‘Midlands’ gate magnified

I underestimated a bad idea whose time I feared was nigh. It’s worse than I knew. But dissent is more fierce than I fancied — and maybe committed enough to triumph.

My last offering, “Pimping the VA” (Aug. 22), fed a studious opposition movement, meetings with activists and a torrent of email with links to disturbing research. The clear consensus: The decision to build a veterans hospital complex on the “Midlands” property near the chronic congestion of Brownsboro Road and the Watterson Expressway must be rescinded.

There ought to be a federal investigation after The Courier-Journal exposed how a “very generous” and suspicious appraisal enabled investors led by developer Jonathan Blue to sell the 35-acre site for $8 million more than its assessed value. We can’t learn enough about that.

A similar outrage transpired earlier this year when the Soterion Corp. negotiated to sell the Drumanard Estate to the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet for $8.3 million — $1.25 million more than its assessed value. The KYTC has steadfastly fought Louisville attorney Bud Hixson’s open records requests for related documents.

Hixson represents the Coalition for the Advancement of Regional Transportation, a party to the suit against the Federal Highway Administration regarding its Ohio River Bridges Project. He tells LEO that CART’s board has unanimously voted to file “on or before Sept. 5” a new complaint alleging violations of three federal laws.

There are some striking parallels between both opposition groups — most notably, they don’t trust traffic studies. In April 2011, CART wrote to Highway Administration Secretary Ray LaHood, “Traffic volumes on the Kennedy Bridge and several major points of approach … are significantly down” since the project was approved in 2003.

Wildly exaggerated traffic projections were cited to justify the two-bridge project.

The Midlands selection (aka “The Abomination”) relied partly on a prayer for the KYTC to cure the ongoing recipe for road rage — despite the eventual influx of thousands of cars.

Whether traffic forecasts are flawed by accident or design, they typically favor developers. Some believe the land scandal is symptomatic of a department unfit to serve.

For example, the VA is being investigated for allegedly spending between $3 million and $9 million on two conferences held in Orlando last year, according to NBC News.

Among the 55 VA hospitals in planning or construction phases, 38 are behind schedule. Cost overruns lengthen the backlog and shorten tempers. “They are screwing up to the point” of delaying Omaha’s hospital, U.S. Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.) told the World-Herald after the VA’s national construction office added a $3 million “Zombie Fence” his staffers joked would thwart an invasion.

Such is a government largely broke and broken. Midlands critics don’t want to dismantle or de-fund it. They want a top-to-bottom fix, and they’re already climbing steeply uphill. They may disagree on strategy but are united by a concern greater than themselves.

“The story is that veterans are getting shafted again,” says Irene Yeager, a quotable dynamo who insists that locating a medical complex on the 35-acre site “is like cramming an elephant into a rabbit hole.” Of the hapless hacks hired to face the fire at public meetings, she says, “They give you ‘the mushroom treatment’ — feed you shit and leave you in the dark.”

I’d headline the one I attended Aug. 15 “Cirque du calamity.” Midlandsgate inspires some questions for Mayor Fischer’s 25-year vision initiative. Notably, why do developers almost always prevail against citizens in zoning disputes? Why isn’t there a zoning designation: too much of a fuster-cluck for further construction? Will the East End bridge mean the end of Prospect as we know it? Given the entrenched power structure, how shall we begin to think about aspiring to regulate sprawl?

Maybe there’s hope. A new grassroots organization, Grow Smart Louisville, is raging against the Midlands machine — and psychotic mantras such as “greed is good” and “all growth is godly.”

Eric Gunderson says his group is “gaining more and more signers to our petition every day. The more numbers and diversity we have participating, the better chance we have to correct this mistake.”

Margaret Mead famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Happily, the movement soldiers onward and upward.