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.