There have been few votes by Metro’s Planning Commission charged with such alternating currents of expectancy and dread as the one members will soon make.
That vote deals with the fate of Bells Bend, the southern part of the Scottsboro community that is the largest remaining agricultural and forested landscape in Davidson County.
Planning commissioners will decide whether or not to approve a change in land use policy and zoning that would allow developers Jack May and Tony Giarratana to build a virtual downtown called May Town Center on 500 of the 1,400 acres in the Bend owned by the May family. The remaining 900 acres would remain green space.
A ‘yes’ vote would be a lateral move after more than a decade of forward motion on initiatives designed to strengthen downtown with infill development and revive the first ring neighborhoods. The land use and zoning changes would instead chart Nashville on the course of putting green land on the menu to feed the city’s tax base.
And the zoning change would constitute one of the biggest hikes in development density in Nashville’s history. The current zoning for the May property permits two residential units per acre. Because much of the land is floodway, floodplain or steep slopes that would constrain development, this zoning would provide a maximum of 600 lots, with 25 percent permitting duplexes, according to the planning department.
The specific plan of the May Town development features 8,000 residences, not to mention 8 million square feet of office and 600,00 square feet of retail.
“I really don’t recall this drastic of a zoning change when I was on the Planning Commission,” said Joseph Sweat, who served during Mayor Bill Purcell’s administration.
Approval of the land use and zoning change also would seem a bit of an ‘about face’ for the Planning Commission.
As landscape architect Kim Hawkins pointed out in a May 28 e-mail to the commissioners, in 2006, the commission rejected a request for a less dramatic land use and zoning change for the same site.
Called Bell’s Landing at the time by developer Jeff Zeitlin, who’s now a member of the May Town team, this project would have included 1,200 residential units and 30,000 square feet of retail and commercial space. The commissioners — a majority of whom still serve — turned down the request as inconsistent with the land use policies of the Bordeaux-Whites Creek community plan, policies that continue to be in effect today, Hawkins noted.
“Today, three years later, the May Town Center now calls for 287 times more retail and commercial development …and an over six-fold increase in residences,” Hawkins wrote. “It is difficult to comprehend how the 28,700 percent increase in commercial development could now be considered consistent,” when the commission previously thought less intense development was inconsistent with the same natural conservation policy.
Old vs. new urbanism
The developers’ stated rationale for May Town is to enable Davidson County to compete for corporate relocations with places like Cool Springs and create much-needed tax revenues for Metro. And from a planning perspective, there’s no question that the site scheme for May Town is better urban design than Williamson County’s edge city.
In Cool Springs, the land uses are segregated into office, retail and residential zones. This typical suburban development pattern defines a series of work and consumer opportunities hyphenated by corridors for single-occupancy vehicles and acres of asphalt on which to park them.
May Town, on the other hand, is laid out according to New Urbanism principles, with a mixture of land uses integrated in the manner of a traditional town.
Sidewalks are as important as streets in linking the site. The idea is to create a walkable environment, with a footprint smaller than the likes of Cool Springs, so one need not drive between one land use and another. The undeveloped portion of the site would be permanently preserved as open space and serve as a green buffer between May Town and the rest of Bells Bend.
As a founding member of the Congress for the New Urbanism, Metro Planning’s Executive Director Rick Bernhardt has espoused for years the design principles embodied in the May Town site plan. That is one reason he likes May Town.
“Within the region,” he explained, “you have a need for economic growth that should be as compact as possible” for it to be sustainable, as sprawl is not.
Bernhardt believes that the 900-acre greenbelt to surround May Town, and the steep slopes to the north, will function as a cage holding development in check, with the combination striking a realistic balance between development and preservation.
He points out, however, that his department’s support for May Town comes with a lot of prerequisites. If these aren’t met, the project can’t be built.
The 17 conditions, with numerous sub-points, are enumerated in mind-numbing detail in the planning department’s staff report on May Town, which appeared last week.
The planners mandate two bridges connecting Bells Bend with the rest of the world. The developers have promised to build a vehicular/transit/bike/pedestrian bridge of six lanes linking May Town to Cockrill Bend. The planners want the second bridge, limited to transit/bike/pedestrian traffic, to provide better connectivity to the south and encourage people not to drive.
The planners also suggest that a third bridge, connecting the Bend with Bellevue, may be needed in a further stage of the build-out.
The cost of all of these bridges, as well as widening roadways feeding them, must be born by the developer.
Undermining citizen trust?
Despite all these conditions on which the planners insist to curb the May Town beast, the report states: “Staff acknowledges that because of the project’s regional scale and long term build-out, not all effects of the May Town Center project can be known at this time.”
The report therefore calls for a profusion of “additional studies” to project “the offsite impact of the project on development patterns.” These “offsite impacts” are creating widening ripples of concern — not to say hostility — in the neighborhoods across the Cumberland from the May Town site. And the planning department’s support for the project in the absence of “additional studies” threatens to undermine citizen trust in the planning staff and the whole community planning process.
The loss of confidence was evident on June 1, when more than 100 citizens gathered to hear about the impacts of May Town on west Nashville and on the community plan for the area that participants have drafted. Their questions and comments were politely made but appeared skeptical in tone.
Former Council member Norma Hand pointed out that her west Nashville neighborhood “has lost over 100 homes for highway projects already. We don’t want to lose more.”
Other participants complained that May Town would deliver more traffic to their neighborhoods, when they’d been saying since last fall that they didn’t want wider roads for more cars.
“What good is it to express community opinion if you’re not listening?” asked one woman.
Kathy Baker, president of the Hillwood Neighborhood, explained that throughout the process of updating the west Nashville community plan, “we tried to address May Town. We kept asking the planning staff for information on how to put things into our plan to protect us from the adverse impacts of this development. They just kept telling us they couldn’t really talk about it until May Town was approved.”
She said west Nashvillians are sadder but wiser after watching the unfolding of the Scottsboro-Bells Bend plan.
“It’s certainly discouraging. What’s the point of going through this whole process, going to the meetings, if the planning department is going to come back and change everything at a developer’s whim?” Baker asked. “And now it is happening to west Nashville.”
Draft cools planning climate
Council member Emily Evans, who represents Hillwood, West Meade and Belle Meade, noted that the planning climate has cooled considerably since May Town loomed on the horizon.
“In the summer of 2007, we did a plan amendment for West Meade, and the planning staff were great and we got a real consensus,” Evans said. “The participants gave the staff a standing ovation” at the final meeting. “Now the attitude is suspicion and distrust, because the community perceives May Town as a bait-and-switch deal.”
In their May Town staff report, the planners admit that their recommendation to proceed with May Town is inconsistent with the draft of the west Nashville community plan, but stress that it’s only a draft.
Councilman Jason Holleman, who represents the Sylvan Park and Richland neighborhoods counters that the west Nashville plan update is only a draft because of the planners. The update was scheduled for a vote at the May 28 Planning Commission meeting, he said.
“But the planning department postponed our plan because they knew it was inconsistent with the May Town development, which they were going to present for approval” at the same meeting, Holleman said.
The presumption underlying all of planning’s enabling of May Town is that rural and urban can coexist, that when the intense settlement patterns of May Town are introduced, the countryside in the rest of the Bend — and beyond — won’t disappear.
Bernhardt points to Boulder, Colo., and Portland, Ore., as success stories of town and country cohabitation, but these examples don’t make good comparables for Nashville, at least in its current state of evolution.
For starters, Boulder has been enacting policies controlling urban expansion for five decades.
In 1959, city voters approved a city charter amendment restricting city water service to altitudes below 5,750 feet, in an effort to protect the mountain backdrop from development. In 1967, voters passed a dedicated sales tax for the acquisition of open space in an effort to contain urban sprawl. So far that tax has generated $207.9 million for the conservation of 45,000 acres.
Nashville does not have these tools at hand.
Portland is the poster child of strong land use planning controls. The city’s urban growth boundary, adopted in 1979, separates urban areas, where high-density development is focused, from farmland, where restrictions on nonagricultural development are strict. This growth boundary limits access to utilities such as sewage, water and telecommunications, as well as coverage by fire, police and schools, for the territory outside the line.
Nashville also has none of these controls.
What Nashville has is Bells Bend. This rural peninsula hasn’t previously been developed, despite its proximity to downtown, because it is isolated by its geography. Metro planners are taking a risky gamble that they can preserve the character that nature has presented to the Bend, yet still provide May Town with the connectivity it needs to thrive.