It’s been almost nine years since Bill Purcell strolled out to the desk on his front lawn and proclaimed himself “Nashville’s neighborhood mayor,” in the television ad that helped get him elected.
Purcell spent two terms trying to live up to the promise he would put “neighborhoods before anything else.” In efforts to do so, Purcell expanded the number of neighborhood watch groups from 250 to 353, created the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhoods, increased the amount of bikeways and sidewalks by nearly 200 miles and generally maintained a reputation as a “neighborhood-friendly mayor.”
Purcell finished his second term as mayor with a 58 percent approval rating, according to a City Paper poll conducted before he left office last year.
If previous Mayor Phil Bredesen is remembered for big picture items like luring pro sports and major corporate headquarters to Music City, Purcell is remembered by neighborhood advocate groups for improving the city’s quality of life.
“Creating the Office of Neighborhoods is something we truly appreciated,” said mechanical engineer Burkley Allen, president of the Hillsboro West End Neighborhood Association. “Just knowing there was an official place we could go and have contact with the mayor, not just in concrete terms but symbolically that was important.
“For the most part, I think Mayor Purcell lived up to his neighborhood reputation.”
While Purcell might have some critics who question whether his commitment to neighborhoods was as full-throttle as his infamous television ad suggested it would be, the consensus is that Allen’s assessment is accurate.
Slowly but surely, though, concerns are starting to trickle in as to whether new Mayor Karl Dean will be as neighborhood-friendly as his friend and predecessor. It starts with his campaign, which routinely cited three major, if not obvious, areas of emphasis — schools, public safety and economic development. Not a mention of the word neighborhoods.
Neither was there a mention of neighborhoods in Dean’s first State of Metro speech, which was almost universally labeled as “fluff” by Metro Council members (all of whom unanimously refused to go on the record.)
Dean’s office points out that improving public schools and cutting down on crime are neighborhood issues and that’s a point to which neighborhood advocates agree. But there have been some Metro board appointments by Dean that have caused those same advocates to question whether the new mayor will come down on the side of development in the epic tug-of-war between developers and neighborhoods.
“At least one issue is that one of the first appointments Mayor Dean made was to put a very anti-neighborhood person on the Board of Zoning Appeals,” Nashville Neighborhood Defense Fund Treasurer Lane Easterly said. “That was a great disappointment. The issue of developers is probably the biggest one for neighborhoods. Developers seem to keep getting their way.
“I don’t think it’s too early to get concerned. We are concerned about what would appear to be less input from neighborhoods.”
The BZA appointment Easterly referred to was Chris Whitson, the former Councilman with a pro-development reputation. Whitson wasn’t the only appointment to raise a red flag. Reputed pro-neighborhood Planning Commissioner Ann Nielson was moved to the Historic Zoning Commission.
But on the two topics where concerns have been raised — lack of neighborhood rhetoric in his campaign and State of Metro speech and on board appointments, Dean’s office maintains perspective is needed.
On the issue of mentioning neighborhoods as a specific issue, Dean’s office says its primary areas of emphasis — public education and public safety — are neighborhood issues.
“Safe streets and better schools are the two most important issues to neighborhood associations in my district,” District 16 Councilwoman Anna Page said, adding that issues like traffic, speeding, sidewalks and codes enforcement generally fall under the umbrella of police.
Then there’s the issue of board appointments, which the mayor’s office says needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Instead of being pro-neighborhood or pro-development, Dean’s office believes balance is the best route to take.
It points to the appointments of Andree LeQuire and Hunter Gee on the Planning Commission and Fabian Bedne to the BZA as choices, which the mayor’s office said couldn’t be misconstrued as pro-development.
For whatever other concerns may exist, the issue of accessibility to neighborhood associations is not one. Neighborhood advocates generally applauded Dean for maintaining a presence at association meetings. District 8 Councilwoman Karen Bennett said her constituents were very impressed when Dean and his wife Ann Davis attended a district barbeque last week.
New Office of Neighborhoods Director Brady Banks has also earned praise for his open communication on most issues.
“I think Mayor Dean has started out fairly strong towards neighborhoods,” Bennett said. “Brady is very pro-neighborhood.
“I think we have to give them a fair chance to get settled into the job just as we have to get settled into our Council positions.”
Banks’ office serves primarily as a sounding board for citizen concerns, although he is interested in expanding the role of the office to be more than just a complaints station.
“Mayor Dean has made it clear that he wants the Office of Neighborhoods to be proactive on community issues,” Banks said. “He is focused on improving the quality of life in our city by making neighborhoods safer, improving our schools and making sure the government is responsive. That’s what we are doing everyday.”
Big issues on the horizon
Because Dean has only been in office since last September, neighborhood advocates insist there are litmus tests looming which will determine how pro-neighborhood, or not, the new mayor will be.
The issue cited first is the billion-dollar development hanging in the balance at Bells Bend. If the mayor’s office follows its same formula so far, it will be hands off and let the process play out. However, some are curious as to how he’ll frame the conversation as the struggle between the developers, the May family, and the rural Bells Bend residents unfolds.
“That’s going to be a benchmark in a lot of ways,” Bennett said.
There’s also the issue of the future of the fairgrounds and how neighbors in that area will be included when determining what comes next on that property.
Whether or not Dean proves to be big picture and pro-development like Bredesen, more desk-in-the-front-lawn, neighborhood-friendly like Purcell, or a combination of the two remains to be seen.
Regardless of which direction Dean goes, the new Metro Council has proven to be receptive to neighborhood issues so far. When at-large Councilman Charlie Tygard tried to introduce a bill that would have allowed Light Emitting Diode signs in residential areas, Council responded to the concerns of neighborhood associations and effectively killed the bill. Another neighborhood hot topic, the boom of mega-sized duplexes throughout Davidson County, is going to be addressed with a bill currently being worked on by the Planning Department.
“There are definitely issues people will be watching to see which way the mayor goes,” Easterly said.