Saturday, January 31, 2015

And yes, I understand that retweets do not necessarily mean endorsements

Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?
-- James Baldwin
The masses .... They were in the majority. When the master got sick, they prayed that he'd die. If his house caught on fire, they'd pray for a wind to come along and fan the breeze.
-- Malcolm X

I have not checked with them about their motives, but I'll hazard the guess that council members Emily Evans and Carter Todd retweeted the following because they plan to vote against regulating predatory lenders in less affluent neighborhoods as supported by other council members:

Check the bottom for the diminutive council member retweets.

Interesting to see that a couple of council members may support the idea of hiring African American women to bolster the income line of a company that charges a disproportionately minority, working-class clientele 600% interest. The legacy of usury is littered with the lives of people locked into cycles of debt and poverty worse than when they entered thanks to the paternalistic opportunism of lenders who claim they are providing the masses with options.

In many places it is like a house ablaze:

Of the consumers who frequented the payday store fronts, most were women. People who were divorced or separated were 103% more likely to use the loans, while African-Americans were also 103% more likely to take out the often predatory loans.

“Based on the location of these lenders, it is clear they target minority and low-to-middle income groups, mostly in highly diverse populated areas,” the report states. “If this trend continues, these areas will no doubt be pushed into poverty.”

So, do CM Evans and CM Todd support the idea of barring obstacles to a wealthy lending corporation hiring women of color to help it push other women of color into poverty? The creation of jobs in a business that preys on widespread dislocation (Nashville's poverty level is a crushing 19%) seems like integration into a burning house. And it takes the pressure off the predominately white business elite, who perpetuate a cruel and pitiless finance system, while marketing Nashville as an attractive "it city" on the make.

What about the claims that predatory lenders are doing African American women favors by hiring them? Do we have any stories of Nashvillians, deeply in payday lender debt, who were able to climb out of it after being hired by payday lenders on the salaries at the work hours they pay? Does the news media bother to talk to former employees of payday lenders to get relevant information?

Meanwhile, regulation or not, the lenders will weather whatever comes. They will live to continue to set blazes to peoples' lives and stay free from crushing risk themselves. The absence of meaningful federal, state and, yes, local regulations on lending constitutes wide latitude to for high-interest, self-serving loans that inundate good people made desperate by an unforgiving economy.

The stick in Advance Financial 24/7's craw is the ding their "24/7" brand is going to take by limiting their perpetual operating hours. That is it. The only thing at risk is their marketing brand. This is not a fight over people. It is a company defending their brand.

Otherwise, if they authentically cared about African American women, as their founder shamelessly claims, why not offer them low-interest loans to begin with?

Why not? Because if they did, they could not make huge campaign donations to Tennessee politicians, including some who come through the Metro Council.

Why not? Because if they did, then they would risk engulfing their own houses in financial risks in an unforgiving market. And, on their way down, they might not get too much pity from people they once used on their way up.

UPDATE: Yesterday the lobbyists at the Nashville Chamber of Commerce started flexing their muscle in support of predatory lending companies. Here is part of the letter they sent to the entire Metro Council:

The Chamber opposes this bill [to limit the operating hours of payday lenders] because it is an excessive over-regulation of business .... Regardless of the function of the business, we believe that this type of legislation sets a worrying precedent in restricting the hours in which any business can operate. Furthermore, this becomes even more ominous when legislation appears to target one specific company that operates 24/7. Our members include businesses in this industry; we would not recommend hour be restricted for any of them.

This is another thinly veiled attempt on the Chamber's part to leverage the least amount of resistance to do whatever in the world their members want to do. The majority of Nashvillians who are not members can go to hell as far as the Chamber is concerned.

Where hell lies for many is on the bottom rungs of the socio-economic ladder. Chamber lobbyists posture as if their member companies are fighting poverty by providing jobs and services that people cannot get elsewhere. But for a group so dedicated to business models they fail miserably to count the actual costs of lending jobs that empower lenders to push Nashvillians farther into poverty. They don't want to discuss the poverty that is generated by the jobs provided. At best they remain willfully self-ignorant of Nashville poverty. At worst the Chamber is running a confidence game so their member companies can continue pimping poor people out of their cash flow.

Over-regulation of business? When has the Chamber championed any regulation of business?

The writers of the letter completely ignore the fact that certain businesses in Nashville are already regulated as to times and even days that they sell their products. There is a precedent already set in Nashville.

It is reasonable to assume that just like payday lenders have paid vast sums to finance political campaigns, they have likely donated a chunk to special interest lobby groups like the Nashville Chamber of Commerce. They're just continuing to fan the flames.

UPDATE: There is an online petition you can sign to tell Metro Council (which votes on February 3) that you support the ordinance limiting the hours of payday lenders. Jump to:

Friday, January 30, 2015

Trust, but verify: construction contractors might abide by rules agreed upon with neighborhoods

Since the dust-up between neighborhoods, existing businesses and construction companies in downtown and Midtown over noise that continued unabated into the night, a mutual (and tenuous?) understanding seems to have been reached:

... the working group of residents and contractors ... got together and talked through the problems. They landed on a compromise that won’t need a change in law ....

The final draft is still being drawn up. But broadly, the rules require contractors to get special permission to blast between the hours of 9 pm and 7 am. And for other noisy activity – like pouring concrete – the builders have to submit a plan regarding their efforts to minimize the disturbance and notify the neighbors.

“We’re hoping that it works," [Erica] Gilmore says. "But if we hear complaints, we will revisit it.”

Recall that existing hotels are losing money because they are having to comp tourists and visitors who are unhappy with the night ruckus nearby. It seems that existing hotel companies are getting a dose of their own medicine, given that their construction projects were likewise hyper-local nuisances. But let's put aside for now the question of whether this deal would have been struck had the tourism industry not been pitted against itself.

I want to focus on the contractors and developers.

This week a manager from one of the huge Midtown projects told me that his company was going to continue 6:00 a.m. dynamite blasting for important utility lines, but that he did not have a firm schedule yet because the construction contractor brought in a bunch of heavy equipment and blocked some blasting areas. Reportedly, the blasting contractor could not convince the construction contractor either to move the equipment or to give him a schedule that he could set for blasting.

So, there is no firm blasting schedule. Area residents have just have to be prepared every morning "at sunrise" for the next few days for blasts that may or may not occur because some contractor cannot move his equipment or give other companies a firm idea when it would be moved.

If the bosses on these Midtown construction sites cannot even bother to work with one another to coordinate action in order to complete necessary tasks, why should we have faith that they are going to live by rules that prevent the erosion of the quality of life outside of their moneymakers? They seem to be too busy internally patrolling their own turfs to give a crap about the welfare of the surrounding community.

UPDATE:  A Midtown resident tells me that there was another sunrise dynamite blast today (01/30/15 -- 6:05 a.m) at a nearby construction site. Does the new curfew apply to Midtown or not?

The naivete of simply solving anything where power is concerned

From a local news story on where the mayoral candidates stand on gentrification and developer-driven growth:

"When the conversation can exist between a neighborhood and developers, good things happen at the end of the day," [Jeremy] Kane says, adding that the gentrification problem could be solved simply through better communication.

Well, yeah. But the trick is getting developers to the table in order to willingly negotiate and compromise on rezoning deals. Another trick is getting them to go beyond anything but what they are strictly required to do, which is a problem that plagues the question of affordable housing.

In my experience, I can think of a small number of developers who were proactive enough to launch the communication with the community. Many developers did not bother until they faced some outspoken community concerns or resistance to their plan (see, "We were moving smoothly until some guy blogged on us"). Once the threat of derailment due to transparency and organized opposition becomes real, they discover communication. I can think of only one who initiated conversation even though he was not seeking rezoning and thus did not have to. That is not a promising track record for those of us who want to make sure that the growth that occurs in neighborhoods compliments the character of the community in question.

So, the challenge is to broker power fairly, which is step beyond mere communication. However, I do not blame developers strictly for not seeing this. I also blame politicians in general and council members in particular (especially when the latter do not frame community engagement as the central part of the planning and zoning process).

"I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse."
Better communication depends on the willingness of developers and politicians to meet with neighborhood organizations and hash out mutual understanding. It's a predetermined or prearranged developer willingness to meet halfway, to lose a few things in order to win most of what they want. But since very few developers actually do that they're going to need more than a simple invitation.

They're going to need an offer they can't refuse.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

More broken promises at the Tennessean

Last June, the Tennessean made a concession to Metro Council (in exchange for defeating an ordinance that would have regulated delivery of their unsubscribed "free" editions) that employees from the newspapers' offices would do "ride arounds" with the delivery help and pick up unclaimed papers littering sidewalks and streets. The Tennessean is not keeping its promise in Salemtown.

I took the photo below this morning near my house. The rolled-up, plastic-packaged Tennessean at the foot of the steps in the background is yesterday's edition. The rolled-up, plastic-packaged Tennessean at the curb in the foreground was delivered on December 24, 2014.

The Tennessean is not keeping its promises to Metro Council. CM Megan Barry championed the defeat of litter regulations in our neighborhoods last June by describing the concession of the Tennessean to reclaim their unclaimed papers as a "good thing." This is the same Megan Barry who is running for mayor this year promising "not to lose sight" of neighborhoods by permitting economic activity to "degrade quality of life."

Well, as you can see, the Tennessean continues its quest to make more money by littering my neighborhood's public spaces with unsolicited advertising. Litter degrades Salemtown's quality of life.

Promises broken by the news corporation. Promises broken by the corporation's political patrons on the Metro Council. Promises broken all around.

If Nashville really wants to keep its sports teams, why not eliminate the middle man, namely the team owner?

If a pro sports team is such a unique expression of a city's identity, a unifying force and an engine of economic expansion, then why aren't cities assuming control of them to keep them from bolting to other cities?

It is not like it would be unprecedented:

You're probably familiar with eminent domain as the means by which the government forcibly takes private land to make way for a highway or public building or hyperspace bypass, having only to pay whatever a court decides after the fact to be fair market value.The legal principle goes back hundreds of years, and doesn't have a great rep, especially as courts have expanded the notion of "public use" to include taking people's houses to hand over to private developers so long as it would promote "economic development"—even if there was no guarantee that the development would stick around more than a few years.

In the eyes of the courts, though, there should be no legal difference between a few acres of dirt and other private property such as, say, a pro sports franchise ....

Say you're a city council with a pro sports team demanding $200 million or so in public cash for a new building—let's call them the "Milwaukee Bucks"—under threat of leaving town if its owners' demands aren't met. Instead of reaching for your municipal checkbook, you respond by drawing up eminent domain paperwork.

In the best case scenario, the mere threat is enough to force the team owners to lower their subsidy demands. In the worst, yes, you're stuck paying close to $600 million for an NBA franchise, but keep in mind two things: first off, that's how much the current Bucks owners just paid on the open market for the franchise, so presumably somebody thinks they'll bring in enough revenue to make that worthwhile. Plus, if you don't want to be stuck with the risk of the Bucks not earning back your investment, you can always re-sell the team to new private investors—even if you need to sell for $50 million or $100 million less in order to get new owners to agree to an ironclad lease, that's still cheaper than handing over $200 million for nothing.

In my opinion, the Metro Nashville mayor's office and the metro council both failed to do their due diligence in exploring the possibility of filing eminent domain in response to Sounds' and Brewers' (the Sounds' previous parent club) insinuations that they could always go elsewhere if they did not get a new ballpark. We already saw them back off the west bank downtown when Karl Dean made it clear that a new amphitheater was going in there. I will forever hold against Hizzoner and whipped council members that they did not call the team's abandonment bluffs.

Public ownership of sports teams is not such a radical proposal. Local sports reporter, J.R. Lind, proposed public ownership for when the Nashville Sounds deal was announced in 2013:

[Karl Dean's plan] also includes $750,000 from a $50 million mixed-use development the Sounds owners — developers by trade — promise they will build.

Promise based on what? According to Mayor Karl Dean, little more than their word. There is not, and will not be, a contract pledging the Sounds to build this project. Pressed on that, Dean said if the Sounds didn't build the development, somebody would. Probably.

For the city — any city — to make a three-decade, $65 million [now $70 million and rising] commitment based on a handshake arrangement with absentee ownership is head-scratching at best and mind-numbing at worst.

But if that's the level of commitment the city is already willing to make, why not go whole hog?

Why not just buy the team?

The value of the Sounds is hard to pin down (though, presumably, it's gone up with the promise of a new stadium). But Forbes' recent estimate of the 20 most valuable minor league teams did not include the Sounds. The 20th ranked team on that list — the Oklahoma City RedHawks — came in at $21 million.

For, say, $20 million, the city gets the team ... and it gets the revenue. Not just the increased sales taxes budgeted in the financing plan — all of it. Ticket revenue, beer money, parking costs. All of it.

And if the mayor is to be believed, the city doesn't even need the Sounds for the $50 million ancillary development. It's going to happen anyway.

Right now, the city is spending at least three times the total value of the Sounds — that's being generous — to build a stadium. Doesn't it make more sense to own the entity outright?

Instead all of the pie-in-the-sky Jefferson-Street-rejuvenation wishful thoughts they have been spreading around in PR campaigns, Metro government could have been working on ways they would start spending the revenues that have already started rolling into team owner Frank Ward with season ticket sales and merchandising profits.

Despite the option that taking the Sounds by eminent domain or buying them would have been a more financially responsible act on Metro government's part than subsidizing their private enterprise, the Mayor likely never would have considered public ownership because he might have angered wealthy campaign donors who have financial stakes in the Sounds' ownership team. A deal that would have been more financially responsible to and more demonstrably lucrative for Nashville taxpayers probably never surpassed his own self-interest. Angering the special interests might risk Hizzoner's future political aspirations for higher office.

Things could have been done differently. But they were not. And Nashville missed its shot at a title.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Moving pictures

The Mayor's self-funded, sketchy, astroturfed
501(c)(4) created to pose a tax increase as grassroots popular (2012):

Hizzoner's failed attempt to dedicate rapid transit to West End hotels & Downtown tourist stops (2013-14):

The extension of the Dean administration by other means (2015):

Monday, January 26, 2015

Two points on the local aftermath of Charlie Hebdo

On the one hand, Mayor Karl Dean refused to attend the predominantly African American town hall meeting in North Nashville last August focused on local apprehensions and tensions in the wake of the Ferguson, MO protests over the shooting of Mike Brown. On the other hand, Hizzoner made every effort to attend a predominantly white rally this month called by the "honorary French consul" in Nashville to protest the shooting at Charlie Hebdo headquarters.

Photo credit: Sister Cities of Nashville
I don't even know what an honorary French consul does, but she only pulled together 75 people for her rally. Hundreds packed into Mount Zion Baptist Church last August.

As he co-captained the rally and march with Amélie de Gaulle, Monsieur Dean told the press:

When basic freedoms are attacked, when journalists pay with their lives for exercising their profession, for speaking out, for exercising their right to give their opinions, citizens can't walk comfortably.

So, basic freedoms matter in France, but not in the protests of Ferguson, MO? Not in the press coverage of the suppression of protest against St. Louis County police? Not for a Nashville community shaken by the brutal responses to Black Lives Matter?

The contrast in the Hizzoner's selective attendance of protests points to the reality once again, that Karl Dean prefers not to be the mayor of all of Nashville, but to play the plenipotentiary for the local aristocracy.


There has been remarkable reaction to the Tennessean's choice of editorials on terrorism in France. I want to focus on one that has not received much attention. A little over a week ago the paper's vice president, Stephanie Murray wrote a column that can be easily reduced to three points:

  1. "The Tennessean strives to protect free speech and the First Amendment every single day. It is our duty. And it is our passion."
  2. "But at the end of the day, we work for you. We work to ensure democracy is an open process with citizen input. We strive to hold officials accountable."
  3. "And that’s part of the reason why today, I ask for your subscription. Please help support quality journalism in Middle Tennessee by purchasing The Tennessean."
We have heard this kind of logic before. George W. Bush told Americans to exercise their freedom and support their country by "going shopping." In the Tennessean's case, Stefanie Murray encourages the further commercialization of constitutional freedom in the purchase of her company's product. It's not that far removed from telling us to go shopping.

Mainstream, corporate journalism acts like it should enjoy a special place (remember "the 4th estate"?), but also it also treats its content as a product sold in the marketplace, even as it pays its labor force very little for the value they add. For all of their self-promotion as being community-minded and dedicated to open process, back in 2007, the local papers trotted out lawyers and PR flacks to blunt organized neighborhood dissent to their mythology that the First Amendment guarantees long, cluttered rows of unregulated news racks.

If they really wanted to support the democratic process, they would not bring in legalistically-minded professionals and lobbyists, but would negotiate and compromise with citizens directly on the commercialization of information. Instead, mainstream journos tend to confuse the grey zone of commerce with the unalienable right to transparency, fair dealing and openness.

Black's Law Dictionary defines unalienable rights as those rights "incapable of being alienated, that is, sold and transferred." So, how is it that our freedom of speech hinges on the purchase of a commercial product, in this case an advertising circular moonlighting as a newspaper? And frankly, if you buy without question the logic that Tennessean reporters and editors exercise freedom beyond the reach of political influence of their Gannett corporate check-signers, then you have already surrendered your freedom of critical thought to self-delusion.

Money exercises influence. Public relations sugarcoats that influence. Wealth may not be able to threaten freedoms as provocatively and visibly as terrorism, but may erode them more persistently, more efficiently and more effectively.

And frankly, it is a smarmy hucksterism to use a tragedy so explicitly to sell more papers. There is too much at stake in the historic struggle to defend freedoms to fall for Ms. Murray's sales pitch.

Communication fail

If you, like me, got Erica Gilmore's only notification of the community meeting on a Salemtown SP this afternoon you may be scratching your head over her late-breaking communication habits. If you, unlike me, did not know about today's meeting because you are not a member of Salemtown Neighbors, then you should know that you have less than two hours to get ready for the meeting:

This postcard is very misleading about the zone change request. The developers are not only responsible for answering questions about this rezoning request. An SP requires them to get community feedback in order to gain community support for their request.

Not only is this communication late in the mail (postdated January 23), but it is deceptive in content.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Is the Farmers' Market growing more exclusive by jettisoning the flea market?

The Piraeus, home of ancient Greek schlock
In Plato's Republic, Socrates goes from Athens to the Piraeus, a port side passage where the masses thronged. He went down from high society to the places of parades and cheap entertainment. More importantly, it was the place of commoners, outsiders and those considered barbarians. From Plato:

I went down yesterday to the Piraeus with Glaucon the son of Ariston, that I might offer up my prayers to the goddess; and also because I wanted to see in what manner they would celebrate the festival, which was a new thing. I was delighted with the procession of the inhabitants; but that of the Thracians was equally, if not more, beautiful.

The Piraeus was a liminal space for a free philosopher of Athens: a threshold out of high society to the mundane world of people of much lower status. If Athens was the one, then the Piraeus was the many.

The Piraeus leaped to mind when I read the news that the North Capitol area Farmers' Market is now terminating its flea market in favor of what sound like bigger ticket vendors more stringently selected:

After spending more than a year visiting and collaborating with other successful markets across the country, the staff has developed a new system of standards that will ensure that shoppers will know the source of all items sold in the market and that the vendors will have been involved in the creation of their products.

“There are other places to go if you want a flea market experience,” says NFM Executive Director Tasha Kennard. "We recognized that in order to be the best market we can be we have to do things differently. The actions of the staff and the board show our commitment to and appreciation of the value of local farmers and products.”

What other flea markets exist within walking distance of North Capitol neighborhoods that allow the experience of the Farmers' Market adjoined by a great public park like Bicentennial Mall? I do not know of any. The article goes on to say that Farmers' Market flea market vendors are to be exiled to the Fairgrounds in south Nashville. Is a gated-community consciousness growing in North Nashville?

I'm not a buyer of kitsch, but I recognize that there is a reason it exists. It is a form of cheap art or expression that those middle-class-and-below can afford without a line of credit. Will those same commoners still be able to enter the Farmers' Market and browse with the idea of buying? It does not sound like it. A member of Urban Planet criticizes the move:

I agree that the produce and flowers should be local, but I disagree with kicking Flea Market vendors out. Growing up in the area - before it was hip and cool - the flea market has always been a part of the Nashville Farmers Market, even when it was on the other end of Bicentennial in open air tents. If the vendors pay their rent and don't sell knock off items, why should they have to move. I love going to the Asian couple tha has the $1 bins of little household items and wudknots. Many of these people make their livelihood at the Flea Market and displacing them because of a "few" that do not like cheaply made items is a shame. That's what a Flea Market is - I would rather have these vendors at a facility where they pay montly rent/taxes, than to have them posted up on the side of a road or in vacant lot selling their items, because that is what's going to happen.

So the Market will be displacing 50+ vendors in the flea market for a handful of "artisan" vendors that will sell $10 handmade soap, $20 soy made candles, and $30 hand-made scarfs. I'm all for supporting local-made products, but not everyone likes those type of things. Being that the market is located in a historically and predominantly black zip code, I would think they would want to cater to all residents - not just the folks in the new apartments, condos, and million dollar shotgun houses.

Their is plenty of space at the facility for everyone to coexist. They have already gone up on their rents three-fold now I guess this the last straw to kick them out [SIC].

I understand why many gentrifiers look down their noses at cheap tacky stuff that has been sold in the same place for decades, but I have no problem with flea markets because there are common goods that are higher than stuffy taste or stiff-necked wealth. Inclusiveness and respect are two such common goods.

What stands out to me is that First Tennessee Park, the Nashville Sounds' new ballpark, is specifically mentioned as a catalyst changes at the Farmers' Market. Some of us have warned that the new ballpark may not have the desired effect of growth in existing Jefferson Street businesses. Instead, it may leverage relocation of larger businesses that drive out the smaller ones. Is that good? It depends on what your expectations are. The Farmers' Market is like canary in a coal mine on that score.

Make no mistake: the Farmers' Market is a Metro owned public space. Make no mistake: if the Farmers' Market discourages buyers who cannot afford handmade artisan crafts, they will not visit the Farmers' Market, which will make it a less diverse place. Make no mistake: a space that no longer welcomes diversity, including class diversity, is no longer legitimately public.

I've been a neighbor of and a regular customer at the Farmers' Market for a decade since moving to Salemtown. I did not patronize the flea market, but I also never saw the need for it to go away. I do not understand why later arrivals (and apparently a neighborhood association) do.

By the way, I would be deliriously pleased if the Farmers' Market could certify that all of its produce comes from local, organic, family farms (like those in Scottsboro/Bells Bend) and not from Tennessee's powerful agribusiness plantations. I'm not deluded enough to believe that the schlock-haters are clamoring for a bridge that far. They seem satisfied enough with elbowing out the riff raff.

Disclaimer and full disclosure: This blog has been a donor to past efforts to preserve and to develop the Farmers' Market.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Ding! Dong! The AMP is [officially] dead!

I have been arguing from jump that the east-west connector proposal (involving bus rapid transit) should be dead on arrival because it deliberately excluded sections of Nashville, like North Nashville, that needed it more than the hotels on West End did. The Amp plan was a case of class and ethnic prejudice that once more mustered public revenues and infrastructure in support of wealthier, whiter communities at the expense of others.

Early on I was simply ignored and no bus rapid transit supporters responded to my concerns.

When they started responding to me, it was to make the case that the transit authority had considered all modes of travel (conveniently leaving out that not all corridors had been considered).

When the arguments that the Amp was a case of transit inequity started gaining traction across the city, Ampsters in what now appears to be a peel-off move, insisted that West End was merely the spine of a region-wide transit plan that would also bring BRT to corridors elsewhere beyond the east-west corridor. All of the sudden they began vaguely predicting future northward legs.

Today the Metro Transit Authority officially proclaimed the Amp dead. And MTA's new executive admitted what many of us had known all along, namely that the Amp was never designed to spread beyond east and west Nashville. These are CEO Steve Bland's exact, pertinent words on the Amp today:

Frankly, it would have been difficult to replicate in other corridors.

Nope. We were not the fools some made us out to be.

Exceptionally large, 20-unit Salemtown development deferred for community meeting

The "Specific Plan" rezoning requests are now flying into Salemtown, with new ones barreling down the pike persistently, enough to make your head spin. Most of the "SPs" propose to expand the number of units currently existing on the properties, which is consistent with the priorities of planners (who strive to increase density) and those of developers (who strive to wring out every last drop of value that they claim to add to properties). Former Metro Council member Roy Dale has been the applicant of a number of recent rezoning requests; a sweet parlay on his part.

One development about which I have waved red flags early on is "The Row at 6th & Garfield." The plan is to demolish 8 existing units across 5 plots and infill 20 new ones. The Salemtown neighborhood association informed me before the plan came before the Planning Commission on January 8 that the developers were seeking to defer in order to hold community meetings on the project. The association gives no public indication that I can see (I am a member) that they have concerns about the project. The Planning Department's recommendation reflects that deferral:

Project No. Zone Change 2015SP-001-001
Project Name The Row at 6th & Garfield

Requested by Dale and Associates, applicant; Bryan Development, LLC, owner.

Staff Reviewer Birkeland
Staff Recommendation Defer indefinitely.
Zone change to permit twenty multi-family units.

Preliminary SP
A request to rezone from One and Two-Family Residential (R6) to Specific Plan-Residential (SP-R) zoning for properties located at 1700, 1702, 1706, 1710 and 1712 6th Avenue North, at the northeast corner of 6th Avenue North and Garfield Street, (1.01 acres), to permit up to 20 multifamily dwelling units

Existing Zoning
One and Two-Family Residential (R6) requires a minimum 6,000 square foot lot and is intended for single-family dwellings and duplexes at an overall density of 7.71 dwelling units per acre including 25 percent duplex lots. R6 would permit a maximum of 7 lots with 1 duplex lot for a total of 9 units.

Proposed Zoning
Specific Plan-Residential (SP-R) is a zoning district category that provides for additional flexibility of design, including the relationship of streets to buildings, to provide the ability to implement the specific details of the General Plan. This Specific Plan includes attached residential buildings.

Staff recommends an indefinite deferral at the request of the applicant.

The Planning Commission did indeed approve the deferral two weeks ago.

This week the neighborhood association sent out announcement of its next business meeting, Monday, January 26 (6:00p). That agenda included the item, "Developer Presentations (30 min.) [held jointly with Councilperson Gilmore]." No other details were listed and there is no clarification announced by Salemtown Neighbors, but I assume that the SP request for The Row at 6th and Garfield is to be addressed. It is not easy to see where SNNA's executive board stands on this.

Chances are, if Roy Dale is present on Monday, he will also be discussing the SP request at 4th Av N and Garfield (2015SP-002-001) which was approved by the Planning Commission on the January 8 consent agenda without any discussion by the commissioners. Even with that approval I am unaware of any community meetings having been held on this plan by developers. It would demolish 6 units and build 8. But again, specific plans require allowance of community input before final approval. The public hearing has not been held by Metro Planning, yet so there is still time to slow this down if community discussion does not happen at the association meeting on Monday. I have received no notifications from CM Erica Gilmore about upcoming community meetings on rezoning. I certainly hope she is doing her due diligence on these rezoning requests.

Here is the planning staff's recommendation for the 4th and Garfield plan:

Staff recommends approval with conditions and disapproval without all conditions.

  1. Uses within the SP shall be limited to a maximum of 8 residential units.
  2. If a development standard, not including permitted uses, is absent from the SP plan and/or Council approval, the property shall be subject to the standards, regulations and requirements of the RM20-A zoning district as of the date of the applicable request or application. Uses are limited as described in the Council ordinance.
  3. The final site plan shall include architectural elevations showing raised foundations of 18-36” for residential buildings.
  4. A corrected copy of the preliminary SP plan incorporating the conditions of approval by Metro Council shall be provided to the Planning Department prior to or with final site plan application.
  5. Minor modifications to the preliminary SP plan may be approved by the Planning Commission or its designee based upon final architectural, engineering or site design and actual site conditions. All modifications shall be consistent with the principles and further the objectives of the approved plan. Modifications shall not be permitted, except through an ordinance approved by Metro Council that increase the permitted density or floor area, add uses not otherwise permitted, eliminate specific conditions or requirements contained in the plan as adopted through this enacting ordinance, or add vehicular access points not currently present or approved.
  6. The requirements of the Metro Fire Marshal’s Office for emergency vehicle access and adequate water supply for fire protection must be met prior to the issuance of any building permits.

Given the rapid transition Salemtown is currently experiencing, we really do have to keep our eye on the ball. The sheer volume of rezoning requests in a short period of time could tip it out-of-hand completely if we are not vigilant.

UPDATE: both properties did come up for discussion and questions at the January SNNA business meeting. Developers of The Row at 6th and Garfield said that they plan to defer the proposal to the end of February. They also emphasized to those in attendance that SNNA could have some influence over the direction of this project, which is a hopeful sign as long as the association officers encourage input from members. I will post more information on the site plan here soon.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Op-eds that rock: "every dollar doled out to a local corporation is one that can't be spent on something far more valuable"

If you have read this blog long enough, you know that I completely agree with these two local attorneys who take to the Tennessean to list the sweetheart corporate welfare deals--including First Tennessee Ballpark in the North Capitol area--that Metro under the Dean administration has brokered.

Daniel Horwitz and Mike Jameson go slow to explain the problem clearly to those who confuse willful self-ignorance with bliss:

The trope that Nashville's seemingly endless supply of tax abatements and economic development grants (two euphemisms for "corporate welfare") will ultimately "pay for themselves" is laughable.

Proof of that will come by 2016, when our next mayor — whoever that is — is forced to institute the largest property tax hike in Metro history just to cover the impending budget shortfall. When that happens, how many voters will look back upon our city's recent "investments" without regret?

Moreover, with local politicians clamoring to hand over public dollars to any business that even whispers about leaving town, why on earth wouldn't every other corporation in Nashville make the same threat? ....

Simply handing cash over to local corporations, however, can hardly be described as a "public investment." It's not. It also reeks of cronyism and incentivizes corruption. If Bridgestone ends up repaying Metro's current officeholders in campaign contributions a few years from now, will anyone really be surprised?

Rather than being real in their campaigning so far, nearly every mayoral candidate I've heard seems to act like they are in denial of gathering budgetary storm clouds. Each talks as if she or he would be a better Dean than Dean himself. In fact, they keep arguing that they will continue Karl Dean's insane corporate subsidies AND devote more money to neighborhoods and infrastructure. It is pure snake-oil, friends. Believe them at your own peril.

The chickens are eventually going to come home to roost for property owners and taxpayers. Someone is going to have to eventually pay for the bills Hizzoner is running up to keep his rave going. We may continue to join in the foolishness today if we wish, but the hangover is only going to be that much harder to deal with tomorrow.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

In an unusual move, bill before council would send $100,000 to the Neighborhoods Resource Center

News reports last summer said that council member Scott Davis is a board member of Nashville's Neighborhoods Resource Center. CM Davis has introduced a resolution to take $100,000 from "the Undesignated Fund Balance of the General Fund of the General Services District" in order to fund a grant that would pay for some of the NRC's programs. The resolution has been introduced in council committee twice, and on both occasions deferred due to CM Davis' absence from the meetings. CM Davis deferred the bill in council a couple of weeks ago until February "to get information to council and to work a few things out."

This is not the first time the NRC stood to get contributions from Metro government. Back in the 2006-07 session, Metro Council approved approximately $100,000 for NRC from their "Discretionary Infrastructure Funds" pool which was used mostly for private non-profits organizations instead of public infrastructure. To be specific, the council had voted themselves $1.95 million in these "infrastructure funds" during the summer of 2006, but 80% of the money approved to be spent before the end of the fiscal year was privatized for organizations like NRC. Labeling them "infrastructure funds" was a monumental act of deception on the part of the Metro Council.

What makes CM Davis's resolution different is not the money to be privatized for NRC. What makes this proposal different is that it proposes to draw money from a fund that is not generally spent on anything but public infrastructure as far as I can tell. Here are the Metro departments that where these funds have gone in the past:
  • Dept. of Health
  • District Attorney
  • General Services
  • Farmers’ Market
  • Codes Administration
  • Office of Trustee
  • Metropolitan Transit Authority
  • Fire Dept.
  • Metro Action Commission
  • Public Works
In 2009, a $125,000 contribution was made from the undesignated fund balance to the Belmont Presidential Debate. Otherwise, the lion's share of these appropriations seem to pay for public infrastructure rather than for subsidizing private organizations.

I have tended to feel concern about NRC's collaborative relationship with Metro government over the years, and I worry that tying them to more public funding will blunt any critical role they might play when occasions call for dissent, not collaboration. I am also worried that $100,000 to NRC might be that much less money for authentic and legitimate infrastructure projects that need it. Finally, continuing to treat NRC as a private partner and extension of Metro government softens the Mayor's responsibility to fund a robust and responsive Office of Neighborhoods, and hence be accountable to constituents. As a private agency, NRC is ultimately only responsible to its board rather than to voters. In general, giving money to autonomous, unelected non-profits also gives elected officials separation and deniability if funds are not truly used for "the general welfare."

CM Davis owes taxpayers a clear explanation on why NRC is a more worthy recipient of these funds than Metro departments who have more direct influence neighborhood quality of life. It is not that I don't support NRC; I have yet to be convinced that this is a wise practice for fundraising and funding general services.

UPDATE: in December 2014, NRC sent out email blasts urging supporters to lobby for passage of the resolution. Here content from one such email:

On Tuesday night, Metro Council will vote on Resolution RS2014-1316. This resolution will provide the Neighborhoods Resource Center with partial funding, in the amount of $100,000.
We ask that you contact Metro Council Members immediately and encourage them to vote for this resolution.
As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, we are within our rights to send this email requesting your support. We have provided a sample email and background information below.
We hope that we can count on your support and your action on this important resolution.

Jim Hawk, Executive Director
Mark Wright, Board President

Sample Email to Metro Council
Dear Metro Council Members,
I am writing in support of Resolution RS2014-1316. The proposed legislation will provide the Neighborhoods Resource Center with critical emergency funds that will, in turn, support neighborhoods across Metropolitan Nashville and Davidson County.
I am a member of __________________ neighborhood and I have personally worked with the Neighborhoods Resource Center. I know that they have helped our neighborhood succeed and have helped us work more effectively with Metro government.

Background Regarding this Resolution
July 2014

Over 75 neighborhood leaders and other key allies gathered for a series of meetings to discuss the financial crisis and offer recommendations. The leaders agreed that NRC was vital to the success of Nashville's neighborhoods. Dissolution was not an option.

Neighborhood leaders recommended diversifying NRC's revenue streams, which specifically included making an emergency request to Metro Council. Both neighborhood leaders and several Metro Council members wondered why this hadn't been done even before the financial crisis. Council Member Scott Davis was asked if he would champion the cause before Metro Council.

August 2014

A new Board of Directors and Executive Director were chosen.

In a two-week period, $10,200 was raised to provide for the mortgage and utilities for six months.

All staff were laid off.

The Board of Directors and volunteer staff began working on a funding plan that involved revenue streams from corporate gifts and sponsorships, foundations and grants, individual/household memberships, fundraising and events, and support from Metro Council.

October 2014

NRC began launching its new Individual/Household Membership Program, submitted grant proposals and started work on a 2015 Corporate Gift and Sponsorship Program.

November 2014

The Neighborhoods Resource Center held a series of open public meetings to discuss progress and plans to diversify funding. Leaders were again asked if NRC should move forward on a funding request to Metro Council (Unanimous Agreement to move forward).
After obtaining support from the Mayor's Office, Council Member Scott Davis moved forward and submitted his proposal to the Finance & Budget Committee.

December 2014

Resolution RS2014-1316 is submitted to Metro Council for action on Tuesday, December 16th.

To date, supporters of the Neighborhoods Resource Center have secured over $55,000 in funding. NRC is projected to raise an additional $77,000 (from sources other than Metro Council) by the end of our fiscal year in June.

Worth underscoring are the facts that unanimous agreement was expressed at public meetings for lobbying Metro Council for subsidies to keep NRC going and that they required support from Karl Dean before moving forward. CM Scott Davis withdrew the funding resolution at the last council meeting. Curiously, the NRC board had requested the withdrawal. I have seen no follow-up correspondence from NRC explaining the course change.

Monday, January 19, 2015

What kind of revolution did Dr. King claim? One of community projects or one of social justice?

Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores and thereby speed the day when every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough places plain.
-- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1967)

In college I was a supporter of the law that made Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday a national holiday. Even then, I understood that there would be a price to pay. Governments and corporations tend to co-opt popular observances for their own self-serving ends.

I continue to be an avid observant of MLK Day, but I am constantly reminded of how its institutionalization has muted and snuffed out most of the radicalism of Dr. King's message. "I Have a Dream" often replaces the nightmare Dr. King said that he found in the nation's slums. Some want to focus strictly on integration (which Dr. King called "a struggle to get rid of extremist behavior") while they ignore what Dr. King called "genuine equality" which involves "hard economic and social issues" and "survival of a world within which to be integrated."

Jeremy Kane volunteers for MLKDay
We continue to see the muffling of Dr. King's message in 2015 in Nashville, especially from candidates running for office. Metro Council candidates are promoting the national day of service, even though voluntarism has little to do with MLK's self-identity: "if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice." Mayoral candidates are joining in volunteer activities without talking about what they would do if elected to curb the excesses of income inequality that lead to what Dr. King called "spiritual death."

Emphasizing a day of service gives politicos and corporations a shelter free of the undue risk of "genuine equality" and the weightier matters of social justice. Public-private partnerships are perfect vehicles for softening the sharp edges of MLK's message while seizing on the glow of his mass popularity. However, they are of no help in joining Dr. King to go out into a hostile world and boldly challenge the status quo. Public-private partnerships are the status quo. By not taking bold stands they have the air of safe neutrality. However, in the same sermon where Dr. King spoke of going into hostile world, he observed with Dante that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis maintain their neutrality.

Ultimately, the co-opting and switch of the MLK brand from economic justice to community service is ironic. Dr. King died in Memphis while supporting sanitation workers striking for wage increases and better working conditions. Not only do community service days do nothing to advance the cause of better pay and safer work for employees, but some clean-up and trash-pick-up volunteer efforts create more work for sanitation employees who haul it off to landfills generally located in poorer communities. Projects can be more of an obstacle to survival in a world within which to be integrated.

I participate in community projects and I encourage others to do the same at any point in the calendar. But let us not confuse and water down Dr. King's revolutionary message with the idea that community service projects authentically commemorate his work.

UPDATE:  I'm not the only one thinking this way. In Philadelphia today 6,000 organized in "a more assertive, confrontational vision of King's legacy" intentionally departing from the national day of service:
"While we recognize the importance of service, Dr. King was not assassinated because of his charity work. He was assassinated because he challenged the status quo," said the Rev. Mark Tyler of Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, a leader of the new MLK D.A.R.E. coalition. "We only do honor to his memory if we continue to fight the same fight."

Friday, January 16, 2015

Not good for neighborhoods: a case of false equivalence as reported in the Tennessean

I was not present at the mayoral candidates debate this week, but Tennessean reporter Joey Garrison, who was there, reported thusly:

Phil Bredesen built an NFL football stadium and a downtown arena. Bill Purcell stuck to sidewalks and community centers. Karl Dean built a new convention center and a minor league baseball stadium.

Legacies of Nashville's last three mayors were presented that way at a mayoral candidates forum Wednesday. Those vying to be the next mayor then answered a simple question: "What will you build as mayor?"

But rather than reeling off big-ticket projects, a few of the contenders on hand turned their attention more to neighborhoods.

Garrison somewhat framed the focus of the debate around future construction projects. Framing is an interpretative, not an objective move. Nonetheless, he seems to say that the moderator, news corporation president Chris Ferrell, cited the three preceding mayors as all building along the identical lines of "big-ticket projects." Giving Garrison the benefit of the doubt, I would argue that Ferrell's own framing is not just subjective, but it skews the facts into a fallacy of false equivalence.

Neither Garrison nor Ferrell (reportedly) mentioned the singular glaring difference between the three mayors as framed: Bill Purcell's projects were Metro infrastructure projects that primarily and directly benefited the people who paid for them and used them. Sidewalks and community centers benefit all Nashvillians, not just the business class. They are neither limited to those who pay admission fees nor excluded to visitors from out of town. They address common goods of the local citizenry.

Both Bredesen and Dean have been primarily subsidizers of the business class. Stadiums, arenas and convention centers primarily benefit the corporations, industries and professional groups in entertainment and tourism. They benefit those industries while Metro mitigates the risk of private investment by committing public taxes to private-use facilities.

Bredesen and Dean at least acknowledged in their more honest moments that the goods to the larger Nashville community in their "big-ticket projects" were secondary. Many would add that they provide only trickle-down scraps to the Metro taxpayers, who are on the hook for all of these venues if they fail to live up to projections. In some cases they obligate Nashvillians even if they succeed: the NFL football stadium transfuses millions of tax dollars every year from public infrastructure services (Metro Water) per the contract signed by former Mayor Bredesen (the contract runs through 2026).

Framing the different capital spending priorities of the various mayors on the flat is not just incorrect, it invites the new crop of mayoral candidates to level all such spending as the same. That is potentially hazardous for the neighborhoods that these candidates claim they will attend to. There is a qualitative difference between a community center and an arena. Both of these news men should acknowledge that difference and hold the candidates accountable for doing so.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

David Fox and Megan Barry say they would be powerless to stop business as usual

During coverage of today's mayoral candidates debate local reporter Steven Hale tweeted points Mr. Fox and CM Barry made about Metro's sweetheart subsidies for corporations and developers, and I could not let the moment pass without reference to the obvious:

We amount to more than "superimposed human silhouettes"

A city planner criticizes a Minneapolis improvement project totaling $50 million due to scant attention it gives to community-based input and democratic process. Given the recent move in the Metro Planning Department away from community-based planning toward a process sponsored by the Nashville Chamber of Commerce, he has some relevant things to say to us:

It would appear only a handful of people want this redesign, but it just so happens those handful of people are the one's with enough political connections to get the City to subsidize their want. We are witnessing the continuation of a failed top-down, 'Power Broker' system:

  • Strategic political pressure is put on elected officials by influential insiders.
  • The city starts the process by hiring the best outside ‘star’ consultant to tell us the things we likely already know.
  • Consultant drafts renderings with the best design software money can buy that includes the finest superimposed human silhouettes unpaid interns can draft.
  • Minimum public engagement requirements are hit by having people fill out online surveys while business and political insiders, not the countless thousands of daily users or small business owners, continue drive the bureaucratic process forward.

Where projects are funding from State and Federal sources, local input is limited to ensure the process goes as quickly as possible. Local political leaders go along with the process, despite it’s flaws, because it isn’t local money. It is something for nothing and, at that price, something is better than nothing.

In the planning profession, we spend a lot of time talking about the virtues of Jane Jacobs’ works but pay her little respect in practice. Our planning projects, and the leadership that supports them, still hold to modernist planning practices that have been long criticized. Our leadership, despite good intentions, continues to develop projects that accommodate those who do not live in the city all while paying lip-service to public input, diversity, and the little slices of chaos that make places great.

It begs the question: Are we still in the era of top-down modernist planning?

I don't know about Minneapolis, but Nashville is most certainly still in an era of top-down modernist planning, even with Metro being the primary funding source for many projects.

Yesterday, a person responded to my question about what he thought about proposals to change zoning and community character in order that historic buildings in Midtown give way for large hotels and mixed-use complexes, "It's the same developers who always get what they want. It's a done deal." Around the way, First Tennessee Park is being built with practically no community input, vague assurances from designers that it will reflect the local neighborhoods, and many "superimposed human silhouettes".

That's how growth happens in Nashville. Top-down, with power brokers driving planning and zoning. Metro Planning has even given up on community-based planning. Nashville Next, which pays lip-service to community input, has diluted the influence local communities can have on development by emphasizing region-wide coordination of opinions for one comprehensive vision for everyone. The Metro Planning Commission has few neighborhood-friendly, preservation-minded, affordability-touting advocates left to whom to appeal.

We are by no means nearing the end of top-down modernist planning. It chugs along unchecked in Nashville. The bulk of us are not much more than fine shadows to the power brokers.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Metro Council stops the Mayor's Fair Board appointment and a council candidate takes it personally

I, like many, received an email blast last week from Save Our Fairgrounds, one of the few groups that has organized and defeated Mayor Karl Dean soundly on one of his major sell-off plans. The blast warned of Hizzoner's latest bid to appoint Eric Malo to the Fair Board. SOF called our attention back to 2011, when Mr. Malo advocated demolishing the Fairgrounds racetrack, which he pinned as the culprit for the pollution of nearby Browns Creek. He also supported selling off the public property to private interests for construction.

The irresponsible claim that the racetrack is the cause of the pollution of Browns Creek, whose watershed parallels railways, crosses under roads and intersects interstates, is enough for me to wonder whether Mr. Malo can fairly serve on the Fair Board. After 4 years, I am still waiting to see some of the negative energy vented at the Fairgrounds turned into a positive collaborative watershed alliance between Mr. Malo's group and other community groups. Something like the Richland Creek Watershed Alliance is what I have in mind. If I had read somewhere that Mr. Malo had taken part in real watershed preservation since 2011, I would have a launch point for parting with Save Our Fairgrounds on his appointment.

However, there was nothing in the present coverage of the council debate last Tuesday (I watched the debate myself) to make me think that Mr. Malo had made moves beyond Karl Dean's plan to some larger vision. The council defeated the mayor's appointment to the Fair Board, and I have no problem with that. It is actually refreshing that the council debated one of the mayor's board appointments for once. They typically rubber stamp them.

As if on cue, another player from the 2011 unpleasantness, Colby Sledge, insinuated himself into the council decision not to appoint the mayor's man to the Fair Board. Mr. Sledge is now running for the council seat of district 17, and I guess he sees the board appointment as important to his current campaign because he tweeted:

What was the petty political agenda? Seriously? A grassroots group--opposing the mayor's plan to tear down first the Fairgrounds and then the attached racetrack and sell them to private developers--organized once again to oppose one of his appointments to the board charged with oversight on the basis of that person's support for the mayor's plan. They petitioned the council harder than Mr. Malo's supporters did. It is politics, but how is it petty?

It is surely nothing like the pettiness of Mr. Sledge (who again lives in council district 17) in inserting himself four years ago into the district 24 race to try to torpedo Jason Holleman's campaign because CM Holleman opposed tearing down the Fairgrounds. The pettiness was compounded by the already expressed sentiment that no one outside of Mr. Sledge's anti-Fairgrounds group, Neighbors for Progress, should have a say in what happens to the Fairgrounds.

But Neighbors for Progress, who launched a website that no longer exists to promote a tear-down petition that only garnered 500 signatures (after thousands were projected) and turned out 35 speakers at council public hearing as the other side turned out 3,000, appeared to be astroturf.  I have my doubt's that Mr. Sledge's group was ever anything but marginally "grassroots," particularly since under his leadership, the group's agenda seemed to shift with whatever tactical moves the Mayor's Office was making at any particular point of popular resistance, including Karl Dean's advocacy of Sarah Lodge Tally over CM Holleman in 24.

Maybe Colby Sledge could not muster any more popular support for Mr. Malo than he could for demolishing the Fairgrounds and then the attached racetrack. Thus, his "friend" lost a board appointment as a statement about the future of the Fairgrounds. But there was never a need to personalize this as candidate Sledge has. Maybe he should direct his anger at council "progressives" like Ronnie Steine, Megan Barry and Jerry Maynard, who could not line up the votes to appoint.

As for CM Steine, he could not line up votes because he was too busy concocting false analogies: Mr. Malo's past opposition to the racetrack versus council opponents of Music City Center construction who nonetheless support it now. Well, if any of the latter wish to seek an appointment to the convention center authority and CM Steine wants to organize community opposition to them, you won't hear complaints here. Good luck with that, councilman.

The irony here is that the council followed proper procedure, stunt-free, to defeat the mayor's appointment of Mr. Malo to the Fair Board; CM Steine has a track record of pontificating on following council process. He also has a knack for breaking with process when convenient for him to do so.

So, spare us the crocodile tears, Mr. Sledge.

Again, this was not about Mr. Malo. The mayor lost this appointment because he tried to place someone who previously echoed his own will-to-demo and penchant to sell off valuable Metro resources. Loyalty tends to trump rationality in his administration. This was also about Mr. Dean and his preference for running end-arounds on democratic process. The track record is clear: the convention center, a Hickory Hollow flea market, the Fairgrounds, the Sulphur Dell ballpark. Those are just the ones that come off the top of my head. (For what it's worth, there are rumors circulating that the Fairgrounds question was deliberately kept out the Nashville Next planning process to avoid the recurrence of embarrassment in the Mayor's Office; I guess there was not as keen an interest in sparing Mr. Malo disappointment).

Karl Dean's decisions express a disdain for democratic process when it does not line up with his growth agenda. Checking this board appointment is not petty. It represents one of the few instances where grassroots organizing keeps the mayor from overreaching and padding the incomes of wealthy developers.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Without warranty of community benefits, meaner streets can follow urban growth

"From the looks of things, Stringer Bell's worse than a drug dealer .... He's a developer."
-- The Wire (HBO)
No, not all developers can be compared to drug dealers. However, the point I take from the exchange between police detectives in the wildly popular HBO series, The Wire, is that a cartel of real estate growth and development exists that can displace people and destroy communities faster and more efficiently in pursuit of self-seeking ends than any black market ever could, precisely because the former is legal and planned with the blessing of powerful politicians. Legitimacy allows developers to distance from the more jarring and damaging effects of growth they cause local communities.

Whether or not individual developers act responsibly is no counterbalance to an economic system that steamrolls over democratic process and rarely delivers benefits to the degree promised, even when the scale used is trickle-down.

Attempts to balance the power of land development syndicates with the interests and common goods of local communities are uphill battles.

Even in places outside Nashville where meaningful attempts are being made to check the snowballing power of the real estate industry, bolstered by government giveaways, the sledding is tough:

Backers of a controversial proposal to impose new rules on developers looking for a Detroit public subsidy are counting on support from the small business community to combat the notion that the rules would be harmful to the city's growth.

The small business community's help could be critical as Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones prepares to reignite the debate early next year over the proposed community benefits ordinance, which Mayor Mike Duggan, the Detroit Regional Chamber and the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation oppose.

The small-business effect on the debate was evident earlier this month when the Michigan Black Chamber of Commerce, which represents thousands of neighborhood businesses in Detroit, joined the fight to block an attempt during state lawmakers' lame duck session to preemptively ban Detroit or other cities from passing a community benefits ordinance ....

The proposed community benefits ordinance would require certain developers seeking a tax break from the city or other public subsidy to enter into an agreement with community members that could address local hiring, environmental impacts and other community concerns.

Accountability is "controversial."

Of course, Detroit's "growth" lobby groups oppose any attempt to demand public accountability for developers receiving tax dollars, because accepting responsibility for their actions and being held to standards equals "higher costs and red tape." How can taxpayers claw back any of their revenues when developers fail to deliver if some sticks are not written into law with all of these carrots?

Nashville neighborhoods could use protective legislation like a community benefits ordinance. However, with a Mayor and current Metro Council exclusively obsessed with economic development over public infrastructure, such an ordinance would never enter the equation.

And then there are the local developers and construction companies who keep lobbying, financing and pressuring the already compliant politicos:

Metro Councilwoman Erica Gilmore wants to impose new rules barring construction louder than a certain decibel, between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m. [in Midtown].

For the time being, Gilmore has tabled her bill in reaction to complaints from builders and developers. They're taken aback by the bill, arguing that the proposed restrictions would cost them money, make their projects take longer to finish — and be more disruptive because they'd have to do more during the daytime traffic.

Gilmore said she's fielding a growing number of complaints from residents of buildings in Midtown and SoBro, and on Church Street, who say construction is disrupting their sleep.

But CM Gilmore is also getting complaints from the big hotel chains who have to comp their guests for late night noise from the construction sites where their competitors plan to locate. If this were anything but a thunder battle between competing stone giants (don't forget the nearby penthouse condo owners), I doubt it would get as much attention. Your average urban residential community is usually outflanked and defused by now.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

A short lesson in how business models do not apply in public education

Council member Jason Holleman pulled me in on Sunday when he quoted one of the finest expositors of the relationship between public education and democracy, John Dewey, in his Tennessean column. Dewey's may be a hard pill to swallow for the "collaborative culture" in Nashville, which eschews conflict usually by ignoring those who bring it to light. However, it is no less true in genteel Music City: conflict is the gadfly of the critical reflection necessary to growth. Both minimizing and denying conflict, instead of acknowledging it and working towards mutual understanding, instigate nothing. Instead, they lead to hubris, atrophy and neglect as they destroy authentic community.

But I could go on and on about kick-ass Dewey quotes to the point of diversion.

The really important statements by CM Holleman are:

Speaking out is an essential responsibility of democratic leaders. To describe such leadership as “freelancing,” reflects a misunderstanding of the role of elected officials. We work for the people who’ve elected us. If we limit that work to the minutes of official meetings, we abdicate a critical responsibility to protect the public interest.

The Chamber of Commerce’s recent Report Card critiqued such advocacy as being inconsistent with the policy governance model the Board adopted. Respectfully, the Chamber may need a reminder on the nature of democracy and the expectations of elected officials.

Expecting only public praise and private criticism in the name of “policy governance” undermines the essential protections of free speech in general and, more specifically, erodes the relationship between constituents and their elected officials.

CM Holleman is responding to the Chamber's education committee, which accused the Metro Nashville Public School Board of "freelancing" instead of acquiescing to an idea of "unity" contrived from the strictures of their own business models for fixing what they deem as "dysfunction." The fallacy is the unexamined assumption that everything is better if operating like a business ideal. Commentators of many stripes have pointed out that all kinds of societal projects would break apart under the weight of corporate logic.

Here is the specific critique in the Chamber's "report card" to which CM Holleman's op-ed is responding:

Over the past year, it is clear that the Metro school board has struggled to articulate a common vision for the school system. This may be due, in part, to significant turnover on the board. As of August 2014, five of the nine members had served fewer than two years. Even more disruptively, some board members routinely criticize their director of schools through social media and news media articles between official board meetings, creating a perception of dysfunction and lack of leadership. Given these dynamics, we believe the board would be wise to invest more time and resources toward becoming a more cohesive governing body. We recommend that the school board recommit its adherence to policy governance by engaging in ongoing professional development. Engaging an outside trainer on a regular basis to work with the board on updating its policy governance model would ensure all members, regardless of length of tenure, have a thorough understanding of the model. In addition, these ongoing sessions could be designed to help the board accomplish necessary tasks, such as coming to consensus on expectations for their next director of schools.

Before we consider the merits the report card's argument, keep this mind: the Chamber of Commerce is a powerful lobby group that exerts pressure on local government to address their special interests. Methods they have used to collect data used to exert influence in the past were overseen by public relations and marketing firms, not independent researchers. The report itself is funded by sponsors and corporate partners listed on page 2. Whatever detached objectivity the Chamber may claim for its data now has to be qualified by its subjective use of money and power supplying and potentially biasing report results.

Such funding mechanisms for lobbying remind me of how public-private partnerships produce economic impact studies that are generally more reliable for influencing opinions than for discerning the truth.

Now to the merits of the arguments. It is frankly hypocritical for a business group to criticize a government body for a high turnover rate when the former has been shaken by unstable economies. Nashville has been beset by layoffs in recent years at some of the region's largest employers. Many here have witnessed laid off employees asked to leave immediately and escorted out by security guards. What kind of hits are long-term institutional knowledge taking in the private sector right now? Are local corporations not now hiring temporary workers and contracting out projects so that they avoid paying benefits and payroll taxes on full-time employees? Are businesses setting examples of low turnover rates in the first place?

On on that point, the education committee's choice to lob darts with terms like "freelancing" and "disruptively" so pejoratively at dissenting school board members is interesting, given trendy "disruptive innovation" and the hard-core realities of the economic system. The "sharing economy" in vogue now emphasizes "freelance" or contingent workforce, which could be the norm in a few years. So, is freelancing bad or good? One of the co-chairs of he education committee, Jackson Miller (who himself takes to social media to debate privatization of public education), has a background in the tech sector, which has "an appetite for disruptive ideas." So, is "disruption" bad or good?

The Chamber of Commerce's harsher judgments are based on ideas that are not even enduringly real in its own limited world. To speak so unambiguously, so moralistically to public education leaders is disingenuous. And frankly, the Chamber engages annually in its own pet projects (witness charter schools and corporately sponsored "academies") that disrupt and freelance in public education. Pot meet kettle.

But more to CM Holleman's point, the report card reflects an unabashed bias to take the power away from parents, teachers, principals, and voters and leave it to the whims of special interest groups and hired consultants (who stand to economically benefit from the report card's recommendation). Business lobby groups should be one among many voices with influence over the school board. PTOs, neighborhood groups, and community-based organizations, even if they do not have a lock on wealth approaching that of the Chamber, should have equal influence.

However, inviting more stakeholders leads to more dissent and the actual messiness of democracy. As if we have any other legitimate choice. To insist a democratically obligated board should subscribe to some cleanly-projected, top-down, squabble-free, market-based ideal that rarely even exists in the marketplace is partial, unreasonable and plain foolish.

In the spirit of Dewey, public education is supposed to develop children into critically thinking participants in a robust democracy that encompasses dissent as well as obedience. We do Nashville's children a disservice if we pretend--even on their behalf--that democracy is uncomplicated by dissent. What may seem like a good business model (dependence, docility, submissiveness, etc) is not always a good education model.

Friday, January 02, 2015

Nashville's lower murder rate not alone; part of a national trend with uncertain causes

The local news media is playing up crime stats that show murder rates have dropped to historic lows in Nashville, and Metro government is taking credit. They are also interpreting the reasons:

For the second year in a row, murders hit a historic low in Nashville. There were just 41 criminal homicides in Nashville in 2014. That’s the smallest figure since the county and city governments consolidated in 1963, when police tracked 45 murders.

The highest year for murders in Nashville was 1997 when 112 people were killed.

Police chief Steve Anderson gives some credit to a recent focus on curtailing domestic violence. Just four of the murders from 2014 involved intimate partners. In 2013, there were nine.

Not so fast. Before revving up pats on backs, don't look at the Nashville numbers in a vacuum. Local stats should be placed in a national context, which lends a different perspective, namely one of uncertainty and caution:

Criminologists say the decrease is linked to several factors, some of which are the product of smart policing, others completely out of authorities’ control. But they also say the lack of a consensus on what’s gone right has them convinced that crime rates could spike once again.

“I don’t think anyone has a perfect handle on why violence has declined,” said Harold Pollack, the co-director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab. “So everyone is a bit nervous that things could turn around.”

Until we factor out the causes of trends nationally out of control of local authorities, we cannot assume that Metro government is doing something unique to prevent these murders. Likewise, if crime spikes it may not be because officials are doing something wrong (unless they choose to be consistent and accept the blame during spikes as well as the credit during lulls).