Wednesday, July 20, 2005

A Hopeful View of Memphis and Shelby County's Future

A report by consultants writing Memphis/Shelby County’s new Unified Development Code is “must reading” for anyone who believes that it isn’t too late for our community to control sprawl, invest in the urban core and save county government from bankruptcy.

The nationally recognized team of planners which is preparing the code have set out ambitious goals:

· to create walkable communities
· to break down barriers for inner city redevelopment
· to encourage compact development on the urban fringe
· to incorporate new, workable mixed use zoning districts that blend commercial and residential uses
· to improve the appearance and accessibility of neighborhood commercial districts
· to provide new roadway design standards that offer reduced street widths in neighborhoods and with improved connectivity
· to encourage street interconnection
· to eliminate the two-acre subdivisions on septic systems, which disguise the need for urban services
· to require a master plan for all commercial planned developments and subdivisions
· to incorporate subdivision standards that are reflective of the entire community, not just suburban areas
· to strengthen the urban fabric
· to allow for new and unique employment arrangements
· to provide an avenue for innovative design

The existing Zoning Ordinance for Memphis and Shelby County was adopted in 1980 and the Subdivision Regulations were adopted in 1986. The consultants say they “have become outdated, fragmented and very difficult to understand or even use.” In addition, the city and county governments keep separate versions of each amended ordinance. Shelby County’s ordinance is generally up-to-date and on-line, while City of Memphis’ updates have been sporadic over the years and nonexistent since 2002.

Existing regulations, according to the consultants, reflect a desire to “suburbanize” the city and county with larger lot sizes than existing lots and with development standards that reflect an automobile-dominated society.

In chapters headed “Building Communities, Not Subdivisions,” “Developing Rules Specific to Older Areas,” “Protecting Residential Character,” “Strengthening Commercial Districts,” “Encouraging Mixed Used Development,” “Promoting Redevelopment and Reuse,” “Enhancing Transportation Options,” “Retaining Industry and Attracting Jobs,” “Expanding Environmentally
Responsive Zoning” and “Making Development Decisions Predictable, Fair and Cost Effective,” the report meticulously analyzes the problems with existing development patterns and the zoning regulations that act as their enabler.

The report is filled with provocative and exciting propositions:

· Many of Memphis/Shelby County’s new suburban subdivisions are models of efficiency from an engineering perspective, maximizing the number of lots created from the least amount of land. However, these subdivisions often do as little as is required to protect the natural environment of the site, to encourage pedestrian opportunities, and to provide parks and open space for future residents…This unfortunately has a tendency to lead to “cookie cutter” subdivisions as developers attempt to maximize profits and land use efficiency. The best to design a pattern of lots with little consideration for the natural features of the site.

· In Memphis/Shelby County, standard suburban street design is characterized by a hierarchical, tree-like pattern that proceeds from cul-de-sacs and local streets to collectors to wide arterials. The use of streets in residential areas for inter-community and through-traffic is minimized by limiting access—constructing few perimeter intersections, reducing interconnections between streets and by using an excessive number of cul-de-sacs in the development. Alternative street design standards should be developed that allow for an interconnected network of streets and sidewalks to disperse vehicular trips and to make human-powered modes of travel practical, safe and attractive for short trips.

· Generally, planners discourage alleys in standard suburban residential areas. However, alleys give neighborhood planners design flexibility by permitting narrow lots with fewer driveways on local streets. Fewer driveways also mean more affordable, smaller home sites and more space for on-street parking, especially if the homeowners use the alleys for their own vehicular access. Alleys provide space for underground or unattractive overhead utilities while freeing streets for trees and other plantings.

· These “possible uses” of the street, instead of “reasonably expected uses,” lead to a worst case scenario, an excessively wide street, and probably higher travel speeds. Alternative street widths should be developed that are determined using the projected volumes and types of all the users of the street, including pedestrians.

· Curb radii should match expected vehicle type, turning radius, and speed to help ensure in-lane turning movements. In order to accommodate the right-hand turning movements of larger vehicles, no matter what their frequency of street use, suburban streets typically have minimums intersection curb radii of 30 to 40 feet…effectively increasing the width of the street, the pedestrian crossing time, and the exposure of pedestrians to vehicles.

· Life cycle housing is defined as the opportunity to provide a person’s housing needs for their entire lifetime within a single neighborhood or area…larger homes for families; apartments, condominiums or townhouses for the retiree population; and assisted living facilities for the elderly.

· Open spaces, parks, plazas, playgrounds, and clubhouses enhance the community experience. They provide gathering spaces and focal points for the community.

· Parking is often the “Achilles heel” of infill and redevelopment. The City should reduce parking requirements for infill and redevelopment projects that are mixed use or close to transit facilities.

· Memphis and Shelby County have identified a number of local scenic roadway corridors in need of protection. These beautiful, tree-lined roadways are a vibrant part of the heritage of the county and should be protected from road widening and other improvements that would negate their character. Existing large trees along these roadways deserve special protection.

· Parking structures that reach to the street are usually an eyesore – designers often try to hide them behind greenery, but they are inherently massive and often just concrete. When feasible, the city/county should require all future structured parking to incorporate uses on the ground floor.

· Conventional zoning is essentially about keeping things apart, but in order to create healthy neighborhoods, towns, and cities, zoning must work to integrate different aspects of daily life. With proper urban form, a greater integration of building uses can become natural and comfortable.

· Warehouse and distribution is most likely the area’s strongest economic asset. However, the zoning regulations fail to accommodate such uses effectively. Memphis/Shelby County should consider developing a warehouse/distribution district that is tailored to logistic and warehouse-related industries…(to) more effectively control modern land uses.

· If the objective of a tree ordinance is to preserve trees in new developments, then the exemption for tree harvesting is a tremendous loophole. It provides a means of making money while clearing the site and avoiding the preservation of trees. A better approach is to issue a permit that locks the property into protection based on current aerial photography. The developer would be required to provide data on trees and the number of acres cleared as a means of determining the amount of replacement vegetation required.

These are but a few of the refreshing comments in the 63-page report that can be read at Mayor Herenton deserves credit for launching this process four years ago, and Mayor Wharton deserves equal praise, after he took office, for pushing it ahead in the name of smart growth. The risk to the regulations is that the philosophy behind them will be watered down as they move to approval.

This Unified Development Code offers a rich opportunity to set Memphis/Shelby County on a different course of development – a course more esthetically appealing, more balanced on urban and suburban possibilities and financially sustainable. But, for it to pass, elected officials will need to hear from citizens who support it and urge its passage.

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