Code Read 

A proposed city/county code would make urban redevelopment easier.

When Harbor Town — one of Memphis' most celebrated neighborhoods — was being constructed, it was technically illegal. Still is, actually.

Under current zoning regulations, the neighborhood's streets are too narrow; the house lots are too small; and the grocery store and other non-residential uses are prohibited. Developer Henry Turley (who is part-owner of the Flyer's parent company) had to get a special permit to build the development.

"It could not have been done under the current zoning ordinance," says Don Jones, project manager for the new Memphis and Shelby County Unified Development Code. "It would have been a patchwork quilt of zoning districts: one for this block, another for that one."

Which is part of the reason that the proposed code, a document that will encompass existing zoning and subdivision regulations, as well as other development-related regulations, includes a variety of new zoning types.

"We have a heavy reliance on what is called planned development," Jones says. "Three out of four of the proposals we see are for planned developments. That tells you that something about our base districts is not working."

Work on the Unified Development Code began in 2004. The current zoning ordinance dates back to 1981, though there have been three amendments to the code.

When the project first began, the goal was to update the amendments into one document. As time went on, however, the goal shifted to making a variety of housing types and neighborhoods permissible, in part to stimulate redevelopment in the city's urban core.

"It's all an academic exercise if it didn't do anything to help urban revitalization," Jones says. "We have been on a cycle of sprawl since the current ordinance was adopted, if not before. We need to encourage development inside the beltway because that's where the infrastructure is."

The current code might be described as heavily suburban. On Broad Avenue, one of the early test sites for the new code, the buildings are separated from the street by only a sidewalk.

But if a new building were erected on Broad, under the current code, it would need to be set back 30 feet from the street. Which would be completely out of character for the neighborhood.

"It's basically what's old is new again. We want to expand mixed use where you could have upper-story residential with lower-story commercial or retail space," Jones says.

One of the new subdivision types allows developers to use more communal green space and smaller lot sizes. Another is modeled on residential LEED standards and would be used for urban infills.

The proposed code also includes a civic designation, where government operations can occur, and a parks and open-space designation.

"A classic example is Shelby Farms," Jones says. "Parts of Shelby Farms are zoned industrial."

Should the parkland ever be sold, a possibility that has been proposed in the past but is unlikely with the conservancy's control of the park, the land could be used for manufacturing.

Other changes include encouraging more walkable block sizes, minimum and maximum setbacks for residential developments, and more flexible parking regulations for commercial districts. The parking changes, which would allow businesses to get parking credits for bicycle parking, access to transit, and shared parking, should make commercial development more possible in neighborhoods such as Cooper-Young.

The new regulations would cover all of Memphis and unincorporated parts of Shelby County, even those areas yet to be annexed by other municipalities. Which makes the flexibility it provides even more important. One size simply does not fit all.

"People need different things as they go through the cycle of life," Jones says. "We're getting older as a society. Our needs are changing."

The final draft of the Unified Development Code will be published mid-April. It is scheduled to go before the Land Use Control Board April 30th and, pending approval there, will then be brought to the City Council and County Commission.

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