Sunday, August 14, 2005

Belmont's Power Equation

Bill Hobbs, who works for Belmont University, responded to my critical comments about Belmont's pursuit of an institutional overlay in yesterday's post about David Lipscomb's new garage. I am writing a separate post directed toward his defense of Belmont so as not to detract from the genuine audacity of the Lipscomb garage; his claims deserve a thorough response. It has been awhile since I have updated you on Belmont's attempts to expand into its neighborhood anyway, so now is a good time to revisit the overlay.

Bill's interpretation of institutional overlay is incomplete. On the one hand, he is correct that, under an institutional overlay, a university or other entity identifies the properties it wants to acquire and specifies how it plans to develop them.

On the other hand, to say that the overlay does not confer power to take property is only half true. The institutional overlay is an "easement" for Belmont, and not for the neighbors who live around the school. It allows the school to target properties within a growth area and it relieves Belmont of the responsibility of having to go to the city for approval each time it acquires a new piece of property for expansion. That eases expansion conditions for Belmont, making it easier to acquire land than it would otherwise be. That gives Belmont an advantage in the neighborhood in which they sit. Greater advantage equals more power.

However, his comments slant even farther from truth where he says that the overlay "empowers" Belmont's neighbors. Based on their actions, residents in the Belmont area do not seem to have perceived any empowerment coming their way from Belmont. In fact, Belmont area residents organized to speak against the overlay at the Planning Commission in April. A few weeks later they organized themselves into bigger, more forceful numbers at the Council meeting where the overlay was being considered. Their Council member, Ginger Hausser, moved to defer consideration of the overlay until neighbors' concerns could be addressed. Those issues included the character of the neighborhood, street and alley access, and the allegation that Belmont has a history of allowing already owned property to blight in order to drive surrounding property values down and surrounding neighbors out (the charge of blight has been particularly troubling to me as is the prospect that residents have essentially lost their day before the Planning Commission--if they chose to have one--with this easement).

Ultimately the logic of Bill's response makes no sense: why would Belmont seek an overlay that gives them no power and gives their neighbors more power? That's counterintuitive. It also fails common sense. Belmont has at least one lawyer on staff--also their Vice President (which means he probably has his own staff to assist him)--working to move the overlay through to approval. That lawyer is paid by the university to represent the university's best self-interest. As an institution, Belmont has greater power to hire a legal staff and to lobby government agencies than families or individual neighbors living along 15th Ave. do.

The only person responsible to act on behalf of the neighbors in equal measure to her service to Belmont is Ms. Hausser. After getting deferment a few weeks ago, Ms. Hausser struck a compromise between Belmont and neighbors, and in the process, got commitments from Belmont including: the creation of a main entrance at Wedgewood and East Belmont Circle, the funding by the university of traffic calming pedestrian improvements, the formation of an advisory committee to follow implementation of Belmont's master plan and pedestrian improvements in the surrounding neighborhood. Without a government official exercising her representative power to take a couple of steps away from the overlay and to motivate Belmont toward the table with neighbors, Belmont would have gone through with its plans, with or without regard to empowering its neighbors. If the overlay were about empowering neighbors and not emboldening Belmont, then why did it take a Council member to get Belmont to the negotiating table?

And why are many neighbors in Belmont's neighborhood continuing to balk at the overlay, even as the negotiated plans head toward a third and final reading at the end of the month? The owner of the International Market does not want property he owns in the area included in the overlay. 1,900 International Market customers signed a petition against the overlay. One Belmont resident told the Nashville City Paper that the overlay would freeze the zoning currently in place on residential properties the university does not own while allowing Belmont to buy them for commercial uses. If that is true, it tips the power meter even farther toward Belmont's advantage. Even if Belmont chooses not to buy those properties for commercial uses, having that opportunity to choose gives the university much more power than any of the residents or small businesses in the community have.

So, I'm not sure what kind of math Bill Hobbs is using to erase his employer's empowerment from the same equation that he multiplies the empowerment of Belmont's neighbors, but it's some pretty funny math.


  1. Mike, you wrote that an institutional overlay would allow Belmont "to appropriate neighbor's neighbors' property."

    That is patently false, a lie, a slander.

    An institutional overlay certainly does not empower Belmont to steal property - which is, after all, what "appropriate" means in the context you used it.

    An institutional overlay also provides no power to force a sale of the property, or even give Belmont any right of first refusal if the property comes up for sale.

    Belmont simply can not expand into the neighborhood without the neighbors willingly selling their property.

    And any real estate broker will tell you that if there is a desperate buyer for a piece of property, the seller can ask a higher price, or even enjoy a bidding war. And at the end of that bidding war, the owner is still free to sell to whichever buyer he/she wishes to sell to.

    By the way, the institutional overlay process was created at the instigation of homeowner groups that wanted a clearer picture of the long-term development plans of big institutions in their neighborhoods. It's a little bizarre to claim now that the institutional overlay process is a bad thing for homeowners.

  2. Bill--"Steal" is a loaded and pejorative term that I did not mean, else I would have said "steal." Apparently you did not see my response to your initial defense of Belmont:

    By the way, here's how Mr. Roget defines "to appropriate":

    VERB: 1. To set aside or apart for a specified purpose: allocate, assign, designate, earmark. See COLLECT , MONEY . 2. To lay claim to for oneself or as one's right.

    My description of Belmont's attempt to appropriate neighbors' property by easing the zoning seems "appropriate" in both senses of the verb.

    Since even one of those definitions includes your understanding of what Belmont is doing, it is hardly slander to define Belmont's attempts as "appropriation." I already agreed with you that Belmont is earmarking surrounding land it might like to obtain. However, I disagree that the only purpose of the overlay is to express "hopes"; the purpose of an overlay is also to "ease" the process to obtaining property hoped for.

    I do not see any purpose to going off the deep end and accusing me of lies or slander where there are none.