Advocates on both sides of the much-publicized May Town Center debate say their cases are reinforced by the city’s recent decision to approve a taxpayer-financed convention center.
Issues are generally the same as they were over the summer when the Metro Planning Commission shot down the contentious proposal to turn 550-plus acres in the rural Bells Bend community into a massive $4 billion mixed-used development. Though developer Jack May has said he would consider downsizing the scale of the project, Nashvillians speaking at Tuesday’s public hearing will be addressing the same –– now revived ––project that was debated ad nauseam only months ago.
What’s changed from July to today, May Town supporters contend, is the Metro Council’s 29-9 vote in January to publicly bankroll the $585 million Music City Center. As the city dips into hotel-tax revenues to fund one mammoth project, how can it deny a developer from using private funds to start another?
“If we’re going to invest in the convention center, any time we can have private developers come in and they’re ready and willing to do development on that scale, I think we need to explore that opportunity,” said Lonnell Matthews Jr., the council representative of the disputed area and May Town backer.
But citizens working in opposition to May Town have also turned to the recently financed convention center to make their point. The decision to move forward with the new 1.2-million-square-foot facility south of Demonbreun Street signals a renewed commitment to downtown development, they argue, and plotting a business-oriented town center on the county’s outskirts would detract from that.
“I don’t think anything has changed in terms of whether or not this proposal makes sense for the city,” said attorney David Briley, a May Town critic. “One thing that has changed is the city has made a commitment to build a convention center downtown. Anything that could or would distract from our focus on downtown is an unwanted distraction. It sort of reiterates what the planning commission was thinking when they decided to recommend disapproval.”
It appears Tuesday’s public hearing may be the first of two such gatherings. Matthews told TheCity Paper over the weekend that he would consider entertaining several amendments to the May Town zoning bill to address concerns such as the project’s size, traffic flow and the number of bridges that would cross the Cumberland River to the town center. He added he would like to hammer down an exact groundbreaking date within the legislation, so the project would be poised to take off upon approval.
If the council were to adopt these or other amendments, Matthews said he would then hope to defer the bill again to allow for a May public hearing on the new changes to the May Town plan.
For Tuesday’s gathering, expect the same sort of marathon public hearing and political sideshow that became the norm when the project went before the planning commission. Opponents will almost certainly be sporting their light green T-shirts to show their allegiances, with May Town backers wearing darker green attire. Signs and other campaign propaganda are sure to fill the council chambers.
Much of the support thrown behind May Town comes from the promise to transfer 250 acres of adjacent land to Tennessee State University, 50 acres that the institution would use as a research park. May and TSU have agreed on the land transfer regardless if the project passes or not, though the actual tract would depend on May Town’s fate.
Moreover, proponents claim May Town represents Nashville’s best chance to compete for corporate headquarters that have often relocated in outlying areas such as Williamson County.
“It’s all about economic development for me,” Matthews said. “The project itself brings a business district to an area of the county that virtually has no real business district at this moment. The main business in my district is probably the Kroger on Clarksville Highway. The jobs that would be created from what’s being proposed, I feel that it’s a no-brainer.”
But Bells Bend resident and environmentalist Barry Sulkin said, “The project makes less sense now than it did before.
“In Nashville, they just approved the convention center,” he said. “I don’t see how anyone can justify trying to support two downtowns. This would only suck that energy away from what they just approved.
“There are also three bridges that would be required for this project,” Sulkin added. “The applicant has not offered to build all those bridges. At one time you hear, ‘We’ll pay for everything,’ and another time you hear, ‘We’re not paying for all that.’ That means someone else does –– the public.”