Friday, June 26, 2009

Planners reject May Town Center

Council has final vote, but project's chances are slim By Michael Cass • THE TENNESSEAN • June 26, 2009 One of the biggest, most intensely contested development plans Nashville has seen was rejected by the Metro Planning Commission Thursday night. The commission's vote on the potentially $4 billion May Town Center proposal for the Bells Bend area sets the stage for a final decision by the Metro Council. But with 27 of 40 votes needed for approval, even some of the project's biggest supporters were doubtful about its chances. The council will hold a public hearing at 6 p.m. on July 7. The May family has been pressing for more than a year for the right to build corporate headquarters, other office buildings, condominiums, hotels, restaurants and stores on about 550 acres in rural Bells Bend. The family — brothers Jack and Frank and their father, Leon — would preserve an additional 900-plus acres they own in the bend, including 250 they've unconditionally pledged to Tennessee State University for farmland and a research park. Some people have described the proposed "town center" as a second downtown. Supporters say it would make Nashville more competitive for corporate headquarters and the jobs and tax revenues they bring. Critics say it would destroy Bells Bend, one of the city's last large green spaces. The planning commission held a three-hour public hearing and spent more than an hour deliberating before reaching the decision just before 11 p.m. "Obviously, I'm pleased with the way it turned out," said Sumter Camp, who opposed the project. "The commission was engaged in a very thoughtful conversation about the issues." But some confusion surrounded the vote. Before tackling the rezoning proposal for May Town Center, the commission had to vote on a community plan for Scottsboro-Bells Bend and an "alternative development area" that would allow the mixed-use development, which went against the plans for the rest of the rural community. Commissioner Andree Lequire first moved to disapprove that alternative area. The commission voted 6-4 against the motion. But after Commissioner Jim Gotto moved to approve the alternative area, the 6-4 split didn't hold up. Instead, the commission voted 5-4 against Gotto's motion, with Chairman Jim McLean abstaining when it was clear his vote wouldn't matter. Commissioner Victor Tyler appeared to have changed his vote, but he declined to comment after the meeting. Tony Giarratana, the Mays' developer, said he was concerned about Lequire moving to disapprove the alternative development area instead of someone else moving to approve it. "There was a lot of confusion," Giarratana said. "The negative motion, I'm not sure that was appropriate. I need to do some research on that. It's obviously very disappointing." After the commission rejected the alternative development area, Metro Planning Director Rick Bernhardt said his department's recommendation on the May Town Center rezoning had to shift from approval to disapproval because the development would be inconsistent with the plan the commission had adopted. Hundreds attend Hundreds of Nashville residents turned out again Thursday to air their views and support their neighbors on the proposal, hoping to influence the commission's critical decision. About 75 people spoke for two minutes each on the pros and cons of May Town. They talked about economic competitiveness, land preservation, flight patterns, traffic, tax revenue, the effect on downtown and the alternative that the existing zoning could bring to the area. "You can't tell me this project is not a good project," Bells Bend resident Jason Barnes said. "There's no reason for that property to be left the way it is." "Maybe we should call this 'Maybe Town Center,' " countered attorney and former Metro Councilman David Briley, referring to what he said were the many things that would have to work perfectly to make the development succeed. The Mays, who have spent about $30 million on the project, say their idea is Nashville's best chance to capture companies that would otherwise move to suburban counties, taking jobs and tax revenue with them. The planning department's staff had originally recommended the rezoning under extensive conditions, including construction of two or three bridges across the Cumberland River. The Mays would have to pay for each bridge. But opponents have different ideas for Bells Bend. They say the approximately 10-mile corridor from Bells Bend to Beaman Park could be developed as a tourism, recreation and farming destination. Ten Metro Council members also spoke out. Nine of them said they oppose the project. "The decisions we make now are setting us on a path," said Councilwoman Kristine LaLonde, who represents the Hillsboro Village and 12th Avenue South areas and made a plea for protecting the environment. "Nashville is poised to be an even stronger leader among the great places to live." But Councilman Lonnell Matthews, whose district includes Bells Bend, said Nashville could take charge of its future by embracing May Town Center. "The moment change is planned is the moment we begin to work toward a better quality of life," Matthews said. Contact Michael Cass at 615-259-8838 or

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