Planning leaders discuss the rezoning of this auto-centric corridor and new approaches to improving livability along major commercial thoroughfares like Lamar, including Summer and Union avenues
“This is a street with an abundance of auto businesses already. But these shops aren’t exactly spaces to visit, play in, or, due to environmentally hazardous run-off, places you may want to live near. Rezoning can challenge future developers to create spaces that better reflect the needs and interests of the surrounding neighborhoods.”~Margaret Haltom, Neighborhood Preservation, Inc.
Edited by Mark Fleischer
Last month, the Memphis City Council approved Land Use case #Z 20-4, which rezoned dozens of parcels along the Lamar Avenue Corridor currently zoned Commercial Mixed Use 3 (CMU-3) to Commercial Mixed-Use 1 (CMU-1).
This “down-zoning” follows a two-year moratorium on the “issuance of building permits and planning approvals for vehicle sales, vehicle repair, tire sales and mounting, and convenience stores,” (LUCB Staff Report, May 14, 2020) and is a furtherance of efforts to put more emphasis on property uses that better adhere to neighborhood-friendly commercial use versus the current auto-centric uses. CMU-1 zoning allows for commercial uses such as restaurants and retail but does not allow for by-right uses such as gas stations, tire shops and auto repair.
The rezoning affects 200 Lamar Avenue parcels from Bellevue Blvd south to Prescott Road just north of the Interstate 240 interchange. A particular two-mile stretch of the rezoning of Lamar Ave from Bellevue to South Parkway runs through three historic neighborhoods that are in various stages of revitalization: Annesdale, Rozelle, and Glenview.
Recently StoryBoard sat in on MidtownMemphis.org’s “Neighborhood Connects,” hosted by Porsche Stevens, in a community conversation with Ashley Cash of Memphis’ Office of Comprehensive Planning. In addition, post-discussion we invited experts from Neighborhood Preservation Inc. to add their commentary to the transcribed discussion. Together, these leaders in planning and neighborhood revitalization explore the origins of the rezoning efforts and the effects they could have on the future of the corridor and its surrounding neighborhoods.
Joining Porsche Stevens and Ashley Cash in this virtual collaboration were select experts from Neighborhood Preservation, Inc.: Imani Jasper, Program Manager; Mary Baker, Urban Planner; Margaret Haltom, Neighborhood Planning and Design Fellow.
Porsche Stevens: Let’s get right to it. A lot of us don’t know what rezoning means. So what is this rezoning of Lamar all about, and what does that mean?
Ashley Cash: The Office of Comprehensive Planning has a sister department that handles all of our zoning and administration: the Office of Planning and Development. Our office has really led the charge in thinking about rezoning a property and why you might go through a rezoning for other properties.
Our city zoning is guided by our Unified Development Code and there are several zone districts within that code. Each zone district allows certain types of uses, and they allow certain things in a certain area. We’ve got Memphis 3.0 – the city’s Comprehensive Plan for redevelopment and growth – and that tells us what future land use should be in a certain area.
For example, should an area be residential? Does it make sense to have industrial use next to residential – in most cases, no – and should this area be just commercial, or mixed-use, etc. etc.? Our Future Land Use really guides and drives that conversation, and where developments are not in alignment with the future land use plan.
Porsche: So let’s talk about the boundaries. Ashley, can you talk about the boundary so that we get a full scope of what the rezoning plan looks like?
Ashley: Before the rezoning was initiated, Councilwoman Jamita Swearengen called for a moratorium on auto-related uses along Lamar Avenue, from Bellevue all the way down to . . . it was past Prescott at that point, all the way down to Winchester, because a few other council members thought that it was a good idea to pause. Council didn’t want to see additional auto-related uses being presented or being developed by-right. That includes tire shops, maybe your individually-owned auto service centers or used car dealerships.
StoryBoard’s Mark Fleischer: The Council-sponsored resolution imposing the moratorium was issued August 28, 2018. It was co-sponsored by council members Jamita E. Swearengen, Martavius Jones, Patrice Robinson and Joe Brown. The resolution read in part: “There are currently six car washes, eleven tire repair shops, eighteen auto sales businesses, three auto repair shops and twelve service stations on Lamar Avenue between Winchester Road and Bellevue Boulevard. The high volume of automotive related businesses within congested traffic areas has led to increased accidents and presents a public safety issue.”
The numbers of auto-related business and conditions of some of them have also contributed to area blight.
NPI’s Imani Jasper: Auto businesses can have a big impact on blight by nature of what happens there. There are inoperable vehicles, vehicles that need repair, tools, equipment, machinery, towing vehicles – all things that are necessary for the business but can’t be stored neatly in a cupboard inside the business. If site runoff isn’t addressed properly, this can also create environmental issues. Some operators have been unfriendly neighbors that have expanded their vehicle storage to residential streets nearby. This can turn what should be a normal residential street into a car graveyard.
NPI’s Mary Baker: This downzoning is important to show support for residents in Annesdale-Snowden, Rozelle-Annesdale and Glenview. These neighborhoods have been struggling with the visual and environmental effects of auto-related businesses along Lamar Avenue for many years.
Ashley: After the moratorium we were asked by the Council’s Planning and Zoning Committee to research and review the area to see if there was an appropriate solution to reducing auto-related uses along the Lamar Corridor, while also supporting the economy and not taking away rights of property owners.
It is not every parcel along Lamar – right now it’s 188 parcels of various sizes. On Winchester most of the businesses fronting Lamar are warehouse industrial-type businesses and that seems to be functioning as they’re intended because of the current building environment. But as you go up toward Bellevue, there are a lot of variations of businesses and a lot of small commercial, and from the direction from Council we wanted to make that a little bit more restricted in auto-related uses. That’s how we got the boundaries – what we’re looking at is from along Lamar from Bellevue, which is just east of the expressway and then all the way down and Prescott, which is just before you get to the 240.
Porsche: So this includes where Airways meets Lamar Avenue. Can we anticipate some improvements right there in that area?
Ashley: The short answer is No. The rezoning will not automate any improvements to that area. Once it’s approved by Council, rezoning really controls future use, like auto sales. Or you may need a special use permit to do certain types of auto-related uses.
Rezoning – a first step toward a healthier future
NPI’s Margaret Haltom: Zoning is really about laying the groundwork for future development. The CMU-1 zoning could promote the development of future offices, stores and restaurants, designed to be spaces nearby residents could walk to and enjoy. This is a street with an abundance of auto businesses already. But these shops aren’t exactly spaces to visit, play in, or – due to environmentally hazardous run off – places you may want to live near. Rezoning can challenge future developers to create spaces that better reflect the needs and interests of the surrounding neighborhoods.
Ashley: Rezoning is one piece of the puzzle – other pieces of the puzzle are cleanup, improvements in our construction and building code enforcement to make sure that businesses are maintaining their space and maintaining how many cars are outside their buildings.
Imani Jasper: This is a step in the right direction. This action ensures that if the property passes to another owner there will be improvement at the site to something more compatible with surrounding neighborhoods.
Ashley: A significant section in our Lamar Corridor Analysis talks about existing conditions and what’s allowed and not allowed.
The other piece is in the (Memphis 3.0) Comprehensive Plan – there we have calls for recommended improvements around the community anchor of Lamar and Airways, and we have not started any work towards those improvements.
I think what we would have to do is communicate with community groups and try to figure out what those improvements could look like, but we have had some really early engagements with different groups in Orange Mound and with our Division of Housing and Community Development, trying to create a sort of a new vision of a Lamar Corridor that’s less about traveling quickly from one end to the next and more about creating a sense of place for the communities around it. And then people see that this is somewhere that people care about and where community exists.
That’s where we say, How can we go ahead and try to make that change to make those two things compatible in the hopes that, by creating or supporting uses that our community supported, that are informed by community conversations, and that really help to contribute to our economic vitality.
Porsche: So speaking of community conversation, who starts a conversation like this? To rezone a particular area?
Ashley: Normally rezoning has been done by a property owner or developer that may look at a parcel of land and really want to do something else. But we are shifting in our city. Council members, different community organizations and the Division of Planning and Development are trying to take a more proactive approach to zoning – where what was entitled to the land maybe 50 years ago just really doesn’t make sense anymore. (Initiatives) could be Council-led, like this case with the Lamar comprehensive rezoning. It could be developer-initiated, or by a community group that comes together. From there you’d work with your City Council person and or the Land Use Control Board to facilitate some form of either rezoning or entitlement change.
Mark Fleischer: Recently this type of pro-active approach has been use to initiate the re-zoning of parts of Summer Avenue. Having been alerted to the potential future demolition of Summer Avenue’s Highland Heights United Methodist Church (right) in favor of a gas station, City Council member Chase Carlisle passed a resolution on a 6-month moratorium on any demolitions of structures greater than 50 years old, and just this week the Memphis City Council approved an application to the Land Use Control Board to rezone portions of Summer Avenue for more pedestrian-friendly and mixed uses that would also ban new auto-related commercial developments such as gas stations.
Down on Union Avenue, preliminary work is being done to study the rezoning of certain parts of this auto-centric corridor to meet the needs of the oncoming rapid-transit needs of the new Innovation Corridor.
Altogether we are seeing more efforts to improve pedestrian safety and promote more walkable spaces. Such efforts inevitably improve corridor beautification, turning highway-like roadways into more attractive, and safe, boulevards.
Porsche: Yeah, it’s all about beautification, walkability, economic development. Is it an opportunity for business owners who then consider moving their business up and down Lamar.
A Long-Term Impact
Mark: How much of an impact could this have on beautifying the area and reducing blight around the adjoining historic neighborhoods of Annesdale, Rozelle and Glenview?
Margaret Haltom: Rezoning has long-term impacts, but the impact will come with the pace of development. This could be the critical foundation for future development aligned with neighborhood interests. We’ll have to hold future developers accountable to create visions that reflect the interests of Annesdale, Rozelle and Glenview residents.
Mary Baker: After the rezoning, if a business that’s been made nonconforming by the recent downzoning ceases to operate for 365 days, their intensive auto-related use cannot be re-established. Also, it cannot be changed to any other use except one that is permitted in the less intensive zoning district, CMU-1.
The three neighborhoods Annesdale Snowden, Rozelle Annesdale and Glenview are experiencing a renaissance of homes being renovated and even expanded. One way to track this is to read the agenda of the Memphis Landmarks Commission each month, as these neighborhoods are all designated as local historic districts. Recently homes that are being renovated and expanded in Glenview and Rozelle Annesdale have been on the agenda. The old and new residents are organized and are assisting code enforcement by monitoring and reporting unlawful activity along the Lamar Avenue corridor.
Mark: Do you see any specific areas, cross-streets or corners that could see shorter-term benefits with these changes?
Mary: My guess would be the area around Lamar Avenue and Cleveland Street. Annesdale Park and Central Gardens neighborhoods to the north are strong. Annesdale-Snowden is a terrific neighborhood to the south. The Dollar Tree building on the north side of the street is now vacant. On the south side original homes have been preserved and repurposed. And, I have to mention the corner of Lamar Avenue and Kyle Street – that’s where the old Lamar Theatre is being reclaimed.
Porsche: Is there any kind of assistance for the property owners who want to improve their property or their business?
Ashley: EDGE (the Economic Development Growth Engine) offers facade grants and other kinds of business improvement loans. There’s another group, River City Capital, that offers loans in areas that have lower income populations around them. Housing and Community Development has a couple of programs that assist small-scale commercial developers and business owners.
Porsche: Are existing businesses grandfathered in?
Ashley: Yes, existing businesses would be grandfathered in. They would only have to go back to whatever approving body – the Land Use Control Board or City Council – if they are trying to expand into land that they didn’t previously own, or build an addition to their building that’s no longer a valid use.
Mark: The histories of some of our main commuting and car-focused thoroughfares – again we think of the history of Union and Summer avenues in addition to Lamar – remind us that it took decades of incremental developments and subtle zoning variances, parcel by parcel, that have given us these problems today. How long do you think it will take for this rezoning to begin to have any tangible effects or benefits to these neighborhoods?
Imani: This is a great step in moving towards development that is more compatible with the adjacent neighborhoods, but it will take an interested developer coming in to actually change an existing use. It could take time if there isn’t an interested development party looking to invest in the area.
Ashley: We just hope that this rezoning, for the future, resolves to get us closer. Nothing is perfect, but it’s leading us closer to a certain type of development.
Mary: I believe this downzoning is coming along at just the right time. I am optimistic that we will be pleasantly surprised by the pace of change along the Lamar Avenue Corridor.
This was a virtual collaboration of community leaders from StoryBoard Memphis, MidtownMemphis.org and Neighborhood Preservation, Inc.