Monday, August 17, 2009

Land Use (Out Of) Control Board Rubber Stamps Sprawl

Maybe we’re just the world’s slowest learners.

Despite 20 years of tax freezes that have accomplished nothing so much as expanding a low-wage, low-skill economy, we fought the reform of the PILOT program and continue to define success by how much city and county taxes are given away.

Despite the exodus of an average of three middle-income families a day from Memphis in the first seven years of this century, we re-elected a mayor who invited them to leave in greater numbers.

Despite 105,000 students in Memphis City Schools who deserve sustained, concerted attention, by the time a student graduates from high school, he’s had 3-4 superintendents and the same number of “comprehensive plans” to turn around city schools, creating a policy churn that prevents fundamental change.

Code Red

Despite the desperate condition of some urban neighborhoods, we continued to annex areas that spread public services over a broader area and eroded services where they are most needed – inside the urban core.

Despite a miserable record of code enforcement in Memphis neighborhoods, the review and reform of the city program were buried and a new director was appointed to a division with few reasons to exist.

But despite all these, they’re no match for when we are at our dumbest - when we come face-to-face with developers. If talk were money, we could pay off Shelby County’s debt with all of our big talk about smart growth. Sadly, all the big talk has rarely been followed up with any substantive action.

If there is a poster child for our lack of commitment to planning and quality of place, it is the strip mall that is Germantown Parkway. It has about as much to do with a livable city as Chernobyl.

Land Use Out Of Control Board

It didn’t have to be this way. The Office of Planning and Development wrote a plan for the highway that was aimed at creating neighborhoods, but before the ink was dry on it, the Shelby County Board of Commissioners labeled it as an advisory plan and began to make exceptions to it.

The result is what you see on Germantown Parkway today. There is little argument from anyone now that it is a planning – if not visual – disaster and an object lesson for all of us.

But perhaps that’s all of us with the exception of the Memphis and Shelby County Land Use Control Board. Despite the obvious lessons, our ultimate slow learners are on the verge of transforming Houston Levee Road into the next incarnation of Germantown Parkway.

That’s because in July, the Board approved three massive Planned Developments (PD’s) – our community’s favorite misused and overused zoning application – at Houston Levee and Macon Road. In a real sense, these votes effectively sealed the fate of Houston Levee Road. It will now slowly but inevitably become Germantown Parkway, enriching the few while damaging the quality of life and tax stability for the many.

Subversion Of The Process

The subverting of a legitimate planning process stems largely from the blizzard of PDs that have blown effortlessly through the Land Use Control Board. Although PDs were intended to be rare and only granted for innovative development with important public benefits, such as increasing open space or protecting the environment, in Memphis and Shelby County, unlike the rest of the nation, they are the rule, not the exception.

And, the underlying zoning isn't even changed, so that we have land with agricultural zoning covered with cookie-cutter developments. To make matters worse, local PD applications are treated as special exceptions with their weak requirements for public involvement.

We’re hoping that the new Unified Development Code working its way through the political approval process not only has beefed up the public notice for such applications but more fundamentally that it has reduced the use of them in the first place.

This overuse was compounded during the Rout Administration when the Land Use Control Board was taken by developers (aided and abetted by county politicians). It produced a startling statistic: in a one-year period, the percentage of times the professional planning staff was reversed skyrocketed from about 15% to 70%, opening the floodgates from ill-conceived projects that fueled sprawl and required tens of millions of dollars in infrastructure from a county government that could never said no to a politically-connected (and contributing) developer.

People, Not Cars

In other words, the zoning is regularly all about cars, not people. That’s certainly the case with the Land Use Control Board’s approval of the PDs on Houston Levee Road. All are poorly organized single-use developments that make Trinity Commons look like it’s a model New Urbanist development.

Only Emily Trenholm – essentially the only representative for city neighborhoods – voted against applications known more for their stupidity than their validity. It is nothing short of a civic scandal that this many years into the high-sounding rhetoric about smart growth and sustainability, Ms. Trenholm is still alone, fighting the good fight even though her own colleagues have their knives out to defend the developers.

As usual, developers paint beautiful pictures of new economic growth (although it will only cannibalize existing businesses, particularly on Germantown Parkway) and they talk of growth as if it’s not merely the most massive relocation of people in the history of our region.

These votes are an absolute contradiction of the Sustainable Shelby plan that should be the Bible for the Land Use Control Board. In a city that has to change its trajectory or become the next Detroit, the negative impact of these kinds of misguided decisions can’t be overstated. When you match it with the idiocy of I-269, we are not only slow learners. We are just plain dumb.

Getting It Right

Shelby County Government is light years behind in understanding the fallout of these projects on Houston Levee Road on the economy, environment and quality of life that we need to avert disaster. Shelby County Engineer Mike Oakes – a disciple of context sensitive design – can’t design enough smart roads to offset the damage being done by the Land Use Control Board.

Shelby County Government can begin by examining all PD approvals along Houston Levee Road back to the turn of the century. Like Germantown Parkway, developers have been getting their approvals and sitting on the projects to see if the market for it makes sense. What this means is that the Land Use Control Board approves the application of the developer, who has five years to file the final plan although the deadline can be approved by an inconsequential sounding item routinely placed on the board’s consent agenda.

Here’s what every candidate for Mayor of Memphis should have in their platforms: correcting the weakness in our regulations that produces PDs’ abuses and removes any ability for us to create the kind of land use that serves the broad interest of our community.

In the end, we are beaten down and in serious need of a victory…any victory. Otherwise, our future is sealed: lower density, more and more developments that are non-sustaining and taxes rising to cope with the duplication of new infrastructure needed to move people around Shelby County.


Joe Spake said...

Around the 5th paragraph of this post, this Tracy Chapman lyric popped into my head and rose to a crescendo:
Give me one reason to stay here - and Ill turn right back around
Give me one reason to stay here - and Ill turn right back around
Because I dont want leave you lonely
But you got to make me change my mind

Anonymous said...

maybe if the germantown parkway study hadn't taken 3+ YEARS for a staff of 20 to complete it wouldn't have been overtaken by events.

You can't fault the politicos for falling all over themselves to support SOMETHING being built SOMEWHERE in this economy.

Smart City Consulting said...

Joe: We'll never have a reason to stay here if our public investments are squandered on unsustainable sprawl. Wonder what Memphis would look like if we'd spent $1.5 billion on it?

Anonymous: We've heard that excuse from some of the politicians as well, but it's just lame. They were engaged in the study, they knew it was coming, and they said they'd abide by it until the money started flowing from developers. Just building something somewhere is what has driven up our county debt and the tax rate to go with it.

Anonymous said...

And of course let's remember that Jackie Welch and company wanted to develop the parts of Shelby Farms that lie alongside Germantown Parkway. He humbled submitted himself as the one to do it too.

Joe Spake said...

SCC - 2 prime city blocks in Midtown Memphis are on the market for $5M, and the only taker is a discount grocery chain. But, it's so much easier to develop bean fields on the wide roads and new infrastructure that we tax payers provided.

Smart City Consulting said...

Amen, Joe. Great point.

Anonymous said...

Now hang on. There are plenty of cities who have "unsustainable sprawl" who have sustained themselves quite nicely. Atlanta. Dallas. LA. Now I don't enjoy driving much in those cities but you cannot claim they have been to any great degree negatively impacted by their sprawl. They continue to grow while Memphis does not. Obviously, the difference between Atl and Memphis does not lie in the difference in their land use policies; developers run the show there too. This city is no more damaged by germantown road than Atl is by Piedmont Road, which is the ugliest and most dreadfully commercial road I have ever seen. The idea that this city would be so much better off if we all lived a high density lifestyle is simply not supported by any evidence. We need jobs and a mayor who cares about making this a livable city. Period.

Zippy the giver said...

Their sprawl was not deemed unsustainable by anywhere near Memphis. They had a LOT more money to throw around and much higher standards. Don't let reality get in the way.
Hey, the bus station is for sale for 1.5 million, anybody, just contact .........

Anonymous said...

The Tom Mossification Era was indeed a drak time in wise land use.

gatesofmemphis said...

The Mayor(s) and other civic leaders will have to step up regularly to the microphones at LUCB, the City Council and Commission to fight and persuade for the principles of smart growth.

This ludicrous exchange shows how much support our planning staff needs from our leaders and how little the smart principles are spreading.

Anonymous said...

Atlanta has many walkable mix-use communities and a strong economy fueled by several thousand college students and educated African Americans. Atlanta had the benfit of a light rail system(MARTA) triggering growth along transit lines that eventually gave way to the FIVE LINKS. I could go on and on. Peachtree is a better street to think of Atlanta growth.

Better yet google Delmar in St Louis better known as the LOOP. It's an urban thoroughfare built to the street with on street parking, wide sidewalks, street trees, over 50 shops 30 restaraunts, a theater and more. St Louis also has light rail thus making them 10 steps ahead of Memphis. The time is now.

I believe we should re-invest in the Lamar corridor specifically stetching from Lamar and South Parkway to Lamar and Bellevue. Make this a urban thoroughfare with street lights, remove light wooden poles, build two to three story storefronts and both sides of the street featuring on street parking(sometimes diagnol parking).

Rehabbing storefronts, removing multi and single family homes, impoving facades would help bridge the gap between Glenview, Rozelle-Annesdale, Annesdale-Snowden, and Soulsville.

Anonymous said...

Funny you should mention Marta. First, ridership is terrible. Has been for years. Development did not grow up around Marta stations; please identify the growth you are talking about if you think otherwise. Heck, the complaint about Marta is that it doesnt go anywhere. The NYT is running regular pieces right now about the costs/benefits of high speed rail and recently cited a study that proved no increase in development occurs around transit stations. MARTA had little to do with Atl's growth. For years that city was the poster child for sprawl. For years people were saying at some point the sprawl would cost it. It never has. There are in truth very few walkable communities in ATL. And few walk in them regardless. But the point is that sprawl is not a city killer, as some have suggested. Now what ATL does do that this town doesn't is actually try and make its many streets look nice. And the fact that their city leaders, black and white, came together and decided it was better to stop arguing and bring jobs to the city helped too. They had Maynard Jackson; we had Herenton. Jackson had the foresight to build the Atl airport long before anyone thought ATL would become anything like it is today. Herenton never showed that kind of leadership or foresight. Memphis could be one good mayor away from turning around.

sherman said...

Gates: The only thing babs ware understands is which developer is giving her courtside seats to the Grizzlies. Forget drug bout brain testing. How much longer can this city take such visionaries at the helm...

Anonymous said...

Holt vs. Planner Adams?

the race to the bottom of the gene pool progresses...

GREAT exchange, though. I LIVE for moments like that during the city and county meetings...makes me PROUD to live elsewhere!

Anonymous said...

Still, the speed limit on Germantown Parkway is 50 mph, even after all these years and all that development! Too bad, half the time you can't even go that, thanks to all the lights and people poking around!

What is this Germantown Parkway study? Did they study the direction the road should take some time back? I'm sort of curious to find out how the road could have turned out.

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Felicity said...

This won't really have effect, I think so.