the will to expand BRT to spread the benefits to others:

With some minor gripes aside, we all get to witness BRT success everyday. But, has the influx of “choice” riders to the HealthLine whet the appetite for another BRT line?

Certainly, at $200 million for 5 miles of infrastructure and hybrid buses, an award-winning BRT system is not cheap. But, this isn’t just infrastructure, it’s transformative, high-value infrastructure. The economic return is an estimated $4.3 billion for infill and redeveloped buildings on Euclid Avenue. It makes the case for a second act. But is there a will among the leadership at Greater Cleveland RTA, a city in its service area, and at the source of funding, NOACA, to build another BRT line in Northeast Ohio?

It took quite a bit of swimming upstream to get the Euclid BRT line funded (80% was federal and 20% a local match. The case was built more than a decade earlier in the Dual Hub Streetcar plan...).

So much has changed in the world since 2008 — much for the better in transit projects. Nearly every city in the U.S. is clamoring for a new streetcar line — and at least half a dozen, including Dallas, Charlotte and Cincinnati are poised to add lines soon to existing streetcars in Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Denver, and Portland.

Before the recent leadership change at NOACA, observers noted, there was no more juice to do a follow up project at transformative scale like the HealthLine ....

RTA's director of planning, Maribeth Feke, told CEOs for Cities where the transit agency could envision another BRT line. But does anyone else besides RTA see BRT as a catalyst for revitalizing old streetcar districts...? Without a concerted effort to the multi-year planning and development, it's unlikely the region will see another Bus-Rapid Transit line soon.

So, ballyhooed Cleveland has their beautiful BRT line, showcased by many, including Nashville's Amp proponents, but the wealth is not going to be spread around any time "soon". BRT is not expanding, even though the HealthLine garners positive national attention and mimicry.

Cleveland's limited progress does not bode well for progress in North Nashville, where I live.

Now explain to me again slowly why I should support, especially with my taxes, a BRT line that bypasses my community and pumps wealth into already wealthy communities with no guarantees of transit equity? Why should I look to Cleveland and be inspired to support Nashville's Karl Dean's Amp? Why should I wish to subsidize West End wealth when the political will to fight the same fight for North Nashville transit would likely be lacking after east-west BRT is built?

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Metro's Midtown "Open House" on the Amp threatened to turn into a town hall meeting earlier tonight

".... go to Cleveland. See what a mess it is."
Tonight's Midtown transit "open house" or "workshop" (or whatever officials are deciding to call it at the moment) nearly busted out into a full blown public hearing on the east-west connector after one person in the audience asked an Amp engineer who was finishing up at the podium if he would take questions from the floor.

The citizen expressed his opinion that he did not think that projections could be correct based on his own experience with metro transit. The engineer moved to the fellow and started answering his questions as if they were having a one-on-one, and someone else in the crowd spoke up and asked the engineer to use a microphone so everyone could hear him. The engineer declined to grab the mike and expressed his own wish that all questions be expressed at the tables.

I wondered why he seemed resistant to fielding some crowd questions before turning to the tables. As I saw it he could have answered and parlayed the group to dispersing more diplomatically without seeming so bent on individual conversation. If the reticence to discussing these issues is about controlling the rabble, it really does hit me the wrong way.

In the meantime, a third attendee spoke up and encouraged others present to go to Cleveland and see "the mess" that a similar system is there. Pitchforks were starting to emerge. Meeting organizers seemed on the edge of losing control to the masses.

But there was a lull, then some aside chatting, and before anyone else had a chance to take the floor, engineers regained control and got those in attendance to the tables where different members of their team could manage expectations.

Crisis caused by uppity populism averted.

Crowd backed down the hallway, the foyer, and outside.
In the meantime, people were still trying to get into the main room, but the crowd was stacking up in the hallway and out the front door. I actually left 20 mins into the meeting because I felt guilty about taking up space when I had already attended the East Nashville meeting. I asked one member of the design team whether they were expecting this many people. I learned that they were not either tonight or in East Nashville the night before last. I joked with another official as I was leaving whether the number of people in the building was a fire code violation. The reply: "I plead the 5th". When I got outside to my car, there were yet others walking through the parking lot to the building and I saw several cars circling and stalking potential parking spaces. As soon as I backed out one of them grabbed mine.

Before I left I heard interesting things. First of all, the engineer at the podium said with emphasis, "In no way are these final designs, yet". I do not recall him saying that in East Nashville. If he did it was not with as much verve or I would have remembered it. Whether he felt like he did not need to make the point across the river or whether this was an attempt to be more measured, he left himself wiggle room to refer to this stage as a "visioning" process. Although again, even if a final stage is "only" 30% complete, a good part of the vision seems already achieved. Haggling over the details at specific intersections does not seem like "visioning" to me.

I heard many more concerns expressed at this meeting than in East Nashville, particularly about where bus riders would park around West End, whether 5,000 riders per day with Amp was believable, whether historic preservation would be endangered by infrastructure changes and whether adding extra lanes would create more snarl. I was in earshot of a woman who exclaimed that, given the current parking situation along West End, there was absolutely no way that riders would be able to find parking to catch the bus. I heard one design team member tell one concerned transit rider asking for ridership comparisons to projections that he did not know what the current daily ridership was.

As I left, I noticed a police officer who seemed to be letting people into the room as others like me exited early and I wondered, with this much unexpected popular response to a transit proposal, pro and con, should not the public meeting process have started long ago with honest communication so that we would all not be so caught off-guard now? More specifically, why weren't we permitted to "vision" long before the transit authority reached 30% of the final stage of the project?

UPDATE: Rather than simply reporting the news, the Tennessean is resorting once again to bias by speculating in their report about how many green and red reps attended. Just like in East Nashville, most of those I saw in attendance had no form of pro or con signifiers displayed, so why does Brian Wilson feel emboldened to say that there was "balance" between pro and con? Did he interview every single person? I doubt he will share his method of counting, but it cannot be very scientific. There could have been many different points of view beyond simply polarized opinions, and it really is unfortunate when the news media fabricates "facts" instead of conveying them.

Small print for ballpark groundbreaking says, "Paid for by Karl Dean for Mayor"

It is not in the advertisement below, but the small print from the email containing the ad for the January 27 ballpark groundbreaking at Sulphur Dell notes the event's campaign nature. Here is the ad:

The email explicitly says that the event is not subsidized by Metro government funds, but the ad conspicuously displays the official seal of the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County as if it is a sponsor.

By the way, this is not the first Mayor's Office e-mail blurring the line between Karl Dean's campaign aspirations and his official capacity.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

My takeaway from last night's East Nashville Amp meeting: they ask for your input, but then want you to go away

Oh, the contradictions. Last night I attended the East Nashville public meeting on the Mayor's proposed east-west rapid bus transit connector held at East Park community center. I expected a major PR push without cracks or holes for this series of January meetings. The Chamber of Commerce, the beast hauling Karl Dean's transit bid, hired pro flacks and so I expected more than this:

  • The meeting was billed December as a "charrette". The Mayor's Office prefers to call it an "open house". It could not seem to settle on either, so it was convoluted and confusing.
  • The Amp has been described by engineers as being in the final stages of design. Last night the engineers described this stage as a "visioning process". Since when does visioning follow final design?
  • Transit officials introduced the meeting by saying that businesses could talk to engineers about the changes that they wanted to see. Transit officials introduced the meeting by saying that the audience could ask questions and get information about the way the Amp will be designed. The two messages did not seem to me to compliment one another.

So, I sensed a split-mindedness in last night's meeting: Metro wants you to give feedback, but then go away. Or maybe they want you to give the feedback that fits with engineers' final design, which was laid out on four twenty-five foot tables. How can this be a visioning process when the design is staring back at you in the face from humongous blueprints? Unless the only public vision that will count is that which is already laid out?

The old proverb, without vision the people perish, applies to North Nashville in this case. There was no accommodation for someone in the audience like me, who believes that BRT would work in North Nashville, to envision the Amp for us too. All an engineer could have said to me over his huge map of East Nashville was that North Nashville could not be addressed in this mass transit plan. No kidding. Any of us who came to this community meeting thinking that we would could make a difference in transit equity were rendered invisible. The vision of the Mayor's rapid transit minions can only extend so far. They are blind to the rest of us.

But we're not the only ones. Transit representative Holly McCall (who also represented Karl Dean on the Music City Center) told the audience that business owners were invited to speak with engineers about their concerns for the line that would run by them. The meeting seemed more focused on businesses, which is not atypical for this Mayor's Office, although it is clear that Mr. Dean is getting resistance to Amp from the business level. But what about residents? What about residents of Cayce Homes public housing? This line hardly serves their needs. Again, it is an artery laid out to drive up the real estate values of wealthy property owners and to serve Nashville's largest corporations. Is it really a "community" or "public" meeting when invitations to share are made to business leaders present?

If this had been an authentic charrette, all stakeholders present would have participated in a small group process of working through differences and reaching a consensus. But the meeting was too much open house in which the public was invited by the Transit Authority to view the way things actually are. People were encouraged to write their comments on sheets of paper and turn them in. That is no replacement for a charrette, and it is certainly a less accountable means of encouraging public input.

I am under no delusion that the Amp suffers significant opposition in East Nashville. Once the bus line was extended there in order to draw more support, the Mayor effectively divided and conquered organized grassroots opposition to sending rapid transit up West End. It is common sense to assume East Nashville supports rapid transit for themselves. But to claim as the Tennessean has this morning that supporters "largely outnumbered" opponents on the basis of counting green shirts against red ones is misleading. Far outnumbering green and red shirts were shirts that did not announce any position on the AMP.

Nonetheless, I was in earshot of an Amp supporter who complained that the media was interviewing a couple of red shirted opponents in the room, thus, he speculated, creating an impression that opposing turnout was on par with supportive turnout. I stood there thinking, "How can you judge from this crowd of clothes who stands for what? I oppose the Amp, but you cannot tell from what I am wearing." (I had a green pullover on). And what is someone who is neutral or otherwise unsure supposed to wear? How many of those people were there and individually counted by the news media?

As I walked from the meeting to my car I chatted with a woman I don't know. She asked me how I thought the meeting went. She asked me whether I thought our feedback mattered in the plan. I replied that they did give us these comment forms to express our feedback, assuming they would indeed read them and permit input to influence the plan. She told me straight up that she did not think that the feedback mattered because this east-west connector is exactly what Karl Dean wants. We both seemed to agree that in the end Hizzoner is most likely to get what he wants and that these "public" meetings are publicly pointless.

UPDATE: Because of parental responsibilities I could not attend the Downtown public meeting on Tuesday evening, but there are indications in the Tennessean (which did not resort to the same useless t-shirt counting of their previous report) that the same questions I have were expressed by some in attendance:

Several project skeptics angry with the broad contours of the bus line were just as critical of the public meeting’s format, which was largely an informal question-and-answer period during which people could talk one on one with the project’s engineers.

Questions aside, the manner in which developers went about the plan annoyed Nashville resident Michael Rogers.

“They’re going up there and making it seem like a done deal,” Rogers said. “I just feel it doesn’t build trust.”

Because so much of the development remains in flux, whether from the amount of federal and state funding to the planning that still remains, there wasn’t much that could be gained from being there, said undecided downtown resident Julie Lammel.

One of the other regrettable impressions that this project's boosters keep trying to create is that the east-west connector is merely the first step in a long process of regional growth. Those are empty promises at this point with no guarantees, especially with Karl Dean's mayoral tenure coming to a close. Nashville's dustbin is filled with well-intentioned capital projects that never materialized.

If built the Amp is just as likely to be the only leg of beautiful BRT in Nashville, serving the wealthier segments of our county while continuing to neglect others. That prospect would be more consistent with local history.

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.

Friday, January 10, 2014

If you don't follow the Amp Twitter feed, you may not know that the Transit Authority changed the West Nashville meeting location a week before the meeting

Once public meetings to seek input on the Mayor's east-west bus rapid transit proposal were organized and announced in early December, the powers-that-be did a remarkable job of saturating every line of communication possible with news about the meetings. We even received a card by snail mail to go along with all of the news we were getting about the meetings on and off line, inside and outside the news media. The card delivered by the U.S. Postal Service:

West Nashville meeting info is now wrong on this post card!

But last Wednesday, 8 days away from the West Nashville meeting, the pro-AMP coalition announced that the location of the meeting was changing to West End Middle School via Twitter and Facebook. I tweeted questions on what plans were being made for people who did not follow or friend the AMP's social media presence and whether there would be new hard copy post cards sent to Nashvillians to keep people from showing up to MBA instead of to West End Middle. As of this moment, I cannot get a straight answer from the transit tribe.

Still eating their static.

That link they tweeted goes not to a new update but to their December 12, 2013 press release on the meetings. Whoever edited the release made no effort to change the date or flag the statement as "UPDATED" as is the usual practice for these things when people actually care that vital information about changes not slip through the cracks. All they seemed to do was drop down to the West Nashville meeting bullet and change the location.

Shoddy webpage update!

At best, this is a meager attempt to communicate significant changes to an exclusively and largely sympathetic online audience of people on Twitter and Facebook while calling no attention from the largest number of people to the change on the original release. At worst, it reeks of an attempt to depress turn out in West Nashville neighborhoods where opposition to the Amp is relatively strong. Whether this is simply inept communication or more of a confidence game by pro-Amp forces, they should exercise the kind of thorough communication now that they did in December.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Ballpark cost overruns already: what we should have been told before Erica Gilmore and Jerry Maynard rammed the Sulphur Dell deal through council

This troubling bit of Sulphur Dell news trickled out on December 31, which means that it was likely muffled by the holidays and that many might have missed it:

construction firms told Metro what it would [actually] cost to build a new baseball stadium for the Nashville Sounds.

But Mayor Karl Dean’s administration said the new facility will come in on budget, despite the builders’ initial estimates running some $5 million higher than city officials said a new ballpark would cost before public financing for the project was approved.

A procurement evaluation committee has selected a team led by Bell & Associates Construction to build the ballpark, which is scheduled to open in April 2015 with room for 10,000 fans.

Now we see why this deal had to go through before everyone started paying attention to Metro government shenanigans again in the new year. If your council member voted for this plan and it does run over budget, blame him or her for lack of proper oversight.

In Memphis in the meantime, the city council has worked out a deal to buy their minor league stadium, AutoZone Park, with guarantees from team and corporate sponsors. On first blush, the agreement looks much better for Memphis than Sulphur Dell does for Nashville. The Memphis Redbirds will now be owned by their parent club, the St. Louis Cardinals, who have agreed to help pay for stadium improvements and for marketing. Both the St. Louis team owners and corporate sponsor AutoZone have agreed to help the city pay off the debt from the bonds financing the deal if sales tax rebate revenues don’t meet projections. What got the Redbirds in trouble in the first place were bond holders trying to flip muni-debt.

And get this: there were Memphis city council members holding out against the deal until it was reworked more favorably for the city.

In Nashville we have no assurances from the Sounds owner (who strikes me as more of a real estate mogul than a baseball guy) and corporate developers that they will help Metro out if projections are not met by realities. That's because the sponsors of the Sulphur Dell bill--particularly Erica Gilmore and Jerry Maynard--discouraged any obligation whatsoever on these private interests to help Metro out if the dreams do not come true.

Maybe I've grown accustomed and calloused to the horsewhipping of Nashville politics, so I can't grasp the regressive holes in the Memphis deal like some critics, but I wish we would have had the Memphis city council representing our city on the Sulphur Dell deal. "Piddly" guarantees are better than no guarantees.

Kerr errs on Amp opposition

I've said it before and I'll say it again: the hoop-like excuse that Metro Transit apparatchiks may have held "public hearings" before they settled on "the AMP" (east-west bus rapid transit connector) is no reason to believe that those hearings were effectively conducted for the public. Tennessean Gail Kerr comments this morning, "There were early public hearings on whether we should build a bus route at all, but there were sparse details at that point." This may seem minor to some, but it confirms my view that the process is more rigged to keep the public uninformed and destablized so that stronger trump cards can be laid later. The public hearings were designed to keep us guessing, not to bring us on board to reach a consensual decision in which everyone won a little of something.

The only other interesting point in Ms. Kerr's column is the ironic encouragement of people to attend public hearings now, as if the process is substantively different than it was. She seems to be merely saying of the latest hoops, "It's real this time around." I suspect that what is real is the opposition the Mayor is facing from the neighborhoods down low and from Tennessee Republicans up high. Four late-called community meetings seeking input looks like a mad scramble to lend legitimacy to a limping bus line.

Otherwise, Kerr's column is unadulterated garbage. She calls those of us who advocate a northward leg "snooty" because she alleges we believe that buses should serve mostly "lower-income people". Nope. I advocate a northward leg because it would serve mostly people. Not corporations. Not tourism. Not wealthy campaign donors. Not property owners with maximized property values. Nope. I believe that mostly average folks of various incomes are whom a Charlotte Avenue line would serve. Her preconceived notions about who lives in North Nashville may make her the "snooty" one.

But what ultimately makes Ms. Kerr's hard copy not even worthy of chucking into the compost heap is that she expects opponents of the AMP not to differ in their motivations and in their strategies for expressing dissent to an east-west connector. She bases her assumptions about the resistance on an email thread "obtained" by a couple of reporters. That's right. An email thread. One of the more mercurial, fluid and volatile forms of communication; an email thread. She relies on that to opine that opponents are not unified, to insist that we are "disjointed".

But Ms. Kerr is confusing her snapshot of a lack of consensus on how to respond to the Mayor's next gambit with a lack of purpose or a lack of solidarity. And keep this in mind: Ms. Kerr herself was coached by a PR firm in the past to flip talking points to Tennessean op-ed. By such flack standards, democratic consensus may appear to be "disjointed" and lacking in a common goal. It is not the failing of opponents of the AMP that they have different views on how to get to the shared purpose of defeating an east-west connector. It is Ms. Kerr's own failing to step outside of a world where coordinated selling points are spoon-fed to journalists.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Green Hills neighborhood association declares victory over developer; developer counters with new design

Southern change gonna come at last
A developer pulled plans for a skyscraper in suburban Green Hills after the Green Hills NA filed a lawsuit against the company. GHNA declared victory in an email sent out the day before yesterday:

We want to update our neighborhood supporters with some positive developments related to our lawsuit over the proposed Southern Land skyscraper project.

As you will recall, we filed a petition back in November to have a judge review the legality of the approval granted by Metro Planning. On Friday (January 3), through our legal counsel, we accepted a motion by Metro attorneys to dismiss the lawsuit on the grounds that Southern Land has withdrawn their proposal. This motion came about because Southern Land formally withdrew their proposal for a 22 story tower. Metro Planning has thus nullified its original approval of the site plan.

While this is a victory for the Green Hills community, we fully expect Southern Land to return with a different proposal. We plan to vigorously oppose any aspect of a new development which we feel violates the Green Hills UDO or other portions of the zoning code. Furthermore, we feel we’ve sent a strong message to Metro Planning that Green Hills citizens are closely monitoring how such projects are approved.

This is just the first step in what we knew from the start would be a long marathon. We feel confident that our arguments are valid, but know we will have to present our concerns again before the Planning Commission or in court.

We continue to appreciate your support. Donations to our legal fund are critical to arm us for the battles ahead.

With sincere thanks,

The GHNA Board

Not missing a beat, Southern Land countered with announcement of a shorter concept. Now it has 16 stories:

The plan for a 16-story Green Hills tower that Southern Land Co. plans to submit in the next six weeks will include the same office and retail components as the last proposal, a vice president for the Franklin-based company said.

"Overall the general mixed-use plan has remained about the same and we're just kind of tweaking how it all comes together," said Michael McNally, vice president of multifamily development ....

McNally said the project would lose around 20 apartment units, landing at about 285 units. But it would still include about 60,000 square feet of office space on three floors over about 15,000 square feet of ground-floor retail, he said. The project includes two restaurants, and will still have about 600 parking spaces.

McNally said construction could begin by spring or summer and be finished in 2016.

Will the new plan be worthy of neighborhood association support?

Monday, January 06, 2014

Controlling public meetings amounts to controlling outcomes

As we rapidly approach one of the first announced community meetings on "the Amp" bus rapid transit system connecting East Nashville and Downtown to West End, the Mayor's minions continue to insist (debatably) that the public has been given fair opportunities to address the questions of when and where rapid transit will go. The Mayor himself disqualified North Nashville from the process, saying that we should have read his mind and kissed the ring years in advance if we wanted to be considered worthy of rapid transit.

The Chamber of Commerce (which supports Amp) hired a lawyer-up public relations firm, which suggests to me that these meetings are going to be more bully pulpits for making the sale of AMP than they are open town hall meetings for gathering input from you and me.

Metro has a particularly heavy-handed history of conducting community meetings, whether it be holding meetings at days and hours inconvenient for most people to attend, not plainly specifying in published agendas that certain questions were up for discussion, couching issues in specialized jargon that makes average heads spin or strictly controlling how questions are asked to discourage messy democracy. These tactics become especially nasty given the strong executive form of Metro government, where voters have very little influence after elections on the Mayor's Office.

I've documented over and again here the draconian tactics that are used in the planning and rezoning process by Metro officials, but I went back through my emails people have sent me from community meetings they attended to find more examples.

One that stands out was related to me by Mike Peden. Last winter CM Edith Langster, empowered by a couple of developers and Metro Planning, filed a Midtown rezoning request to allow a number of properties to be exempted from a compromise supported by the community in 2012 to prepare for overlays consistent with the Midtown Community Plan. Community plans are heavily influenced by participatory public meetings periodically held.

Leaders in the community expressed concern by email about Langster's bill. Metro Planning held a community meeting last March and CM Jason Holleman encouraged constituents to attend saying of Langster's proposal that it would not provide "protections for individually National Register Eligible/National Register Listed buildings and design guidelines will not be included for the area around Elliston Place".

Mike attended the meeting and related what he witnessed:

The room was packed. Several people had to stand.

The attorney from the Planning Office that spoke is clearly in favor of ... CM Langster’s proposed rezoning. He spoke as if that bill has already passed.

There were several questions raised about transit and MTA, but he made it clear he was not going to discuss that issue.

Jason Holleman attempted to ask questions but the attorney from Planning would not allow him to speak. He said that is why they requested everyone write questions on the cards so he would not have to get into a one-on-one discussion with anyone

Community plans always involve discussions about transit options, so why should they be prohibited by a lawyer in a community meeting? Less than a month later a Metro Planning spokesperson would tell a Vanderbilt writer of a "cultural shift" prompting zoning changes in Midtown that included the need to "cut down expenditures on gas". If planners can bring up transit as a motivator for their policies, why can't the community raise the question with planners in community meetings?

Also, requiring questions on note cards is just another way of keeping the unwashed masses at arm's length. And shutting down a council member with questions about impact on design and preservation seems extreme.

But these are the kind of tactics you have to watch out for in the upcoming community meetings, which they tell you now are about getting more of your input. Will they listen and incorporate input? Given the track record, I am not a believer.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Talk is cheap. Show me the money!

Three vocal interest groups have taken up the cause of promoting (no questions asked) the Mayor's plan for a new ballpark in the North Capitol/Farmer's Market area of downtown: Friends of Sulphur Dell, the Capitol District and Jefferson Street United Merchants Partnership. The first group is basically a Facebook PR sharing website that claims to be grassroots. The second appears to be a bulletin board for real estate industry professionals and developers promoting information that positively effects the housing market (even though it claims to be a "partnership between neighborhoods"). The last is a special interest lobby group for the businesses along the Jefferson Street corridor.

Immediately after these groups enjoyed the moment when the council rolled over without missing the Mayor's beat and voted for the his ballpark plan, the Sounds ball club posted banner advertisements for the chance to buy Sulphur Dell season tickets. It was reported in all the papers:

Sounds announced season tickets availability a month ago.

If these groups really support a new ballpark, then logically, they should step up and encourage their audiences to put deposits down on 2015 tickets, right? We are going to have to pay for this huge capital project, so I would think that these boosters would be pulling out all the stops encouraging people to reserve seats. And it seems to me that their enthusiasm should lead them to harvest the personal anecdotes of those buying tickets and use those stories to promote the Sulphur Dell brand.

However, none of the three are making much of an effort to show the success of their mission after council approval. Outside of linking to news media stories that nebulously claim that tickets are being sold, they are not putting much effort into demonstrating that Sulphur Dell is a popular idea based on high volume pre-sales. Friends of Sulphur Dell seems to have stopped allowing comments on their Facebook page, as if streams of likers sharing news of their seat reservations is either unsuitable or untrue. FOSD comments are now active, so let us see a stream of likers who will confess that they reserved seats in support of economic development on Jefferson Street (it seems that my comments are being disallowed there. Whenever I login to my Facebook account, the comment option disappears).

Wouldn't real friends of Sulphur Dell tout their reserved seats?

If "partners" are buying 2015 season tickets, they are not saying.

Not exactly jumping to advertise Sulphur Dell ticket deposits.

But the FOSD site has always seemed to rely on marching orders from the Mayor's Office rather than on organic, community-based impetus. More curious to me is that the Jeff St merchants group is not even offering the Sounds any free online advertising to help spur ticket sales. Where are those big banners touting Sounds tickets on the JUMP website? How will they ever realize their conjecture that Sulphur Dell will be an economic catalyst if they are not putting their backs into getting their members and their friends to reserve season tickets through the JUMP website?

Some of us have criticized the fact that, under this ballpark plan, the Sounds have relatively little skin in the game. In my opinion, we should also start holding accountable ballpark cheerleaders who are not willing to risk their own hides for this game that they seem so fond of promoting. It is time to put up.

Expect the cynics to accuse us of wanting Sulphur Dell to fail every time we raise questions and concerns out of a sense of honest caution. Well, turnabout is fair play: if they are truly committed to seeing it succeed, then why are they not reserving their seats and helping Nashville start to pay the bills?

When are those on the ballpark bandwagon going to start showing the rest of us just how committed they are to the dream of Sulphur Dell? Where is their faith? What are they waiting for? The Mayor to tell them to do it?