Memphis 3.0 Will Strengthen – Not Weaken – Historic Neighborhood Protections

By Mark Fleischer

In late 2005 the Bring New Orleans Back Commission developed a city plan that on paper would have addressed the long-term recovery of a city devastated by Hurricane Katrina. However in what became known as the infamous “green dot” plan - that on a map placed green, future land-use dots on long-established neighborhoods - the commission made two critical errors in developing the plan: one, it failed to take into account the residents – generations of New Orleanians – already invested in rebuilding their neighborhoods; and two, the commissioners did not adequately engage with the public at large.   

Numerous studies have shown the importance neighborhoods have on our psyches and sense of identity. And here in Memphis, we love our neighborhoods. Shabby or chic, rich or poor, suburban or urban, our neighborhoods speak as much to our character as to our soul. Our Central Gardens is no exception; we cherish our historic neighborhood.

The Mayor’s Memphis 3.0 team understood this as they embarked two and a half years ago on the city’s first plan since 1981. And, as if to borrow the missing page out of New Orleans’ failed playbook, they sought to gather as much public input as possible, holding community meetings and accumulating data from all corners of the city. 

Only recently have city planners so thoroughly engaged the public in its planning process. Philadelphia, El Paso, and Norfolk, Virginia were noteworthy in the last ten years in taking public input steps as supported by the National League of Cities. Conversely, back in the days of New York’s famed and infamous master planner Robert Moses, cities assembled experts to develop plans that in the 1950s were mostly about paving the way for the oncoming automobile tidal wave. 

Many great neighborhoods were bulldozed in the years that followed, displacing generations of mostly minority and immigrant families, and leading to suburban sprawl. 

City planners have learned from those past mistakes, and in recognizing our needs here in Memphis – to reduce sprawl and build the core city back up – the 3.0 team understood the need to balance build-up with sustaining our core residential neighborhoods. 

Essential to that balance has been continued citizen engagement, and the 3.0 team has been diligent - and vigilant - in their efforts to use the current public comment period to make any necessary adjustments to the plan. This built-in period so far has been working as designed, allowing the team to make revisions based on input from leadership in key, core districts before the draft is finalized. 

There have been concerns of late raised by some in Midtown who have interpreted the plan as a threat to historic neighborhoods. I have been actively involved and engaged with the draft process for weeks, and I can assure Central Gardens’ residents that these concerns are unfounded. 

As it reads, in various areas of the current draft, “The Memphis 3.0 General Plan shall be used to guide land use decisions but not in any way supplant the regulations of this Code, including but not limited to its Zoning Map or Overlay Districts.” 

Central Gardens is zoned historic under the Memphis Landmarks Commission and falls under the “Overlay Districts” as mentioned above. Our Midtown Overlay as well falls under the same category.

The color-coding of the Future Land Use Map in the 3.0 plan has confused some. However the color-coding simply designates land areas around various city and neighborhood anchor types within 5-, 10-, or 15-minute walking distances. The OPD and the 3.0 team have further clarified what the Land Use map is not: it is not a map that dictates changes to existing zoning, including those for our overlay and historic districts. Rather, it is intended as a guide for where infrastructure, transportation and development investment might be directed. Also, areas such as those in already-vibrant parts of Midtown are designated as a “sustain” - that is, a level of change that is recommended accordingly: “Support maintenance and preservation in places that are stable.”

Any residents who may have had concerns should feel added reassurance that historic districts are mentioned explicitly in the plan. The plan, once approved, becomes an ordinance recognized and consistent with Tennessee State Annotated code. 

The “Build Up, Not Out” tag line of the plan refers to the need to stop the city’s sprawl to the north, south and east, and focus needed infrastructure and development back into the core of our city. Due in large part to the city-public engagement of the planning process, and the solid foundations of the plan itself, we will have a new plan that not only addresses our city’s need to build up, but is directly responsive to the city, and historic neighborhoods, it serves.