Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Planning's Support for May Town Center Highlights the Trickiness of Planning Commissioner's Strictly Land-Use Appeal

I want to return to the claim made last week by Planning Commissioner and former CM Stewart Clifton (on the subject of LED billboards) that the Planning Commission should only allow issues of land-use rather than public opinion to influence their zoning decisions. Keep in mind that "land use" can mean anything as basic as "approved, legal use based on zoning" or as nuanced and open to interpretation as "modification of the natural environment." It is difficult to tell which meaning of "land use" that Planning clings to the exclusion of any other factors, but it seems to me that the farther Planning moves from strictly legal terms to interpretative frames of modification, their views of "land use" become more open to public scrutiny and criticism.

The more I read of Planning recommendations for developing agricultural Bells Bend, the more disingenuous qualities behind strong claims of "land use" over public feedback stick with me. Take the Planning staff's justifications for May Town Center development based on region-wide employment patterns. In a section on job sprawl they mention a recent liberal think-tank's policy paper on jobs migrating out of central business districts region-wide. Hang on. In a democracy, policy recommendations are not simply mandated by planning elites by fiat. Instead, employment policies should be up for public consideration and argumentation, especially if the land use theories supporting those policies have more to do with modification of what is perhaps the largest natural environment in an American urban context.

To discourage job sprawl to exurban satellite campuses, Metro planners assert that the rest of us must stop looking at planning from the level of Metro Nashville and instead see it from the region-wide area of Middle Tennessee (including the 6 donut counties around Davidson):
If the question is approached from a Downtown Nashville perspective, with the scale being the distance from Downtown, May Town Center is clearly on the edge of currently developed land in the northwest corner of Davidson County. If, however, the scale for comparison is the Middle Tennessee region – which is the scale considered for future population growth and the area within which air and water quality impacts will be felt by development throughout the region – the proposed May Town Center site is more accurately considered “inner ring” development.
But several significant problems emerge from planners claims.

First, planners claim to remedy the problem of sprawl by shifting the focus to the level of sprawl. That makes no sense to me. The logical way to plan to mitigate sprawl is to narrow the focus of "scale" and promote development in a limited, bounded scope. By placing Bells Bend in an "inner ring" (in the archaic fashion of the old Chicago school of urban sociology?) Metro planners are framing it relative to sprawling developments outside of Davidson County. So, how can they possibly propose to mitigate sprawl by defining development by sprawl, and by promoting a development that is indisputably sprawl when the aperture of our scope closes in tight on Nashville?

Second, even if we accept the premise that job sprawl warrants high density corporate campuses closer to the urban core to balance exurban job growth, why should that justify paving and building over Bells Bend? The built environment of May Town Center could fit into New York City's Central Park and still leave over 300 acres of green space. Using the same logic that Metro planners use, would the boroughs of New York City stand in better stead with a centralized job-producing corporate campus in Central Park? The planners' region-wide approach also defies their own developer-friendly logic at this point. Couldn't Bells Bend serve as a region-wide analogue to Central Park? While Metro Nashville may have commensurate green space at Bells Bend Park, wouldn't larger scale assumptions see a totally green Bells Bend as a benefit that fits the Middle Tennessee region? And wouldn't it be most advantageous to have that large green space in what planners have defined as the region's inner ring?

Finally, planners are begging the political question of community when they insist on framing the problem of jobs region-wide instead of by Metro Nashville. Whether we define ourselves as Middle Tennessee or as Nashville is not simply a planning conundrum. It is a matter of identity, definition, and allegiance. These are all highly interpretive questions of what our community means to us. They will not be settled simply because a specialized courthouse elite dictates what we must be. In a constitutional democracy, answers emerge from reasoning together in public, and the elite class must convince rather than co-opt.

1 comment:

  1. The Devil's Advocate('s Advocate) in me wonders when everyone living on Bell's Bend will get their property reassigned by eminent domain so the Middle Tennesse region can turn the whole thing into a highly-developed and central park.

    The rest of me would love simply to see the part of it that's already supposedly a Metro park and actually permit visitors to, you know, use that part as a park.

    The land I'm thinking of currently has a land use listed as "single family dwelling," oddly enough, so it's not very park-like.

    Overall I agree the development idea isn't what the city needs. But I also think it's disingenuous for the May Town Center opposition to suggest the land is even slightly park-like. It's sod farms and big front yards, and there's some woods and pasture, and the only people who can really enjoy it are the few people living there. (Riding Old Hickory Blvd on the bend is nice, but it's no park.) It will be developed eventually: either via eminent domain for an actual park, or by private interests who've paid many millions for the land so far and will continue to whittle away at the "Keep It Country" base of residents with large checks. My money (not literally) is on the developers, within 30 years.

    I'd rather be wrong.