Monday, January 26, 2015

Two points on the local aftermath of Charlie Hebdo

On the one hand, Mayor Karl Dean refused to attend the predominantly African American town hall meeting in North Nashville last August focused on local apprehensions and tensions in the wake of the Ferguson, MO protests over the shooting of Mike Brown. On the other hand, Hizzoner made every effort to attend a predominantly white rally this month called by the "honorary French consul" in Nashville to protest the shooting at Charlie Hebdo headquarters.

Photo credit: Sister Cities of Nashville
I don't even know what an honorary French consul does, but she only pulled together 75 people for her rally. Hundreds packed into Mount Zion Baptist Church last August.

As he co-captained the rally and march with Amélie de Gaulle, Monsieur Dean told the press:

When basic freedoms are attacked, when journalists pay with their lives for exercising their profession, for speaking out, for exercising their right to give their opinions, citizens can't walk comfortably.

So, basic freedoms matter in France, but not in the protests of Ferguson, MO? Not in the press coverage of the suppression of protest against St. Louis County police? Not for a Nashville community shaken by the brutal responses to Black Lives Matter?

The contrast in the Hizzoner's selective attendance of protests points to the reality once again, that Karl Dean prefers not to be the mayor of all of Nashville, but to play the plenipotentiary for the local aristocracy.


There has been remarkable reaction to the Tennessean's choice of editorials on terrorism in France. I want to focus on one that has not received much attention. A little over a week ago the paper's vice president, Stephanie Murray wrote a column that can be easily reduced to three points:

  1. "The Tennessean strives to protect free speech and the First Amendment every single day. It is our duty. And it is our passion."
  2. "But at the end of the day, we work for you. We work to ensure democracy is an open process with citizen input. We strive to hold officials accountable."
  3. "And that’s part of the reason why today, I ask for your subscription. Please help support quality journalism in Middle Tennessee by purchasing The Tennessean."
We have heard this kind of logic before. George W. Bush told Americans to exercise their freedom and support their country by "going shopping." In the Tennessean's case, Stefanie Murray encourages the further commercialization of constitutional freedom in the purchase of her company's product. It's not that far removed from telling us to go shopping.

Mainstream, corporate journalism acts like it should enjoy a special place (remember "the 4th estate"?), but also it also treats its content as a product sold in the marketplace, even as it pays its labor force very little for the value they add. For all of their self-promotion as being community-minded and dedicated to open process, back in 2007, the local papers trotted out lawyers and PR flacks to blunt organized neighborhood dissent to their mythology that the First Amendment guarantees long, cluttered rows of unregulated news racks.

If they really wanted to support the democratic process, they would not bring in legalistically-minded professionals and lobbyists, but would negotiate and compromise with citizens directly on the commercialization of information. Instead, mainstream journos tend to confuse the grey zone of commerce with the unalienable right to transparency, fair dealing and openness.

Black's Law Dictionary defines unalienable rights as those rights "incapable of being alienated, that is, sold and transferred." So, how is it that our freedom of speech hinges on the purchase of a commercial product, in this case an advertising circular moonlighting as a newspaper? And frankly, if you buy without question the logic that Tennessean reporters and editors exercise freedom beyond the reach of political influence of their Gannett corporate check-signers, then you have already surrendered your freedom of critical thought to self-delusion.

Money exercises influence. Public relations sugarcoats that influence. Wealth may not be able to threaten freedoms as provocatively and visibly as terrorism, but may erode them more persistently, more efficiently and more effectively.

And frankly, it is a smarmy hucksterism to use a tragedy so explicitly to sell more papers. There is too much at stake in the historic struggle to defend freedoms to fall for Ms. Murray's sales pitch.

Communication fail

If you, like me, got Erica Gilmore's only notification of the community meeting on a Salemtown SP this afternoon you may be scratching your head over her late-breaking communication habits. If you, unlike me, did not know about today's meeting because you are not a member of Salemtown Neighbors, then you should know that you have less than two hours to get ready for the meeting:

This postcard is very misleading about the zone change request. The developers are not only responsible for answering questions about this rezoning request. An SP requires them to get community feedback in order to gain community support for their request.

Not only is this communication late in the mail (postdated January 23), but it is deceptive in content.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Is the Farmers' Market growing more exclusive by jettisoning the flea market?

The Piraeus, home of ancient Greek schlock
In Plato's Republic, Socrates goes from Athens to the Piraeus, a port side passage where the masses thronged. He went down from high society to the places of parades and cheap entertainment. More importantly, it was the place of commoners, outsiders and those considered barbarians. From Plato:

I went down yesterday to the Piraeus with Glaucon the son of Ariston, that I might offer up my prayers to the goddess; and also because I wanted to see in what manner they would celebrate the festival, which was a new thing. I was delighted with the procession of the inhabitants; but that of the Thracians was equally, if not more, beautiful.

The Piraeus was a liminal space for a free philosopher of Athens: a threshold out of high society to the mundane world of people of much lower status. If Athens was the one, then the Piraeus was the many.

The Piraeus leaped to mind when I read the news that the North Capitol area Farmers' Market is now terminating its flea market in favor of what sound like bigger ticket vendors more stringently selected:

After spending more than a year visiting and collaborating with other successful markets across the country, the staff has developed a new system of standards that will ensure that shoppers will know the source of all items sold in the market and that the vendors will have been involved in the creation of their products.

“There are other places to go if you want a flea market experience,” says NFM Executive Director Tasha Kennard. "We recognized that in order to be the best market we can be we have to do things differently. The actions of the staff and the board show our commitment to and appreciation of the value of local farmers and products.”

What other flea markets exist within walking distance of North Capitol neighborhoods that allow the experience of the Farmers' Market adjoined by a great public park like Bicentennial Mall? I do not know of any. The article goes on to say that Farmers' Market flea market vendors are to be exiled to the Fairgrounds in south Nashville. Is a gated-community consciousness growing in North Nashville?

I'm not a buyer of kitsch, but I recognize that there is a reason it exists. It is a form of cheap art or expression that those middle-class-and-below can afford without a line of credit. Will those same commoners still be able to enter the Farmers' Market and browse with the idea of buying? It does not sound like it. A member of Urban Planet criticizes the move:

I agree that the produce and flowers should be local, but I disagree with kicking Flea Market vendors out. Growing up in the area - before it was hip and cool - the flea market has always been a part of the Nashville Farmers Market, even when it was on the other end of Bicentennial in open air tents. If the vendors pay their rent and don't sell knock off items, why should they have to move. I love going to the Asian couple tha has the $1 bins of little household items and wudknots. Many of these people make their livelihood at the Flea Market and displacing them because of a "few" that do not like cheaply made items is a shame. That's what a Flea Market is - I would rather have these vendors at a facility where they pay montly rent/taxes, than to have them posted up on the side of a road or in vacant lot selling their items, because that is what's going to happen.

So the Market will be displacing 50+ vendors in the flea market for a handful of "artisan" vendors that will sell $10 handmade soap, $20 soy made candles, and $30 hand-made scarfs. I'm all for supporting local-made products, but not everyone likes those type of things. Being that the market is located in a historically and predominantly black zip code, I would think they would want to cater to all residents - not just the folks in the new apartments, condos, and million dollar shotgun houses.

Their is plenty of space at the facility for everyone to coexist. They have already gone up on their rents three-fold now I guess this the last straw to kick them out [SIC].

I understand why many gentrifiers look down their noses at cheap tacky stuff that has been sold in the same place for decades, but I have no problem with flea markets because there are common goods that are higher than stuffy taste or stiff-necked wealth. Inclusiveness and respect are two such common goods.

What stands out to me is that First Tennessee Park, the Nashville Sounds' new ballpark, is specifically mentioned as a catalyst changes at the Farmers' Market. Some of us have warned that the new ballpark may not have the desired effect of growth in existing Jefferson Street businesses. Instead, it may leverage relocation of larger businesses that drive out the smaller ones. Is that good? It depends on what your expectations are. The Farmers' Market is like canary in a coal mine on that score.

Make no mistake: the Farmers' Market is a Metro owned public space. Make no mistake: if the Farmers' Market discourages buyers who cannot afford handmade artisan crafts, they will not visit the Farmers' Market, which will make it a less diverse place. Make no mistake: a space that no longer welcomes diversity, including class diversity, is no longer legitimately public.

I've been a neighbor of and a regular customer at the Farmers' Market for a decade since moving to Salemtown. I did not patronize the flea market, but I also never saw the need for it to go away. I do not understand why later arrivals (and apparently a neighborhood association) do.

By the way, I would be deliriously pleased if the Farmers' Market could certify that all of its produce comes from local, organic, family farms (like those in Scottsboro/Bells Bend) and not from Tennessee's powerful agribusiness plantations. I'm not deluded enough to believe that the schlock-haters are clamoring for a bridge that far. They seem satisfied enough with elbowing out the riff raff.

Disclaimer and full disclosure: This blog has been a donor to past efforts to preserve and to develop the Farmers' Market.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Ding! Dong! The AMP is [officially] dead!

I have been arguing from jump that the east-west connector proposal (involving bus rapid transit) should be dead on arrival because it deliberately excluded sections of Nashville, like North Nashville, that needed it more than the hotels on West End did. The Amp plan was a case of class and ethnic prejudice that once more mustered public revenues and infrastructure in support of wealthier, whiter communities at the expense of others.

Early on I was simply ignored and no bus rapid transit supporters responded to my concerns.

When they started responding to me, it was to make the case that the transit authority had considered all modes of travel (conveniently leaving out that not all corridors had been considered).

When the arguments that the Amp was a case of transit inequity started gaining traction across the city, Ampsters in what now appears to be a peel-off move, insisted that West End was merely the spine of a region-wide transit plan that would also bring BRT to corridors elsewhere beyond the east-west corridor. All of the sudden they began vaguely predicting future northward legs.

Today the Metro Transit Authority officially proclaimed the Amp dead. And MTA's new executive admitted what many of us had known all along, namely that the Amp was never designed to spread beyond east and west Nashville. These are CEO Steve Bland's exact, pertinent words on the Amp today:

Frankly, it would have been difficult to replicate in other corridors.

Nope. We were not the fools some made us out to be.

Exceptionally large, 20-unit Salemtown development deferred for community meeting

The "Specific Plan" rezoning requests are now flying into Salemtown, with new ones barreling down the pike persistently, enough to make your head spin. Most of the "SPs" propose to expand the number of units currently existing on the properties, which is consistent with the priorities of planners (who strive to increase density) and those of developers (who strive to wring out every last drop of value that they claim to add to properties). Former Metro Council member Roy Dale has been the applicant of a number of recent rezoning requests; a sweet parlay on his part.

One development about which I have waved red flags early on is "The Row at 6th & Garfield." The plan is to demolish 8 existing units across 5 plots and infill 20 new ones. The Salemtown neighborhood association informed me before the plan came before the Planning Commission on January 8 that the developers were seeking to defer in order to hold community meetings on the project. The association gives no public indication that I can see (I am a member) that they have concerns about the project. The Planning Department's recommendation reflects that deferral:

Project No. Zone Change 2015SP-001-001
Project Name The Row at 6th & Garfield

Requested by Dale and Associates, applicant; Bryan Development, LLC, owner.

Staff Reviewer Birkeland
Staff Recommendation Defer indefinitely.
Zone change to permit twenty multi-family units.

Preliminary SP
A request to rezone from One and Two-Family Residential (R6) to Specific Plan-Residential (SP-R) zoning for properties located at 1700, 1702, 1706, 1710 and 1712 6th Avenue North, at the northeast corner of 6th Avenue North and Garfield Street, (1.01 acres), to permit up to 20 multifamily dwelling units

Existing Zoning
One and Two-Family Residential (R6) requires a minimum 6,000 square foot lot and is intended for single-family dwellings and duplexes at an overall density of 7.71 dwelling units per acre including 25 percent duplex lots. R6 would permit a maximum of 7 lots with 1 duplex lot for a total of 9 units.

Proposed Zoning
Specific Plan-Residential (SP-R) is a zoning district category that provides for additional flexibility of design, including the relationship of streets to buildings, to provide the ability to implement the specific details of the General Plan. This Specific Plan includes attached residential buildings.

Staff recommends an indefinite deferral at the request of the applicant.

The Planning Commission did indeed approve the deferral two weeks ago.

This week the neighborhood association sent out announcement of its next business meeting, Monday, January 26 (6:00p). That agenda included the item, "Developer Presentations (30 min.) [held jointly with Councilperson Gilmore]." No other details were listed and there is no clarification announced by Salemtown Neighbors, but I assume that the SP request for The Row at 6th and Garfield is to be addressed. It is not easy to see where SNNA's executive board stands on this.

Chances are, if Roy Dale is present on Monday, he will also be discussing the SP request at 4th Av N and Garfield (2015SP-002-001) which was approved by the Planning Commission on the January 8 consent agenda without any discussion by the commissioners. Even with that approval I am unaware of any community meetings having been held on this plan by developers. It would demolish 6 units and build 8. But again, specific plans require allowance of community input before final approval. The public hearing has not been held by Metro Planning, yet so there is still time to slow this down if community discussion does not happen at the association meeting on Monday. I have received no notifications from CM Erica Gilmore about upcoming community meetings on rezoning. I certainly hope she is doing her due diligence on these rezoning requests.

Here is the planning staff's recommendation for the 4th and Garfield plan:

Staff recommends approval with conditions and disapproval without all conditions.

  1. Uses within the SP shall be limited to a maximum of 8 residential units.
  2. If a development standard, not including permitted uses, is absent from the SP plan and/or Council approval, the property shall be subject to the standards, regulations and requirements of the RM20-A zoning district as of the date of the applicable request or application. Uses are limited as described in the Council ordinance.
  3. The final site plan shall include architectural elevations showing raised foundations of 18-36” for residential buildings.
  4. A corrected copy of the preliminary SP plan incorporating the conditions of approval by Metro Council shall be provided to the Planning Department prior to or with final site plan application.
  5. Minor modifications to the preliminary SP plan may be approved by the Planning Commission or its designee based upon final architectural, engineering or site design and actual site conditions. All modifications shall be consistent with the principles and further the objectives of the approved plan. Modifications shall not be permitted, except through an ordinance approved by Metro Council that increase the permitted density or floor area, add uses not otherwise permitted, eliminate specific conditions or requirements contained in the plan as adopted through this enacting ordinance, or add vehicular access points not currently present or approved.
  6. The requirements of the Metro Fire Marshal’s Office for emergency vehicle access and adequate water supply for fire protection must be met prior to the issuance of any building permits.

Given the rapid transition Salemtown is currently experiencing, we really do have to keep our eye on the ball. The sheer volume of rezoning requests in a short period of time could tip it out-of-hand completely if we are not vigilant.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Op-eds that rock: "every dollar doled out to a local corporation is one that can't be spent on something far more valuable"

If you have read this blog long enough, you know that I completely agree with these two local attorneys who take to the Tennessean to list the sweetheart corporate welfare deals--including First Tennessee Ballpark in the North Capitol area--that Metro under the Dean administration has brokered.

Daniel Horwitz and Mike Jameson go slow to explain the problem clearly to those who confuse willful self-ignorance with bliss:

The trope that Nashville's seemingly endless supply of tax abatements and economic development grants (two euphemisms for "corporate welfare") will ultimately "pay for themselves" is laughable.

Proof of that will come by 2016, when our next mayor — whoever that is — is forced to institute the largest property tax hike in Metro history just to cover the impending budget shortfall. When that happens, how many voters will look back upon our city's recent "investments" without regret?

Moreover, with local politicians clamoring to hand over public dollars to any business that even whispers about leaving town, why on earth wouldn't every other corporation in Nashville make the same threat? ....

Simply handing cash over to local corporations, however, can hardly be described as a "public investment." It's not. It also reeks of cronyism and incentivizes corruption. If Bridgestone ends up repaying Metro's current officeholders in campaign contributions a few years from now, will anyone really be surprised?

Rather than being real in their campaigning so far, nearly every mayoral candidate I've heard seems to act like they are in denial of gathering budgetary storm clouds. Each talks as if she or he would be a better Dean than Dean himself. In fact, they keep arguing that they will continue Karl Dean's insane corporate subsidies AND devote more money to neighborhoods and infrastructure. It is pure snake-oil, friends. Believe them at your own peril.

The chickens are eventually going to come home to roost for property owners and taxpayers. Someone is going to have to eventually pay for the bills Hizzoner is running up to keep his rave going. We may continue to join in the foolishness today if we wish, but the hangover is only going to be that much harder to deal with tomorrow.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

In an unusual move, bill before council would send $100,000 to the Neighborhoods Resource Center

News reports last summer said that council member Scott Davis is a board member of Nashville's Neighborhoods Resource Center. CM Davis has introduced a resolution to take $100,000 from "the Undesignated Fund Balance of the General Fund of the General Services District" in order to fund a grant that would pay for some of the NRC's programs. The resolution has been introduced in council committee twice, and on both occasions deferred due to CM Davis' absence from the meetings. CM Davis deferred the bill in council a couple of weeks ago until February "to get information to council and to work a few things out."

This is not the first time the NRC stood to get contributions from Metro government. Back in the 2006-07 session, Metro Council approved approximately $100,000 for NRC from their "Discretionary Infrastructure Funds" pool which was used mostly for private non-profits organizations instead of public infrastructure. To be specific, the council had voted themselves $1.95 million in these "infrastructure funds" during the summer of 2006, but 80% of the money approved to be spent before the end of the fiscal year was privatized for organizations like NRC. Labeling them "infrastructure funds" was a monumental act of deception on the part of the Metro Council.

What makes CM Davis's resolution different is not the money to be privatized for NRC. What makes this proposal different is that it proposes to draw money from a fund that is not generally spent on anything but public infrastructure as far as I can tell. Here are the Metro departments that where these funds have gone in the past:
  • Dept. of Health
  • District Attorney
  • General Services
  • Farmers’ Market
  • Codes Administration
  • Office of Trustee
  • Metropolitan Transit Authority
  • Fire Dept.
  • Metro Action Commission
  • Public Works
In 2009, a $125,000 contribution was made from the undesignated fund balance to the Belmont Presidential Debate. Otherwise, the lion's share of these appropriations seem to pay for public infrastructure rather than for subsidizing private organizations.

I have tended to feel concern about NRC's collaborative relationship with Metro government over the years, and I worry that tying them to more public funding will blunt any critical role they might play when occasions call for dissent, not collaboration. I am also worried that $100,000 to NRC might be that much less money for authentic and legitimate infrastructure projects that need it. Finally, continuing to treat NRC as a private partner and extension of Metro government softens the Mayor's responsibility to fund a robust and responsive Office of Neighborhoods, and hence be accountable to constituents. As a private agency, NRC is ultimately only responsible to its board rather than to voters. In general, giving money to autonomous, unelected non-profits also gives elected officials separation and deniability if funds are not truly used for "the general welfare."

CM Davis owes taxpayers a clear explanation on why NRC is a more worthy recipient of these funds than Metro departments who have more direct influence neighborhood quality of life. It is not that I don't support NRC; I have yet to be convinced that this is a wise practice for fundraising and funding general services.