Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Chicagoland's cautionary tale

In a Chicago suburb, the result of a pro sports team prowling for taxpayers to bankroll a new stadium and opportunistic politicians quick to make promises they cannot keep:

This for a deal that — initially, at least — looked like it might actually work out for the town of Bridgeview, since taxpayers' $100 million in stadium bonds were supposed to be paid off by stadium revenues. Except that, according to the Tribune, "the final deal called for much of the revenue from soccer games to go to the Chicago Fire, leaving Bridgeview with as much as a $23 million budget hole over the stadium's first five years — one that could ultimately have to be filled by raising property taxes.

This is why it's so vitally important who's on the hook for stadium costs if revenue projections don't work out — and why it's crucial in Seattle that prospective arena builder Chris Hansen is actually agreeing to increase rent payments to cover any shortfall in arena revenues.

Bridgeview, though, didn't get the Fire owners to agree to such a provision, so now they're getting, well, kicked in the teeth. Not so much, though, the Bridgeview elected officials who approved the deal, who've gotten to hand out millions of dollars worth of contracts to favored businesses.

These stadium deals seem to become shell games where money is hidden and shifted until heads spin trying to figure out where it all went. We experienced some of that recently here in Nashville with the pro hockey revenues. Buyers beware of the legalized confidence games.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Twitter account of tonight's Cleveland Park community meeting on building a garbage transfer station

I'm sure that Jamie Hollin is going to follow up with a thorough, reflective and engaging report of the proceedings of tonight's community meeting on a proposed solid waste transfer facility for Cleveland Park at his blog, but here is a quick-and-dirty summary based on his blow-by-blow Twitter stream with a couple of observations tweeted by Matt Pulle, who was also at the meeting:

  • It was the largest turnout for a Cleveland Park Neighborhood Association meeting in memory.
  • A meeting that should have been 30 minutes dragged on for 2 hours.
  • The meeting dragged on for 2 hours because the community was preached at by meeting leaders.
  • Among other things, meeting leaders preached to neighborhood leaders on how to be engaged in the community.
  • Meeting attendees were admonished to keep their questions to 1 minute.
  • 30 minutes into the meeting, the audience was still not told what the purpose of the meeting was.
  • People were ready to vote on the neighborhood garbage station an hour into the meeting.
  • Garbage station owners said they are "small operation" even though they operate in 30 states.
  • Planned building will be 100,000 square feet which equates to tons of garbage trucked through Cleveland Park.
  • Scare tactics were used (that is, threats of what could go in place of a garbage station).
  • Pro-garbage-station speaker promised there would not be garbage odor problems in Cleveland Park.
  • Pro-garbage-station speaker compared storing tons of garbage in Cleveland Park to a household storing a rubbish bin under the sink.
  • No one in the audience showed public support for the project when vote was taken.
  • According to Matt: 99% attending were against a trash station in Cleveland Park.
  • CM Scott Davis says he will file the bill in support of a neighborhood garbage transfer station tomorrow (Friday), which puts in on track for a June 19 council meeting.
  • CM Davis seemed elusive, but may be part of the 1% supporting a trash station in Cleveland Park.

I would say never underestimate the power of a council member to leverage "councilmanic courtesy" to pass legislation over the protests of a majority of constituents. Metro Council is tight like that. This sounds like a potential mess for Cleveland Park.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Do developers have the right to interrupt local business by generating ear-pounding construction noise?

After the community meeting last week in 12South another problem emerged on the neighborhood discussion group with the development on 12th Avenue being built by H.G. Hill Realty and Southeast Venture.

Some neighborhood leaders were concerned about the enormous jackhammer used to demolish on site near the 12South Taproom during lunch hours (11a-1p). Some reported that they could hear the loud noise blocks away and conjectured that it might be having a negative impact on lunch business next to the site.

A representative with Southeast Venture responded to concerned neighbors:

We along with our contractor have been in close contact with the 12South Taproom proprietors from the beginning of construction as their lunch business had the potential to be impacted the most from our hammering and excavation.  As such, we agreed to keep all hammering away from the ‘taproom-side’, (or southern boundary of the site) during lunch hours.  To my knowledge and each time I’ve driven by to check in, this has been the case.  There was never a discussion that we would cease hammering at that time.  Our goal is the get through this stage of the construction as quickly as possible.

I realize the hammering is a nuisance; however, the good news is that it will be over in a few weeks.  We are almost finished with excavating to the grade of our basement level and will commence work on the excavation of the footings for the foundation of the building next week. We will continue to coordinate our efforts to minimize the impact on our neighbors.

There is no ordinance that I know of against construction crews making an objectionable amount of noise during lunch hour. Neighbors who are concerned about the impact on business and their personal lives seem subject to the will of the crews and developers. 

Monday, June 11, 2012

Well, you could have his favorite PR firm coach your writers, never ask him critical questions, and declare him "Tennessean of the Year"

Tweet from Blake Farmer, who was one of two reporters covering Mayor Karl Dean's speech to a Rotary Club today observing Dean's embrace of their competition:

The Tennessean journos have shamelessly hitched themselves to Karl Dean's star, and he is returning the favor with some free advertising to influential local leaders. There is no grander sell-out of the local "4th Estate," and journos at other local media companies should be pleased that they are are not hitched to Hizzoner like those at Nashville's main newspaper, because there is a cost to the groveling coziness:

Fehr School preservation update

Just found out that CM Erica Gilmore and the Historical Commission's Tim Walker are working on the application to put Salemtown's Fehr School building on the National Register of Historic Places to help to preserve the civil rights landmark from demolition or radical alteration. CM Gilmore is trying to get Metro General Services to sign off on the application, and she hopes to submit it by Thursday.

After 3 months of ignoring 12South neighborhood voices, developers hold PR meeting to trot out talking points

H.G. Hill Realty and Southeast Venture say nothing to reassure 12South residents in this video that they will not be strangled with car traffic. Their reference to Hillsboro Village fails on the question of traffic and parking.

12 South - June 4, 2012 - An Installment of the Nashville Docujournal from The Moving Picture Boys on Vimeo.

The problem really is Metro's permissive codes, but it is also the influtential, financial relationships between developers and Metro Council members and the dominance of developers on the Planning Commission. Ordinary people have regular jobs that don't include the planning and zoning process. Developers make more money by spending more time and dropping campaign donations into the local political process. You can thank developers for the permissiveness of codes. Their jobs are to stay one step ahead of neighbors to protect their competitive edge.

News media follows up on 12South traffic, development concerns

NewsChannel5 reported details over the weekend on the increasingly difficult environment that commercial development in 12South is creating for residents:

The small street has seen a major residential and commercial boost in the past two years. Ten new businesses opened their doors and a 90 unit apartment complex was approved, all within a half mile of each other.

While business is at its best on the street, traffic and parking has been worse than ever.

Valet drivers at Urban Grub park hundreds of cars every night, all while maneuvering through traffic and congestion on the two-lane street.

Almost 2 weeks ago, I blogged about this long-developing story.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Sharon Gentry covered for Alan Coverstone?

An anonymous commenter writes of the last school board meeting in which action was taken on charter school applications:

Board member Mark North poured over the data of not only charter schools, but also local MNPS schools. What he found was that the charter schools proposed to set up shop to address students in schools that not only were not failing, they were in the top three in the county. He also studied in depth the charter applications and found glaring errors within the applications themselves.

North presented his findings to the board on May 29th only to have his board members question his findings and sweep them under the rug. Dr. Sharon Gentry did the first sweeping. Her words were an attempt to devalue what Mr. North had uncovered and make him look foolish. No one else on the board even questions Mr. Coverstone's committee to recommend a charter school where one is not needed.

Coverstone is being paid a six figure salary to dismantle MNPS with charter schools that do not work, and his board members are following his lead like lemmings.

That account is consistent with my experience with my school board representative, Sharon Gentry. She came across to me as dismissive toward concerned parents in a community meeting I attended. I never really heard from her when I copied her an email I sent to Gracie Porter about comments she made in the media celebrating Green Hills's Julia Green Elementary getting iPads while my kid's North Nashville classroom had desktops that seemed to limp along.

It is also worth noting that Gentry and her husband received large campaign donations from well-placed leaders in the Nashville Chamber of Commerce, the lobby about as invested in charter schools as any other special interest group. I suppose privately-governed, publicly-financed charter schools represent a big windfall for the business lobby's agenda. Is Sharon Gentry's opposition to Mark North prompted by campaign finance influence?

What is the impact of a sports facility on a community's sidewalks?

A Brooklyn neighborhood group facing construction of a pro basketball arena conducts its own sidewalk impact study and documents it in this video.

Sidewalks from AtlanticYardsWatch on Vimeo.

The demand on the sidewalk's "effective width" by the two groups passing each other near the end of the video takes the problem out of the conceptual range and illustrates it vividly.

If the plan for a new minor league ballpark ever starts to fly in Nashville, leaders in the affected neighborhoods should not assume that the impact studies conducted by developers are going to be offered in the community's best interest. We should always be prepared to do our own analysis, since no one knows our neighborhoods better than we do. Learn the regulations on sidewalks and be prepared to conduct your own tests for safety and quality of life.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Nashville Public Library doing it for the kids on a Saturday in North Nashville

The scene at North Library this morning.

There was a marionette show for kids at the North Library in Buena Vista today and Kid Klatch (a regular weekend event that includes families from Salemtown and Germantown) represented. Kudos to Nashville Public Library for being there for us.

Friday, June 08, 2012

CMA Music Festival relies on volunteers, but what about the jobs?

It is noble to volunteer time and energy to projects that serve the Nashville community. Many professional musicians donate their performances at the CMA Music Fest so that proceeds can be donated to Metro Nashville Public Schools music programs. That is a good thing. According to the Country Music Association website, the volunteer hours donated also flip into more money donated to MNPS "Keep the Music Playing" project, which began in 2006.

WPLN reports that at 2012 CMA Music Fest (41st Fan Fair), more volunteers than ever are being used instead of paid staff:

More than sixty-thousand country music fans are expected to jam downtown Nashville each of the next four days for the CMA Music Festival. Hundreds of volunteers will be helping with crowd control and manning information booths.

For the past three years, the Country Music Association has reduced its paid staff at the festival and shifted some responsibilities to volunteers.

CMA recruits the free labor by offering two free tickets to Sunday night’s finale.

The nobility of volunteer actions should not trump critical questions concerning how volunteers are being used. And I have a couple of questions, which I have not been able to find answers for yet, because I have not located CMA's financials either on Charity Navigator or Giving Matters.

First of all is there a one-to-one match between each volunteer and the actual salary a staff member might be paid to perform the same work? If there is not a direct match, then volunteers should be told that not all of their "donation" will be going to school music programs, but to help CMA's cash flow.

Second, I recall past reports on the economic impact of CMA Fests (economic impact reports are not always the most objective tools, by the way) that claimed that they generated local jobs for many Nashvillians. If increasing numbers of volunteers are being used to reduce the paid staff, that suggests to me that the local labor force is not deriving the promised benefits. There is nobility in volunteering and there is nobility in working for wages.

In my opinion, CMA cannot both claim to provide a remarkable number of jobs for people who need jobs and rely on increasing numbers of volunteers while reducing staff without losing some credibility. Even the nobility of voluntarism cannot stand in for unrealized promises of employment.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Maybe if they act hard enough like a new facility is a done deal, then people will just assume it is

They do not have a facility yet, the community may not support one, and there remain questions over whether Nashville even needs another one, but they held a job fair earlier today in East Nashville:

UPDATE: This does not sound good for anyone. According to Jamie Hollin:
1000 Apex St. is the former site of US Lumber and is zoned industrial. Many of you may remember the site and immediate surrounding area being under water in May 2010. The area’s detailed neighborhood design plan marked the area as proposed green space. In order to turn the site into a waste transfer station it will require the passage of a resolution by the Metro Council, then it will require the approval of the Board of Zoning Appeals for a special exception.
So, is Waste Connections setting this up to be a jobs over planning/green space issue by pushing a job fair prematurely?

Hate mail

I give you a comment to me, copied to others from Molly McCluer--resident of Salemtown since 2010 and president of the neighborhood association for the past five months--which ended a long, parsing diatribe against an email I originally addressed to a developer (who then forwarded to her):

McCluer & Mayor on SNNA website
your chronic adversarial approach to any and every issue you can conjure up is harming Salemtown, and has led to the almost complete disintegration of [Salemtown Neighbors Neighborhood Association] by the end of 2011. You are using the community to entertain yourself at others’ significant expense; you need to stop it, and do a lot of full-time soul-searching , rather than combing old emails and trolling anyplace you can find, to trigger the arguments you crave.  You are hurting Salemtown, and you need to stop it now.

This is not the first time I have received hate mail because I blogged something someone did not agree with, but it was the first time someone has accused me of dividing an association to which I have devoted so much time, energy, and money. If I were going to destroy it why would invest so much of myself in it? If I were going to bring down Salemtown Neighbors why not impugn it, attack it publicly on a regular basis in the past 18 months? I have a blog, after all.

As one who has served in various leadership positions in SNNA for years, I can testify that there were many reasons why 2011 was a down year for the association, and the actions of one person had little to do with that. If I blogged something toxic about the organization in 2011 I do not recall it. And I do not believe I pointed any fingers on this blog for SNNA setbacks. Rushing to scapegoat another individual for association problems makes no sense to me.

However, I was not going to blog on Ms. McCluer's personal attack until I found out that I was added to the business agenda of the last neighborhood association meeting at the last minute (the agenda emailed to the membership beforehand did not have me on it). Because of a previous commitment to my daughter I could not attend the meeting, but others who were there told me that Ms. McCluer brought me up unexpectedly and commented on me in ways that made them uncomfortable.

Then I received the meeting minutes from the SNNA secretary, in which Ms. McCluer's personal issues with me became a part of the permanent record of the association:

Molly addressed the group re: Mike Byrd’s blog that had negatively referred to Mike Kenner, developer of 5th & Coffee. The blog suggested that there was deception on Mike Kenner’s part to build LEED certified homes in order to obtain a variance to move forward with the development.
  • Mike Kenner [principal with Kenner McLean Development who lives in Sylvan Heights], developer of 5th & Coffee property asked to address the group. He apologized for any misunderstanding but he made it clear that he never discussed building LEED certified homes in Salemtown. He builds “green”, Energy Star homes. LEED is too costly for the Salemtown neighborhood. He prides himself on being neighborhood friendly.
  • A SNNA member commented that anyone’s personal blog does not represent or speak for SNNA.

I responded in no uncertain terms to the secretary that I never claimed to speak for anyone else on the blog and that I believe that this is the first time in the organization's 8-year history (much of which I have promoted in 7 years of blogging) that a member's questions about a developer have been written negatively into the SNNA minutes, which are supposed to record association business. There were no motions on me passed or approved, in fact, members present that night tell me that they openly questioned the negative comments about me (their feedback was not recorded into the minutes).

Needless to say, I am less-than-satisfied by all of this baseless spanking by an association officer on behalf of a developer. If she were not president, this would be going down a whole different way. She would have written her hate mail and it would have ended there. Unfortunately, the personal animosity continues as SNNA business.

The kicker for me: I voted for her at last year's SNNA elections. No good deed goes unpunished.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

The Mayor's property tax hike proposal navigated rough seas during last night's public hearing

Watching the Metro Council's public hearing debate over the Mayor's proposed budget last night (on the second of three readings) was not different for me than any of the previous years' debates. Most of the advocates for Karl Dean's budget were Metro employees and outside agencies that would benefit from the proposal. That is typical and not at all inappropriate. The main difference for me was that for once the Mayor, who no longer is subject to Metro elections, is finally proposing a tax increase to fund services and payroll rather than pitching his usual slew of budget cuts. That energized a large group of public opponents, mostly conservatives encouraged by Republicans, who seemed to at least match the proponents in numbers.

I am not opposed to Mayor's property tax proposal, but for reasons too numerous to list here, I'm not a zealous advocate either. While more sympathetic with those who say we need more revenues to address our budget challenges, I also believe that the Mayor has not done much over most of his tenure to stop the free fall Metro services while committing to historically large capital projects and helping to sell off public education. So, I am both for raising taxes and sympathetic with the populist backlash that keeps reeling at the Mayor's Office.

Therefore, you may be able to guess where my impression of last night's meeting ended up. If not, I'll clarify. While I disagreed with most of their misplaced shots at government and their ridiculous calls for selling off and privatizing more government entities, I thought the opponents of the Mayor's budget were strongest where they articulated populist options to Dean's plan. One I heard several times was that council should formulate amendments to the budget that would only hike pay for police officers and teachers; a corollary to this was the argument that amendments should allow raises in pay of those workers at the bottom end of the Metro payroll, but not of the ones at the top of the Courthouse pyramid.

Conservatives rarely seem afraid to appeal to populism. That does not mean they get it right when they claim it. Liberals by and large seem uncomfortable with mass appeals. The vacuum they leave when they balk at populist appeals from the bottom is inevitably filled by opportunistic and angry conservatives. If the council progressives could ever stoop to take up the populist banner and make working class people their primary focus, they would divide and conquer. They would blunt conservative criticism of what appear to be elite commitments to public art and libraries. These don't have to be snobbish and condescending priorities. Liberals in the New Deal age were able to pull populism together with intellectual and artistic pursuits. It was never an either/or. Liberals in this age invite an either/or by shying away from populism and kowtowing to the wealthy and well-placed.

Former CM Erik Cole tried to brand his pro-Dean group, "Moving Nashville Forward" as a grassroots effort, but to me it came across as astroturf. Mr. Cole just happened to be the last one to speak in favor of the tax plan at last night's public hearing. As a CM Mr. Cole once argued that council decisions should not be subject to popular will. So, the fact that he has been blasting out emails encouraging people to wear t-shirts and pack the public gallery in the effort to lobby council to support Mayor Karl Dean looks cynical to me. Given his past ambivalence, I might call it a case of "populism envy" if not one of cynicism. In those blasts he also wrongly pointed out that Dean opponents did not offer any options (in fact, I just cited some of the more populist options that were expressed during the public hearing).

Council progressives can get all the support the want for funding the arts and the libraries if they would first be advocates for the working class and others pushed to the margins by Nashville's ruling class. Very few look comfortable doing that. The Mayor's plan is going to pass, but it is up to the council to include amendments that make a tax hike more progressive in the populist sense of "progressive" in order to bridge the gap between liberals and common people.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

The cost of appeasing the other side

I'm willing to give the captains of Metro Nashville Public Schools the benefit of the doubt, and believe that their embrace of charter schools to this point has been an attempt to save, not destroy public education. The only thing is that the conservative champions of charter schools, vouchers, and private subsidies are intent not on saving public education but burying it in the graveyard of privatization.

Even so progressive education reformers still seek to compromise; they find spots and resources for charter schools. But it is a slippery slope. To put it another way, support for charter schools allows the camel's nose to duck under the tent flap. After that, there is nothing to bar the rest of the beast from coming in the tent.

So, why should they be surprised?

School Board Chair Gracie Porter says she was “somewhat shocked” by how “aggressively” the state is moving on charter approvals. She says as charters pull funding away from the district, “we are still expected to perform as the same level, even with less dollars.”

At the same time, Porter wanted to make clear: “Metro School Board is not against charters. We want the best charters that we can possibly have. And we also want our children across the district – not just in charters but across the district – to really be successful. Oftentimes we hear that it’s us-and-them. I don’t view our system as us-and-them.

Rather than feeling wounded or victimized, we must quickly learn the lesson that there is no compromise on public education. Charters prepare the way for further privatization of public education. For Ms. Porter to respond as she did to the distinct probability of politics in red-state Tennessee was unrealistic. And simply trying to restate a liberal Janus-faced approach that invites charters, but not too many charters, is setting oneself up to be beat in the future.

Sweet deal for a local church or necessary edition to the neighborhood?

Local government watchdog, Mike Peden, wrote me today with the following in the run-up to tonight's council meeting:
This is the cost for the new 12” water main for the Church of Christ on 40th Ave N – almost $800,000. This bill is on the Council agenda tonight.

The church is contributing $20,000.

There is nothing but that church and some duplexes between Charlotte and Catherine Johnson Pkwy. The church is currently building a huge addition.
Mike also tells me that he has emailed his council member Jason Holleman and the bill sponsors (Edith Taylor Langster, Sean McGuire, Walter Hunt) a number of times without getting any replies.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Report: pro sports do not return the public resources they take

A recent report from an investment bank of all places cuts through the flack on pro sports and realistically assesses actual impact:
independent academic research studies consistently conclude that new stadiums and arenas have no measurable effect on the level of real income or employment in the metropolitan areas in which they are located. Feasibility studies for professional sports facilities often fail to account for the substitution effect. Individuals generally maintain a consistent level of entertainment spending so money spent on sporting events typically comes at the expense of cash spent in restaurants, on travel, and at movie theaters.

Hence, managing sports and entertainment encumbrance is a zero sum game: sports claim money that will not be spent on other forms of entertainment. And in many cases, the competing forms of entertainment do not have the resources to keep up with subsidized sports:
These same studies also fail to accurately assess the degree to which sports crowd out other types of economic activity. The physical infrastructure of a city, whether it’s a private hotel or a public airport, cannot abruptly increase capacity. As a consequence, sports fans tend to displace other visitors. As acase in point, Robert Baade and Victor Matheson at the College of the Holy Cross have examined the number of visitors to Beijing during the Summer Olympics of 2008. Tourist arrivals for the month of August did not fluctuate year-over-year and the number of visitors to Beijing actually declined on an annual basis. Similar results can be found for Olympic Games held in the US and for such sporting events as the Super Bowl. There appears to be no increase in retail sales, hotel occupancy rates, or passenger enplanements in cities that hosted Super Bowls and Olympic Games, at least in the decade prior to 2003.

These facts undercut the claims of advocates of corporate sports welfare, who insist that public revenues invested in teams are catalysts for secondary business growth. Instead, there is a drain on local resources, a risk for local nontax revenues "available" for debt service (which decreases funding for metropolitan services) but also a critical tipping point for strapped sports franchises:
The use of public subsidies to underwrite the cost of construction for a new stadium or arena was a contributing factor in the rapid increase in the valuation of sports franchises .... This type of growth is difficult to sustain without greater leverage. An uncertain economy, labor strife, and volatility in the financial markets all have taken a toll on some ownership groups in each of the major sports.The leverage employed to meet the asking price for a new sports franchise has undermined the financial stability of some ownership groups. Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, and the National Hockey League currently operate franchises directly in place of ownership groups that are facing insolvency. Ironically, these situations may prompt another round of team relocations and another cycle of public sector bidding for professional sports.

The report honestly points out that subsidies for pro sports help a narrow band of people in local communities: wealthy franchise owners and spectators. Otherwise, the benefits do not spread around to everyone like they do with public utilities and transportation infrastructure. And the claims of boosters that all boats rise on the tides of pro franchises are disingenuous and unfounded.

Nashville has already taken the risk with a pro football team and a pro hockey club, and the trade-off for the "prestige" of pro sports and drag on our resources is in place. The political will for rethinking these arrangements seems weak here. For example, Nashvillians seem fine with paying higher stormwater rates while millions from Metro Water subsidize the Titans franchise annually.

Reportedly there are a couple of exceptions where other cities demand that the private sector pull its share of the load for pro sports. San Francisco built a National League ballpark without using public bonding debt, and the city is demanding that their NBA franchise pursue private financing. While tax dollars are being used by Washington DC to subsidize major league ballpark for the Nationals, the taxes are levied on the 1,800 largest businesses, which sounds more progressive to me than drawing on the public resources used by the largest number of people.

I cannot see Nashville pursuing either of these options for fear of inconveniencing the private sector. Mayor Karl Dean would not even levy a fair stormwater fee on businesses, saddling the rest of us with the burden of paying off the largest share. Nashville seems willing to cough up money that other cities are starting to hold on to.

Hopefully, as Nashville moves toward eventually approving a minor league baseball park, we will be more careful about the bill of goods we are sure to be offered due to our reputation for handing money over.