The proposed May Town Center development for rural Bells Bend gained a critical proponent Wednesday when District 1 Metro Councilman Lonnell Matthews Jr. threw his support behind the project.
In a story first reported by The City Paper, Matthews announced he was now supportive of the $4 billion mixed-use business park, retail and residential development. The Planning Commission will hold a public hearing on May Town Center at its meeting today.
Citing the proposal’s value to the economic development of Davidson County, Matthews said adjustments made to scale back the project made it easier to support.
Matthews said it was his preference that the Bend be developed with attached conservation standards for the surrounding properties. The May family and Tony Giarratana, who are the developers for the deal, have promised to abide by conservation buffers recommended by the planning department.
Bells Bend residents have rallied together in the past to oppose a proposed landfill and a subdivision development from coming to the area.
“Everyone is under the assumption that the Bend will be developed in some sort of way,” Matthews said. “It could be a subdivision, or a landfill, or something else the city needs to have. And those types of projects are targeted to District 1 or District 3.
“So we’re targets for that unless we start to try to think of how we actually want to develop the community. If you’re not going to be proactive, you’re going to get the leftover projects other neighborhoods wouldn’t want.”
When the May Town proposal was in front of the Planning Commission last year, Matthews struggled to firmly state his position on the development. After first expressing intrigue, Matthews said he was opposed to the development. Then, the day before it would be heard by the Planning Commission, Matthews changed his stance and recommended a deferral so questions could be answered.
Barry Sulkin, an environmentalist and prominent critic of May Town Center, criticized Matthews for going against the wishes of the residents in his district. Sulkin said an informal poll conducted by the opposition showed 75 percent opposed May Town Center.
“Obviously he doesn't represent the majority of his constituents, certainly not in our area,” Sulkin said. “Because at his request, partly, we did a door-to-door survey to confirm that the majority of the people are opposed to the project. And we presented the results to him last night.
“He had told us he would represent the interests of the majority before we did that. Obviously he was disingenuous when he told us that.”
Matthews acknowledged that a majority of the constituents were against the project, but said most of the landowners with property surrounding the site are in support.
It bears mentioning Matthews is a graduate of Tennessee State University, which stands to benefit from May Town Center. The project’s developers promised land for a new agricultural research project and a $400,000 endowment for TSU.
Matthews called the relationship a “blessing,” which was a benefit to the project.
As for traffic concerns raised by Metro Council members whose districts would face pass-through commuters, Matthews said those are “sincere and valid.”
“I think the developers know that the scenario where a second bridge would be required would be if there are more than 19,000 to 20,000 people, and they know they want to keep it at that scale,” Matthews said.
Giarratana said that he and the other project supporters were grateful for the Councilman's support.
“It has been tough to earn his support but we compliment him for taking the time to so thoroughly investigate all the issues and details of the project.”
Although frustrated with Matthews' initial weariness of the project, Giarratana said the Councilman's caution helped the project in the long run.
“What that did for us was force us to listen more and work harder to address the issues raised by the community and the Metro Planning Community staff.”
An economic impact study of the project will be released next week and a second public hearing on that study only will take place June 25 at Metro Southeast. The Planning Commission figures to vote after the public hearing is closed.
The Metro Planning staff supports the project.