August 03, 2015

Give Me My Space

By Amos Maki
– The Commercial Appeal –

Developers Eddie Kircher and Marc Belz wanted to build 12 new homes in an upscale neighborhood on White Station just north of Walnut Grove.

But the neighbors – which included Belz Enterprises chairman and chief executive Jack Belz, former Hohenberg Bros. Co. president Rude E. Scheidt and prominent Memphis attorney Ted Winestone – weren’t impressed with parts of the project.

So Kircher and Belz, principals of Kircher-Belz Builders LLC, worked with the neighbors to create a development nearly everybody could agree on.

They reduced the number of homes on the 2.7 acre site from 12 to nine and made sure no windows from the proposed new homes overlooked the neighbors’ backyards. They also promised to keep intact a hedge that circles the property.

“At first, most neighbors don’t want it,” Kircher said. “But we show them what we are going to do and how we are going to protect their privacy, and we try to work with them.”

Encouraged by government officials who see infill projects as much needed revenue generators and with the profits that can be generated by placing multiple new homes on small lots, more and more developers are looking inside the loop.

Building permits for new homes in an area that extends from Midtown to the western edge of Germantown nearly doubled between 2002 and last year.

In all, the number of permits issued for new homes in an area that stretches from near Interstate 40-Midtown to the western edge of Germantown grew from 104 in 2002 to 192 last year.

According to Chandler Reports, 156 permits for new single-family homes have been issued in the same area through the first nine months of 2005.

As infill developments have become more popular, developers and homeowners often find themselves engaged in the delicate art of negotiation.

Some of the negotiations don’t go as smoothly as the ones Kircher and Belz were involved in.

Developer Angelo Lagonia and homebuilder Ron Sklar recently withdrew a proposal from the City Council for one of two planned developments on North Graham.

Lagonia also agreed to postpone the second development’s appearance before the Memphis and Shelby County Land Use Control Board until Dec. 8, and reduced the number of planned homes from 11 to nine.

Lagonia is a member of the LUCB and has recused himself from voting on the Graham projects.

Concerned about density, property values and loss of green space, residents of the area banded together to fight the proposed development.

Lots on this stretch of North Graham, between Summer and Macon, are characterized by mature oak and pine trees, huge yards and generous setbacks from the streets.

Nearly every home along this stretch of Graham has a handmade sign decrying the proposed developments, which would have placed 22 zero-lot line homes where once there were only two homes.

“This feels like the plagues of Egypt, only its poorly planned infills,” said Charlotte Fineberg-Buchner, who lives in the neighborhood.

Neighbors said communication between the developer and residents was almost nonexistent.

“It really did not start off on a very good foot,” said Carolyn Head, who lives next door to one of the sites. “When we did meet, (Lagonia) flat out told us it had to be 11 lots or none. The one time we did get together, it was very adversarial.”

Lagonia and Sklar declined to comment.

Veteran developer Doug Dickens, vice president of special residential projects for Boyle Investment Co., said communications is the key for homeowners and developers.

“When I was young, I thought everybody should love what I was doing,” said Dickens, who worked on his own or with various partners to develop more than 30 high-profile planned developments throughout Memphis. “But then I realized that everybody has a real concern for change.

“So as much communication as possible as early as possible, including taking neighbors to the site to show them what you are going to do, is important,” he said.

Dickens, who helped create the planned development ordinance in 1979, said he often encountered resistance to his plans. But as time passed, resistance to infill projects became less pronounced.

“As time has gone by and these types of developments have matured and values have gone up around them, people are starting to embrace them more,” he said.

Government officials have certainly embraced infills.

They favor the developments because it means the city and county do not have to invest in costly new infrastructure and because the projects generate significant new tax revenue.

“They’re making use of existing infrastructure – roads, firehouses, police stations and schools,” said Mary Baker, deputy director of Memphis and Shelby County Office of Planning and Development.

“They’re also very high-value, so the tax revenue from them is a plus.”

For instance, developers who are building an infill project on Park Avenue paid $500,000 for a house and the property it sits on.

Based on projected starting price of $675,000, the seven homes in the Park Audubon Planned Development should generate at least $85,000 a year in city and county taxes – more than nine times the revenue from the proviso home.

Extra income to help fill the city’s depleted coffers is just fine with Fineberg-Buchner, just as long as it isn’t generated in her neighborhood.

“We have been investing in Memphis and Shelby County for a long time,” she said. “We simply don’t want to be abused by poor development that degrades our area and sets a precedent for future degradation of a lovely area.”