Code Breakers

It's time to get Memphis development out of the danger zone.


It's one of those words used so often by politicians that it's almost lost its meaning. It's right up there with world-class, public-private partnership, new paradigm, and summit. For once, however, reform is precisely the right word to describe the new development code now being written for Memphis and Shelby County.

That's because the new Unified Development Code is about more than good land use. More to the point, it is about good government.

That's precisely why the next six months will see hard-fought resistance from entrenched development interests that have all but owned the local zoning apparatus for at least a decade. They control the process to the point that one developer boasted that he could deliver seven votes (a majority) in either local legislative body, another has co-signed car loans and doled out rides on his private jet to elected officials, and both have been involved in real estate dealings with the same politicians who vote on their zoning cases.

Therein lies Catch-22. Reform won't occur without the approval of the Memphis City Council and Shelby County Board of Commissioners. Sometime in the middle of next year, these 26 legislators will be asked to enact the new Development Code ( being written by nationally respected planners Lee Einsweiler and Colin Scarf for the Memphis and Shelby County Office of Planning and Development.

The new code would reform what is most wrong with the present system, replacing the politicized process with one where politicians set policy by adopting a map of zoning districts for the entire county and professional planners would make simple adjustments. For the first time, the public would not have to guess about future property uses.

The subverting of the present system stems largely from the misuse of Planned Unit Developments (PUDs) which were intended to be rare and only granted for innovative development with important public benefits, such as increasing open space or protecting the environment. Instead, in Memphis and Shelby County, unlike the rest of the nation, PUDs 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 PUD applications are treated as special exceptions with their weak requirements for public involvement.

The public's voice was weakened even more in the 1990s when Mayors Willie Herenton and Jim Rout -- ignoring pleas from neighborhood groups for more representation -- loaded up the Land Use Control Board with developers, people who do business with developers, and even relatives of developers, to the point where today, of the 12 board members and alternates, only one represents neighborhoods.

With this dominance by developers, within a year, the percentage of times the board overturned its own professional staff's recommendations about PUDs climbed to 70 percent.

Creations of our fatally flawed zoning process are all around us. The sewer extension to Gray's Creek basin was a political gift to developers and built without a plan in place. The plan for Germantown Parkway was never adopted as official government policy and amendments began before the ink was dry, giving birth to a succession of derivative strip malls and traffic-clogged streets. Future Hickory Hills dot the landscape of the unincorporated areas of Shelby County as testaments to a politically based process that allows a quality of housing so poor that it requires reinvestment before mortgages are paid off.

Meanwhile, construction of Highway 385 on the eastern fringe of Shelby County nears completion, and incredibly, there is no plan for schools, commercial development, or neighborhoods.

So what difference would the new form-based Unified Development Code make?

• It would correct questionable governance issues in the system now.

• It would throw out cookie-cutter rules that urbanize the suburbs and suburbanize the city.

• It would remove disincentives for investing in the urban core.

• It would create more open space and preserve trees.

• It would give incentives for higher densities that support retail, churches, and services.

• It would encourage development that is less auto-oriented and more walkable.

In other words, it would be a revolutionary breakthrough for Memphis and Shelby County, ending an unsustainable era of slash-and-burn profiteering and swinging the pendulum strongly toward smart growth and good government.

It may be hard for some City Council members and County Commissioners to reform local zoning and wean themselves from the steady stream of campaign contributions that flows from the development industry, but it's a vote for reform that every neighborhood group will be watching.

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