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.
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