Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Made For Passing Through

The newly named "Chestnut Hill"--formerly "Cameron Trimble"--neighborhood lying south of Downtown outside the I-40 loop is due for some dramatic changes if Nashville Civic Design Center plans are realized. The more realistic parts of those plans include making the neighborhood more pedestrian-friendly by converting 2nd and 4th Avenues to two-way streets. I drive through this neighborhood on a regular basis, either to Home Depot and 100 Oaks to shop or to Greer for Sounds' games or to Siam Cafe to dine. As it stands this traffic corridor is made for drivers passing through, and traffic moves fast up and down the wide straight shot. I can understand the community need to orient toward pedestrians.

However, being ambitious, the NCDC plans foresee expensive changes: including replacing public housing with single-family homes. Metro was well on the way to converting its "super-block" housing elsewhere into more comely single-family homes, with the help of federal Hope VI funding. Take the case of Sam Levy Homes in East Nashville: Metro raised $12 million for the project in 2003 and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development through its Hope VI program matched those funds with $20 million of its own.

But the Bush Administration has slashed Hope VI to the bone with the consent of Congress to the point that no more funds for razing traditional public housing will be available for the foreseeable future; and Metro has suspended its plans to convert other complexes like those in Chestnut Hill. Hope VI is not a liberal creation; it was the brain-child of Republican HUD Secretary Jack Kemp. Yet, with George W. Bush and this Republican Congress at the reins, Chestnut Hill ironically has no hope of ever razing public housing:
The best explanation ... is sheer political expediency. Eager to show he could be tough on domestic spending, Bush decided to pick on politically weak programs that have only the poor as their constituency. (If public housing somehow subsidized the pharmaceutical industry, then, surely, funding would be less scarce.) Once upon a time, Republicans like Jack Kemp showed that compassionate conservatism isn't always a cynical ploy. Today, President Bush shows that, oftentimes, it still is [Source].
Improvements to existing Chestnut Hill housing have already come in the form of a block grant. But "block-granting" has now become synonymous with cutting Section 8 funds like Hope VI, as it allows the Bush Administration to cap funds not adjusted to current costs and to place the responsibility for picking up the slack left by federal inaction on local housing authorities like MDHA. Block grants may be positive things, but neighborhoods that shoulder public housing need more multi-layered and profound federal investment than the simplier funds coming from block grants. And those neighborhoods sure as hell do not need George Bush rolling over Hope VI funds into the block grant program.

Relatively cheap, low-yield block grants and tax cuts for the area's elderly are going to do little to actually help Chestnut Hill realize the visionary redevelopment laid out by the NCDC. NCDC's pipe-dreams are free-of-charge; only government seed money can bring them down to earth. Changing the traffic patterns without mustering the resources for redevelopment may stop people from passing through, but it just might discourage the rest of us from ever coming through at all.

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