Tuesday, September 30, 2014

An open letter to council member Erica Gilmore

Dear Erica Gilmore,

Last night's Salemtown association meeting certainly could have gone better. Not that we do not need to our council member to show up to our meetings. I certainly wish you had attended more during your term on the council.

But last night we got more of the same that we have seen from you in recent years, CM Gilmore. All you seem interested in now is doing the absolute minimum that you are required to do instead of going a few extra steps for ordinary constituents who are not big finance cash cows. We were not asking you to go an extra mile like the Mayor is in getting you to sponsor ballpark and luxury sidewalk resolutions.

Some of us merely want you to keep a neighborhood association president in the loop about Specific Plan requests. That's not unfair or unreasonable. SPs call for community input and yet you seem to be bent on minimizing community input.

It was not always like this. I remember early in your first term you made efforts to stay in contact with us regardless of where we were located in Salemtown. Remember the failed "Ardelia Park" development? That was blocks away from where I live, and yet you encouraged me to attend the community meeting on it.

What a difference six years makes. On Aerial Development's latest proposal you could have done the decent thing and asked developer Britnie Turner to confer with the president of Salemtown Neighbors last spring before seeking approval. Notifications would have gone out from there, which would have forestalled the criticism I heard last night regarding your lack of communication.

Instead, you lectured us on Monday and repeated ad nauseum that "communication is a two-way street". You never gave us a chance to go down that road. You let Metro Planning send out the post cards on a community meeting to residents within several hundred feet of the property, which covers a small geographical area as well as your proverbial ass. It gives you the ability to say that you did everything the law requires to notify the community.

But are the rest of us who are affected by this development supposed to have a special sixth sense to know when a developer approaches you to formulate a resolution that requires community input? Is that really realistic, given the information and access advantages developers enjoy over neighbors?

Nope. You never gave us a chance to go down the road. And frankly you did not come down that street yourself. Relying on the planning department alone is not good enough; as if it were not made sufficiently clear from all of the feedback you got back at last night's association business meeting (which Aerial chose not to attend). Planners have no skin in the Salemtown game.

Moreover, your subtle criticism that communication is a two-way street is bad faith. I receive global email blasts from you regularly on subjects that I may or may not be interested in. Sometimes those blasts contain rezoning and development information or information about community meetings. In 2014 I have been notified of a meeting on Jefferson Street HUD development and on the meetings concerning the new ballpark. But I received nothing directly from you on a specific plan in Salemtown. Metro planners like these plans because they want to see higher density everywhere regardless of questions other departments have about differences with the contexts of neighborhoods.

Aerial's plan promotes higher density, but it has also sent up red flags due to its differences with Salemtown context, especially since the property falls within Salemtown's conservation overlay.

So, why now do you expect me to keep tabs on this under-the-radar proposal when you have made efforts to notify me about others?

But you really hit an all time low last night when you resorted to insinuating that Salemtown Neighbors--which celebrates its 10 year anniversary next February as Salemtown's first association--is not representative of the views of Salemtown. You do not even know that to be true, because you never gave the association the chance to participate in the community discussion about this development. Your inference was spurious.

That kind of foolishness undermines the credibility of our own process, and ironically, since you have done enough to undermine your own. You were not going to hold a community meeting on the ballpark proposal until a fellow council member asked you in open meeting to do so. You stood in front of the council and vowed that your constituents opposed any requirements put on the Nashville Sounds ownership as part of a ballpark agreement, after a number of us argued to the contrary. You ignored requests to hold public meetings on the Metro Water toxic dump site near Salemtown and punted any advocacy you could do for the community to PR specialists at MWS.

For you, CM Gilmore, to try to cast aspersions on Salemtown Neighbors as if we have not over the years tried to represent fairly the interest of the neighborhood amounts to unbridled hypocrisy. Your lack of broader advocacy on the Aerial proposal indicates to me that you have given up representing all of us. The fact that you wrote a letter to the Metro Historic Zoning Commission asking them to re-hear Aerial's proposal, after the developers failed to appear before that body, shows with whom you have cast your lot, and it is not with Salemtown. The quick approval timeline last spring indicates an interest in minimizing community feedback. And you have the gall to suggest that we do not strive to be representative.

I understand that at this point you are likely just playing out the string of days in your last term as our CM. I understand that house flippers with some cash make more difference than voters do in that context. Even so, neighbors in Salemtown ought to have at least as much credibility with you as the outside developers who make no bones about wanting "to tear up some real estate" to generate more wealth to take out of the community:

Things could have gone better last night, CM Gilmore. Unfortunately, you missed your chance to make it better last spring.

Mike Byrd

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Gulch's suspended luxury sidewalk--reanimiated by a new funding scheme--is still a bridge too far

It's back. The Mayor's audaciously opulent pedestrian bridge--which is actually a terraced sidewalk suspended across Gulch train tracks by cables--is back. And it now has a higher price tag than it did last winter (up to $18 million from $16 million), when the proposal went down in flames in Metro Council due to Hizzoner's attempt to raid the funds dedicated to bridge and sidewalk maintenance, endangering the upkeep and installment of routine sidewalks everywhere else. Jerry Maynard jumped in to request a deferral of the bill, which probably averted an embarrassing trouncing for the Mayor. Reluctant project sponsor, Erica Gilmore, agreed to defer.

Rather than relying on the council this time, Hizzoner took his case straight to The Gulch's business and residential community under the banner "Connect Nashville." At last count, the Gulch had 2,000 residents, mind you, but somehow connecting them to downtown constitutes "Connect[ing] Nashville".

On a parallel note: the Mayor skipped a packed townhall meeting last month in North Nashville called "Nashville Unites" regarding police militarism and brutality in African American communities. That Jeff St. meeting was focused on bringing Nashville together for positive change. But the Mayor could not make time for that meeting. Somehow he made time for the "Connect Nashville" meeting, despite the fact it had nothing to do with bringing Nashville together. He would rather connect than unite.

He always has been a risk-averse Mayor more focused on new and neat capital projects than on messy interaction with dissatisfied constituents. And his comments indicated that he was right at home at The Gulch pep rally:

The pedestrian bridge would serve as a critical link in that network of walkable, bikeable paths. It's the difference between the Gulch being included in the vision of a better downtown or not .... For pedestrians the Gulch is virtually isolated from downtown, and the pedestrian bridge would solve that. It would also serve as a destination itself, much like a park. It would attract people to relax or to be entertained with green space and seating areas. It should not be a plain straight bridge when it can serve a much greater purpose.

What a departure from the North Capitol community meetings on the new Sounds ballpark plan, where the Mayor's representatives and Metro planners barely even addressed the community's auto traffic concerns. Despite the fact that many of us here want to see a real dedication to complete streets (which integrate safe walkability and bikeability) at First Tennessee Park, the Mayor's forces bulldozed through our concerns to get quick approval for the development so that he can throw out the first pitch next April 17 when the Sounds take the field for the first time. But when it comes to the Gulch and approval of a luxury sidewalk, complete streets are critical.

The Mayor's other point--that the sidewalk would be be more park or greenspace than sidewalk--is a hard sell. Greenspace-starved Jefferson Street in North Nashville could use a park-over to minimize the blighting effects of the interstate that cuts through neighborhoods (our lone pedestrian bridge reflects that blight) Park-overs are generally super-sized land bridges, not pedestrian sidewalks with a few places to sit. To ask us to believe that Mayor Dean is creating a park with a sidewalk is an insult to our intelligence and to real park-overs everywhere.

Hizzoner's brave new proposal is not to raise taxes but to dedicate the taxes already collected from business and property owners to the project.

So, is this proposal any different than the first? Not really. Mayor Dean is merely robbing Peter to pay Paul. The bridge funding plan really is a gimmick, catalyzed by smoke and mirrors. It is budgetary sleight of hand, making it seem like no one gets hurt.

In his Gulch speech, the Mayor defended spending the money on the new Gulch sidewalk insisting that it would promote growth downtown whose benefits would then trickle down to suburban Davidson County. He encouraged Gulch residents to argue that point with critics of the plan. It is the same argument he lobs to promote lavishing public funds--without raising taxes, but with diminished Metro budget returns--on any of his big ticket capital items downtown.

With a sufficient number of sexy downtown builds to judge now, the question we should be asking ourselves is, "Do you feel the benefits trickling in yet?" From where I sit in North Nashville, I'm not seeing benefits that serve citizens trickling into Salemtown. Libraries and community centers are still on restricted hours. Schools in the area want for resources. I have to wonder when our brush pile will be picked up, proper bus stops will be installed and pot holes will be fixed. So, why should I support a luxury sidewalk for tourist-oriented downtown if North Nashville does not get one, too?

The taxes that would have otherwise gone to help fund services that all of us benefit from are going to be held in abeyance to pay for infrastructure enjoyed only by Gulch residents and the tourists who frequent the hotels and downtown hot spots. Could near North Nashville (or any other urban ring neighborhood) get the same deal? Could our taxes be withheld from the Metro budget to build a luxurious pedestrian bridge even without the same concentration of tourists enjoyed by the Gulch?

I doubt it. Karl Dean would not make the offer to any neighborhood outside downtown that does not have the cash flow in hand. Dedicating these funds is a net tax break for the Gulch: the buying power of their revenues gets a bump with this assist from Karl Dean. So, again, why should I support Metro's latest gilded excess designed to indulge downtown's bloated elite class? Rather than expressing the avarice of trickle-down benefits, why can't the Mayor spread the wealth around liberally? Why can't Gulch land owners and merchants continue to kick in their share of revenues for the benefit of us all or be decent enough to leverage their own tax increase to pay for this sidewalk?

The Mayor's argument that he will not be raiding Metro's bridges and sidewalks fund--as he proposed to do last winter--is moot. The fact that it took an embarrassing defeat of one of Mayor Dean's more titillating capital projects for him to kick in money for ordinary sidewalks in neighborhoods should tell you what you need to know about him: he does not care about communities beyond those that attract tourists, beyond those with the money to finance campaigns.

So, Karl Dean is going to start working to peel off votes of CMs who previously expressed opposition, likely with promises of future spending on neighborhoods in various districts. He seems already to have peeled off one CM who shouted the loudest against the bridge last winter: Charlie Tygard, who has always crumbled at the slightest hint of giving tax breaks to developers anyway.

Bridge or no bridge there is a silver lining. The positive takeaway from the coarseness of this plan is the insight of what it takes the get this Mayor to consider spending money on infrastructure outside of downtown: vocal, organized, sometimes angry opposition. There is no courthouse good will absent the pressure to make him care. Neighborhood leaders have to stay well-organized to stop not just the actual bulldozers but the virtual ones, too.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Council candidate Jeff Syracuse seemed defensive about fair questions

We all say things we regret. Some of us try live up to the folly. Others try and scrub their public comments from sight, so they don't have to stand by their words. It is especially bad when people seeking public office choose not to stand by their words.

Hip Syracuse
Take Jeff Syracuse, who is running for a council seat to represent "Hip Donelson." A few years ago I received an email pondering how Mr. Syracuse could move in a matter of weeks from someone seeking advice on how to organize a neighborhood association to someone who could be invited to a personal meeting with the Mayor as a neighborhood leader.

My initial thought on that email was, "Well, it is an election campaign year and for the first time in 4 years Karl Dean considers neighborhoods important to engage." In fact, in April 2011, Hizzoner launched a series of neighborhood "gatherings" and "steering committees" that often carried a veneer of paternalistic openness to change and philanthropic volunteerism, but that constituted campaign stops orchestrated by the Mayor's Office of Neighborhoods. Those meetings ended after Karl Dean was re-elected.

Excuse my jadedness, but Karl Dean's interest in neighborhoods in 2011 seemed opportunistic. The questions I asked Mr. Syracuse are fair ones given the benefits that could accrue to those neighborhood leaders with whom the Mayor's Office identified to network. Mr. Syracuse was reportedly one of those leaders, and now he has moved from private citizen to public figure. No reasonable questions are unfair at this point for a public figure.

So, I raised the issue with him tonight on Twitter. He responded. Then he scrubbed his Twitter stream of his responses. Knowing what I know of the sensitivity of politicos to their public image, I took the liberty of screenshotting some of the exchange (now scrubbed):

Before scrubbing, he conceded that he indeed did inquire about how to form a neighborhood association and that he was invited and did attend one of Karl Dean's campaign luncheons for neighborhood leaders in April 2011. I asked him how then I was "full of baloney" given that he conceded that the facts I tweeted were right, at which point he stopped responding to me altogether.

Point of fact, Mr. Syracuse sent a message to other neighborhood leaders on April 12, 2011 with these comments:

I had a great lunch with Mayor Dean, Billy Fields, and four others who represented their neighborhoods around Nashville.  We met in the Mayor's Office.  Each neighborhood representative spoke about the issues they are dealing with and it was enlightening to recognize the common issues we all face .... It was a pleasure & a privledge to have a seat at this table.  I hope to do it again in the future. [sic]

I don't understand why Mr. Syracuse would now say I was wrong or why he would scrub his Twitter stream of our exchange, other than he himself is now in campaign mode and cannot entertain questions that veer off his campaign's talking points.

His relentless and unapologetic campaigning is a reason I quit an online neighborhoods e-list earlier this year. But at least one very Deanesque mayoral candidate and champion of charter schools endorsed Jeff Syracuse's campaign kick-off event, even if he cannot himself vote for Mr. Syracuse.

UPDATE: the hits just keep coming for Jeff Syracuse. The Mayor's Office of Neighborhoods announces that they have selected him to serve on a panel to train neighborhood leaders. He's got friends in high places.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Public hearing on "no dogs" house SP proposal is less than one week away, and still no word from the developer on any changes

Recently I wrote about the notice sent out in Salemtown about the rezoning request for the "no dogs" house on 6th Av. N. Since that time the association got to meet with the primary in the project, Clay Haynes, to ask questions and make comments. The request is to rezone to "SP" or "specific plan," which allows the community to have influence over the project.

The business meeting was generally productive. I expressed my concerns about stormwater run-off, which has been a problem between 5th and 6th where I live for as long as I've lived here.

I also followed up with the this email to Salemtown Neighbors president, Freddie O'Connell:

I do not have any reservations about the dwelling design and I am grateful that he is making every effort to preserve the 115-year-old structure. I agree with those who make preservation a priority for this development.

That said, I also understand that the building was originally built as a duplex and I do not have a problem with it being renovated as a "multi-family" dwelling. However, if the association has any concerns about density, I would support SNNA in limiting the plan accordingly.

My greatest concern is with stormwater run-off. Except for the 1898 structure and sidewalks, the entire property is currently greenspace. That greenspace soaks up rather than sheds rainfall. There is a slight berm at the back of the property that also retains and diverts stormwater.

The plan proposes to pave approximately half the greenspace and level the back so that cars can access parking at the alley rather than on the street in front. That is going to create a higher volume of stormwater not being retained on the property but rather flowing downhill, across the alley and into our yard ... (as well as a property next to ours). Parking 4-8 cars on an impervious surface will also send motor oils and other fluids into the alley and the adjoining yards during storms.

I would like to see the association ask Clay to develop a detailed stormwater retention strategy as part of his plan, using retainers (for instance, stone borders or walls on slopes), rain gardens (which filter toxins as well as retain water) and pervious concrete or permeable stones in the parking lot with spacing for water absorption in the underlying soil. Given that we are so close to the river, these elements would aid in keeping 4-8 times more pollutants out of the Cumberland via alley and street run-off.

I understand that Clay's proposal meets stormwater requirements, but specific plans are negotiable above and beyond the baselines Metro sets. Besides that, after living here for a decade, I have found that stormwater requirements have not always been sufficient to address run-off, pooling and flooding between 7th Av and 4th Av.

I appreciate the association's support on this quality of life issue and I hope that Clay will write limitations on paving materials into the specific plan. If he does so, I will not oppose it in the future either in community meetings or at public hearings, unless the association has other concerns that require my support in those venues.

At the meeting, the members seemed amenable to my concerns about run-off. So, I hope to see some restrictions written into the SP to protect our interests.

I cannot find the proposal or planning analysis on the proposal on the Metro website, yet, but the Planning Commission public hearing on this proposal is less than a week away: September 25, 4:00p, at the Sonny West Conference Center, 700 2nd Av. S. I am hoping to hear something before then, because I plan to be at the meeting to express my concerns.

UPDATE:  Planning department officials tell me that the planning staff analysis of this proposal will not be posted online until next Friday at noon. So, we will essentially have only a couple of days to look over what Metro Planning presents to the planning commission before the latter votes it up or down after Monday's public hearing. There has got to be a better way to inform neighbors affected by the plan on 6th Av. N. The developers have all of the knowledge way ahead of the public hearing and thus they enjoy a distinct advantage over neighborhoods.

UPDATE:  Freddie O'Connell forwarded the following response from the developer.

Attached you will find the SP which was submitted to planning which specifically designates the parking to be pervious.  After discussing this with my engineer, it's likely we will use a combination of both pavers as well as pervious concrete and create an appealing design.  These materials are install on top of a deep crushed stone base to provide additional storage capacity.

Additionally, there are two heavily landscaped rain gardens along the rear of the property which will further retain and absorb any possible runoff.  With the combination of these techniques, I'm told that it's highly likely that we will actually retain more runoff than it does at present.

I really think that he will be pleased with the design.  Because the lot has such a steep slope, his concern is valid although.  Honestly, he should look at the adjacent construction project. I don't believe that single family homes have to submit storm water plans and that parcel's permeability was just cut in half, if not more depending on the rear drive.

This seems to be good news. The proposal goes before the Planning Commission today. The planning department analysis of the proposal recommends it based on their usual reasoning about savings and walkable urban neighborhoods, but makes no mention of the environmental and stormwater impact changes that the developer says he has made to the SP. I'll be watching this proposal just as I have every other SP that has been proposed for our neighborhood. As I have in the past, I will contact Metro planners should the plan not materialize as proposed.

As to his point about the adjoining property under construction, the developers did not seek rezoning on that parcel, so I did not have the chance to try to leverage attention to water retention issues. As long as builders meet the bureaucratic requirements based on current zoning, the neighborhood has no say-so regarding these questions. That is why SPs proposals are so important for the community to respond to. If I had that opportunity, I would have expressed these same concerns to those developers, too.

10/01/2018 UPDATE: over 4 years later and the renovation of the "No Dogs House" is ongoing. The building so far looks consistent with the original plans. What appears to be impervious concrete has been poured for parking. Question is was this concrete in the original plan or was it originally supposed to the pervious surface that the developer told Freddie O'Connell (now our Metro Council member) would be poured? Maybe the center hole in the lot is going to be pervious surface or pavers? The lot appears to slope slightly to the north so that water might run off into the grass instead of directly to the alley. We shall see what kind of run-off this creates for those of us who live across the alley. Photo was taken this afternoon.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Today is the one month anniversary of the shooting of Michael Brown and none of Nashville's mayoral candidates have put forward policy ideas on police brutality and militarism in black communities

Photo credit: Al Jazeera America
One month ago today Michael Brown was shot dead by a Ferguson, Missouri police officer. It was an infamous event that ignited anger and concern around the nation. There were mass protests around the country, especially after militarized St. Louis County police cracked own on organized local demonstrations. Social media coverage blew up and forced city politicians hundreds of miles from St. Louis to deal with the fallout. The federal government is currently investigating how police handled the shooting and the social protests with the possibility that any militarized police force that has used military weaponry against protesters could be forced to return the grants.

In late August local congregational leaders in Nashville sponsored a standing-room-only town hall meeting in North Nashville marked by unease, consternation and qualified support for Nashville's police department, their double standard toward non-white communities and their own military arsenal gained through federal government grants. Police officers were prompted to account for the ways they have used military weaponry in service of the public.

That meeting was attended by the candidates who have announced their desire to take over the Mayor's Office next year. One would think that after Ferguson shook the country and after the shock waves were felt in Nashville that this all-white slate of candidates would be articulating some kind of policy options for checking militarized policing in Nashville. Maybe I have not looked in the right places, but I cannot tell that they have proposed any changes to the Nashville status quo. Maybe they believe the don't need the votes.

I searched local news feeds.

And I looked at their websites. This is what I found there as of today.

School reformer Jeremy Kane is otherwise a blank slate. He says nothing about his policy ideas on the issues, preferring "to hear" your ideas for Nashville on his website. He has an air-brushed PR video on the main page that basically retreads Karl Dean's three-headed campaign hellhound: education, law enforcement and economic development. He adds reformer jargon to public education like "collaboration," which is typically code for "privatization" (subsidizing private enterprise with Metro revenue that would otherwise be used for public programs).

I cannot find any evidence that candidate Kane has said a thing about policing Ferguson or the militarization of police forces. Does he believe that charter schools are the answer? He attended the August 21 town hall meeting on Jefferson Street, but his only response to that was to thank the organizers of the event on Twitter.

Megan Barry has gone farther than Jeremy Kane in giving some detail to policy questions on her website, but those details do not seem to be updated in the last month with all of the unpleasantness arising from the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson. In her public safety meditation, she vaguely refers to the justice system "treating everyone the same". She makes no specific reference to racial inequality when she fleshes out what she means by that. She says nothing about curbing the excesses of police militarism and brutality even as she touts her council votes in support of increasing the number of cops on the streets, which is only a good thing if cops are treating everyone even-handedly (as we heard at last month's town hall, they are not).

Candidate Barry offers no indication that she supports citizen advisory committees to watchdog the actions of police armored to the hilt with weapons of war. And I have already pointed out that she seemed to deny that the injustices of Ferguson are likely to happen in Nashville based on nothing but a metropolitan structure of government. As if individuals who work for Metro government cannot make bad decisions.

For his part, Charles Robert Bone has been quieter than the rest on the question of race, police brutality, and military toys for cops. Mr. Bone seems satisfied in his website comments with the direction Nashville has taken on public safety, and so I am growing to expect little illumination from him on how he would address policing problems that affect North Nashville more than other parts of the city.

So, we have three candidates for the county executive seat, none of whom have committed any public promises that they will order policies that protect communities from militarized police. A month after Michael Brown was shot dead (according to witnesses with his hands in the air), weeks after the protests shook our country and North Nashville held a town hall meeting, how can Jeremy Kane, Megan Barry, and Charles Bone remain unaccountably quiet on what they might do to forestall the repercussions of these troubling times? How can they vie for the most powerful seat in Nashville without any clear ideas for preventing Ferguson from happening in Davidson County?