Neighborhood and slow growth advocates have painted real estate developers as evildoers for years.
They say those dastardly developers want to cut corners and change established zoning rules to make more money. As the view goes, developers want nothing more than to build what they want when they want, trampling neighborhoods and twisting government arms along the way.
But at what point should developers be treated as customers of the city and taxpaying citizens like anyone else? And why should war erupt around nearly every proposed major project?
If those who want to fight developers at every turn aren’t careful, they could end up doing a lot more harm than good, the development community warns.
That’s not an idle threat. Developers prefer to do their thing where it’s easier and friendlier to make a decent profit. That means the tax dollars developments generate will go elsewhere.
It’s our own fault
Nashville voters painted themselves into a corner when they voted to require a referendum on increasing property taxes. This can’t be pointed out enough.
The tax base has to grow to match increasing costs of services. Everyone wants better schools as well as better police and fire protection. We like our parks, sidewalks and good garbage collection.
This constitutes a constant struggle and balancing act. Just look at the situation with public schools now and the debate of the Metro budget in general.
Of course, there’s the viewpoint that the city should cut wasteful spending, but ask those who share that view to point to what they would cut first and suddenly there are no specifics. Even if they could point to an area, what is wasteful to one may be a necessity to another.
Deals for sports teams and major companies draw much criticism in certain circles. However, no one can say with absolute certainty that those deals are harmful, just as it can’t be absolutely proven they benefit the city either.
Numbers can be manipulated to show almost anything. Seemingly the only way of gauging benefit or harm is to imagine that none of it ever was done.
For example, what would Nashville look like if HCA weren’t here? Or the Titans or Predators?
Elected officials now must look at other ways to build the tax base. That means encouraging rejuvenation of property to increase value, which increases property taxes. Or, the neighborhood groups can seize the initiative and freely state that they are willing to fight for a property tax increase to keep developers at bay.
With risk comes rewards
Although we live in a capitalistic society where risk is rewarded, neighborhood advocates seem to think developers should make little to no money.
Developers typically aren’t salaried employees. They are speculators who risk a good bit of their own money and other investors’ money in the hopes that it all pays off in the end.
There are plenty who have failed, ending up in foreclosure or bankruptcy. And, there are plenty who have gone bust but come back strong.
[After surviving a bust, there are developers who learned not to live ‘high on the hog’ in good times. They have no personal debt, owning their homes and cars outright. Dave Ramsey would be proud.]
Sure, developers hire lobbyists and public relations people to sway people on projects. But would they still hire a horde if the process didn’t erupt into a near street brawl every time a project is proposed?
That’s not to say that any and every project should be built. About the only people who like a ‘big box’ retail center with a huge swath of asphalt in front are the folks who simply don’t care. But at some point, there should be a balanced, reasonable discussion of a project, instead of a fight. Not all developers are unwilling to listen and work with neighborhood folks before proposing a project.
Frankly, people that complain about developers always seeking and receiving changes to rules tend to forget that many average homeowners and small property owners seek the same changes. A $100 million project can be on the same Metro Board of Zoning Appeals agenda as the homeowner wanting a height variance to build a garage.
The BZA meeting agenda last Thursday, for example, included requests by Sonic, three churches, a homeowner and an organization seeking to convert a nursing home into apartments for deaf adults.
Neighborhood people help craft policy and subsequent rules. But are they meant to be hard and fast rules or guidelines with common sense applied?
Balancing the desires of both
A local attorney made an interesting point recently about the conflict of interest issue that arose with Jim McLean, a developer and chairman of the Metro Planning Commission, in handling of staffer David Kleinfelter.
If neighborhood advocates get one of their own in Kleinfelter, then there’s a conflict of interest there, he said. He asked why don’t developers get an advocate in the planning department?
His point is that the planning department shouldn’t advocate one way or the other. Shouldn’t it be an impartial arbiter that balances the desires of neighborhoods and the projects developers propose?
Impartiality and fairness may never be possible, however. With the neighborhood advocates, you are either with them or against them. Middle ground doesn’t seem to exist.
The Chatter Class appears Mondays in The City Paper. Comments may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org