The long and winding road

Sunday, March 7, 2010 at 11:45pm

As members of an overflow crowd unpacked the Metro Council chambers just a few minutes into last Tuesday’s meeting — which was supposed to include a public hearing on the divisive May Town Center development, but which turned out to be nothing of the sort — they may have been walking out on the two-year-old campaign altogether.

In an unexpected move that seemed to shock most everyone but council attorney Jon Cooper, an invigorated proposal for the mammoth $4 billion mixed-used private development was scuttled for a procedural hiccup. Turns out you can’t dramatically amend a zoning bill, which a revived May Town would boil down to, without first going through the Metro Planning Commission — where the project was defeated on its initial go-around back in July.

Jack May, the project’s developer, is holding his cards closely, giving no indication whether he’ll scrap May Town entirely or resurrect a downsized version, perhaps on half the 550 rural Bells Bend acres on which the original proposal was mapped.

“We’ll take a day or two to see what we can do” was all May had to say following last week’s meeting, walking away rather than elaborating.

Most observers believe the full-sized May Town proposal lacked the council majority needed on second reading, to say nothing of the 27 votes required to clear third and final reading. Perhaps May saw the writing on the wall.

If Tuesday’s withdrawal doesn’t return May Town to square one — maybe square two? — it at least signals a big-time setback for a development team that’s dumped some $25 million into a project that hasn’t seen the first scoop of dirt shoveled.

“The ball is in Jack’s court at this point,” said Lonnell Matthews Jr., the council representative of the disputed area. “If he’s willing and ready to move forward, and amend the bill and work with the community, then I’m willing to sit down at the table.”

Supposing all parties convene and draft a new zoning bill to accommodate a smaller May Town proposal — one that would require only one bridge over the Cumberland River — it would no doubt set off the same fervent opposition among the rural dwellers of Bells Bend. On top of that, a smaller May Town would seem destined to face the same line of questions the nine-member planning commission asked eight months ago, just before they rejected it. And then there’s the council, a body where several key members have already denounced May Town as a bad idea.

Given all the procedural setbacks and future hurdles, May Town is on life support, to put it mildly.

New urban utopia or pockmark?

The vision of a now-bygone development is still found at its website.

A look through the well-crafted site, color-designed to make you “think green,” reveals some familiar slogans and promises: There’s “smart growth,” an allusion to the project’s compact, mixed-used design, walkable layout and eco-friendly urbanist principles; “Nashville’s Best Opportunity,” referring to the scarcity of open land available in Davidson County for a development of such size; and “Green Future,” which played up the 900 acres of the May family’s land that would be set aside as conservation easements. (That final argument really irked the enviro-community, who pointed out the contradiction of preserving some land only to develop hundreds of adjacent acres.)

The basic premise behind May Town’s mix of office, retail and housing seemed sensible. Even project opponents are aware of the recent corporate relocations to neighboring Cool Springs and Williamson County, the most notable case being Nissan North America. May Town would devote 350 acres to corporate campuses designed specifically to lure outside companies.

To rest their case, the May Town development team — at one time led by heavyweight Tony Giarratana — routinely turned to an economic impact report released in June by the University of Tennessee’s Center for Business and Economic Research. When completed, 28,560 employees would work in May Town’s facilities, the report outlined, and the construction process itself would generate another 40,000 jobs.

But now, in a twist of fate, May Town’s opponents are the ones bringing up the university’s report, correctly calling the numbers obsolete if a downsized May Town were to emerge.

“When you start cutting May Town down, you also cut down the numbers that UT looked at in its report,” said Bells Bend resident Sumter Camp, an outspoken critic of May Town from the beginning. “Therefore, you also cut down the potential profits for the city dramatically, which increases the risk.”

Former Councilman David Briley, an attorney and May Town opponent, said reducing the size “would undermine the rationale for the project overall,” adding that it makes it “less of a viable project.”

Of course, if a future May Town battle were to materialize, critics could still turn to their classic positions: that May Town would compete with downtown, run counter to the community plan established for the Bells Bend area, and obstruct one of the county’s most pristine environmental sanctuaries.

Those arguments, after all, won the day in the planning commission over the summer, after the debate of preservation-versus-development played out in a series of colorful public hearings. Hundreds came out to speak. Competing sides wore different shades of green T-shirts, marking their allegiance. Stakeholders stood outside with signs to let everyone know their position. The theater was well-endowed.

Critics back then charged that the support for May Town was fabricated, citing the developer’s use of Franklin-based Saint Consulting Group, a company that specializes in winning land-use battles by conjuring grassroots support. Meanwhile, reports of push-polling on behalf of the project

Notably absent from the latest May Town drive is the sophisticated lobbying push.

All about the jobs

That is not to say the maneuvering has changed much.

In a simultaneously philanthropic and shrewd move, the May Town plan called for the transfer of 250 acres of land to Tennessee State University, 50 acres of which would be used for a research park. The agreement — binding irrespective of May Town passage — brought immediate support from the largely African-American TSU community.

And the job-creation component of the May Town promise became tied not just to Nashville in general, but specifically the surrounding north Nashville area, which could use some jobs.

“It’s all about economic development for me,” Matthews, who chairs the council’s Black Caucus, told The City Paper. “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.”

Accordingly, north Nashvillians could feel the most left out if May Town were to stall and never restart.

Former vice mayor and lifelong north Nashville resident Howard Gentry, who found himself cheering for the project while keeping an ear to the concerns of the Bells Bend community, said the neglected area deserves a shot in the arm as it relates to jobs — whether that’s through May Town or something else.

“The creation of May Town would have been an opportunity to create more jobs, but one thing that I think came from the May Town situation is that is has been clearly stated and shown that north Nashville is a neglected area,” Gentry said. “I’m still hopeful something can occur, but it doesn’t look very promising.”

Throughout the May Town mess, to the disappointment of some, Mayor Karl Dean has been conspicuously quiet, unwilling to reveal his stance. On the one hand, Dean’s been a proponent of downtown growth. But then again, it’s not every day a developer is willing to fork out private money to create a potential economic boon for the city.

In light of Metro’s recent decision to publicly bankroll a $585 million convention center, Matthews and May said it was the idea of privately financing an even larger project that had given May Town new life.

“If we’re going to invest in the convention center, anytime 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,” Matthews said.

3 Comments on this post:

By: nashwatcher on 3/8/10 at 7:04

why doesn't the city trade the fairgrounds property for bells bend...bells bend gets preserved and private development occurs near downtown that would likely be complimentary...

By: JeffF on 3/8/10 at 8:17

I can think of one reason a trade would not work. With almost guaranteed probability the swap would come with the condition that MDHA be a "partner" on any redevelopment of the the Fairgrounds site. If it were an even swap with no strings and free zoning on the site then there would be no problems, but Metro leaders abhor the thought of having development go on that MDHA was not involved in.

Private development alone does not give the kick back to favored vendors that a "partnership" with MDHA brings with it. A private developer would never hire McNeely Piggott and Fox unless MDHA required it. A private developer would never bring in Hardin or Bell for construction work.

By: Shuzilla on 3/8/10 at 12:41

After dozens of articles on May Town, I think I get that there are those who want the development and those who want to stop it. Even shrinking it won't make the developer give up nor garner the opponents' approval.

And we'll continue to miss the real debate no matter how many more articles in this vein, which is "do we cover this land with houses as zoned or would building a town be a better use?" We'll miss it because people wrongly think there is a third option to preserve the land in question without spending tens of milions of dollars in compensation to the landowners, and that misconception is fuled in part by the media who perpetuates the "third way" myth.

I hope reporter-types need to take a few steps back and look at the broader issue of growth in order to gain the proper perspective for readers. Planning staff noted census projections of 900,000 more people in Nashville and her surrounding counties in 25 years. That's in just one generation. Where will they go? Well, about three-quarter million will go OUTSIDE Davidson County, according to those same census projections. From a smart-growth planning perspective, that's epic fail.

I humbly suggest some topics for future articles to bring some neede perspective to the question of growth:

1. Nashville is spilling out over hundreds of thousands of acres. Does letting 5 out of every 6 new residents (and their taxes) go to the surrounding suburban counties constitute smart growth? What will Nashville be like when, by 2035, we'll have 750,000 people living among worn-out infrastructure while almost two million people live in surrounding counties with new roads and better schools?
2. Since median incomes in surrounding counties, especially in new developments, are higher than in Nashville, what will getting a disproportionate amount of lower-income families here (think certain Antioc developments) do to Nashville's tax base?
3. Should Nashville-Davidson wisely decide to capture 400,000 of that 900,000 growth in order to get the full spectrum of incomes (and because we're a city for gosh sakes), don't we need a plan to fit all those people in our borders? One maybe a bit better than the kind of developments we've done in the past?
4. And if, by some miracle, we do manage to get to one million people in Nashville by 2035 through diverting people into Nashville who were going to surrounding counties, would not May Town fit into the Big Picture? Wouldn't there be plenty of growth to be shared by downtown and all of the Nashville suburbs, whereas now we're just fighting over crumbs while surrounding counties eat our lunch?
5. Or is the fact that after 50 years Woodmont Boulevard is STILL not widened mean I'm expecting way to much from metropolitan government?