Very real factors can affect the plausibility of the proposed May Town Center development being voted through by the Metro Planning Commission and Metro Council.
There are traffic impact studies and economic impact studies. There are alternate land use development plans and schematics, multi-million-dollar bridges, the potential for massive job creation and dozens of other variables.
But arguably two of the most important factors at play are politics and race.
Their confluence may well determine the May Town Center vote. Developers have offered land and a $400,000 endowment for Tennessee State University to build an agricultural research park.
TSU is a school with a historically black enrollment, which one Metro Council member admitted affects the way the development is perceived.
District 1’s Lonnell Matthews Jr., an African-American Metro Councilman whose district includes the 600 Bells Bend acres that would house May Town Center, said politics will play a role in the issue advancing.
“I see that [politics will be a central issue],” said Matthews, who has publicly stated his support for the project. “I was talking with [Planning Director] Rick Bernhardt and he said, ‘As you all are making decisions, some of them will be politically driven, whether to consider putting some of the conditions in, or taking some out.’”
Matthews admitted that a controversial second bridge for the project, which would link May Town Center across the Cumberland River to west Nashville, would be a political issue as much as a philosophical land-use decision.
The second bridge is one of 17 strict conditions that the planning department staff added to their approval recommendation of the MTC plan. Some believe the issue could derail the project altogether. The bridge is located in the middle of west Nashville Councilman Buddy Baker’s district, and because of that Baker, who is white, said he opposes May Town Center.
Baker joins fellow at-large Council members Jason Holleman and Emily Evans in opposition to May Town Center because of its traffic impact on their districts.
At-large Councilman Jerry Maynard pointed out that traffic is a concern for west Nashville, economic development and the potential benefits for TSU are more important factors for North Nashville.
Maynard said he was exploring whether TSU could actually pull off its ambitious plans for the agricultural research facility it plans to build on land donated by the May family.
Like other public schools across the state, TSU is operating under difficult budgetary conditions. In the grand scheme of things, a $400,000 endowment can seem dwarfed in comparison to the proposed $4 billion development.
“The fact TSU is now involved makes me look even further at the details and it does influence my decision whether to support May Town Center or not,” Maynard said.
Regardless of factors, one prominent unnamed Nashville lobbyist, who is not working on the May Town Center issue, broke down the odds of the development actually happening this way.
“If the Planning Commission approves it, then there will be a 90 percent chance it passes Council,” the lobbyist said. “If the commission doesn’t approve it, there’s a 90 percent chance it fails.”
That prediction demonstrates the importance of the Planning Commission vote, which will likely take place at a June 30 special meeting. If the commissioners approve May Town Center, rezoning the land would only require a majority vote (21 votes) of Council. If commissioners vote to disapprove, May Town Center will need a two-thirds majority from Council, or 27 votes.
A prominent May Town Center opponent, David Briley — who knows his way around the local political landscape — predicted that politics will influence Council much more than it will the Planning Commission.
“That’s because commissioners have to ask questions and address issues, and so does Council, but I would anticipate that politics will play much less of a role on the Planning Commission,” the former Councilman and outspoken May Town Center opponent said.