Letter to Planning Director and Commissioners

-From: Edgehill Neighborhood Coalition <edgehillneighborhoodcoalition@gmail.com>
Date: Wed, Oct 23, 2019 at 12:01 PM
Subject: Opposition to 2019M-032AG-001 (BL2019-11).
To: Kempf, Lucy (Planning) <lucy.kempf@nashville.gov><planning.commissioners@nashville.gov>
Dear Ms. Kempf and Planning Commissioners,

Thank you for very much for inviting public comment in your consideration of the proposed Rose Park lease amendment (2019M-032AG-001, BL2019-11). We are writing to state our opposition to the proposed amendment and specifically to its provisions for a second floor devoted to Belmont University offices and other exclusive, private use.

Objection to the second floor of the proposed athletics building has been central to neighborhood and public opposition since 2017, when it was discovered that a proposed “batting cage structure” in Rose Park was actually a two-story building with more than 20,000 square feet of floor space for primary or exclusive use by Belmont.

Mayor Cooper, who has supported Edgehill from the beginning, summarized his involvement and that of other Council members when campaigning in Rose Park this summer:

“Belmont’s original batting cage proposal was not a cage; it was a building; and it was deceptive. I and others on the Council tried to help Edgehill push back on this enough [until] what happened is that they went into MNPS.”

Among the many reasons that Belmont’s proposal could not withstand the public scrutiny of a Council process, three primarily concern the misuse of public land — represented most clearly by the second floor of the proposed building.

First, there is simply no positive precedent or defensible rationale for the use of scarce park and school property for a university athletics building. There is instead a historic, nationally infamous negative precedent.

The failed attempt of Columbia University to build a university gym — with partial access for the public and an annual rent of $3,000 — on two acres of Morningside Park in 1968 has been widely recognized and researched for years as a historic civil rights and public policy victory. No city government in the United States, to our knowledge, had since attempted anything like this prior to Belmont’s recent actions. Approval of the proposed Rose Park lease amendment — with uncannily similar terms of access, extent of land use, and financial terms (adjusted for inflation) — would represent a terrible precedent and a historic embarrassment for Nashville.

Nashville’s reputation for public land use should be symbolized by recent successful efforts to save Fort Negley Park, which Mayor Cooper has lauded as new turning point for Nashville. Rose Park (the historic Fort Morton) is an important part of this vision. Adding a building with private Belmont offices and other facilities in or adjacent to Rose Park literally cements mistakes of the recent past — including a hasty effort to make Belmont a beneficiary of the Cloud Hill development — rather than looking toward this future.

Second, public land, and especially an MNPS building, should not be used in any way that supports religious discrimination.

Belmont University publicly asserts a right to practice religious discrimination and requires applicants for coaching positions and other positions, for example, to submit “a one-page essay of about 300-400 words that describes how your Christian faith informs and influences your personal and professional life.”

Belmont’s use of religious identity as a criterion for employment and the religious aspects of its athletics programs are its prerogative, but they cannot govern the use of an MNPS building for 50 years.

Concerns in 2010 about employment discrimination in  Belmont athletics led two Council members — including Mayor Cooper’s current Director of Legislative Affairs — to file a bill to rescind the Rose Park lease. Although the Belmont-specific bill was withdrawn, a substitute non-discrimination ordinance framed in more general terms led to state counter-legislation that still constrains Metro government’s efforts to oppose discrimination and promote diversity. It was significantly the former Belmont athletics employee facing discrimination who unsuccessfully challenged the state law in courts through 2014.

Approving religious discrimination on MNPS property would betray Metro Nashville’s commitment to diversity and sets the city up for frustrations of this commitment for many years  to come.

Third, a two-story athletics building adjacent to Rose Park violates land use provisions of  the 2007 lease intended to minimize Belmont’s physical impact on Rose Park and adjacent schools.

The Metro Planning Department’s 2005 plan for Edgehill identified “major open space centered on E.S. Rose Park, Reservoir Park and the former Murrell elementary school sites” as the first element of its Structure Plan.

Belmont’s efforts in 2007 to suggest that its athletics facility would not impinge on this “major open space” were similar to more recent misrepresentations of its proposed athletics building. Speaking before the Planning Commission in 2007, Belmont University President Robert Fisher compared Belmont’s  plans to the “good example” of Shelby Park “where those fields are run by the Old Timers Association.” Reverend Bill Barnes and other Edgehill advocates at the same meeting knew better, with Barnes admonishing commissioners not to “buy the Brooklyn Bridge for $2.”

Following Planning Commission approval, Edgehill residents unsuccessfully tried to persuade Belmont to preserve some level open green space for light recreation in the park similar to the green space it was able to create on its campus by relocating its outdoor athletics facilities. In the end, Edgehill was only able to obtain conditions (some neglected) in the lease such as limitations on the construction of seating, retractable netting to preserve views to and from adjacent schools, and the stipulation that the fields would be “convertible for children’s uses.”

Needless to say, these limitations would have also excluded the construction of a two-story, 20,000+ square-foot athletics building if it had been possible even to contemplate this scenario.

Campaigning at the same Rose Park event with Mayor Cooper this summer, Vice Mayor Shulman reiterated his 2007 vote against the Rose Park lease, saying:

“I was actually on the Council when this thing was done and voted against this because it is a limited amount of public space that belongs to the public. It does not belong to Belmont University, and I voted against it. It happened anyway, I know, but I voted against it.”

The more than 300 signatures on petitions against Belmont’s plans to build on public land certainly include many people who hold this position, but the larger truth is that Edgehill residents and advocates simply want what is best for our neighborhood and the larger Nashville neighborhood. Whether or not the Rose Park lease was a mistake, a clear missed opportunity was the leveraging of public offices and expertise in resisting maximum private demands, holding Belmont to its word, and serving the public interest.

One can still imagine a Rose Park where open green space for light recreation occurs alongside the “good example” of a university using some ball fields. And one can still imagine next to the park a one-story “batting cage structure” — no deception, no discrimination — just the win-win that was maybe possible after all. Thank you for considering ways to help make this the reality for Rose Park, Edgehill, and Nashville.

Sincerely,

The Edgehill Coalition Rose Park Committee

Joel Dark, Edgehill Neighborhood Coalition
King Hollands, Board Member, Organized Neighbors of Edgehill
Cynthia Matthews, Board Member, Edgehill Neighborhood Partnership
Avy Long, Edgehill Neighborhood Coalition
Joe Staler, Board Member, Organized Neighbors of Edgehill
Ben Tran, Edgehill Village Neighbors Association
Rachel Zijlstra, Edgehill Village Neighbors Association

Adam LaFevor, Attorney for the Organized Neighbors of Edgehill