Thursday, July 31, 2014

Apparently, defending Israeli sovereignty with tacit support of blowing up Palestinian children is an issue pertinent to the Metro Council

In 2003, I wrote my council member at the time, Mike Jameson, asking him to work on legislation with the purpose of taking on the Bush Administration, more specifically, creating local civil liberties zones against John Ashcroft's Patriot Act II. CM Jameson gave me a call and told me that he could attempt to do so, but the initiative would go down in flames given the conservative lean of the council and the local political climate that was not supportive of Nashville challenging DC. It was an early lesson on civics in Nashville.

Unlike other cities, the council here is constrained in what it can do outside of planning and zoning for the county. I've learned to accept that, as hard as it is for someone who admires the histories of other cities that passed initiatives fighting apartheid and the nuclear arms race.

Ever since then I have to sit back and watch conservatives like Eric Crafton and Jim Gotto posture on immigration policies and English Only, and I remember what CM Jameson told me 11 years ago: it does not matter within the political scheme (other than to advance the careers of aspiring politicians who use red meat strategically in order to further their careers on larger stages).

The latest council conservative attempting to stir the pot on policy larger than that of Metropolitan government is Josh Stites, who uses social media to portray his views to constituents.

CM Stites has two Twitter accounts. One is @VoteStites in which he identifies himself as a member of "Nashville Metro Council". Besides the explicit reference to being a CM, the qualifer "Vote" suggests that this is how he expresses himself in his de facto capacity as an elected official. The other Twitter account, just as public, is also more personal, focused on inspiration, family, culture and faith.

In recent days, CM Stites has taken to tweeting on the Israeli attacks on Gaza on the more political @VoteStites. I'm not blaming him for having an opinion on Palestine, but why is he using his "Nashville Metro Council" twitter feed rather than his personal one to rationalize incessant drone attacks on civilians in Gaza by Israel? Someone said one time that the only significant thing Metro Council members do is pass zoning initiatives. Why his council-oriented twitter stream filled with apologies and PR for Israel? 

"Nashville Metro Council"

The personal one.

In the interests of disclosure, I completely disagree with CM Stites' views of the Middle East, which strike me as exclusively theological and Christianocentric rather than realistic and just.

Sole survivor of family of eight.
But the bigger question for me is, why is CM Stites choosing his council-oriented Twitter feed rather than his personal account to convey his uncritically pro-Israeli views of Palestine? His preferential option for Israel seems more consistent with a personal theology than a foreign policy (which council can't control anyway), so why not express it at the more devotional @JoshStites feed? Do his constituents uniformly agree that we can ignore the killing of innocent Arab children and defend Israeli sovereignty by any means necessary? And if they do what does that have to do with any business conducted in Metro Council? That's not a rhetorical question. I want to know what council mechanism I need to engage to encourage the end of the wonton slaughter of Palestinian children who are invisible to some.

Lost her entire family.

UPDATE: What about genocide? Does council business include dealing with genocide?

UPDATE: One of Josh Stites' own constituents says that she has asked him a few of the questions I have above and he has not responded to her. Is he accountable to Muslim constituents or just pro-Israel/Christian voters? Remziya is not your run-of-the-mill Nashville constituent either; she is a community leader.

What will the real impact of the new ballpark be on neighborhood businesses?

It is not clear yet what kind of establishments will occupy mixed-use spaces in the development that includes First Tennessee Park, but a popular new dining and retail complex at relatively new Busch Stadium in St. Louis indicates negative impact on established neighborhood businesses.

Small businesses up and down Jefferson Street and in Germantown supported building a new ballpark nearby hoping it would boost their revenues. Will it be the boon that they expect? Or will we actually lose businesses to new ones conveniently located on the First Tennessee Park site? St. Louis seems to be a cautionary tale. Ballpark Village seems to be luring customers away from other neighborhood establishments:

This season the crowds are bypassing the neighborhood bars… [Quoting bar owner #1]: “Everybody is down at least 20 to 30 percent if not more,” everybody that is except Ballpark Village. Crowds are just naturally drawn to the complex, which opened this year by the Cardinals and built with tax incentives and every intention of luring in baseball fans …. [Owners of successful neighborhood bars around the ballpark] sank in money for expansion in recent years. Now they’re cutting jobs. [Quoting bar owner #2]: “We’ve seen a decline in business for sure …. We’re going to have to ride it out. Cut back on staff a little bit.” [Quoting bar owner #1]: “… all of us really struggle … to keep our business and make it a success. So, when they did this, it just pulled that much more away from us.” Some owners now say their goal is just to survive the baseball season as Ballpark Village keeps packing them in.

"Just surviving" does not sound like a promising business climate for neighborhood bars and restaurants. If I owned a business in Germantown, I would be concerned about the prospect of "crowds bypassing" my establishment. Remember the dining and retail desert that settled in around antiquated Greer Stadium over the years. I hope the impact of a new ballpark is at least more positive for the neighborhoods than that.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

NES takes down, will not reinstall one of Salemtown's federally funded lampposts after Taylor Place construction

Being a former member of the advisory committee on the Salemtown steetscape project (running roughly from 2006 to 2010), I tend to keep an eye on what has happened to the elements (neighborhood and traffic signs, lampposts, crosswalks and traffic-calming bulb-outs) over the years. I've reported burned out lampposts, consulted with neighbors on how to deal with destroyed crepe myrtles on bulb-outs and picked up decorative traffic signs run down by trucks.

The remaining lamppost at 5th & Hume
So, I noticed this week that when the construction crews building The Flats at Taylor Place started demolishing the curbside along 5th Avenue North, one of the lampposts of our streetscape project disappeared. I contacted the project manager of the new apartments who replied that NES had taken the lamppost away as part of the approved project, which will include new lighting along 5th fronting Taylor Place. I can't find any images of the new complex that include drawings of the new lighting, so I do not know what it will look like. There were no lampposts in the original sketches shown to the local community by the development team in 2012, and they made no mention at the time of altering the Salemtown streetscape during their construction.

Assuming that no other changes are made to the remaining streetscape elements, I cannot characterize the loss of one lamppost in a $500,000 block grant project as huge. Lighting was the most expensive element of all of the renovations made in the streetscape project, so the loss of any of what was approved is still a waste of some federal dollars. And "more lighting" was the most oft-expressed wish from Salemtown neighbors participating in the streetscape information sessions. I hope that NES won't just trash the lamppost but will save as a replacement in case one of the remaining lights is damaged beyond repair.

However, the bigger question looms: does the removal of a publicly-financed lamppost from a public sidewalk to make room for privately-funded lampposts (assuming Metro is not paying for them) at The Flats at Taylor Place signal that every other developer has license and sanction from NES to alter Salemtown's streetscape elements, which were approved by elected representatives of the neighborhood?

What can Brown do for SouthComm?

It has been a while since a local reporter wrote the following about lightning-rod education reformer, Michelle Rhee, so it is time to see how the 1 1/2 year old copy stands up to reality. Writes Andrea Zelinski, circa January 2013:

Michelle Rhee is an icon of the education reform movement. She’s pushed to hold teachers more accountable for students’ performance, busted open the doors of school choice and shaken up the education establishment. She’s also thrown a few elbows and drawn criticism for her style.

A Tennessee transplant, she is turning her attention to schools in her new state.

The polarizing former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor heads up StudentsFirst, an education reform organization she founded just as she began setting roots in the Volunteer State. The group has already handed out hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to state-level political campaigns and a handful of local elections here, positioning itself as a force to be reckoned with.

Back when Michelle Rhee was a rock star, this kind of fawning coverage might have flown in spite of the protests of those like me who judged it to be a load of crap. Ms. Rhee was a celebrity, and aspiring news coverage seeks to hitch its wagon to a star above all.

Now, given what we have learned about the pitiful "movement" Michelle Rhee fabricated, the SouthComm interview appears to be folly without the slightest hint of courage to probe for the truth. One makes choices, and Zelinski's (or was it SouthComm's?) choice not to challenge Michelle Rhee is inane in light of the harder questions other journalists ask:

Rhee’s StudentsFirst campaigns have done little to animate parents. In Connecticut, an investment of about $700,000 produced a [Rhee head-liner] at the State Capitol ..., which drew only about 75 people. In Alabama, where StudentsFirst claimed 17,000 members, only about 20 showed up at a meeting she called at that state’s capitol.

Revelations about Rhee’s accomplishments while she was chancellor for Washington, D.C., public schools have also sullied her self-avowed reputation for “raising achievement”....

Darkening the pall cast over Rhee’s reputation is an unresolved cheating scandal on Rhee’s watch in D.C. The alleged scandals — and what, if anything, Rhee might have known about them — have never been adequately investigated....

the stench of questionable numbers is likely to follow Rhee wherever she goes, with any new appointment likely to prompt more questioning and investigation from journalists ....

Not only has Rhee’s reputation as a results-oriented school leader gone south, but her organization StudentsFirst is not doing so well either ....

StudentsFirst, the lobbying and political actions firm Rhee started, is shutting down its Minnesota office due to a “changing legislative climate” .... Reporters at Politico noticed the office closing too and added in its daily newsletter that StudentsFirst has “pulled out of five states and laid off six staff members as the midterm elections approach,” shutting down operations not only in Minnesota but also in Florida, Maine, Indiana and Iowa.

Additionally, the reporters noted, “The organization hasn’t brought in anywhere near the $1 billion that Rhee confidently predicted she would raise when she founded the group in 2010.”

On the other hand, what StudentsFirst seems to excel at is funneling campaign contributions from its undisclosed financial backers to lobbying efforts and politicians, who are mostly Republican and mostly incumbents. So much for being a “change agent.”

The contrast between Andrea Zelinski's ode and the latest point-by-point interrogation of Michelle Rhee's actual career could not be more stark. Keep in mind that SouthComm fancies itself as "alt" journalism, but all the "alt" that we can learn appears to be elsewhere.

SouthComm is in a difficult place. They hitched their wagon to Rhee's star instead of at the very least playing devil's advocate, and now that Rhee's star is fading they don't have a shred of credibility left on the subject of education "Rheeform."

The only option they have left to save face is to gin up a promotional interview with Ms. Rhee's replacement in the anti-teacher niche, Campbell Brown, and hope she "transplants" to Tennessee, too.

UPDATE: There was evidence out there in January 2013 that Michelle Rhee was nothing more than a marginal "Tennessee transplant."

Friday, July 25, 2014

Metro Historical Commission to present completed map of Bells Bend history tomorrow

This comes on short notice, but it looks like a worthwhile event for those of you with interest in local oral history and those of you who have been advocates of Bells Bend in the past. Tomorrow, Saturday July 26th, at 2:00pm at the Wade School Tim Walker of Nashville's Historical Commission will review a completed map of historic sites that have been identified via local knowledge.

The Historical Commission and the Nashville Public Library documented and recorded oral histories from Scottsboro-Bells Bend neighbors. They also gathered the neighbors together to pinpoint specific areas connected to those histories. The map that Mr. Walker will present is the culmination of that interaction. Organizers hope to recognize these important areas with historic markers.

UPDATE: Dozens of neighbors attended the Scottsboro/Bells Bend community meeting at Wade School on Saturday, which was designed to gather more historical information in light of the 70+ significant sites already documented in the community. Tim Walker told those in attendance that he made his first visit to Bells Bend a few years ago and was immediately impressed that such a unique place with rural culture existed so close to urban Nashville. He also asked the group to come up with more information that might have been missing from the oral histories they had collected and to identify more sites. Community leader Joe Engle told the audience that there was no deadline for collecting information and that the project would continue indefinitely.

While pressure might continue in the future to suburbanize or to urbanize Bells Bend, it is refreshing to hear a Metro official praise the unique culture of the area. Many of us have been believers in that kind of diversity for much longer. I want to believe that this exercise also has a way of defining community character which might be even more resistant to developers who drool at the thought of high-density infilling the Bend. Above all, the history should not be lost with the passing generations. This was a positive event all the way around.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Fears of public school parents becoming realized

One year ago we pulled our daughter out of the Metro public school she was attending in North Nashville and enrolled her in a parochial school. Last August I explained elsewhere in greater detail than parents tend to do openly why we pulled away from MNPS. That statement is not entirely correct. Metro Nashville Public Schools pulled away from us.

The longer I was a public school parent in Nashville, the more I realized that the system is rigged to funnel money away from traditional schools and toward education reform gimmicks and band-aids like charter schools. We knew that the more the school district embraced privatization of public education, the more public money would flow away from public education.

A year later our fears seem confirmed by MNPS board member, Amy Frogge, who tweeted news of a disturbing trend:

We left MNPS because we were afraid that resources were going to be funneled away from public schools for reformers' experiments in privatized education. I wish we had been wrong on this one, because we miss public schools. But there is no way we were going to stay in a house that was falling down around us.

Priorities in this city are messed up.

UPDATE: Jump to more background of our decision to leave Metro Schools after 4 years of soldiering through fray.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Barely a contest: another big developer trounces neighborhoods

After months of fighting the Green Hills neighborhood association loses another battle to developers' definitions of growth, and the Nashville Business Journal makes it sound like supersizing buildings outside of scale somehow equals advancement for all of us. What else could "progress" mean?

The signs of progress are emerging in the days after a county judge ruled against the Green Hills Neighborhood Association, in a lawsuit the group filed this spring.

The neighborhood group sued Southern Land and Metro government, alleging that city planners did not follow proper steps in vetting the project. The neighborhood group wanted a judge to force the matter back before the planning commission.

Chancellor Russell Perkins ruled that Metro government followed appropriate steps. Planning department staff approved Southern Land's plans, which then appeared as one item on a consent agenda, a list of items that are voted on collectively by planning commissioners....

The neighborhood group has about a month to decide whether to appeal to the Tennessee Court of Appeals. Otherwise, the ruling by Perkins will become final.

In my opinion, Green Hills neighbors do not stand a chance even if they win an appeal to leverage a new hearing before the Planning Commission, which is now exclusively developer-friendly. Anyway, they declared victory prematurely back in January. They put up a brave fight, but this one is over. With money and political influence, developers win again. It is still the same old story.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Do campaign donations matter to community revitalization?

State Rep. Powell
During and after a town hall meeting held in South Nashville a little over a week ago, I received some email correspondence from Mike Peden about important questions he had for elected officials about the community impact of developments. The companies funding those developments, Advance Financial in particular, have political action committees that dole private campaign donations to candidates for public office. Mike gave me permission to piece together his emails here into a narrative for the sake of underscoring the influence that money has over growth that can undermine our quality of life.

According to Mike, elected officials in attendance included state representative Jason Powell, CM Fabian Bedne and CM Jason Potts. Also attending representing the Mayor's Office was Daniel Wainwright. Mike has an office on Nolensville Pike and he says that he is particularly concerned about the impact of the growth of high-interest payday lenders along the corridor. Given that the town hall meeting encouraged questions about "revitalization of Nolensville Pike", Mike had some questions for Rep. Powell in particular:

I asked him how much money he has taken from the payday loan industry and he refused to answer.  He has, of course, taken several contributions from them.

I spoke to him on the phone a couple of months ago and he told me that he has no problem with payday loan stores, and that he knows the people at Advance Financial, and they are "good people".

Nolensville Pike
Mike tells me that everyone he talks to in South Nashville has a problem with the explosion of predatory lenders. It seems to me an entirely fair question to pose to any elected official who has influence over how a community grows and develops: have they accepted funds from owners of those shops? If they have, it should be stated unequivocally so that voters can determine for themselves whether such influence over quality of life suits their interests.

Not everyone who attended the meeting was happy with Mike for raising questions about the influence of the donations of predatory lending companies on conditions along Nolensville Pike. He forwarded me emails that accused him of having a "political agenda." How is it a political agenda to ask a politician to identify the sources of his financial support which might lead him to support certain developments that neighbors have issues with? It seems common sense to me.

I remember that right after CM Erica Gilmore was elected the first time to represent the district where I live, a Germantown leader told me straight up that several people in that neighborhood donated an impressive amount of money to her campaign to leverage their historic overlay, which she eventually took to passage. People understand that this is how the system currently operates. There is no other agenda in learning about who is beholden to whom. It is a natural question we should be asking.

Jason Powell's second quarter campaign finance report shows a $1,000 donation from the Advance Financial PAC. What is the harm in asking Rep. Powell to be publicly accountable to South Nashville constituents for the wealthy special interests that could influence how he supports revitalization along Nolensville Pike?

Monday, July 21, 2014

Salemtown Square coming to Salemtown. But where and how?

It is not unusual to read that Aerial Development is putting up houses in another neighborhood that cause concerns for some who already live in that neighborhood. Except for the real estate journalists who typically give them free advertising in the Tennessean, there continue to be some who have had concerns in the past with their ostentatious builds.

What I was surprised to see was a blurb in Getahn Ward's latest ode to Aerial about the developers starting work on "Salemtown Square," which will feature "six cottage-style homes." I haven't heard anything about this development. If builders are going to request any kind of zoning change, it is not yet showing up on searches I conducted on the Metro Planning website. If they are going to attempt the same sort of SP ("specific plan") rezoning (most zoning in Salemtown is "R6", which limits to duplexes or single-family detached), they will have to hold community meetings and get feedback from the neighborhood. That means incorporating feedback on everything from parking to capacity to design to materials used.

In Germantown AND East Nashville? (click on to enlarge)
The Salemtown Square website has a lot of imagery up of local vendors and organizations, but it is thin so far on the details and designs of the development itself. It also has some confusing pitch about the build "cresting" Germantown and "located in East Nashville's hot house market." Did the Aerial's content manager confuse the locations or this some sort of new marketing trend that only hipsters can understand? There is also a weird reference to to a bigger purpose: "creating a neighborhood association where old and new residents can protect, enhance and truly enjoy their new home and neighborhood." Funny, but I thought that had already happened a decade ago when we joined together to form "Salemtown Neighbors." Last time I checked, Salemtown's first association was still operational, so is Aerial going to jumpstart a competing association?

The images on the website, which I assume are intended to evoke historic feelings about Salemtown, bear little or no resemblance to any period in Salemtown's history that I have seen. This is also odd, because Salemtown Square developers claim to "honor [our] historic design and style." The area now called Salemtown was one of the original streetcar suburbs of Nashville and home to the blue-collar workers of the Warioto Cotton Mill and later the Werthan Bag Company. Aerial posts old photos of what look like a downtown square (Times Square?) and a Main Street in some unidentified locality. Old photos of Salemtown suggest a different kind of community. What eventually gets built may or may not have continuity with our real history regardless of the marketing hype.

Salemtown (inset photo) did not resemble Aerial's Main Street image 

Aerial developers have raised eyebrows in Salemtown in the past. I've heard long-time residents express displeasure about their disregard for the community. The people I have listened to do not believe Aerial has "honored" their history or style in the recent past. We will see what their plans are with Salemtown Square. If they eventually have to request rezoning for this development, they will have to listen to feedback from the neighborhood, and if they request an SP rezoning, they will be required to incorporate neighborhood input into their plan.

UPDATE: The Salemtown Square website seems to have disappeared. The links above take you to the Aerial website for now. The Salemtown Square domain is still registered to Aerial as this link attests. Not sure what this means, but the fact that websites can be scrubbed is one reason why I take screenshots to go with commentary.

UPDATE: The Salemtown Square website is back up and revised without WWII-era Main Street images unconnected to Salemtown of the same period. Those photos have been replaced by a photo of the old Downtown courthouse and by an aerial shot of Werthan Bag, Morgan Park, and Germantown. Closer to Salemtown, but still not Salemtown. Oh, I get it. They're going for a feeling not a fact.

They also are touting a Facebook page (which seems to be in process).

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Whites Creek gets nextified

Education advocate Anthony Cody recently tweeted a sentiment on another subject that applies to the recently launched community plan process in Whites Creek: "the test of a democratic process is how minority voices are treated".

I attended Whites Creek's first community planning meeting last week the day after the Nashville Sounds meeting introducing their video update of the construction of downtown's First Tennessee Park. In at least one way the meetings were dramatically different. By my count Whites Creek turned out at least 3 times the number of those attending the Sounds' video promotion. The ballpark meeting had a lot of empty seats (and a lot more press coverage). It was standing room only in Whites Creek (with no news media coverage to my knowledge). The turnout reflected to me the high level of interest in having some influence over the future in Whites Creek.

However, most of the agenda (I stayed the first hour and a half of the two hour meeting) was directed towards rehash of the past three years of "Nashville Next," Metro Planning's gimmicky process to bring more people into county-wide planning for the next two decades. In fact, I would count this meeting as my first Nashville Next meeting and respond to it as that because I am not convinced it was about Whites Creek at all.

Mr. Bernhardt took questions, but not until after he finished what seemed to be a stump speech and one-size-fits-all media presentation of Nashville Next. He pitched their speaker series, their early visioning workshops, their summer "lounges" and their social media tools. He also presented the statistical analyses from which the assumptions of Nashville Next arise.

One of the future trends cited was one about how population growth would increase in the next 25 years, but that families with children would decrease. That seems to be Metro's justification for planning smaller homes in denser areas.

That will be fine if the future trends hold and there are no more baby booms in the next two decades.

However, 20th century baby booms tended to follow catastrophe and calamities that beset people. Statistical analysis about future trends cannot predict those. In the U.S. two world wars (and perhaps the Great Depression) generated baby booms in the 20th Century. The Baby Boomers (births 1946-1964) were a generation that blew "future trends" out of the statistical water. My problem with strong reliance on statistical analysis of future trends is precisely this: they can only predict what will happen if all things remain equal and cultural and environmental shockwaves are not factors on population levels.

Anything can happen over the next 25 years that could cause another boom in population. If Nashville puts all of its eggs in the basket of ramping down housing options so that individuals and empty-nesters are the largest populations served, it is setting itself up for inability to handle future crises and unexpected changes in the trends.

Also bugging me about this component of Nashville Next is the appearance of the tail wagging the dog. Planners are placing an emphasis on Millennials (which is definitely a generation that has to influence current policy) and their current preferences for smaller living spaces, robust public transit and childless lifestyles. Some developers stereotype Millennials as lifestyle tourists who want urban homes to be places that they can chill with their posses before heading out to restaurants and bars. They base the stereotype on the same statistical trends that planners use to promote nextification. If that stereotype is true, is the clubbing motive anything to build long-term, diversity-focused community plans on?

Building exclusively toward specific interpretations of future trends will drive people out of the city. If homes are built strictly for empty-nest, lifestyle Millennials, other generations, other configurations of families will be forced out of the urban core. Out to places like Whites Creek (a rural rarity since it is very close to the urban core), which will then lose its character and become one among many suburbs. The assumptions that Nashville Next planners carry with them, even where based on statistics can have profound repercussions across the county.

When Mr. Bernhardt eventually got around to Whites Creek proper, he challenged the audience to answer a single question as they continue in future meetings about their community plan: "What is rural?" He warned them that there is a tendency for neighbors to identify what they don't want in their community instead of declaring what they do want. Hence, his challenge to define rural seemed to be his attempt to hedge against falling into a "not in my backyard" posture.

Outside of being lumped in with people who are looked down on as NIMBY, those attending were encouraged by another speaker to leave their "knives" and "bullet-proof vests" at this meeting and not to bring them to future meetings. During my entire time there I saw no threat of proverbial weaponry used against planners.

These kinds of insinuations about community leaders attending these meetings strike me as cynical and jaded. Meeting organizers should be inviting robust, vigorous debate, which includes dissent so that all views are out on the table. As long as no one is verbally threatening or harassing someone else, civil debate should foster disagreement so that consensus can be reached. In the south we seem to confuse being civil with deferring rather than demurring. Forcing people to act genteel can create resentment, lead to passive aggressiveness and block authentic resolution of conflicts.

Openness and criticism are just as vital to the planning process as are closure and consensus. Any plan for Whites Creek (or for anywhere else in Nashville), should include an invitation to people to honestly share their thoughts: good, bad or indifferent. It will not always be smooth and harmonious, but open debate free from aspersions (like seeing NIMBY motives where there is no evidence of such) will make for better planning.

One final issue arising from last week's meeting has to do with the process of Nashville Next, which is unapologetically striving to replace the community planning process with a more county-wide vision for the neighborhoods. I thought that Mr. Bernhardt was clear in his remarks that Nashville Next is more about shaping planning county-wide over moving from community to community to do so. If that truly is the case, then will the views expressed by Whites Creek residents eventually yield to countywide wishes once the "lounges" close, community meetings end and the planners sift through all of the data?

If Davidson County believes that rural areas like Whites Creek ought to lose its self-determined character for the sake of flipping it into a bedroom community for a downtown workforce, why should the community yield? Simply because the interests of the many outweigh the interests of the few? Not in a liberal democracy. And yet, for all of its branding this is what the organizing principle of Nashville Next seems to be in a nutshell: giving the county more credibility than neighborhoods in dealing with housing issues that directly impact those neighborhoods.

The test of this planning process is how it ends up treating minority voices. You may doll up the planning process all you want with lounges, hipster idiom and social media campaigns, but if it does not treat the people of Whites Creek in inclusive ways when the final decisions are made then it will not be democratic or worthy of our support.

UPDATE: The social media person at Nashville Next responded to the comments on this post below on Sunday. Here is the tweet:

If this clarification of the process is supposed to give me faith in Nashville Next and put my concerns to rest, it fails. The question remains, how can we trust that future growth and zoning will reflect the character of the Whites Creek community and will adhere to the idea of community-based planning if future outcomes are predetermined by 15,000 responses by people, most of whom do not likely come from Whites Creek?

Here's another question: what makes planning at a county level (which itself predetermines and limits the influence neighborhoods will have) better than community-based planning? The concerns are entirely different. But this is an arbitrary move. By the same logic, would not regional planning be better than county planning? Would not state-level planning be better than all of the rest?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

That $16,000,000 bridge Erica Gilmore and Karl Dean wanted to build for Gulch Millennials makes even less sense now

Last February, council member Erica Gilmore brought a bill for Mayor Karl Dean that would have authorized $16 million from a $20 million "designation for the maintenance, repair, rehabilitation, and replacement of bridges" to build a sidewalk with terraced seating for 2,000 Gulch residents. Well, maybe not just residents, since several months later word came out that the sidewalk would be an excellent service to a few niche luxury tourists.

Guess what? Findings from a study just announced conclude that right now "there are 80 bridges in Nashville in need of structural repairs." Yet, the Mayor and my council member were willing to drop most of 2014's bridge maintenance funds on a sidewalk to serve the hotel industry. We have dozens of existing bridges that can use those funds, but they attempted to burn most of the money to build a new luxury promenade full of ambiance and attractive planters when the Gulch already has several bridges that pedestrians can use to connect to downtown.

CM Gilmore's bill is indefinitely deferred, but I assume it can be brought up any time she desires to embrace the folly of taking money away from general repair and wasting it on a very special interest. I suspect we will see future attempts to sap unsexy repair funds for sexed up infrastructure.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

How not to use social media on behalf of your city's water utility

The City of Detroit has decided to ignore the idea that access to clean water is a human right. They have spent the last few months turning off the water of residents who cannot pay even though rates have been hiked to cover some questionable financial choices the city has made over the years. They only started turning off businesses who have not paid--which make up the lion's share of the cost of delinquency--last week. Golf courses in Detroit owe hundreds of thousands in unpaid bills, yet they get preferential treatment.

Sunday Detroit Water representatives took to social media to accuse people who are trying to get water of "stealing" it from their utility, and they looked like thugs threatening their customers on Twitter:

This is worse than bad PR. It reflects the neglect and disdain that increasingly privatized municipal services, heavily influenced by business sector wealth, have for ordinary people living in difficult times. The double standard is clear: wealthy people have need of golf courses; they have no need of people who can't afford to bankroll brokered water. They have no need of universal human rights.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Nashville Sounds owner finally attends a community meeting for the community funding his new ballpark; for 18 whole minutes.

Just got back from the "community meeting" the Nashville Sounds and the Gobbell Hayes ballpark design team sponsored to announce progress and to show a "3D" video of the "ballpark experience". It barely lasted 15 minutes, and no questions or comments were allowed from the floor at the end. You could fill out a comment card and hope that someone would get back to you later.

What jumped out of the video immediately was that the only places where the "Sulphur Dell" name was in plain sight were in framed archival prints hanging in the luxury suites. It was no where else to be seen inside the ballpark. Project managers told the press in June that "Sulphur Dell" would be "considered" near the batter's eye in centerfield, which makes it sound like fans inside the ballpark would see it (assuming it ever moves from "considered" to "approved"). In the video, the title of the historic site appears outside the park, facing the mixed use development behind the outfield, on the backside of the batter's eye. No one seated in the park will ever be able to read it. The venerable old name deserves a better fate.

The backside of the batter's eye resembles a tombstone

In a significant departure from last October's community meeting, project managers called the entrance facing Jefferson St. "The Grand Entry" and the video narration underscored that the home plate entrance would be the main entrance to First Tennessee Park. Last year, Metro planners conceded that most of the questions they fielded from neighbors of the ballpark concerned the Jackson St. (north) entrance, which would likely encourage driving fans to take up diminishing street parking in Germantown and Salemtown. Their reply to the questions expressed the hope that Downtown parking garages would encourage people to park south of the park and enter from the outfield.

No part of tonight's presentation mentioned the south entry for fans parking Downtown. Instead, the video promoted the north "home plate" entry, making it seem irresistible. Three of the four neighborhood associations in the North Capitol area expressed unqualified support for this development from beginning to end. Germantown, Hope Gardens, and Historic Buena Vista all had chances to try and stipulate parking requirements as part of Erica Gilmore's legislation. Now it is probably too late to do anything. As I wrote last October, team ownership will be interested in protecting the "fan experience", and they will encourage parking wherever they can stuff them in. Tonight's presentation did nothing to change my sense that parking is going to get bad in the neighborhoods on event nights at First Tennessee Park.

Now that the Nashville Sounds have finally showed up to a community meeting, I want to go back over the quality-of-life checklist I came up with last September on questions that deserve to be answered for the sake of our community. Did the Sounds offer anything new?

  1. "Complete Streets" and parking?

  2. The Sounds presentation included nothing with respect to street planning that encourages walking and biking as much as automobile traffic. The emphasis on the "grand entry" indicates that the Sounds do not plan to offer solutions for their neighbors to relieve a choked parking situation. A project manager said that the greenway (which replaces a state public greenway) would be contained in the ballpark. So, is that one less greenway for pedestrians to use on days games won't be played? Is it just me or does the new greenway resemble the standard apartment complex courtyard?

  3. The North Nashville Community Plan?

  4. The design team at least made an effort last October to discuss the integration of the ballpark into the Germantown neighborhood. Nothing was said this time about the North Nashville neighborhoods. So, why should they care about the community plan? The Sounds have been given an empty canvas as well as Karl Dean's blank checks. They have license to do as they please.

  5. Flood mitigation and neighborhood impact?

    I heard no mention of the impact of catastrophic flood water displacement in the future caused by flood resistant mixed-use built on historic flood plain. This is bad news for those of us who were either flooded or had near misses in May 2010.

  6. Mass transit strategy?

  7. Unlike in October, Gobbell Hayes project managers did not discuss any mass transit arrangement with Metro. Without public pressure on elected officials, why would they?

  8. Jobs strategy?

    I could not tell from tonight's meeting whether the Sounds plan to hire anyone outside of seasonal ushers to show people to their luxury boxes to enjoy archival prints of working-class Sulphur Dell.

  9. Youth programs and service opportunities?

  10. Do the Sounds care about North Nashville's youth? I could not tell from this meeting.

To call tonight's meeting a "community meeting" was a stretch. Everything that happened could have been watched on YouTube. There was no need to create the slightest impression that community concerns and feedback were important to the design team or to Sounds ownership.

UPDATE: I was interested to see a news piece earlier this week on the challenges of finding reliable parking downtown. MDHA has a parking garage in the works to try to help relieve the strain. The article becomes relevant to First Tennessee Park with this comment:

“Some things are so obvious that you don’t need to do an analysis or science project. If you want to find out why we’re doing this, go downtown at 8 tonight and try finding a place to park,” said MDHA Executive Director Jim Harbison.

Remember that last fall, Metro planners and project designers working on the ballpark proposal told us that that they believed downtown parking could accommodate crushes of fans attending night games. The director of the Metro agency brokering deals for parking garages does not seem to agree. Think about where ball game traffic that won't fit downtown is most likely to go.

Study: the jobs "created" by big municipal projects were never really "created" at all

Recently I cited a bunch of evidence that debunked the urban myth that building new ballparks results in net gains for economic development in neighborhoods. The prospect of economic development is one of the rationalizations used by Karl Dean's office to defend Metro's support of First Tennessee Park in its Jefferson Street location.

Another prominent rationalization used to defend Metro's financial support of the park--that subsidies create jobs for North Nashville--is open to debate in the wake of a study that finds that subsidizing capital projects does not do anything of the sort:

a recent study by the Kauffman Foundation suggests that the money [from public subsidies and tax breaks] only shifts jobs from one state to another and doesn't necessarily create them. State and local incentives rarely target the new and young businesses that actually do create jobs.

The subsidy escalation that states have entered has become a zero-sum game in which a largely fixed set of jobs shift from one state to another as companies search for the highest bidder. And even when new jobs are created, companies would likely have needed to add them anyway, and the cost per position to taxpayers can be astronomical.

The 2011 embarrassment of the failed move of IQT Solutions that Karl Dean went through a few years ago drove the point home that the "creation" of jobs in Nashville would cost Canadian workers their jobs if the company had not eventually gone bankrupt. To a certain extent common sense should tell us that the relocation of companies often comes at great cost to the places they leave. But studies help reinforce the point.

If you build it, they will relocate.
At last year's community meeting on the ballpark proposal, Dean's Director of Finance, Rich Riebeling admitted (perhaps in a moment of candor?) that Metro is subsidizing the project because that is how other cities do it. But otherwise, the refrain from ballpark supporters is that transferring money to private companies "creates" jobs; as if those companies do not use the money for purposes other than creating jobs.

How many livable wage jobs (I'm not talking about construction jobs, which end in a few months when the building is erected) are going to be created by First Tennessee Park? The latest research indicates that we will not see enough jobs to equal the $65 million investment that we are dumping into the development.

Monday, July 07, 2014

When it comes to council members, what is the "ideal number for proper governance"?

Belle Meade CM Emily Evans has taken to the Tennessean touting a phone poll that she says proves that she knows the "ideal number" of CMs needed to properly govern Nashville/Davidson County and that a majority of you out there agree with her that you should have less representation in Metro government in order to have the best representation.

If that's the case, good luck with that. I know less representation will please council members and their wealthy patrons. But if most of you registered voters really believe we can shrink representation to get some ideal number, it is a sad season for local democracy in Nashville.

Please help me understand what the ideal number of CMs is and what exactly makes that number "ideal" (which is like calling it "perfect"). The argument offered by supporters is that few other cities have such large legislative bodies. So, the justifying belief of most Nashvillians is that being like other cities would make us ideal? That is supposed to convince me to abdicate the already minuscule influence I have to scrape up responses from council members on matters that concern me?

UPDATE: while we wait for someone from the "majority" to demonstrate that small legislative bodies act in the broadest interest of constituents better than large legislative bodies do, I've posted a copy of a script of the phone poll CM Evans used (no, she did not send it to me herself when I asked for it) to conclude that a majority of you desire less representation:

Friday, July 04, 2014

Would it kill the Nashville Sounds to add some pride of place to their new scoreboard?

The Nashville Sounds introduced then new guitar-shaped scoreboard last week with the statement, "We listen to our fans. Keeping the beloved guitar-shaped scoreboard is just part of our commitment to our supporters and to the city of Nashville."

Apparently, they don't listen to the same fans that they relied on before getting council approval for a new ballpark. In the run-up to the council vote, the team's ownership, the Mayor's Office and the design team rarely mentioned the ballpark without the name "Sulphur Dell". "Friends of Sulphur Dell" was their social media echo chamber. When the Sounds encouraged people to lobby the council for the ballpark they announced: "Come Support the Sulphur Dell Ballpark!" and used the name to rationalize the North Capitol area as the best place for baseball.

Once they received council approval, the partners in the project rarely mentioned "Sulphur Dell" again. The Friends of Sulphur Dell page fell silent immediately after the naming rights to First Tennessee were announced, which suggests to me that few in their group were interested in fighting for the historic name. Team owners have since refused to put "Sulphur Dell" anywhere close to "First Tennessee."

So I did some tinkering with the Sounds new scoreboard to see whether adding the statement "at Historic Sulphur Dell" would be that much of a drag on the First Tennessee brand:

I made an unobtrusive addition to the Sounds' planned scoreboard.

Bringing the name of the location of the ballpark below the neck of the guitar in smaller letters does nothing to take away from the primary name "First Tennessee Park". It is clearly below and thus secondary to the bank's brand. It even makes the box score board look aesthetically more balanced. This risk of adding "at Historic Sulphur Dell" to the guitar in this way risks nothing as far as I can see.

As of 07/04/2014
Meanwhile, there are a couple of benefits to adding the geographical referent. The Sounds and the Mayor's Office created popular expectations that the new ballpark would be an extension of the historic home of baseball in Nashville. The project signs currently up at the construction site still say "Sulphur Dell". A lot of people supported a new ballpark because they believe in the idea of Sulphur Dell. Including that historic moniker on the new scoreboard is a way of keeping promises that were implicitly made. It would be at best bad faith and at worst an encouragement to forget (or to never learn) for Sounds owners to exclude "at Historic Sulphur Dell."

The other benefit that I see to keeping Sulphur Dell visible in the branding of the new ballpark comes from F. Kaid Benfield, who says that people gravitate to older places because they feel grounded by them. Benfield argues that a continuity that people see in historic places gives them a sense of well-being and connectedness. We no longer have the object of old Sulphur Dell. That ballpark was torn down long ago. But adding the name as a geographical referent reminds Nashville that baseball has been played there for a long time. Hence, the name represents an arc of time into which people can be rooted in the present. Downplaying the Sulphur Dell name is akin to downplaying the sense of place and time Nashvillians (and particularly North Nashvillians) have in reference to our historic national pastime.

I understand that a lot of people are invested in a guitar-shaped scoreboard precisely for this reason: that it provides continuity with their past experiences of Greer Stadium. In my opinion, including Historic Sulphur Dell to the scoreboard is just as important and vital as the shape of the scoreboard is. We should keep in mind that Sulphur Dell existed long before Greer Stadium did.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

The lawyer that Hizzoner is, he won't do much more than he is legally obligated to

Disturbing patterns keep popping up in the Mayor's behavior: he excused Metro Water's dump of toxins near Salemtown saying that they complied with the state's environmental standards; he excused Metro's lack of robust remediation of soil excavated for the new Sulphur Dell ballpark insisting that he was in communication with the state and soil like Sulphur Dell's existed everywhere Downtown.

Now his response to the American Indian Coalition's frustration with his handling of sensitive archeology in the area of the new ballpark seems to be cut from the same legalistic thought:

the group wants Metro to delay or stop construction at Sulphur Dell because of its deep Indian history. Representatives from both sides met Thursday for another discussion on the issue.

So far, the city has made no plans to stop construction. Instead, they're offering to construct a wall along the greenway to honor the history of the area, as well as some artwork to go near the end of Fourth Avenue.

"That to me is minimalization and we're tired of being minimalized, American Indian people. We are tired of being just given the very least,” said Albert Bender with the American Indian Coalition.

The Office of Mayor Karl Dean said it’s complied with all state regulations for building on ground containing artifacts.

Doesn't bold leadership require at some points going above and beyond lawyerly arguments of what is required of Metro by state law? Instead of strictly what the law demands to protect the wealthy financial interests backing this project, why not try to strike a balance with all parties as equals in this debate? AIC has excellent points about the costs of culture and history that eclipse mere temporary motives of developers:

"There is evidence of a huge, huge Native American city - Native American metropolis, ancient American area," said Albert Bender, with the American Indian Coalition.

Archaeologists were excited when some Native American salt vessels recently turned up at the Sulphur Dell construction site.

They would like to see the construction of the new Nashville Sounds stadium put on hold to further study the findings, but that is unlikely.

"That's our priority that they will open up the excavation process so that more field recovery work can take place, because there is a treasure trove of knowledge waiting to be unearthed. And the knowledge is incalculable compared to any type of delay that may result from the construction of a ballpark," Bender said.

The artifacts include broken pottery from a salt factory dating back to 1150 A.D. But the digging to find more artifacts has stopped and construction of the ballpark is moving ahead.

"Now we've capped that with some dirt, and we suspect there are other things out there. But it's not going to be coming into place as part of this construction process," said Ronald Gobbel, with Gobbel Hays Partners, Inc.

Again the parallel is striking: when the Dean Administration was covering its collective ass on its new toxic landfill near the Cumberland River here, the bureaucrats justified it by insisting that they were going to "cap" the carcinogens with some dirt. So, down below dirt in our community is a toxic dump that we need protection from and a prehistoric metropolis that should be a source of pride and continuity of place. Karl Dean would rather bury both and appeal to the law in his defense.

This Mayor's term is nearly up and there is no hope of him changing his pharisaical ways any time soon. He wants to get this ballpark done before he leaves office so that he can throw out the first pitch as the guy who built it. It will be The House That Dean Built. We can only hope that the next Mayor is less prone to sticking to legalistic ways of governing this city. We can only hope that she or he has a vision that encompasses the past as well as the future.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Nine months after he held the first one, Mayor Karl Dean announces the second community meeting on the new ballpark

Last October when the Mayor's Office hosted the only community meeting held in the Sulphur Dell area that included members of the ballpark design team and planners discussing the project publicly, they scheduled it at 2:00 on a week day when many neighbors around the area were at work. Metro Planners acknowledged that the meeting time was "odd" given that it was supposed to involve the community. On at least two occasions planners promised to hold more follow-up community meetings as the process went on.

Nine months have passed since the first meeting at Farmers' Market and just today the Mayor's Office has announced the scheduling of the second community meeting on Tuesday, July 8 at 5:00p. That time is more realistic for working families who may want to attend, but they have scheduled the meeting in an inconvenient place for those of us who live closest to Sulphur Dell. They are holding the meeting in the Howard Office Building south of Downtown. Between the "odd" scheduling of the first meeting and the unfortunate placement of the second meeting, it is almost like the powers over this project simply do not prefer to make it easy for the communities most affected by a new ballpark to attend.

The sun rises in the east: early morning games?
The announcement says that the "First Tennessee Park" project team and the Nashville Sounds will present the construction schedule and that those attending will be able to write comments and questions down on slips of paper and hand them in at the end of the meeting. So, in the same tone as the first meeting, organizers are not going to let this event become hearing-like. It will all be tightly controlled with no guarantees that all questions will be answered. At this point feedback is moot. The community lost the chance to influence the project when council supporters rammed the bill through second reading.

We will see how much Sounds executives are involved in this meeting. They were conspicuously absent from the first community meeting. Then in November, when CM Erica Gilmore relented to CM Charlie Tygard and finally organized her own neighborhoods' meeting on the project during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, the Sounds were no where to be found. Sounds owner and real estate mogul, Frank Ward, was reported to have influenced the compressed timeline for approval of the ballpark plan. That timeline of weeks was controversial with many because it blocked opportunities for communities to have input in the planning process. When asked about the check on public feedback, Mr. Ward claimed that he "stays out of politics".

I don't know whether the Sounds owner simply looks down on popular feedback or does not want to be out among the unwashed masses, but he has been involved in politics both in Nashville (encouraging supporters to attend and speak at the ballpark public hearing) and in New York City (where he made at least one campaign donation). Hence, I don't buy the claim that he wants to stay out of politics. And I do not appreciate equating a community planning process with politics that one would wish to avoid.

But I will be interested to see if he attends the July 8 community meeting and whether he fields questions himself from the community. We know he attended a cork-popping reception celebrating the ballpark with a bank president and our Mayor. I do not believe that this gala was open to the community though.

There remain so many questions that the ballpark project team have yet to answer even as planners have promised more follow-up to address the questions. I don't have high expectations that even after nine months we will have clear answers or the concerns of last October will be addressed.

Preserving Whites Creek

I've taken a stand with Whites Creek residents who want to see their village-like North Nashville community preserved against the sprawling suburbanism of opportunistic, money-hungry developers. In that spirit, I hope that anyone with an interest in maintaining the unique rural character of Whites Creek and the diversity it promotes in North Nashville will take note:

A Music Row recording studio is currently garnering news media visibility because celebrities are promoting its preservation. How many regular Nashvillians are ever going to enjoy access to a recording studio? People live, work and play in neighborhoods. Local communities like Whites Creek, which contain their own historical treasures, deserve the same kind of preservationist energy that Music Row recently enjoys, even if celebrities are not forthcoming to plead their case in the glare of news media coverage.