Monday, May 25, 2009
May Town Center could change Davidson County's future
Backers and opponents line up for hearings By Getahn Ward • THE TENNESSEAN • May 25, 2009 The debate over the May Town Center reaches a crucial stage this week when the Metro Planning Commission holds public hearings on a zoning request that could help determine whether the 1,500-acre project — and its promise of new jobs and more tax money — moves forward. Preservationists want to protect one of the last rural expanses in Davidson County. But developers say that their $4 billion project in the Bells Bend community would give the city an edge over neighboring counties and help attract the next wave of corporate headquarters and the tax dollars they generate. In recent months, developer Jack May and his real estate hired hand, Tony Giarratana, have put on a full-court press. The May Town Center group has hired top lobbyists, lawyers and publicists, and even led a whirlwind promotional tour to see a similar corporate campus and retail showplace in Reston, Va. The idea has been to build support for the massive project that Nashville's May family has spent $28 million on, including land costs. "It really comes down to the question: Which is more important to all of Metro Nashville? Expanding the tax base … or protecting Bells Bend as a unique agrarian landscape that's a natural asset for all of the people in Nashville," said T.K. Davis, associate professor in the College of Architecture and Design at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. Under the developers' plans, May Town Center would include a 400-acre corporate campus and a 60-acre residential village near a 90-acre town center with hotel and retail shops. Surrounding it all would be 900 acres of green space — including an agricultural research park for Tennessee State University that developers say would help to preserve the area's natural feel. Residents are divided Giarratana's key argument is that Davidson County needs a large corporate campus with walkways, green space, shops and restaurants where people can live, work and play. He says it would help Nashville's core compete with Williamson County, whose tax base has expanded swiftly over the past 15 years, partly from companies relocating to the Brentwood/Cool Springs area and leaving Davidson County behind. "Davidson County has to field a team," Giarratana said, referring to May Town Center as a project that would take two decades or more to build out completely. "We have to be better than the alternatives to be picked over competing cities," he added, "to be picked over a very cool Rutherford County or Cool Springs site." The May Town Center debate has split residents of the surrounding community. Tim Stewart, an engineer and longtime Bells Bend resident, said he's willing to trade a measure of serenity for well-paying jobs and other benefits. "Change scares people, but I can't find a good argument against it when you look at the overall picture," he said of the developers' plans for a mix of office space, retail and residential development. "I'd much rather see this than some kind of industry come in." But Barry Sulkin, an environmental consultant and Scottsboro resident, sees more potential for residents' property taxes to rise as nearby land rises in value as buildings go up. He said he's concerned about the developers' projections that the offices eventually built at May Town Center could employ as many as 40,000 people, almost as many as already work in downtown Nashville. "Bring in urbanization; it just grows — despite the promises. It's the beginning of sprawl in the countryside," he said, adding that if not for the Cumberland River, which has created a natural barrier to Bells Bend, the acreage already would look like West Nashville. "They're not making any more countryside, but they're making more cities," Sulkin said. Keeping jobs at home Since 1990, more than half of the 12.4 million square feet of office space added in the Nashville area has been built in Brentwood/Cool Springs, according to figures from CB Richard Ellis, a real estate management and research firm. May Town Center proposes developing nearly 8 million square feet of office space over the next 25 years, which Giarratana said could generate $27 million in property taxes in a 12-month period. (He assumes the current tax rate and property values of roughly $180 per square foot.) The project's proposed hotel, residential and retail buildings could bring an additional $23 million n property taxes, assuming conservative values, he projects. Giarratana says those numbers are conservative and could grow to more than $100 million in tax haul per year "upon full build-out." "Davidson County has to snap on its chin strap, stand up and say: 'We're not going to open our back door and let all our companies leave,'" Giarratana said, pointing to a series of what he sees as defections from Davidson to Williamson County, such as Nissan North America's new suburban headquarters. "We're going to compete with them when a company comes to town," he said. Mike Jameson, the Metro councilman who represents downtown, however, is concerned that May Town Center could distract from efforts to redevelop downtown and the East Bank of the Cumberland River. "If we build a business hub like this just to the northwest of downtown, downtown will never be the vital core we've tried to make it become for 20 years," Jameson said. The downtown office vacancy rate hit nearly 20 percent in the first three months of this year, higher than the Nashville area's 12.8 percent overall office space vacancy rate. But Tom Frye, CB Richard Ellis' managing director here, said he wouldn't be concerned about losing corporate tenants from downtown to May Town Center. "As a real estate broker, the more product we have, the happier we are," Frye said, adding that similar fears surfaced in some quarters when Cool Springs was first developed 15 years ago. Giarratana also argues that Davidson County's competition isn't just from Williamson County. In Rutherford County, a development group has a 180-acre tract with plans to build up to 350,000 square feet of office and retail space at what is being called The Offices at Gateway in the Murfreesboro Gateway development. Developers of Indian Lake Village in Hendersonville in Sumner County have been approved for up to 2.5 million square feet of office space, while Wilson County officials are hopeful about chances for a 523-acre development expected to include office space. Other observers suggest that public officials should take a regional approach to development and not pit one county against another. Bob Iannacone, the former Williamson County economic development director, said one county's landing a corporate relocation helps the whole region. "Those dollars keep circulating, and they're helping Davidson County, and they're helping Williamson County," said Iannacone, who calls himself a May Town Center supporter.
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