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PBA's Secrets

Why doesn't the PBA want people to see renderings of its downtown vision?

by Joe Tarr

The Public Building Authority is violating the state's open records law, withholding publicly paid-for renderings of proposed downtown development, including a drawing of an "unobtrusive glass covering" over Market Square, according to legal experts.

The PBA and private developer Worsham Watkins International are working on a plan to redevelop downtown as the city builds a $160 million convention center. Proposals include a wintergarden in the World's Fair Park, an enclosed mall over Henley Street, a 34-story office tower, and upscale apartments and condos, [see "Downtown's D-Day," vol. 10, number 3]. The most controversial idea is to put a glass covering over Market Square

Although this idea is being given serious consideration, the PBA has released few details. In its public report, the PBA stated only, "...consideration should be given to an unobtrusive glass enclosure, which would make the space usable on a year-round basis."

Others have been privy to more information. On Jan. 6—four days before PBA made a less-detailed presentation to the public—developer Kristopher Kendrick was shown drawings of what Worsham Watkins have in mind. One rendering showed a covered Market Square. Kendrick, who likes the idea, compared the concept to the Crystal Palace, the freestanding exhibition hall built at London's Hyde Park in 1851.

Mike Edwards, PBA consultant (and former CEO), has said the renderings have been shown to property owners who might be affected by the project. However, since much of the property—World's Fair Park, Market Square, several streets and sidewalks—is public, all citizens are property owners. The drawings were paid for with public money and—should the proposal be approved—would involve at least $300 million in public money and dramatically reshape downtown.

Metro Pulse filed a Freedom of Information request for the documents on these principles.

The Public Building Authority has refused to hand them over, claiming the drawings are "working papers" and aren't subject to the state's public records law.

Legal experts disagree.

"I do not see any reason for the working papers being withheld from you," says Richard Hollow, a local attorney who has helped draft amendments to the state's public records law and has represented the News-Sentinel in Freedom of Information cases. Hollow couldn't find any part of the law exempting working papers from disclosure.

Joe Barnes, a senior attorney for the Tennessee Legislature, couldn't find one either. "If a public official is claiming something is confidential the burden is on them to show why a document should be confidential. The general rule is everything is public," Barnes says. "There's got to be a provision that the government official can point to to say, 'This is confidential.' It's not because I think it's confidential or it ought to be confidential. There's got to be a specific law."

Asked to produce such a law, PBA's attorney Tom McAdams faxed over a copy of a 1983 opinion from the state attorney general—which is not in itself a law. The opinion states: "preliminary agency reports and internal memoranda may inaccurately reflect an agency's position on an issue, to make such documents public may be misleading and may disserve the public interest."

However, it's questionable whether the drawings fit this profile, since the PBA and Worsham Watkins have already shown them to some people.

McAdams dismisses the argument that public bodies cannot be selective about who in the public they show records to. PBA and its consultants are merely gathering opinions from private individuals like Kendrick before making a final recommendation, he says.

Evidently, officials don't hold the rest of the public's opinion in as high esteem.

McAdams says there will be time for public comment. "Yes, there is going to be plenty of discussion about renderings," he says. "That's not the stage this project is at. It's at the concept stage, and we're hopeful people will give us comments on the concept."

Releasing specifics about ideas would only "confuse" the public because neither the PBA nor Worsham Watkins have made any final recommendations, he says. "We don't know exactly what it will look like either," he says.

Buzz Goss, an architect and developer, has been arguing for a more open planning process. "The process they have asked us to respond to is not the process they're going through." Worsham Watkins are already lining up tenants for its proposal, without having approval for its concept, he says. (In fact, consultant Ron Watkins has said, "We have at least two prospective tenants for every space in the development area.")

"I don't know how we can have any faith in the process. If they come back with signed leases, how can we possibly believe [PBA and City Council] are going to listen to the public input?" Goss says.

"It sure comes across as arrogance—'Look we know what's best, we're going to do it, you're going to take it and you're going to like it.' That's certainly the way it comes across."