Binghamton resident Zorina Bowen isn't exactly happy with all the changes that have occurred in her neighborhood.
She doesn't like that the new Brewster Elementary School sits on the corner of busy Sam Cooper Boulevard or how Merton is closed off every time there is an event at the Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, blocking her way to and from her house.
"I didn't know they did that until I got stuck in it," she says. "Now if I know there's a game, I leave the house and stay away until it's over."
Which is why Bowen attended the Coalition for Livable Communities' (CLC) first "Pizza with Planners: A Guide To How Your City Works" event last week.
"They're doing a lot of development in my area," Bowen says. "I want to know how different pieces of land are zoned and how we make sure it's the best use of the neighborhood."
About 40 people from neighborhoods as disparate as Westwood, Normal Station, and Harbor Town attended the session, the first in a series about neighborhoods and public health, transportation, and economic development.
Many of the attendees weren't quite sure how zoning happened; some had never heard of the joint city/county Division of Planning and Development (DPD).
CLC program manager Sarah Newstok says the series came after a discussion on the Sustainable Shelby initiative.
"It's both a means to allow [DPD] to have access to the neighborhood and to give citizens the tools to make their neighborhoods better places," Newstok says. "[We want] to give people the skills to be active participants in the planning process — when to go to a meeting, what meetings they should be looking for."
Each of the events in the series will pair a planner with a community activist. At last week's event, Terry Langlois, a principal planner with DPD, explained the basics of neighborhood planning while Steve Lockwood, executive director of the Frayser Community Development Corporation (CDC), used the area as a case study.
"It's always helpful to maintain your neighborhood association to have a voice with DPD and for City Council meetings," Langlois says.
Langlois says DPD plans to solicit more community input in the near future, especially with intense planning sessions that incorporate all the stakeholders in multiple levels of the process.
Frayser's plan was adopted in 2003, and they've "been working on it ever since," Lockwood says.
As part of the plan, the Frayser CDC studied what was located in the area.
"You can't buy clothes in Frayser. You have to go to Wolfchase," Lockwood says. "The good news is we have grocery stores. We sell more groceries than we can eat. ... But if someone says we want to put in a new grocery store, we can say that's probably not a good idea and we can show them why."
Frayser also took a proactive step that other areas could learn from. Leaders thought the neighborhood already had more than enough apartments and multi-family dwellings. As part of the study, they looked at their zoning versus what the land was actually used for and found, for instance, single-family homes on land zoned for multi-family residences.
"If left as currently zoned, someone could buy up big chunks of the neighborhood and break it into duplexes," Lockwood says. "We found every vacant lot that was zoned multi-family, and we got it rezoned."
This is a smart idea, one that any neighborhood could benefit from. Though it doesn't assure that the land will always be used the way the residents want, it does give them an avenue to address the City Council. Anyone wanting to use a piece of property for something it's not zoned for would have to apply for a variance. DPD would then contact neighborhood leaders and surrounding property owners.
Stoy Bailey has lived in the Rozelle-Annesdale area for more than 75 years. That neighborhood also rezoned industrial property as residential land.
"That gave us an opportunity to be part of the process to determine what goes there," Bailey says.
The neighborhood also got a historic conservation designation to prevent things like chainlink fences in front yards. Under the designation, the Memphis Landmarks Commission reviews zoning requests, as well as any proposed building construction or exterior alterations, for appropriateness with the neighborhood's character.
"DPD and Landmarks won't be out there looking at everything every day. That's not their job," he says. "But the neighborhood will."