July 22, 2015

Residential Zoning Abuse?

By Russell Bloodworth
– The Commercial Appeal –

Neighborhoods are dynamic. Some changes are rapid, others virtually imperceptible. However, the concept of neighborliness doesn’t have to change, nor should it.

Changes in neighborhoods reflect the inevitable changes in the way we live. In the last few decades when energy was cheap, we watched neighborhoods change in character as cities spread out and populations became more mobile. We moved into newer, more isolated residential areas and began to drive farther and farther to work or to shop.

Now- both nationally and locally- the trend is changing again. We still want our residential areas to be quiet, uncrowded and attractive, but we want them to be less isolated, more convenient and richer in diversity. We want to have our cake and eat it too.

And the encouraging fact is: We can. The past has taught us some valuable lessons about the importance of long-range planning, of conscientious development, of looking creatively at the ways land can be used. We haven’t achieved Utopia, certainly, yet I feel we’re making strides in the right direction if you compare some of the city’s older, mixed-usage areas- where random changes resulted in a cramped, hodgepodge effect- with a modern, planned, multi-use development like Ridgeway Center. We’re learning how to dramatically decrease the problems associated with proximity, while expanding the benefits inherent in the multi-use approach.

A changing economic base, from industrial to service-oriented, has had a great deal to do with the emerging trends toward mixed usage. No one wanted to live next door to a grimy smokestack, but a well designed and landscaped office park can be a pleasant neighbor to even the most discriminating homeowner.

The importance of being a good neighbor is, in fact, the crux of the matter. Although there are ordinances to control some developmental variables, you cannot legislate neighborliness. When there is a "new guy on the block," be it a house or an office building, we should work together with this neighbor. The most rewards are enjoyed when geographic neighbors brings challenges for developers- separating the admired from the mediocre. Fifteen years ago, many developers were mavericks who bought land, hired an engineer and enjoyed the profits. Today’s respected developers are akin to orchestra conductors who must lead artisans in site planning, landscaping, signage, environmental screening, lighting, parking, access and maintenance to name a few. The degree of sensitivity given to such elements means the difference between harmony and poor symphony.

Memphis needs more sensitivity to neighborliness. A drive through many areas of our city is case in point. There is little sensitivity to lighting: moonlight turns into glare. There is virtually no concern for the environment: shaded respites are gone. Signage is often obtrusive, confusing and cluttered.

Sensitivity can create an attitude that will solve problems but knowledge must be present to employment the best of intentions. There can be more sharing of expertise among local developers as is done through the Urban Land Institute. Here, developer/members on a national scale meet to establish guidelines, set standards and encourage professionalism.

Change- even when positive- creates tension. But change we must have if Memphis is to deal with its’ No.1 priority of jobs creation. Still, today’s land developer can show more sensitivity, be more dedicated to doing quality work- down to the smallest detail- and take the long-term view. When we’re all committed to being good neighbors, we’ll do much more than improve the public image of land developers. We’ll improve the quality of life for everyone.