Maybe we’re just the world’s slowest learners.

Despite 20 years of tax freezes that have accomplished nothing so much as expanding a low-wage, low-skill economy, we fought the reform of the PILOT program and continue to define success by how much city and county taxes are given away.

Despite the exodus of an average of three middle-income families a day from Memphis in the first seven years of this century, we re-elected a mayor who invited them to leave in greater numbers.

Despite 105,000 students in Memphis City Schools who deserve sustained, concerted attention, by the time a student graduates from high school, he’s had 3-4 superintendents and the same number of “comprehensive plans” to turn around city schools, creating a policy churn that prevents fundamental change.

Code Red

Despite the desperate condition of some urban neighborhoods, we continued to annex areas that spread public services over a broader area and eroded services where they are most needed – inside the urban core.

Despite a miserable record of code enforcement in Memphis neighborhoods, the review and reform of the city program were buried and a new director was appointed to a division with few reasons to exist.

But despite all these, they’re no match for when we are at our dumbest – when we come face-to-face with developers. If talk were money, we could pay off Shelby County’s debt with all of our big talk about smart growth. Sadly, all the big talk has rarely been followed up with any substantive action.

If there is a poster child for our lack of commitment to planning and quality of place, it is the strip mall that is Germantown Parkway. It has about as much to do with a livable city as Chernobyl.

Land Use Out Of Control Board

It didn’t have to be this way. The Office of Planning and Development wrote a plan for the highway that was aimed at creating neighborhoods, but before the ink was dry on it, the Shelby County Board of Commissioners labeled it as an advisory plan and began to make exceptions to it.

The result is what you see on Germantown Parkway today. There is little argument from anyone now that it is a planning – if not visual – disaster and an object lesson for all of us.

But perhaps that’s all of us with the exception of the Memphis and Shelby County Land Use Control Board. Despite the obvious lessons, our ultimate slow learners are on the verge of transforming Houston Levee Road into the next incarnation of Germantown Parkway.

That’s because in July, the Board approved three massive Planned Developments (PD’s) – our community’s favorite misused and overused zoning application – at Houston Levee and Macon Road. In a real sense, these votes effectively sealed the fate of Houston Levee Road. It will now slowly but inevitably become Germantown Parkway, enriching the few while damaging the quality of life and tax stability for the many.

Subversion Of The Process

The subverting of a legitimate planning process stems largely from the blizzard of PDs that have blown effortlessly through the Land Use Control Board. Although PDs were intended to be rare and only granted for innovative development with important public benefits, such as increasing open space or protecting the environment, in Memphis and Shelby County, unlike the rest of the nation, they are the rule, not the exception.

And, the underlying zoning isn’t even changed, so that we have land with agricultural zoning covered with cookie-cutter developments. To make matters worse, local PD applications are treated as special exceptions with their weak requirements for public involvement.

We’re hoping that the new Unified Development Code working its way through the political approval process not only has beefed up the public notice for such applications but more fundamentally that it has reduced the use of them in the first place.

This overuse was compounded during the Rout Administration when the Land Use Control Board was taken by developers (aided and abetted by county politicians). It produced a startling statistic: in a one-year period, the percentage of times the professional planning staff was reversed skyrocketed from about 15% to 70%, opening the floodgates from ill-conceived projects that fueled sprawl and required tens of millions of dollars in infrastructure from a county government that could never said no to a politically-connected (and contributing) developer.

People, Not Cars

In other words, the zoning is regularly all about cars, not people. That’s certainly the case with the Land Use Control Board’s approval of the PDs on Houston Levee Road. All are poorly organized single-use developments that make Trinity Commons look like it’s a model New Urbanist development.

Only Emily Trenholm – essentially the only representative for city neighborhoods – voted against applications known more for their stupidity than their validity. It is nothing short of a civic scandal that this many years into the high-sounding rhetoric about smart growth and sustainability, Ms. Trenholm is still alone, fighting the good fight even though her own colleagues have their knives out to defend the developers.

As usual, developers paint beautiful pictures of new economic growth (although it will only cannibalize existing businesses, particularly on Germantown Parkway) and they talk of growth as if it’s not merely the most massive relocation of people in the history of our region.

These votes are an absolute contradiction of the Sustainable Shelby plan that should be the Bible for the Land Use Control Board. In a city that has to change its trajectory or become the next Detroit, the negative impact of these kinds of misguided decisions can’t be overstated. When you match it with the idiocy of I-269, we are not only slow learners. We are just plain dumb.

Getting It Right

Shelby County Government is light years behind in understanding the fallout of these projects on Houston Levee Road on the economy, environment and quality of life that we need to avert disaster. Shelby County Engineer Mike Oakes – a disciple of context sensitive design – can’t design enough smart roads to offset the damage being done by the Land Use Control Board.

Shelby County Government can begin by examining all PD approvals along Houston Levee Road back to the turn of the century. Like Germantown Parkway, developers have been getting their approvals and sitting on the projects to see if the market for it makes sense. What this means is that the Land Use Control Board approves the application of the developer, who has five years to file the final plan although the deadline can be approved by an inconsequential sounding item routinely placed on the board’s consent agenda.

Here’s what every candidate for Mayor of Memphis should have in their platforms: correcting the weakness in our regulations that produces PDs’ abuses and removes any ability for us to create the kind of land use that serves the broad interest of our community.

In the end, we are beaten down and in serious need of a victory…any victory. Otherwise, our future is sealed: lower density, more and more developments that are non-sustaining and taxes rising to cope with the duplication of new infrastructure needed to move people around Shelby County.