Changing development codes to promote smart growth in Memphis

Memphis skyline
Downtown Memphis from across the Mississippi River. Photo by Joel, via Flickr.

Like many large southern cities, Memphis, TN’s growth over the past few decades has been characterized largely by sprawl and a focus on automobile travel. Josh Whitehead, Planning Director for Memphis and unincorporated Shelby County, is working to promote development downtown through the use of the city’s new Unified Development Code (UDC), which gives more flexibility to developers in order to facilitate infill growth.

Development patterns in Memphis have historically been aided by highway construction and rapid annexation of the surrounding suburbs. Memphis sits at the convergence of two—and soon to be three—interstate highways with an outer beltline, which means living in the suburbs is a cheap and convenient option for many in the region. Located in the southwestern corner of Tennessee, Memphis competes for residents with suburban communities within its own state as well as those in Arkansas and Mississippi. “We’ve gotten to the point where it is reasonable to live in the other two states and commute,” Whitehead explains.

The city has maintained a relatively stable population of 600,000 to 650,000 over the previous five decades despite steady migration to the suburbs, largely due to a former Tennessee law that allowed cities in the state to annex surrounding property by passing an ordinance. This practice, now prohibited by a new law passed by the Tennessee legislature earlier this year, has had a significant impact on Memphis’ growth. Previously, the city would build infrastructure such as sewers in unincorporated Shelby County, allow subdivisions to tap into the network, and then annex the subdivision. Between 1970 and 2010, the population of the City of Memphis grew by 4 percent while the geographic area of the city expanded by a whopping 55 percent.

Memphis and Shelby County Director of Planning Josh Whitehead

With competition from the suburbs for development, the city is now working to become attractive to developers in order to overcome its competitive disadvantages such as higher tax rates because of older infrastructure. The City undertook a major zoning code overhaul in 2010 to replace the previous code from 1981, which had been making it difficult to create infill development. “It was just one more hurdle if you had two project locations you were deciding between, and you had to go through zoning entitlements, processes, and hearings [to develop within Memphis],” Whitehead says. “And that can be a disincentive.” The new Unified Development Code, which took effect in 2011, merges subdivision and development regulations, removing barriers and simplifying the application process for developers.

One positive example of the new relaxed code bringing economic development to the city is the easing of parking requirements within the UDC. Previously new businesses had to provide one parking spot for every 100 square feet of building space, but the new code reduces the requirement to one spot for every 300 square feet. Under the UDC, if a planned development is adjacent to existing parking lots the new development can share parking facilities with a neighboring property. If the new development is near public bus stops, even more parking requirements can be waved.

To illustrate the impact the City’s relaxed parking standards are already having, Whitehead points to the example of a restaurant in the previously struggling Midtown neighborhood that sat vacant for years because of the high cost associated with providing parking to meet the City’s requirements. Redevelopment of the site became viable under the UDC thanks to more flexible standards.

The new, less restrictive parking requirements not only entice developers, but also serve to encourage people to try other modes of travel such as biking and walking, a current priority for the City. In August 2013, Memphis became the 500th city in the nation to adopt a Complete Streets policy. Twice named one of the worst cities in America for bicycling by Bicycling magazine in 2008 and 2010, the city is now home to more than 70 miles of designated bike lanes.

“Before, the city was geared completely to the automobile,” says Whitehead. “Now the lanes are narrower and traffic is slower, so it’s not just cyclists who feel more comfortable, but pedestrians as well.” Improving pedestrian safety means more people on the street patronizing businesses.

Despite these changes, Whitehead notes that Memphis is still largely a low-density and auto-oriented city. However, the tide may be turning, and Whitehead is optimistic about the future. “There is a growing market share that wants urbanity, and so few neighborhoods in Memphis that have it,” Whitehead says. “I think we are witnessing a supply and demand situation where the neighborhoods that have it or the potential to have it are seeing a rebirth, and hopefully this will start inching into other areas.”

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