Tuesday, January 14, 2014

My takeaway from last night's East Nashville Amp meeting: they ask for your input, but then want you to go away

Oh, the contradictions. Last night I attended the East Nashville public meeting on the Mayor's proposed east-west rapid bus transit connector held at East Park community center. I expected a major PR push without cracks or holes for this series of January meetings. The Chamber of Commerce, the beast hauling Karl Dean's transit bid, hired pro flacks and so I expected more than this:

  • The meeting was billed December as a "charrette". The Mayor's Office prefers to call it an "open house". It could not seem to settle on either, so it was convoluted and confusing.
  • The Amp has been described by engineers as being in the final stages of design. Last night the engineers described this stage as a "visioning process". Since when does visioning follow final design?
  • Transit officials introduced the meeting by saying that businesses could talk to engineers about the changes that they wanted to see. Transit officials introduced the meeting by saying that the audience could ask questions and get information about the way the Amp will be designed. The two messages did not seem to me to compliment one another.

So, I sensed a split-mindedness in last night's meeting: Metro wants you to give feedback, but then go away. Or maybe they want you to give the feedback that fits with engineers' final design, which was laid out on four twenty-five foot tables. How can this be a visioning process when the design is staring back at you in the face from humongous blueprints? Unless the only public vision that will count is that which is already laid out?

The old proverb, without vision the people perish, applies to North Nashville in this case. There was no accommodation for someone in the audience like me, who believes that BRT would work in North Nashville, to envision the Amp for us too. All an engineer could have said to me over his huge map of East Nashville was that North Nashville could not be addressed in this mass transit plan. No kidding. Any of us who came to this community meeting thinking that we would could make a difference in transit equity were rendered invisible. The vision of the Mayor's rapid transit minions can only extend so far. They are blind to the rest of us.

But we're not the only ones. Transit representative Holly McCall (who also represented Karl Dean on the Music City Center) told the audience that business owners were invited to speak with engineers about their concerns for the line that would run by them. The meeting seemed more focused on businesses, which is not atypical for this Mayor's Office, although it is clear that Mr. Dean is getting resistance to Amp from the business level. But what about residents? What about residents of Cayce Homes public housing? This line hardly serves their needs. Again, it is an artery laid out to drive up the real estate values of wealthy property owners and to serve Nashville's largest corporations. Is it really a "community" or "public" meeting when invitations to share are made to business leaders present?

If this had been an authentic charrette, all stakeholders present would have participated in a small group process of working through differences and reaching a consensus. But the meeting was too much open house in which the public was invited by the Transit Authority to view the way things actually are. People were encouraged to write their comments on sheets of paper and turn them in. That is no replacement for a charrette, and it is certainly a less accountable means of encouraging public input.

I am under no delusion that the Amp suffers significant opposition in East Nashville. Once the bus line was extended there in order to draw more support, the Mayor effectively divided and conquered organized grassroots opposition to sending rapid transit up West End. It is common sense to assume East Nashville supports rapid transit for themselves. But to claim as the Tennessean has this morning that supporters "largely outnumbered" opponents on the basis of counting green shirts against red ones is misleading. Far outnumbering green and red shirts were shirts that did not announce any position on the AMP.

Nonetheless, I was in earshot of an Amp supporter who complained that the media was interviewing a couple of red shirted opponents in the room, thus, he speculated, creating an impression that opposing turnout was on par with supportive turnout. I stood there thinking, "How can you judge from this crowd of clothes who stands for what? I oppose the Amp, but you cannot tell from what I am wearing." (I had a green pullover on). And what is someone who is neutral or otherwise unsure supposed to wear? How many of those people were there and individually counted by the news media?

As I walked from the meeting to my car I chatted with a woman I don't know. She asked me how I thought the meeting went. She asked me whether I thought our feedback mattered in the plan. I replied that they did give us these comment forms to express our feedback, assuming they would indeed read them and permit input to influence the plan. She told me straight up that she did not think that the feedback mattered because this east-west connector is exactly what Karl Dean wants. We both seemed to agree that in the end Hizzoner is most likely to get what he wants and that these "public" meetings are publicly pointless.

UPDATE: Because of parental responsibilities I could not attend the Downtown public meeting on Tuesday evening, but there are indications in the Tennessean (which did not resort to the same useless t-shirt counting of their previous report) that the same questions I have were expressed by some in attendance:

Several project skeptics angry with the broad contours of the bus line were just as critical of the public meeting’s format, which was largely an informal question-and-answer period during which people could talk one on one with the project’s engineers.

Questions aside, the manner in which developers went about the plan annoyed Nashville resident Michael Rogers.

“They’re going up there and making it seem like a done deal,” Rogers said. “I just feel it doesn’t build trust.”

Because so much of the development remains in flux, whether from the amount of federal and state funding to the planning that still remains, there wasn’t much that could be gained from being there, said undecided downtown resident Julie Lammel.

One of the other regrettable impressions that this project's boosters keep trying to create is that the east-west connector is merely the first step in a long process of regional growth. Those are empty promises at this point with no guarantees, especially with Karl Dean's mayoral tenure coming to a close. Nashville's dustbin is filled with well-intentioned capital projects that never materialized.

If built the Amp is just as likely to be the only leg of beautiful BRT in Nashville, serving the wealthier segments of our county while continuing to neglect others. That prospect would be more consistent with local history.


  1. I just wonder if last night marked the first time Lee Beaman has ever been to East Nashville? Did he bring his passport?

  2. Hizzoner's AMP campaign has tried very hard to paint AMP issues as anything that might divide and conquer opposition: rich v poor, Black v White, east v west, etc. STOPAmp.org has support from all who understand what a bad idea it is, and we are all over this proposed route. There is opposition in every immediately affected sector, from folks who can see past the Kool Ade. Yes, North Nashville is being ignored. North Nashville is always ignored. Current bus service does not begin to address those needs, but this is not news, it is simply the way things are...and have always been. Does that make it OK? The Dean administration seems to think so.

    STOPAmp disagrees. We are a bipartisan group welcoming members from everywhere of every stripe. We have good support from all areas outside of west Nashville, and we are growing because when people get a whiff of how stupid the AMP idea is, they jump on board and don't look back.

    The FTA designed this program to help "blighted areas." Scott Davis, CM in East Nashville tells me his constituents need it. I know a lot of people need better public transportation, but AMP is not the answer for anyone, as it is an ill-conceived project from the get-go. Clouded in secrecy, presented by paid reps in half-truths and outright lies, their whole approach to it is wrong, and Fed $ require public buy-in, which they do not have, except from mealy-mouthed Kool Ade drinkers who can't give informed answers to hard questions.

    I attended the first charette last night, and the second one tonight. I have had the engineering report for quite some time, and have studied it carefully. Last night was the first time most people have even seen it, and they were expected to absorb it and ask informed questions? That's like telling a high school senior the SAT is tomorrow morning, and he's never heard of it!

    We have two "charettes" left to go, and I agree these have been anything like what we have been told are "charettes." All are welcome at every session, and I encourage anyone who can attend to do so. Your input at the meeting is important, but so is writing to the decision-makers who count. That info will be available at the very least at the West End Middle School Thursday at 5:30. Tomorrow is the Midtown meeting, whose sudden and unapproved upzoning robbed property owners of land use rights without our permission.

    This madness has got to stop!

    And, Anonymous, ugh! If you are going to say it, take responsibility for it. Snipers are not community members, they are chaos creators. If you are Pro AMP, at least have the balls to say so. Thanks for your Mayoral, divide and conquer remark.