By Design 

Even with recent zoning provisions promoting new urbanism, community input is key.

At least one area of town has a prescription for a new CVS pharmacy.

Though it recently voted down a proposed CVS at the corner of Cooper and Union over concerns about a suburban-style design, the Land Use Control Board narrowly approved a similar plan for the corner of Park and Highland last week.

Not everyone thought it was a good idea.

"I feel like we could do better here," said Land Use Control Board member Emily Trenholm. "I'd like to see some changes."

Neither CVS proposal meets the design guidelines of the overlay districts associated with the sites. The difference in the two plans, however, is the current makeup of each location — the Midtown site is the home of a historic church while the University CVS would replace a pawn shop, a sub shop, and a cellular phone store — and how community members feel about the project.

At least part of the northeast corner of Highland and Park is within the University District Overlay, which requires a setback of no more than seven feet from Highland to promote pedestrian traffic. CVS' plan puts the building 75 feet from the street.

"We have done the best job we can do to meet those concerns, but also maintain a site that works for CVS and the customers we know will be frequenting the store, the majority of which will be traveling by car," said CVS representative Ricky Wilkins.

Though nearby residents initially had concerns with the parking lot, the neighborhood association withdrew its opposition to the project after CVS said it would widen the sidewalks and include street trees.

"A lot of neighbors were very supportive of CVS coming in," said Drew Daniel, president of the Normal Station Neighborhood Association. "What's there now is awful ... from an aesthetic standpoint. CVS would be a welcome change."

The design review committee for the university district still had qualms, however. It recommended that CVS move the pharmacy closer to the street, put some of the parking behind the building, and add more windows to the plan.

With residents appeased and only a portion of the site within the overlay district, however, CVS declined.

"If the building is moved, it will not decrease one car traveling up and down Park and Highland," Wilkins said. "It will not increase the number of people who walk. The issue of the building has no connection with how people traverse the intersection."

Mary Baker, outgoing deputy director of the Memphis and Shelby County Division of Planning and Development, might disagree.

"I am a firm believer that the way a community is constructed — the network of public streets, where commercial uses are located relative to residential uses — all of those characteristics affect all these other things," she said, citing community health, air quality, and the economy.

In fact, that's part of the argument for both the new Unified Development Code, passed by the Memphis City Council and the Shelby County Commission just last week, and the Midtown District Overlay, also approved by the Land Use Control board last week.

The unified development code aims to create more dense mixed-use development.

"Starting with the 1950s, everything has been designed thinking about how we would get there in an automobile," Baker said. "Now we're trying to put some of that balance back."

Under the current regulations — the unified development code won't go into effect until January — applying for an exemption known as a planned use development became common. Originally created to allow better design, it instead allowed developers to request any type of development anywhere.

"You're basically writing a zoning ordinance for that property," Baker said.

Its popularity also created spot zoning, a problem some land use control board members suggested they were continuing by approving CVS' Highland development even though it didn't meet the district's guidelines.

And that begs the question: How effective will the zoning changes be if exemptions continue to be approved?

"Ultimately, political will matters," said Councilman Shea Flinn, who had an integral part in creating the Midtown Overlay. "That's why political support for the Midtown Overlay is so critical. ... Not everyone has to live in Midtown, but the people who do should get the Midtown they want."

Baker said the university district CVS isn't a good test case: "The plan was right at the edge of the university district. Half was in and half was out. Union and Cooper may be more of a test."

That proposal, voted down in land use last month, will be appealed to the City Council on August 24th, the same day as the first reading for the Midtown Overlay.

Baker thinks that once more developments are built to the new design standards, people will love them and things "will just start being done that way."

But right now we're in a period of evolution.

"I can't blame the guy who's trying to run a commercial business and thinking I can't conform [to the code], because I won't make any money. My customers are going to drive by and go somewhere with a parking field," Baker said.

"If we're ever going to make a change, we've got to make it. If we keep building so only automobiles are comfortable, we're never going to change."

To read more about this and other topics, visit Mary Cashiola's In the Bluff blog at


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