The Chatter Class: Planning's new moxy

Monday, August 18, 2008 at 4:01am

The Metro Planning Commission put on an amazing display last Thursday night during the discussion over the May Town Center.

Commissioners generally matched the arguments that have been made against the massive development proposed by developer Tony Giarratana and the May family. In doing so, they delivered an initial victory to a very vocal minority of citizens of Davidson County.

Commissioners ventured beyond their role of guiding land use in the county and commented on how economic development should be done in the city, questioning whether such a development would even work. They also became the protectors of taxpayer dollars.

Why then does Nashville need elected officials or even the Mayor's Office of Economic and Community Development? Why should the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce have Partnership 2010? What's the purpose of Metro Council?

Ironically, neighborhood advocates around the city were worried that the commission had become too developer-friendly. Yet the commissioners essentially ignored the advice of Planning Director Rick Bernhardt and his staff, the only supposed friends of neighborhoods.

Under former Mayor Bill Purcell, Bernhardt was a thorn in the side of developers. Now, he actually likes what a developer has presented, checks off on it and then gets hammered by neighborhood proponents.

Commissioners echoed May Town Center’s opponents about the need for more than one bridge across the Cumberland River to support what could become a work-day population matching downtown’s. The Mays have agreed to pay for one bridge, but commissioners and opponents said there's a risk taxpayers will have to foot the bill for others.

It seems planning commissioners have bought into the view that economic development should come at no expense to taxpayers whatsoever, even if that growth generates property taxes. Conversely, it seems acceptable to planning commissioners that taxpayers spend millions buying a park on Bells Bend that sees little use and generates no taxes but needs taxpayer support.

May Town Center opponents have argued that the city should focus solely on its urban core. That's a valid point. But why not have that and a May Town Center? In the convention center debate, the argument that certain groups favor downtown over spaces like Opryland Resort & Convention Center was used to win a new convention center in SoBro.

In one interesting poke at the development, commissioners and opponents said the May Town Center would suck tenants out of downtown. Using that logic, no new office buildings should have ever been built on West End or on the Music Row Roundabout, where law firms formerly based downtown have set up shop.

There also was the utopian point that perhaps corporate executives some day will seek out downtown with its living and cultural options, shunning today’s popular suburban options. Yet the commission has approved the rezoning of 180 acres in Donelson for mixed-use project by developer Bert Mathews that will have a couple of million square feet of office space. Won't that also be able to lure tenants out of downtown?

Like May Town Center, the Donelson project is a greenfield development. But if the goal is protecting green space, why didn't it face the same level of opposition? Because the Donelson site has infrastructure and is not along a river.

It remains to be seen whether this new, rather activist posturing from the planning commission will become the standard. If it does, the body should at a minimum familiarize itself with the recent history of economic development in the city.

Unless the plan is just to send all future development to Franklin, where officials are waiting with open arms.

The Chatter Class appears Mondays in The City Paper. Send comments to

Filed under: City Business
By: TNReader on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Great article. This points out what is happening all over. Planning commissions everywhere are ignoring the recommendations of paid professional staff members and basing their decisions on personal preferences (see Brentwood), or on extraneous factors, and they have no regard for personal property rights. Basically their decisions are for whomever barks loudest at the time.

By: Yangtze on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Maybe so, TNReader. But if Planning Commissions only become a rubber stamp and are not willing to ask questions, who will hear any of the opposition.The Metro Council is anemic at best due to our precious electorates ideas of term limits. So if the people can take away the power from the Council, why can't the electorate have a say in what any other government agencies can or can't hear or do.

By: Time for Truth on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Planners are supposed to represent a cross section of the community and are required to take classes annually in planning, land use and land use law. A proactive, balanced and educated Planning Commission is important. Look at the mess that Hickory Hollow is today and see what happens when planners don't have an eye on the future and just let developers run roughshod over them.Developers, as they have every right to attempt to do, will try to build whatever they can get away with that makes the most money for them. They usually have a fallback position and then a point at which they call an attorney like Tom White.I have lots of questions about May Town too. That doesn't mean every office structure or doomed-to-fail convention center needs to be built downtown. But why pick a location with the highest infrastructure costs imaginable within Davidson County? Why build where you aren't wanted when there are many areas where such development would be welcome-right next to the Interstate or Briley Parkway?Mr. Lawson, as I suggested previously, is an able 'voice of the developer'. His articles are well written but should be viewed as informative opinion pieces and not fact reporting.

By: girliegirl on 12/31/69 at 6:00

TforT is correct in his statement regarding the obvious: we have other areas in Metro which would thrive nicely from a proposed project such as May Town, and they would have DIRECT access to highways as well. Hickory Hollow is dying on the vine, and if we could offer CPR in the form of a May Town proposal, it "could" make a comeback. However, it should be noted that according to the Councilman of that area, that Dillard's suffers from more "theft" than any other Dillard's in the nation. Maybe if those kids had a job, the crime would drop. Hey, it's a thought.

By: Time for Truth on 12/31/69 at 6:00

And two articles down the page, we have a spotlight on the 'Skyline Development District' which would welcome something like May Town with open arms. Lots of vacant or underutilized land directly north of Briley with quick access to both I-65 and I-24. Of course, the developers would have to carve on those hills a little, which costs them money, so we get something like May Town instead.

By: airvols on 12/31/69 at 6:00

I suppose most people think the planning commission did the right thing in this meeting. Actually, the planning commission should have stuck to the facts of land use development. They have no business discussing the impact of the economic viability of this project. That discuss should be left to the council. It's seems the planning commission is becoming its on rubber stamp, when in fact they can be easily over-ridden. Their role is not to expand their powers but to serve as the gatekeeper for the city on zoning and planning issues. This planning commission has no business setting the agenda for this project and the council needs to show them their place quickly. cab

By: Time for Truth on 12/31/69 at 6:00

I would have to have seen the meeting to know if they did 'the right thing' or not. But May Town really doesn't make a whole lot of sense on many fronts.

By: RIchardLawson on 12/31/69 at 6:00

I've been dealing mostly with the arguments being made against the development because the points aren't consistent and quite literally are down in the weeds. The arguments for it are more straight forward. Commercial development generally has a track record for producing economic impact. The challenge is determining whether the revenues delivered match the promises made years prior. There is a greater issue that has to be addressed at a higher level than the planning commission. The city has to decide whether it wants to be in the game for corporate campuses. That's one thing. Focus on the urban core is nice but there has to be some green fields development for the tax base to grow. Forget the location for a moment. MTC as it is designed reflects the model for developing green fields. Rick essentially pointed that out in the meeting. So if you are going to do green fields, here's the approach. Other parts of the country have done similar developments. Where I've seen it is along new public transit routes. Years ago, the Metro in DC planned that way when putting a new line into Maryland.

By: nashbeck on 12/31/69 at 6:00

I would hope development along the East Bank and around downtown would be built first, but why not aim high and go for both the downtown area and corporate campuses like may town center.Richard-- Why can't MTC be approved on the notion that the May Family will not allow current downtown corporations relocate to their facility (i.e. MTC is for corporations relocating TO Davidson County as opposed to WITHIN Davidson County)?

By: RIchardLawson on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Not sure that such a stipulation could be made. Who is to say that tenants would be drawn from downtown? Maybe they are drawn from West End? That's what's funny about the arguments.

By: topthinker on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Wishful thinking is a lot of fun, isn't it? But "build it and they will come" was only a movie, and even the movie was only about ghosts. No thoughtful discussion of Nashville's future has ever come up with this--just put a city in a cowpasture and add a bridge for access and you're good to go. This isn't a plan--it's land speculation. Good for the planning commission--they have exercised deliberate and independent judgement, and did pay attention to the fact that the planning commission staff's REAL neighborhood plan for this area is rural and conservation. Not that the City Paper would notice. My, my, the flacks are really flacking, aren't they?

By: RIchardLawson on 12/31/69 at 6:00

topthinker... deliberate and independent judgment doesn't mean dabbling in economic development and whether such a site is needed to attract corporations. That's a discussion for the council and mayor to hash out. Commission is supposed to just deal with land planning not pontificate on whether or not it was good or bad for taxpayers, whether or not there is a question of it meeting the econ development claims of the developer or how the developer and subsequent developers would pay for the development itself. The last one was really interesting. It's not flacking. It was hardcore lobbying on both sides. One irony that I didn't mention was that Gee's firm has an office in Celebration, Fla.