Eminent domain. A phrase that sends shivers down the spines of property rights advocates.
Only last year, Metro Council members were rather appalled by the Metro Development and Housing Agency’s handling of the condemnation proceedings against Music Row property owner Joy Ford. In response, Council members Megan Barry and Jim Gotto introduced comprehensive legislation giving Council final say on MDHA condemnation claims.
That legislation was never pursued after MDHA and Ford eventually settled their case, but the point of contention serves as a relevant backdrop for a new land acquisition bill Council figures to overwhelmingly pass at its June 2 meeting.
Metro Council is a final vote away from providing MDHA with $75 million and carte blanche to start condemning properties in SoBro to make way for Nashville’s new convention center — a project that has not yet been approved.
Still, MDHA will have condemnation powers to take by right 16 acres of prime downtown real estate.
When Mayor Karl Dean’s administration gave its convention center presentation in front of Council last month, an end-of-the-summer timeline was announced for acquiring the properties.
After Council passed the land acquisition bill on second reading with a 33-3 vote, MDHA Director Phil Ryan softened on his prediction on having the land in tow by the end of the summer, but continued to express confidence the process would go smoothly.
“It’s hard to predict but most (property owners) are ready to go and are very aware this site had been chosen for a number of years,” Ryan said. “I wouldn’t make a prediction but we’ll get started and we’ll move as quickly as we can.”
District 24 Metro Councilman Jason Holleman, whose day job is as the city attorney for Mt. Juliet, called that timeline ‘ambitious.’
“In my experience, these proceedings take much longer than a few months,” Holleman said.
That point of view was supported by Nashville condemnation attorney Clark Tidwell, who has 40 years worth of experience with eminent domain.
Tidwell said he was confused by Metro’s choice to begin land acquisition before it had Council approval for financing the project. He pointed out that in order to establish the right to take, MDHA had to demonstrate the project would be of public benefit.
However, since the Music City Center project hasn’t been approved yet, it could be difficult to convince a court that the land would be used for a public good.
“I’ve been a little puzzled by the cart-before-the-horse approach,” said Tidwell, who is representing several of the SoBro property owners whose land is in Metro’s crosshairs. “In order to approve necessity, the purpose would have to be set out. If the Council has not approved the purpose, then I guess I’m wondering how it can show the necessity?”
Tidwell said he didn’t know how contentious the land acquisition process would get, but pointed out that even friendly condemnation hearings may take months. If a landowner decides to dig in their heels and fight, especially on the point of necessity of a project not even approved yet?
“They could request an appeal, so the issue could be tied up for a long time,” Tidwell said.
‘Dazed and confused’
Will Fischer loves Nashville, the city that’s been home to his high-end German and European car repair shop since 1993. Fischer’s Nashville Autohaus business is in the Convention Center footprint. Although he’s been in steady contact with MDHA already, Fischer said uncertainty of what would become of his business was beginning to take its toll.
Fischer said he’s spent a disproportionate amount of time looking for a new location to relocate his business, which employs eight workers and benefits greatly from its prime downtown location.
The problem is Fischer can’t move to a new property until he has the Metro payout for his current building, leaving him twisting in the wind.
“I’m still dazed and confused,” Fischer said. “I feel like I’m in limbo and numb and not sure what’s going on. I’ve looked at over 30 properties but I haven’t found anything yet.”
He said MDHA leaders have recommended he find an existing building to move his repair shop to, but that’s easier said than done.
“Most of my customers are from the downtown or Vanderbilt area, I can’t move too far from here or I’m going to lose business,” Fischer said.
And despite the irritation over being forced by Metro to relocate, Fischer said he’s still reluctantly in support of the Music City Center project.
“I am, because I love Nashville,” Fischer said. “As long as this thing doesn’t fall back onto the taxpayers, I think it could be a good thing.”
But he isn’t ready to just hand over his 60-year-old building without fair market value and Fischer said the first appraisal given him by MDHA was insultingly low.
“It’s hard for me to get on with my life,” Fischer said of the process he’s been thrust into because of the convention center project.
Nashville Autohaus isn’t the only tricky property MDHA will have to purchase. The imprint for Music City Center begins at Eighth Avenue south and goes west to Fifth Avenue. The project is bordered in the north by Demonbreun and in the south by what will become the Korean Veterans Boulevard extension.
Within the footprint of the project are the youth ministries facility Rocketown, the musicians’ hall of fame building (not to be confused with the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum) and the Greyhound bus station.
Like Nashville Autohaus, Rocketown told The City Paper last year that its downtown location was essential for its ministry services to Nashville’s youth, making relocation a difficult prospect.
The Greyhound bus station situation has already been a boondoggle.
Earlier this year Greyhound tried to move to an old car dealership on Murfreesboro Road, a vacant property in the city’s urban core on a major thoroughfare. But the Board of Zoning Appeals voted against Greyhound moving in after neighbors protested, citing crime and organizational concerns.
That leaves the national corporation searching for a new Nashville location. Its management said it was in discussions with Metro officials on how to sort out the situation.
In short, there are complications facing MDHA as it prepares to embark on the land acquisition phase of the project.
There’s a sense of urgency too.
The land acquisition phase was introduced before the comprehensive financing package because Music City Center officials don’t want to fall behind the project’s 2013 opening date.
Already, the Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau has booked more than 100,000 room nights with a total goal of 1 million hotel bookings before Music City opens. The pressure to fulfill those bookings has MDHA operating with a sense of urgency.
“As people have heard repeatedly, many room nights have been booked already and sold,” Ryan said. “I can’t forget to mention the women’s NCAA Final Four… so there’s a lot riding on it and this is also a good time in the construction industry to get prices. Commodity prices are down. So there are a lot of factors arguing for moving on quickly with the project.”
A $27 million obstacle?
Also sitting in the thick of the Music City Center footprint is the Nashville Electric Service substation that powers much of downtown.
The cost of relocating the substation has fluctuated between estimates of $20 million and $30 million over just the last year.
Last July, at-large Councilman Jerry Maynard said his preliminary research indicating moving the substation located at the 600 block of Demonbreun could cost as much as $50 million.
MDHA’s new estimate is that moving the substation will cost $27 million. New designs for the project have the 600 block of Demonbreun serving as an entrance point for the Center, meaning the substation has got to go.
Ryan said NES would build a new substation south of the project concurrently with the construction of Music City Center. That way the current substation won’t have to be torn down until later in the construction and will still be able to power the downtown area.
“The engineers felt this gave the most versatility,” Ryan said.
NES said it didn’t have final details for moving the substation because it was awaiting the final word from MDHA after the land had been purchased.
And like nearly everything else with the project, nobody knows how long the ‘wait time’ will be.