Cracking the Code 

It's been said that there are more churches in Memphis than gas stations. But maybe that doesn't have as much to do with the city's faith as its zoning codes. At a public meeting on the Broad Avenue Corridor Planning Initiative last week, citizens expressed concern that a church could build on residential property and there would be nothing the neighborhood could do to stop it.

"That's true," said Lee Einsweiler, a consultant helping to draft a Unified Development Code for Memphis and Shelby County. "Many communities regulate churches more than Memphis does."

Perhaps looking for a little more regulation, the joint city/county division of planning and development began crafting a new unified development code two years ago. Because of its unique challenges and strengths, the Broad Avenue area became their urban laboratory last year.

The area, which spans East Parkway to Tillman and Poplar to Summer, was virtually split in two during the Sam Cooper Blvd. extension project. Though the project closed off the neighborhood of aging homes, warehouses, and buildings that have seen better days, it also left a large tract of highly developable land near Sam Cooper.

The goal of the unified development code is twofold: enable the redevelopment and revitalization of the older, urban areas of Memphis and promote the development of suburban areas in a fiscally responsible manner.

"The hope is we'll generate some new development in the area," said Einsweiler. "The new zoning should make it easier to build a house. ... That should bring up the value of the surrounding property."

The new plan for the area would replace rules that are largely "suburban" in nature with something that more closely fits with the existing buildings.

"In the past in Memphis, the smallest lot size [for a single-family residential home] has been 6,000 square feet," said Einsweiler. "To match the existing pattern, we've reduced the lot size to 3,000 square feet. It doesn't mean you have to build that size. It just means that's the minimum allowed."

Architecture, paint color, and building materials aren't dictated by the code -- though they may be under the neighborhood's historic designation -- but building height would be. The overall area will have heights ranging from two to five stories but will be designated strategically.

Taller buildings will be allowed in the core neighborhood and at Sam Cooper and Tillman "as an incentive for development," said Einsweiler, "and at North Parkway to give it a gateway feel."

Broad Avenue might be one of the most appropriately named streets in the city. A wide, empty street, it makes the area seem like a ghost town. You might even expect to see gunslingers come out at noon, pistols at the ready. And planners hope pedestrian-friendly requirements such as windows, front doors, and a limited amount of blank wall facing the street will make the avenue active and alive.

But citizens at the meeting were concerned about some building uses allowed under the proposed code such as day-care centers and cell towers in residential areas.

Einsweiler said those things are allowed now.

"We can talk about being more restrictive," said Einsweiler. "Right now, we just carried on with the existing code."

And perhaps that -- carrying on with the existing code -- is the main thing that needs to change. The Land Use Control Board and the City Council rarely meet a development they don't like. The proposed code would limit their subjective power, replacing it with a map of zoned districts and control in the hands of the professional planning staff.

The other component of the unified code does away with suburban rules in an urban area. Under the current code, for instance, if you want to build on Broad, you would need to put your new building 30 feet back from the street. This has resulted in parking lots that merge almost -- almost -- seamlessly with the street and degradation of any pedestrian culture the area once had.

Since last spring's public design meeting, the area is seeing change. "A number of people are investing in Broad," said Einsweiler. "There's going to be a coffee shop on Broad; the pet store just changed hands. ... The city engineer thinks that they'll find it in the budget next July to stripe Broad with angle parking. There is action in the works."

The unified code will probably be on the table within eight months. Both the City Council and the County Commission will have to approve it.

Maybe a bunch of new rules sounds like too easy a solution. But getting the code past the powers-that-be will probably be a fight.

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