Developer Jack May probably grinned like a little kid when he learned Mayor Karl Dean had uttered the words “May Town Center.”
Here was Dean — the same man who remained curiously quiet about May’s controversial concept for a mixed-used development that sputtered out 18 months ago — going out of his way earlier this month to remind Nashvillians about the debate over May Town Center in an effort to reinforce his case for turning the 117-acre fairgrounds off Nolensville Pike into a glorified office park.
The mayor had a purpose in stoking May Town memories. Back then, May and others hinged their argument for the $4 billion development on 500-plus rural Bells Bends acres on the idea that Davidson County must compete with bustling Cool Springs for corporate relocations. The proposal failed, Dean told reporters at a recent news conference, because the site was “essentially green space,” lacking infrastructure and a bridge to connect it to the rest of the city. In contrast, transforming the fairgrounds, now a sea of asphalt, into a corporate campus could be Nashville’s answer to Williamson County, creating 6,500 new jobs and $2.5 billion in economic impact in the process, proponents have claimed.
Dean certainly didn’t say he now favors plotting a utopian combination of corporate office space, housing and retail into one of central Davidson County’s last vestiges of open space. In fact, the mayor alluded to May Town because he believes redeveloping the much-disputed fairgrounds property is in some way antithetical to that idea. Moving forward with the former could be characterized as contributing to suburban sprawl; the latter is an investment in infill development, the reasoning goes.
Nonetheless, May took the mayor’s message directly. To him, Dean simply borrowed the rationale he tried to use a year and a half ago to sell his own idea to the Metro Planning Commission. That body shot down a zoning change crucial to the May Town proposal, effectively ending May’s campaign.
“It was interesting to me to see our name tossed out there again as people are debating issues,” May said. “We took it as a positive. It seems the mayor has changed his view.”
It also seems May has rediscovered his mojo. He believes now is the time to introduce a downsized version of the same project he briefly resuscitated last winter before pulling his plans in March, when it became clear he lacked a two-thirds Metro Council majority for approval.
Though May guesses he can seize on the current dialogue, his political and entrepreneurial instincts may be a bit off. The same forces that doomed his initial proposal are still at work. Activists in the Bells Bend community haven’t disappeared. The composition of the 10-member planning commission has changed by only one member. And there’s still a sizable pack of skeptical Metro Council members who seem unlikely to suddenly buy into May Town, albeit a scaled-back version.
Different size, same problems
As The City Paper reported last week, May said he intends to introduce a “dramatically smaller” May Town Center proposal to the planning commission soon, perhaps within the next month. He acknowledged the holidays could push back his unveiling until early 2011.
Though May didn’t give a number of acres for the revamped project, he said the proposal would require only one bridge to cross the Cumberland River. The previous proposal required at least two.
“We just know dramatic,” May said when asked how much the project would be downsized. “I would say [a] 5, 10, 15 percent [reduction] is certainly not dramatic.”
Besides citing Dean’s sudden willingness to discuss May Town through the fairgrounds lens, May also pointed out that Dean was at the October groundbreaking of developer Bert Mathews’ Buchanan Point, a 179-acre office park in Donelson, presumably showing his support. Like May Town, May said, Buchanan Point is several miles away from downtown. (He left out that Buchanan Point is near the Nashville International Airport and received general backing from the surrounding community.)
“We’re glad to see the debate is now discussing corporate relocations, which was our whole point of this project, but we probably just did not do a good job at letting people understand this is about Davidson County having places versus everyone goes to Williamson County,” May said.
May didn’t give too many details about what a revamped May Town would look like. But assuming the downsized model would still contain a clause to transfer land to historically black Tennessee State University for the school to use as a research park, May’s proposal could perhaps once again earn considerable support from the city’s African-American community.
Still, don’t count on the surrounding Bells Bend community to change its tune. In some respects, May is already off to a bad start in terms of improving his relationship with his Bells Bend neighbors.
When first contacted by The City Paper last week, Councilman Lonnell Matthews Jr., who represents the surrounding area, said he hadn’t talked to May about a downsized proposal. Typically, a conversation with the area council member is the starting point for all zoning matters.
Matthews said he would not move forward with any zoning change to accommodate the project until he receives feedback from Bells Bend residents, many of whom have remained firmly against May Town.
“My view, which probably represents the majority of neighbors, is the same as it was before,” said Barry Sulkin, a Bells Bend resident who was a vocal opponent of May Town. “Whether it’s half [of the original proposal] or a third, it’s still a big urban project in what is a rural area with rural zoning. It would require at least a bridge. Any time you do that, there’s great potential to drastically change the character.”
Sumter Camp, another Bells Bend resident, pointed out that a scaled-back May Town undermines the economic projections compiled in a University of Tennessee report, which May and other proponents had used in advocating the project.
“It throws it out of the window,” Camp said. “The numbers are no longer the same. … It makes me concerned that the city doesn’t end up with much of anything.”
Asked if the same level of activism can be expected from Bells Bend residents as before, Camp said “absolutely,” adding that a downsized version is still inconsistent with the area’s community plan.
It was, after all, those loud voices of opponents wearing light-green T-shirts — as opposed to May Town supporters, who sported a dark-green variety — that ultimately won when the planning commission narrowly defeated May’s proposal. It’s difficult to imagine that downsizing the project would alter their votes when much of the criticism was based purely on May Town’s location.
And though the council never officially voted on May Town, several members had already expressed concerns over traffic, sprawl, competition with downtown and potential effects on the environment. Would they really change their minds?
“The real hurdle that has to be overcome is, how do you create a hard edge around the development so that it doesn’t incentivize sprawling development into the north [of May Town],” said Councilman Jason Holleman, whose west Nashville district is close to May’s property. “That’s a difficult task.”
Councilman Mike Jameson, who also opposed May Town’s construction, suggested he’s willing to listen to the new pitch.
“My only advice at this point would be for [May] to approach the community openly, transparently and repeatedly, and to be willing to compromise to community preferences,” Jameson said. “That’s all I can tell him at this point. I don’t have a clue what his proposal remotely looks like.”