Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Mayor Karl Dean saved May Town Center for a time such as this

Let's revisit Mayor Karl Dean's attempt a couple of weeks ago to wrangle the Fairgrounds redevelopment plan from spiraling out of his grasp via one of his rare news conferences. At that time he reanimated the May Town Center monster:
Dean reminded reporters about May Town ... during a news conference to unveil a new Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce report that claims retrofitting the fairgrounds property off Nolensville Pike to suit 1 million square feet of corporate office space would generate 6,500 new jobs, $200 million in capital investments and $2.5 billion in overall economic impact for Davidson County.

“Here’s the issue,” Dean said. “The fairgrounds is located two miles from downtown. It has access to all the infrastructure that you need to have a successful business growth area.

“Go back to the May Town debate,” Dean continued. “When folks talked about May Town — and that debate is behind us, and we probably don’t even need to be talking about it, but I will for a second — the debate became about [how] we have to have an area where we can develop and expand our tax base in order for this city to succeed. You can’t sit back and say, ‘We’re never going to do anything anywhere in all of Davidson County. We’re just not going to expand our tax base. We’re not going to be welcoming to new businesses.’ ”

The fairgrounds doesn’t pose the same problems — infrastructural, environmental — as May Town, Dean said, invoking it again. Instead, recasting the fairgrounds would include boosting a neighborhood, restoring polluted Browns Creek, and creating a new 40-acre park.
First, it is totally disingenuous for the Mayor to insinuate that he does not intend to reopen old May Town Center wounds in this press conference. Of course, his comments were calculated to impel community fear at a new prospect of sprawl and to redivide neighborhoods against each other. The momentum of controversial developments like May Town Center and like the Fairgrounds thrives on community acrimony. We should not be talking about it, but the Mayor's case for the Fairgrounds requires it, so he would not forswear the chance to use the wedge.

As calculated as the timing of these comments may be (Jack May announced new plans to pursue a scaled-back May Town Center shortly after Karl Dean's press conference), they are also misleading. Metro does not hold any of the back country in Bells Bend that Jack May intends to urbanize. The fairgrounds is entirely public property, and the Mayor intends to hawk almost all of the non-flood-risk land to private developers to create an office park in spite of the fact that there is a large amount of unused office space in nearby Downtown. Expanding the tax base in Bells Bend would require the wholesale destruction of one of the largest urban green spaces in the US, and building bridges that would contradict the community plans of several different neighborhoods. If Metro owned the Bells Bend properties, May Town Center likely would have been dead on arrival.

Hence, the greatest deception in Mayor Dean's comments is that opponents of selling the Fairgrounds oppose development anywhere in Davidson County. I opposed May Town Center on its demerits, not on the question of development in general. I oppose selling the Fairgrounds on its demerits, not on the question of development in general. While I oppose any urban sprawl in Bells Bend at all, I can see myself supporting sensitive and balanced mixed-use development with a higher percentage of green space and with Metro maintaining control of most of the Fairgrounds property. I'm not a strict preservationist here, although I have more in common with the "Save the Fairgrounds" group than I do with the Mayor's Finance Director, Rich Riebeling, who has been lobbying to sell the Fairgrounds since the Purcell administration.

I could get behind an initiative for Fairgrounds redevelopment that would protect the public interest rather than pander to wealthy business interests in the run-up to the mayoral election.

Who knows? Maybe the Mayor has been silent on May Town Center so that he could use it as a wedge for a time such as this. But his mislead on the motivations of those who have concerns about both should not pass without correction.

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