Friday, April 25, 2014

The president of the league to which the Nashville Sounds belong: baseball is "not in the business of urban redevelopment"

The Pacific Coast League executive appears to be on the same page with professional researchers (who find no objective basis for subjective claims that new ballparks generate greater economic development):

When Branch Rickey [III] talks about what minor league baseball brings to a city, he doesn’t talk about increased property values or the stimulation of downtown entertainment districts. “We’re not in the business of urban redevelopment,” Rickey says. “We would not profess clairvoyance on that front.” He prefers to talk about the fan experience. And when he talks about this experience, he just happens to talk about new stadiums.

From the Friends of Sulphur Dell to Jefferson Street merchants to council members to the Mayor to the Nashville Sounds front office itself, we have seen no shortage of contriving economic impact for North Nashville of this new ballpark. Anyone who has gone all in on this game of chance is doing so on the basis of a leap of faith that Jefferson Street will naturally redevelop due to "First Tennessee Field" (or just a bunch of new apartments to be built around the ballpark).

Some of the merchants and leaders on Jeff St. even seem bent on shoving past any future stage of modest growth of locally owned stores (like those we see around places like Germantown, Five Points and 12South) to large national chains other than the ones already existing on Jeff St.:

Keisha Beard, 48, whose family has owned the property that houses the spa for 90 years, sees the ballpark becoming a reality as a sign that Jefferson Street is ready to join the big leagues. "This is the last side of town that's not been developed," she said. "We're a college street — with TSU, Fisk and Meharry — and don't even have a major restaurant chain here. The students right here need more goods and services."

Sharon Hurt, executive director of community development group Jefferson Street United Merchants Partnership, also welcomes growth opportunities but hopes any projects developers bring celebrate and embrace legacy of the once vibrant economic hub of the city's black community. "I don't want it to become so commercialized and capitalized that we lose the soul and spirit of the community" ....

"We've got Church's Chicken, we've got KFC, and we've got Popeye's — we don't need that anymore," Hurt said. "I would rather see more diversity like Chipotle, Panera Bread and Smoothie King.

This is part of the problem I have with those who dream of economic development: they do not seem careful about what they ask for. I would like to see a thriving Jefferson Street economy, but why not along the lines of an urban village with locally-owned shops and other offerings? Do we really want Jeff St. to boom like West End or Green Hills and their national chains? The charming and popular Magazine Street neighborhood in New Orleans finds itself facing the loss of its local character and struggling with the influx of national chains, which kill the neighborhood vibe.

Magazine St., which we enjoyed on our last vacation
Is that what we really want for Jefferson Street?

These exaggerated expectations are all part of the unrealistic view of the impact of a ballpark on hyperlocal economy. Hopes around here are irrationally bloated by the prospect of a ballpark divorced from awareness of the risks of new construction.

And yet, even the president of the Sounds' league remains sober enough to acknowledge that new ballpark construction does not increase property values or stimulate growth.

He seems to realize that wishful thinking won't alter reality. And yet, he can still advocate building new ballparks. There are those among us who could learn something from Branch Rickey.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Pocket vote for Dean, much?

Council District 7's Twitter feed.


Seems like when a sitting council member puts a picture on his Twitter feed of himself with the Mayor instead of with voters, we plainly see where his loyalty lies.


I got into a discussion today on CM Anthony Davis's vote to support the Mayor's plan to allow the Nashville Sounds to take all of the money from the naming deal with First Tennessee. I asked him if he had ever while on council voted against any of Mayor Karl Dean's major initiatives (some of which were publicly controversial). His reply, "Nope, they've all been so good...why would I?"

Friends of Sulphur Doh!

Their weak-kneed response makes me think they weren't ever
authentic friends of the Dell at all.

Nearly 24 hours after the Nashville Sounds announced a new name for the ballpark in the Sulphur Dell area that will not include the historic name "Sulphur Dell", Friends of Sulphur Dell finally responded to the news that they hoped yesterday would be something regarding ballpark design.

Given that the Facebook group has operated like a well-oiled PR machine since the Mayor announced last Fall that Sulphur Dell was in, the long period of silence suggests to me that the naming news may have sent them reeling a bit. But this is the best they can muster this morning:

It will be Sulphur Dell Stadium [sic] to many of us...First Tennessee Stadium [sic] to the rest, but either way, baseball will be played there...and we'll be there to enjoy it!

Wow. That's it? Maybe to be more honest they should break into groups of "Friends of Sulphur Dell" and "Friends of First Tennessee". Either way, this is kind of a mess for the group that insisted to reporters that it was legit grassroots and not just astroturf.

Friends of Sulphur Dell could encourage some kind of debate so as not to look like complete tools of the Mayor's Office, lately left behind in the bid to bring bankers on board the ballpark bandwagon. But maybe they never really cared for our local history at all. If this was always more about bringing baseball here for economic development (what other reason could it be now?) then taking the name Friends of Sulphur Dell was bad faith, false expression and phony legitimacy.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Breaking: Nashville Sounds owner scrubs the historic title "Sulphur Dell" from the name of the new ballpark

Mayor Karl Dean even gushed:
"Nashville won't make a cent off this!"
Sometimes I really hate having my healthy cynicism about people in power confirmed, but it was this morning. Wealthy real estate developer and owner of the Nashville Sounds Frank Ward just announced the naming rights of the new ballpark at the Sulphur Dell site. The name announced is, "First Tennessee Ballpark, Home of the Nashville Sounds" (named after the bank).

Mr. Ward and First Tennessee seem to have agreed to purge the historical moniker "Sulphur Dell" completely from the official title of the new ballpark. Obviously, the brand won't stoop to bear the historic context of the area adjacent to my neighborhood.

Looks like I was not exaggerating last week (in reporting the demolition of the state fountain commemorating the old sulphur spring that gave birth to a city) when I intimated that developers are willing to wipe away history to squeeze a few more bucks to add to their obscene piles of cash. I keep looking for the ballpark/mixed-use development team to prove me wrong about my concerns with this agreement, but today's announcement is the latest sign that these folks are willing to use our history as a sales pitch to grease the skids of politics, but they are not necessarily serious about embracing it.

We have been told to trust an accelerated process. We have been preached at over and over by Friends of Sulphur Dell, by the Mayor's Office, by opportunistic Metro Council members, by supporters far and wide that building a new ballpark as quickly as possible without proper public process is the best way of honoring the history of our area and the history of baseball at Sulphur Dell. With one morning press conference Metro, the Nashville Sounds and a bank just wiped all of that away.


UPDATE: Couldn't resist broadcasting this little dig at the now extraneous Friends of Sulphur Dell as it appeared on Twitter






UPDATE: Reporter Steven Hale has a rundown of the questions to ask elected officials and team brass that no other reporters are asking in the wake the ballpark naming kerfuffle. Take note that he cites the comments from Jerry Maynard about baseball "going back to Sulphur Dell". That got me thinking about CM Maynard's other comments employed to get the Mayor's plan passed without proper public input:

In 2008, we formed Friends of Sulphur Dell right here at Farmers Market, with Freddie [O'Connell, president of the Salemtown Neighbors Neighborhood Association, who was standing nearby] and all the neighborhood association and groups,” Maynard said, following the meeting. “And we didn't know if it was going to happen, but we fought hard for Sulphur Dell because this is the birthplace of baseball [in Nashville]. This is where it should be, the neighborhood ballpark.

Reverend Maynard's Sulphur Dell sermons strike me now as hallow and conniving. He has every opportunity now to speak out against the Sounds' decision to exclude Sulphur Dell from the ballpark moniker. I doubt he will say a word against it.

The other thing that strikes me about Hale's observations is how the Mayor places the blame for not leveraging any money for Nashville out of the deal with First Tennessee on the council's vote in favor of the deal:

Mayor Karl Dean's spokeswoman, Bonna Johnson, tells Pith that was part of the deal "just like at LP Field and Bridgestone, and it was in the agreements approved by the Council."

This is not much more than a chicken-shit response from the Mayor's Office. They determined the perimeters and terms of the Sounds deal that was sent to council with the point that any change in terms was a "poison pill" that would destroy it. They set the condensed timeline for approval of the ballpark. They held one community meeting even as Metro Planners promised more than one. They whipped the legislation through the council. They ran the PR campaign from start to finish. The onus is only partly on the weakling council that could not muster a challenge on much of anything to save its life. The Mayor conveniently acts like a strong executive (which is the Metro form of government) when he wants to, but when the heat gets turned up he consistently refuses to take it. Hizzoner's style of governing is to take the credit when it suits him, but to pass the buck when the load starts getting heavy.

The council deserves it's share of responsibility in this stupidity, but make no mistake, the Mayor should assume the lion's share of the blame for any money that could have been made from the naming rights but was lost.

Remember when Mayor Bill Purcell responded to the death of the last Sounds deal by demolishing part of their parking lot to expand a local park? I still marvel at the gumption of that. My sense is that, had he still been Mayor, he would have walked away from this deal with more revenues for public coffers (and even assurances about the Sulphur Dell name) than Karl Dean has.

Suburbanization is a failing development model in Tennessee

Charles Marohn describes how a city like Memphis got itself into a bind by relying on subsidized suburbanization as an answer to the ills of industrialization. Now with "soft defaults" (vs. hard defaults in Detroit) the chickens are coming home to roost:

Relying on the automobile to facilitate growth by horizontally expanding the city, Memphis shifted away from the traditional pattern of neighborhood development and played its part in building the American Dream of large yards, easy driving, and free parking.

Suburbanization, sold as a way to cure blight and promote prosperity, was radically new and untested. It was also irresistible. Driven by federal programs and financial incentives, Memphis – like most American cities – built highways through the middle of the city, annexed property and extended public utilities outward.

In the process, core neighborhoods were destroyed and residents relocated to neighborhoods built in the new, experimental style. Streetcars were abandoned and the economic activity at the old stops shifted to new commercial corridors. Old buildings were torn down to provide parking and millions of tax dollars were spent widening streets to accommodate the automobiles now necessary for daily life.

Eventually, the vitality of the city was inverted from its traditional historic pattern of a strong core surrounded by incrementally growing neighborhoods to one where most economic activity took place on the edge. While this shift left many people behind and devastated the historic neighborhoods of Memphis, the result was seen largely as a social problem, not an economic one. Easy growth on the periphery – where land is cheap, the development community is ready, and all the government incentives are in place – was then, and remains today, the community’s default strategy for economic improvement.

Somewhat unhindered by the levels of industrialization borne by Memphis, Nashville is no less exposed by its overreliance on exurban expansion and what Mayor Karl Dean embraces as "regionwide growth". Nashville recently depends on gimmicky baubles like the new Music City Center, a "We Are Nashville Promenade" and an east-west rapid transit connector ("The Amp") in order to spike short-term economic activity without reference to long-term viability in the city for its inhabitants.

Marohn warns of "new massive gambles" undertaken by sprawling metros to keep heads above water: convention centers and retail complexes driven by municipal debt and tax breaks for already wealthy corporations. Likewise these conditions also apply to Nashville, where it feels like we are mortgaging our future sometimes to fund huge new capital projects that enable the Dean brand more than aid Nashville proper. We are definitely sacrificing urban services, from which the Mayor perennially demands cuts, in order to bankroll the diversions.

In the end, an emphasis on regionwide growth seems like warmed-over, evangelical suburbanism. It constitutes a doubling down on failing economic policies that hurt both Memphis and Nashville in the long run. Once the smoke-and-mirrors floor show of the Dean administration ends, what will be left with?

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

In order to incorporate Sulphur Dell history, the ballpark architects have demolished its commemoratives

If memory serves, what was pitched to people about the section of state greenway that bordered the spot designated for a new Sulphur Dell ballpark was that it would be incorporated into the new facility. What I distinctly recall from the scant community meetings sponsored by Mayor Karl Dean and Council Member Erica Gilmore was that the greenways would remain intact, but their use by the public would be limited on baseball game days.

If any ballpark architects from Gobbell Hays and Populous ever mentioned demolishing the state greenway along with a water feature that commemorated the sulphur spring and creek that marked both the history and prehistory of an area that was the cradle of the city of Nashville, I missed it. But I discovered today that the greenway and fountain are gone.


June 2007: an attractive homage to the sulphur spring that once fed
French Lick Creek, whose course was commemorated with an adjoining greenway


April 2014: the spot where the water feature once stood,
now reduced to rubble and landfill left by the new ballpark/mixed-use project

Make no mistake. Nashville has a permissive track record of enabling developers to wipe its history clean in order to embrace growth. And builders rush in to reduce the historic and the prehistoric records to virtual moonscapes before building something else. Like some coursing need to wash itself clean of its own history, good or ill, Nashville hands development over to developers to largely tear down and build anew at will.

So, maybe I should not be surprised to see today that the fountain and greenway have met the same fate as demolished state parking lots and city roadways. The profit motive overruns any preservation mandate. There is no onus on the architects to acknowledge the significance of the sulphur spring for which their concept is named. It certainly won't come from this Mayor or this district's council member both of whom have ingratiated themselves to the real estate industry. Having been a Nashvillian for 25 years, nothing Metro allows surprises me anymore.

But what sticks with me now is that nobody bothered to be transparent about the demolition beforehand: not the architects, not the sponsoring council member, not the Mayor. I don't remember a word uttered about it. Hence, I wonder if what we are going to get--once something is built on top of the demolished debris, on top of the dust heap--is privatized infill rarely open to the public and forgetful of what was there before baseball or hipster urbanism were ever imagined in Nashville. Is the small corridor where there was once a greenway and a water feature going to be flipped to a sterilized, generic pass-through for people on the way to somewhere else? That would be a cynical re-write of local history.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Sulphur Dell area was once an important "production workshop" in a "major prehistoric metropolis"

One of the only external expectations that Mayor Karl Dean agreed to when it came to his fast-tracked construction of a new ballpark/mixed-use development at Sulphur Dell near Jefferson Street was an archeological survey of the site for sensitive historical artifacts before construction began.

Sulphur Dell is not just an important place in baseball and civil rights history. It is an important place in the history of Nashville's founding (Timothy Demonbreun's cabin was located nearby at Sulphur Spring Bottom). It is also an important place for in the history of ancient tribal cultures.

While a careful community-based planning process was a casualty of Hizzoner's rush to build and of the team owner's allergies to engaging the community townhall-style, we can be thankful that Mayor Dean at least felt compelled by something or someone to slow up enough to preserve some important finds:

Archaeologists made an important discovery over the weekend in the area that will become left field, including artifacts that could even hint at ancient human burials.

The state believes the artifacts could be 800 years old, and experts are excavating the area now.

In an email obtained by Channel 4 News an archaeologist working on the project says he found pottery, animal bone and pieces of ceramic vessels.

And he raises another issue, writing, "given the high artifact density, there is a heightened possibility of human burials."


There are revised details at the archeologists' Facebook page. Kevin E. Smith writes that in March they uncovered a "relatively intact land surface" representing what he believes to be a terrace that held "a giant prehistoric salt production workshop area" rather than a place for human burials:

The enormous saline spring located to the southwest of the [ballpark] project area was one of the largest gushing wells of mineral water in the interior south -- filling Lick Branch with a mineral resource valuable to both prehistoric and historic peoples until the branch was buried in a brick-lined conduit .... The vast majority of features exposed and investigated thus far reflect a large and overlapping series of fire pits -- almost all probably related to the evaporation of water from the adjacent branch to produce the valuable commodity of salt.

According to Mr. Smith Metro Nashville was under no legal obligation to allow this important study to proceed, and he digresses to gush about the new ballpark giving them this opportunity. Then again, most of the area was covered with surface parking lots and there is no reason--given the broadly acknowledged importance of the Sulphur Dell area to history and prehistory--that this study could not have occurred if and when these state lots gave way to anything else.

Mayor Karl Dean was under no legal obligation to allow this survey, but it should have been a moral imperative to be discreet in developing such an important place as "swampy" Sulphur Springs Bottoms. It was more than just good fortune. It was the right thing to do. As was including the local community in the planning process, which Mayor Dean failed to do.

Otherwise, this is exciting and important news for our end of Nashville. It should be a source of pride to local residents, thanks to the hard work of the archeologists. Check out their photos and further descriptions at the Facebook page.