Cloud Hill & Greer Stadium Nashville
Considering what is Politically Possible
August 2, 2017
“Politics is the art of the possible”
Otto von Bismarck
I have watched with increasing interest the torment associated with the evaluation and approval of the public/private partnership known as Cloud Hill (Cloud Hill), tasked with the re-development of the site which currently houses Greer Stadium, the defunct stadium of the Nashville Sounds baseball team. What I’ve come to understand, is that the goals and desires of the City of Nashville are incorporated into a series of multi-year plans, approved by the office of the Mayor and the Metro Council, which are then put into action, subject to pre-established priorities and funding availability.
The two plans which I will use as principal references in this review are: 1) The Nashville Parks & Greenways Master Plan (here) (the Parks Plan), and Mayor Megan Barry’s Housing Priorities and Action Plan 2016-2017 (here) (the Housing Plan). Given the storm of political unrest engendered by the project, this is a target rich environment for references.
The Site from Above
Governing is everywhere and always the art of the possible; balancing conflicting priorities with limited resources to achieve the most desirable outcome, enduring over the longest period of time, for the most people. The 7 fundamental aims of the RFQ for the Greer Project fully captured the meaning of this concept of governance:
- Maintain publicly accessible green open space as the focal point of the development, and provide connectivity to greenway’
- Provide affordable and workforce housing options,
- Encourage neighborhood-scale retail and resources,
- Create a design sensitive to Fort Negley,
- Activate Chestnut Street,
- Connect to the neighborhood and draw neighbors into the open space, and
- Limit the ﬁnancial risk to Metro.
In short, this list can be boiled down to;
- Primary goals: Convert this site into affordable housing and parks,
- Secondary goals: Help preserve and foster understanding of Fort Negley and related African American history as much as possible, and
- Constraints to behavior: Don’t do anything to hurt the neighbors or cost the city money.
It is critically important to understand that any politically feasible solution that can clear the bar for approval must be driven by both of the primary goals, support both of the secondary goals, and comply with both of the constraints. From a practical perspective, any project that meets all 4 of these goals, subject to both of these constraints will not be optimized to any one goal. It will be a compromise in form and function, bending to the conflicting goals and subject to the constraints that define the politically feasible.
Finally, it is critical to evaluate the Greer Stadium project in the financial realities of all public/private partnerships – it needs to make money, or it will fail. If it fails, it will probably be impossible to find external money for future development, and there is neither money nor plans from the City to create parks, affordable housing or historic investments.
Opponents of the Cloud Hill project need to recognize that the goals and constraints are the ground rules – and they need to be respected by all parties. These priorities have been established and codified by Nashville, recognizing the needs of the City, the expressed desires of the neighborhood, the existing and historical use of the property, and the available funding.
Parks, affordable housing and historical preservation are touchstones for single issue voters everywhere; issues where logic and reason cease to matter. This is a difficult context for civil discourse or objective analysis, and the folks sponsoring Cloud Hill have their work cut out for them navigating these minefields. These issues offer tempting targets for unscrupulous politicians to enflame the populace rather than actually accomplish anything – beyond burnishing their image for the next election cycle.
Given the emotion behind the responses to date, I’d like to take a crack at an analytical framework for the evaluation of Cloud Hill and the alternative proposed to date – the nebulous and nettlesome Park Only plan. My experience is that if people can agree on the framework, then we can all apply our personal weights and limits, and maybe come up with a solution with which we can all agree.
For arguments sake, let’s consider a framework where the maximum score is 100%, and we respect the financial Constraints to behavior in the RFQ above, unless there is room in either the Parks Plan or Housing Plan to provide money from alternative sources. Remember, a solution without money is no solution at all. In terms of weights, let’s assume 30% each for the primary goals of parks and affordable housing, 20% each for of the secondary goals and a veto if it is unfunded in the proposal or either of the Plans. In summary:
Now let’s apply this framework to the Cloud Hill project as of today and see where the score comes out.
Cloud Hill Project Score
Discussion: The Cloud Hill Proposal is optimized to meet the criteria that Metro Council specified in the RFQ. It is a fully funded proposal, with the only risk in funding due to the burdens imposed on the project by the political process. The following discussion will address the highlights of how the RFQ specifically, and the goals described in the Metro Park Plan shown below:
The proposed Cloud Hill Development is unique in that it addresses two key facility needs promulgated in the Park Plan:
- “Because of population growth and demographic shifts, Metro must re-invest in existing and new recreation facilities to maintain or conservatively increase the level of service we enjoy today.”
- Needed key facility types can be added to existing park land to meet some of the growing demands and improve levels of service.”
A key shortcoming in the current park system will be fully addressed in the Cloud Hill Plan:
- “Nashville offers no quality food service or cafe experiences in its park system.”
Regarding programs, it is critical to note the potential contribution from Cloud Hill:
- “Metro Parks offers a wide variety of programs typical for a system of its size. The strongest message received from public input is that Nashvillians primarily want existing program to expand.
- Regional and neighborhood centers offer a diversity of program types but are short on nature/history and cultural arts programs. Due to either staffing limitations or culture, it appears that these programs are mostly confined to their own facilities, which limits their countywide benefit.
- Productivity of space is low at many community centers and arts facilities until after-school hours.
- Many programs, including summer enrichment, arts programs, and the disabilities program, are oversubscribed and have wait lists. Competition to get into limited programs has in some cases driven people to wait outside the door of a community center at 4 a.m. be assure a place in a popular program.
- Over 95% of programs are offered free of charge. Community centers, nature centers, and arts venues operate at net loss in aggregate, which is not unusual; but the degree of loss may be compounded by this very high number of free programs.
- Programs are not widely marketed due to staffing capacity and resource limitations.”
The Greer Stadium complex is included in the Fort Negley Park by Metro Parks, and is treated as a community park. In the development of the criteria and deliverables in the original RFQ, Metro Parks relied heavily on the expressed wishes of the neighboring communities. The Cloud Hill Group won the solicitation based on meeting these community requirements.
Cloud Hill fully integrates with the Housing Plan; beginning to address the shortage of housing in general, and affordable housing in particular discussed in that Plan. In direct accord with best practice in the housing industry, Cloud Hill offers a tiered approach to housing alternatives in its planned 294 housing units based on ability to pay: one-third affordable, one-third work force and one-third market.
Nashville faces a 31,000 unit shortage of affordable housing by 2025, and Cloud Hill is a small but important first step in addressing this issue. What makes Cloud Hill an important test case, is that it should allow many of the residents to walk to work, or utilize public transportation, helping to address Nashville’s growing traffic problems.
The prime alternative suggested to date is vaguely defined and sponsored Park Only plan, with no affordable housing component and no identified funding. This “Plan” is largely inchoate at this point, so critiquing it requires interpolation with the goals and desires expressed by various groups, perhaps best captured in the sketches delivered by Ben Page. Mr. Page has indicated that the inspiration for his design are Boston’s Emerald Necklace park system – a group of privately sponsored parks dedicated to the preservation of the parks designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. These sketched plans seem to me to hearken back to a prior time, to my untrained eye echoing the Frederick Law Olmsted designed Central Park in NYC. The corresponding score and discussion for this are shown below:
Fort Negley Park Only Plan
Discussion: The Park Only Plan simply ignores most of the key goals listed in the Park Plan, as shown below, and instead focuses on the green space aspects of Park requirements.
While current contributors to the discussion may think that Greer stadium offers a palette to paint the next great Central Park (NYC), it suffers from severe limitations in meeting the expressed requirements for a Park in the following areas:
- It does not address the expressed community desires and needs for the folks living around Greer Stadium,
- Ignores the programming requirements of Metro Parks, which is specifically what Cloud Hill is designed to address,
- Does not provide any facilities or concessions which are key deliverables of the Cloud Hill plan,
- Provides limited ancillary benefits for the historical preservation – Fort Negley and African American.
Cloud Hill responds to more current needs
Unlike in the days of Frederick Law Olmsted, community parks today are multipurpose undertakings, required to meet multiple needs of a diverse community. Park programs provide unique, diverse and valuable programs that extend their reach and impact far beyond the classic concepts of a “Park”. The Park Only plan really misses this critical element.
The Cloud Hill Plan addresses the full range of Park potential
The Park Only Plan unilaterally chooses to ignore the critical issues related to affordable housing faced by Nashville – perhaps suggesting the Matt Foley alternative – live in a van down by the river.
Possible housing alternative in the Park Only Plan – A van down by the River
Issues Surrounding Historical Preservation and Understanding
The challenges of historical preservation at the Greer Stadium location are quite different between Fort Negley and the African American Heritage. Fort Negley is an historical artifact, never really engaged in battle and abandoned to ruin at the end of the Civil War. It was revived to an imagined former state (including a wooden stockade) by the WPA in the 1930’s, and was later closed to visitors when the stockade and related improvements were deemed unsafe. After considerable investment, the Fort was brought up to a safety level that it could receive visitors by 2002. Today Fort Negley is one of the least visited part of the Parks program, and is very expensive to maintain and operate – costing the city $31 dollars for every visitor.
Fort Negley has limited crowd appeal today
The dramatic increase of people in the Fort Negley Park area – both residents and visitors – under the Cloud Hill proposal may be the best hope for increased visitation and utilization for the facility. The facility itself was built as a temporary fort, and was left abandoned for most of its history. It suffers from significant structural damage, for which repair may not be feasible.
Little is factually known about the African-American history on the site. There is no doubt that many African-American conscripts built the fort, and at least 300 died in the effort. A brief literature review, suggests that the quarters and burial grounds for the conscripted African American laborers may actually be on an adjacent site. The single most important task at the present may be to engage a competent archeologist and historian, and see what can be determined from the remains and artifacts still on the site. It must be noted that this area has been used to secure very large amounts of landfill over the years – estimated up to 200,000 yards, and the construction of Greer Stadium involved moving large amounts of topsoil.
At the very least, any use of the land should include a memorial that recognizes the toil and sacrifice of the African Americans that built Fort Negley, and preserves recognizable burial grounds.
In my opinion, this should be done regardless of any development.
The Cloud Hill Project delivers about $101 million dollars to develop the site, and provides for a regular income stream to maintain the park and facilities.
Considering the Park Only Plan, there is no committed funding, so any funds to build and maintain the park will need to come out of the City budget. The amounts that I have seen indicate a total cost of $10-20 million, or around $500,000 – $1 million per acre. Let’s take a look at where that money might come from in the City budget:
Park Only Plan would consume 100% of budget for Community Parks for 10 years
It is interesting to note that the Parks only Plan would consume almost 100% of the available funds for the next 10 years dedicated to Community Parks. This is a zero sum game – if the Park Only Plan happens, nobody else gets a Community Park for 10 years. Ouch! It is also important to consider the cost of maintaining the wonderful parks of the type designed by Mr. Olmsted. These parks were designed to capture the best of English gardening of the era, and were wonderful to look at, but awfully expensive to maintain. This is a serious limitation.
I began this piece with a quote from Bismarck, a guy who knew a lot about what it takes to make political deals feasible. Examining the criteria used by the City to guide the project, they certainly fit the guiding principle of being possible. I have taken the time to look at the Cloud Hill proposal in detail, and examined the Park Only Plan as a viable alternative. I have weighed the Park Only Plan against the Metro Park Plan and Housing Plan with which it will need to conform.
At every turn, I’ve found the Park Only Plan wanting – it ignores the community wants and desires and the huge volume of excellent work done by Metro personnel in developing plans and priorities for both parks and housing. It ignores the vast majority of the RFQ with which it must conform. It is unfunded, and will bust the next 10 years of Community Parks for the rest of Nashville at a single stroke. This sounds like a sure fire failure to me. In contrast, the Cloud Hill Plan is politically realistic, fully funded and will meet the express wants of the community. From a political perspective, only the Cloud Hill proposal is possible – what’s more it looks terrific. Let’s get it done.