Of the impending decision whether to allow developers to build a $4 billion city within a city — that is, the colossal May Town Center in Bells Bend — Mayor Karl Dean has said variously that the idea is intriguing… But that Bells Bend is beautiful… That he has the responsibility to consider any economic development possibility… But that there’s a process developers must navigate.
His public feelings about this monumentally important issue — whose environmental, economic, planning and even moral implications are both deep and wide — are vague, noncommittal, muddy. To Nashvillians watching him for a cue, any cue, he is like an agnostic questioning his faith. If you’re scratching your head, that’s the point.
Politicians, even our friendly Fred Flintstone lookalike with the endearingly awkward personality, tend to become cagey and equivocal when the stakes get this high. We’re talking multimillion-dollar bridges, angry neighbors (some of them literally wielding pitchforks, as this is farm land), 1,500 acres of Davidson County real estate, racial tension, moneyed developers who hurl around cash like farmers fling cow pies.
Do we besmirch one of the last — if not the last — pastoral corners of Davidson County and embrace a commuting commonwealth of cubicle dwellers, with the attendant traffic and condos, in the name of expanding the tax base?
Do we create a dense office park that competes with downtown for tenants, on the theory that growth is redemptive even if it means there’s more dark office space in the central business district?
Does it make sense to develop greenfield so radically, or would that undermine Nashville’s environmental credibility, which Dean has been trying hard to cultivate? (Full disclosure: I live in close proximity to the proposed project and am skeptical, but that’s not the point.)
The controversy is replete with imposing public policy questions, unsavory politics and historic implications. Which is why the mayor’s preppy loafers are planted firmly in the middle of the idyllic two-lane road. Who, beyond those with personal or monetary stakes, would relish this fight? On one side is an energetic army of intentional rural dwellers who are capable researchers, cage-rattlers and spokespeople, and on the other a cluster of slick-haired suits who’ve already spent $28 million on the gamble.
It’s a sticky wicket for sure.
But guess what, Karl? This is what you signed up for. Nashvillians decided they didn’t want Buck Dozier or Bob Clement, Howard Gentry or David Briley sitting behind that bulletproof glass in the Courthouse corner office. They chose you because they thought you’d not flinch, even on contentious issues requiring a stronger-than-average backbone. They liked your candor and straightforward approach and figured you’d serve them well.
Sure, there’s a process. There’s one for the $635 million convention center too, but you’re behind that one because, everyone both for and against can agree, it’s a seminal civic issue. Opponents have and will criticize your advocacy, but you can’t be accused of being a stuttering mealy mouth. That the so-called Music City Center would be publicly funded while May Town is a private venture is of little consequence, as the infrastructure the “city in a cow pasture” would require is enormous and would demand significant government wherewithal.
In other words, Mr. Mayor, please say something — anything — and soon.
The Metro Planning Commission takes up the developer’s proposed zoning change, which must get the nod if they want to advance May Town, this week and will vote on it in early June. Whether you lead us to see the migrating Bells Bend whooping cranes or, alternatively, to construction cranes, for God’s sake, lead us. Surely you have some thoughts. Now would be a good time to share them. And if reason won’t sway you, consider the possibility that you might regret your silence.
Meanwhile, a Nashville journalist wrote of you in 2007, in endorsing your candidacy for mayor: “He’s not politically insecure, and thus doesn’t engage in the kind of cunning doublespeak that others have demonstrated a willingness to practice. His rhetoric is plain and clear, lacking platitudes and kowtowing.”
Don’t make me a liar.