Germantown Wants You! 

After three decades of expansion, Memphis' most prestigious suburb faces an uncertain future.

In 1825, Frances Wright created Nashoba Plantation in what is now Germantown. Billed as a "utopian experiment," slaves worked for their freedom, and black and white children were educated together. But the 2,400-acre farm located near Riverdale Road was plagued with problems. In 1830, the experiment ended, and the slaves were sent to live in Haiti.

About 150 years later, another utopian experiment found more success in Germantown: the American suburb. All over the country, people left the problems of the city for places where lawns were green, houses were new, and communities were young. In 1972, before its suburban transformation, Germantown had about 5,000 residents. Over the next 10 years, its population would quadruple. Now, about 40,000 people live in Germantown. And somewhere along the way, as the number of people surpassed the number of horses, Germantown earned the reputation as the Mid-South's most prestigious address, with a state-of-the-art performing-arts center, an orchestra, a first-class park system - and a stringent sign ordinance that kept even fast-food joints looking somewhat refined.

In his 1996 book, The History of Germantown: Utopia on the Ridge, Albert Witherington wrote, "To most readers of the tri-state area of the Mid-South, Germantown means affluence, success, stability, and safety."

But these days there are problems in paradise. Germantown is running out of room to grow. City officials estimate that all the available land will be developed within the next 10 years. And because the city has carved its niche as a residential community, its tax base is limited.

Germantown also is the victim of a shift in public perception. During the 1992/1993 school year, Germantown High School had about 1,700 students, 87 percent of them white. By 2004, there were 2,200 students at the school, and more than half of them were African-American. The school's demographic shift, however, is not reflected in the community. In 1990, Germantown's population was 1 percent African-American. In 2000, even though Germantown's overall population grew by 13 percent, the African-American population remained a miniscule 2 percent.

The change in student demographics comes instead from the Shelby County School system's decision to move many Germantown students to Houston High to relieve overcrowding, although both schools are actually over capacity. Additionally, both schools draw students from the predominantly African-American Hickory Hill area. At Houston and Collierville high schools, the student body is roughly 12 percent African-American. (On Monday, the Shelby County Commission approved an agreement between the Shelby County school board and the Memphis City Schools board to build a new high school in southeast Shelby County to relieve overcrowding at Houston and Germantown.)

Meanwhile, in Collierville, developers are building bigger and more expensive homes - and there is plenty of room to build more. To put it plainly, the future of Germantown is in play. Can the city maintain its quality of life and its prestigious reputation, or will it go the way of other, less fortunate communities and suffer declining property values and a diminished public image?

One thing is certain: Germantown's not going down without a fight. City leaders have come up with plans to maintain their community's status as a residential haven using strong residential-appearance ordinances, cultivating a deep-seated sense of community, and encouraging business development.

THE IDEAL AMERICAN COMMUNITY

Pat Scroggs and her family lived in the Fox Meadows area of Memphis before moving to Germantown 28 years ago.

Scroggs, who is the executive director of the Germantown Area Chamber of Commerce, says her family moved to Germantown because of the safety of the community and the excellent schools. "My sons could ride their bikes in our cove. They could go to the park by themselves. We thought it was the ideal American community."

Data from the 2000 U.S. census shows that 98 percent of Germantown residents were high school graduates. Sixty percent of residents had a bachelor's degree, nearly three times the rate for the rest of Tennessee. The median home value was $216,000, more than double the state's overall median home value. And the median annual household income in Germantown was roughly $95,000.

In Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth 1820-2000, Dolores Hayden wrote about rural fringes, those once pastoral areas that became new, large-lot subdivisions in the 1970s. Hayden suggests that people were both pushed and pulled to these communities by lower property prices, a better highway system, deteriorating city conditions, and "white flight."

"Fringe development surely reflected the desire to escape central cities with declining infrastructure, pollution, and poor schools ... in favor of places with old-fashioned, pedestrian-scale Main Streets, where residents could take pride in small-town character," she wrote.

What Hayden didn't discuss is what happens when those same types of problems - overcrowding, traffic, crime - come to the 'burbs. Or what happens when residents leave those communities behind for newer, more-pastoral settings.

Like many residents, Scroggs considers Collierville to be Germantown's sister city. If she didn't live in Germantown, she says she'd probably live in Collierville. "They are about 10 years behind us as far as some of their planning. They are just growing like crazy. They'll eventually be twice the size of Germantown because we're landlocked," she says.

Collierville's growth already far surpasses Germantown's. From 1990 to 2000, when Germantown's population grew by 13 percent, Collierville's population grew almost 116 percent.

When the Scroggs family moved to Germantown, Collierville seemed a long way from Memphis, but now, with Bill Morris Parkway, Collierville doesn't seem much farther than Germantown.

Simply put, Collierville and Germantown may be developing a classic case of sibling rivalry.

Sue Stinson-Turner is the president of the Memphis Area Association of Realtors (MAAR). She says that Germantown and Collierville have many of the same selling points: safe communities, convenience, their own city governments, and comparably priced homes.

"If a buyer wants to look at homes in Germantown and Collierville, they have a price range of, say, $250,000 to $300,000. They're going to get two different perspectives, because Collierville is going to have more newer homes than Germantown. They're going to look totally different," she says. "Then it will be up to the buyer's likes and dislikes. It will be, Do I like older, established communities and homes with more trees or do I like new houses? Collierville has more growth room but a different type of housing product."

For instance, newer homes typically include a hearth room (a sitting room off of the kitchen for informal gatherings) and master bedroom suites with monstrous bathrooms.

"Older homes don't have [huge bathrooms]. I'm not going to say that none of the houses in Germantown have them, because they have new houses, but they weren't doing bathrooms like this 20, 25 years ago," Stinson-Turner says.

And though the average price of a house is still less in Collierville, there is some indication that it's only a matter of time before that city's housing prices overtake Germantown's.

KEEPING UP APPEARANCES

"As much as we'd like to freeze a city in all of its newness - especially if we're talking about a suburb - that's not the way it works," says Germantown Mayor Sharon Goldsworthy. "Germantown has been in a period of development since the early '70s, continuing to this day. We're now entering a period of a slower rate of development and into sustainability."

In April, the Germantown board of mayor and aldermen announced a new property maintenance and nuisance ordinance. Designed to maintain the appearance and condition of homes built at the beginning of the suburban boom 25 to 30 years ago, the proposal included rules about lawn maintenance, exterior house paint-jobs, garage doors, and trash disposal.

About five years ago, Germantown officials looked at other first-ring cities around the country and saw them struggling with the same problems that have traditionally plagued the inner cities: deteriorating housing, neighborhoods becoming less desirable and less safe, and commercial districts losing tenants.

"What essentially happened," says Goldsworthy, "was that the grass was greener beyond them.

"We determined that the city of Germantown was headed toward that kind of aging, and we wanted to head it off," she continues. "We wanted to avoid it because redevelopment, however productive it may be at some point, is expensive and causes social change. A lot of things happen when you redevelop, and not all of them are positive. That's how we began the neighborhood preservation task force."

Instead of preserving historic homes or structures, the task force's job was to prevent Germantown from becoming a throw-away suburb. City officials looked for ways to help Germantown age gracefully - and successfully.

"We looked at ways we could encourage people in neighborhoods to reinvest, because so much of it is about housing and how housing deteriorates over a period of time," says Goldsworthy.

But city officials also knew that the responsibility for neighborhoods doesn't just fall to homeowners. About three years ago, the city began "neighborhood improvement projects" assessing the city's infrastructure, checking street lights, signage, and road conditions.

"People can fix up their houses, but if the city doesn't keep up its end of the deal, we're not going to get a good result," says Goldsworthy. The city also has a program that allocates matching funds to neighborhood associations that put up decorative street signs or a neighborhood gateway.

"It's easy to say that Germantown is more concerned with how it looks than how it functions," she says. "Well, we think we function pretty well, but we recognize the value of giving people a point of pride and a sense of ownership in how their neighborhood looks."

The mayor believes that if the city can support its neighborhoods and keep up the infrastructure, then they're well on their way. "If we can do that, then that's a good message to send to individual homeowners to say that this is a neighborhood that has value. We would hope that you would then reinvest in your home to make this a place where people want to live."

And if city hall's gentle hints aren't enough, then how about an ordinance that outlaws broken windows, deteriorated driveways, sagging rain gutters, and lawn areas that are not properly planted?

Though city officials got an earful from residents, Goldsworthy says it was never their intention to turn into the "grass police" and go around with a ruler measuring the height of residents' lawns. The ordinance was meant to be a tool for dealing with problem properties.

"In the initial task force, we learned that if 15 percent of a neighborhood's property went into decline - in other words, it was substandard, whether it was a matter of broken windows or overgrown weeds - it becomes extremely difficult to turn the neighborhood around," says Goldsworthy. "When it reaches 20 percent, it's virtually impossible to stem the decline of the entire neighborhood. At which time, you have to start all over from ground zero." Although the ordinance is scheduled to be approved at the end of August, not everyone thinks it's a good idea. Lawyer Larry Austin was one of the residents who spoke against the ordinance during a public hearing in May. He thinks the proposed rules will strip the city of all signs of life and community.

"I think the people who wrote the ordinance meant well," he says. "Maybe there are some dreadfully run-down houses in Germantown, but I don't know where they are."

Austin moved to Germantown from Whitehaven 32 years ago. "I lived in an old house in an older part of Whitehaven," he says. "I was getting tired of all the remodeling, so I put it on the market."

When Austin moved into his Germantown neighborhood, it was filled with young families. As many as 100 children came to the door on Halloween, he says. In recent years, the number of trick-or-treaters has dipped to less than 15.

"It's coming back up some," says Austin. "The original people are all grandparents now. Other houses have been sold to folks in their 20s and other folks are, well, older."

Austin doesn't think Germantown needs a new ordinance to protect its property values. He says because the city is attractive, safe, and city taxes are low, it's still a desirable place to live. He believes the market will take care of the property values. Every few months, he gets a flier that documents the listings and sale prices of homes in his neighborhood.

"What really surprises me," he says, "is that sometimes they sell for more than the asking price. Frequently, the houses sell at the asking price. There aren't many that sell at much less than the asking price. I think it shows the demand for houses in the area - that prices continue to go up even though the houses are 32 years old."

Speaking from the perspective of an attorney, Austin sees "loose" language as one the ordinance's problems. "It seems it was prepared as if they were shooting from the hip, without looking at what target was going to be hit," he says. "[The ordinance] says you can't store things on porches and breezeways. Does that mean rocking chairs? Potted plants? Big Wheels? When does something cross the line to being 'stored' on the porch?"

Austin acknowledges that the ordinance has some good ideas. Germantown's character and image is a product of previous ordinances and strict enforcement by the city's Design Review Commission. But with this ordinance, he says, city officials missed the point.

"I don't think anything is going to make property values in Germantown go down [because of] the existing ordinances already in place. We don't need to pass a new one," he says. "If anything, the ordinance might make Germantown an undesirable place to be.

"I wish we could avoid these aesthetic fads. At one time, we required all the business to plant Pin Oak trees. ... Then there was the time we told everybody they should decorate with white lights at Christmas. They wanted everyone to look alike. The idea that everybody has to look alike is a fundamental part of the ordinance."

A SENSE OF COMMUNITY

For other residents, the rules in the ordinance aren't a problem. Scroggs says she appreciates living in a community that takes aesthetics seriously. She also thinks that rules in the property-maintenance ordinance - such as the garage-door-has-to-be-closed clause - are a good way to maintain both the neighborhood and the relationships between neighbors.

"It's fun for us to make jokes about ourselves, but as the cliché goes, not in my backyard. You don't want to see [messy garages], but you don't want to be a busybody and tell someone to clean up their private property. If there's an ordinance, there's a tactful way of taking care of the problem," she says.

Good relationships between neighbors are important to Germantown officials as well. In maintaining the city's value and status, they think creating a sense of community - and a close-knit community, at that - is as important as anything else.

"We're trying to support our neighborhoods and encourage people to reinvest in their homes, but ... it's not just about being convenient to work or having stores near you," says Goldsworthy. "I truly believe people also seek out those things that come from relationships with other people."

But the traditional suburb was designed around an automobile-centric lifestyle. Most houses don't have front porches; most yards don't have sidewalks. Recreation and family activities typically take place in backyards or indoors. Interaction with neighbors can be difficult.

"One of the challenges you have in a community that was built in those patterns is how do you go back and create opportunities for people to come together?" asks Goldsworthy. "People still enjoy living in family rooms and the back of their houses. And we struggle with the whole issue of sidewalks. So you have to look at different ways of encouraging those things to happen."

The city sponsors a program called Evening Notes, two free concerts a month during the summer at the Municipal Park Gazebo, and another called Municipal Melodies, four free lunchtime concerts each spring and fall at Depot Park in Old Germantown. The city also is building a nature center.

"Our vision is to ensure there is a spectrum of activities to make this a place where people of all ages are drawn to," Goldsworthy says.

Though there's been controversy recently over the closing of the Morgan Wood Children's Theatre and how much money should be spent on the Germantown Performing Arts Centre, the city considers the arts an important piece of its plan. Having a group such as IRIS, the city's critically acclaimed chamber orchestra, means more than just a source of pride.

Scroggs is a member of the GPAC Guild and speaks highly of the community's amenities. "You just don't find smaller communities the size of Germantown with the quality of arts we have," she says. "We have amenities that are unmatched."

CRIME AND SAFETY

"In earlier years, we never had serious crime," says Scroggs. "We would always make jokes about the policemen spending all their time catching speeders. Over the years, however," she says, "there have been more burglaries and robberies, and we've even had some murders."

Though she thinks most of the murders have been between people who know each other, Scroggs now locks her doors when she goes out. Germantown residents have also been preyed upon by the "Hack's Cross Creeper," a burglar who enters homes through open windows or doors at night.

Officials hope that the property maintenance ordinance will help avert some of the lesser crimes. After citizens objected to having to keep their garage doors closed all day, city administrators revised the ordinance to require that garage doors only had to be closed between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.

"It doesn't take care of all the aesthetic points, but it does do a great deal for dealing with petty thieves," says Goldsworthy. "What we are aware of is that the kind of crime we have in Germantown, particularly the kinds of thefts, are sometimes just crimes of opportunity. They may cruise a neighborhood looking for easy things to steal. Open garage doors can [encourage] that."

MEDICINE, ELEVATORS, AND MORE?

Though Germantown's residential nature is something of a hallmark, city leaders are not adverse to the idea of broadening the tax base by encouraging businesses to move in. Elevator company ThyssenKrupp is considering Germantown for its North American base, a move that would surely change the suburb's image, if only a little.

"I think Germantown will always be a residential community," says city administrator Patrick Lawton, "but we have to look at the entire model. It's a balance."

In the last three to four years, Germantown has become an employment center for the medical community. It was not an industry the city sought or expected, but one that developed because of its proximity to Memphis.

And though Goldsworthy thinks medical offices are a good fit with the residential nature of the city, initially there was a problem: Germantown limited commercial buildings to three stories and a height of 35 feet.

"[The medical community] came to us and said, That doesn't work for us. They had to have extra height in the floors for some of the technology they use," Goldsworthy says.

So the city offered a compromise. Buildings in an office campus district could be 50 feet high, but they had to be set farther back from the street, making them appear proportional to surrounding buildings.

In addition, the city has about two square miles of land for development near Winchester. While about half of it is zoned residential, Goldsworthy says the city is looking at some new business development there as a viable option.

"We have a very educated community," says Lawton. "They're very astute about the future of the city, and they know things have to change in order to sustain our financial security. From time to time, we have to look at the city's property-tax base and see what is being generated by the current land use plan."

A FUTURE HOME

Germantown is in the final stages of planning Germantown Vision 2020, a plan for what city leaders want the city to be 10 to 15 years from now.

"We look at the city today and say, it's a safe place to live, there are a lot of parks, it's financially stable. We'd like to be in the same place in 10 years," Lawton says.

About 25 residents make up the vision committee. They began meeting in early 2004. This month they approved a final version of the plan, but it hasn't been presented to the mayor and board of aldermen yet.

A similar planning process was completed in 1986 and looked ahead to the Germantown of the year 2000. Unlike the earlier version, however, Germantown Vision 2020 will be used to guide future policy and will be revisited each year by the mayor and aldermen.

"We're looking long-term," says Lawton. "There are things we can do today to help with city tax dollars." And much of it is in neighborhoods.

"Germantown is a community of neighborhoods. Unless we go in and focus on our neighborhoods' needs, we're going to lose the battle on that front," says Lawton. "Neighborhoods are critical to our success. They're ground zero."

But as Shelby County changes, so does Germantown. And that might mean big changes in the future for this utopian experiment.

"We want it to look like a place you would want to live," says Goldsworthy. "That's our underlying philosophy. A lot of times, people say, We like Germantown just the way it is. I always remind them that if people had said that earlier, there wouldn't be any houses here." n

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