We wrote April 17, 2006, that if there was any justification for a Tax Increment Financing District, Broad Avenue is it.
Truth be told, it was pretty much an exercise in faith at the time, but since then, a group of urban pioneers have taken root in the area and they are turning things around. People like our friends Tom Clifton of Tom Clifton Gallery and John Weeden of UrbanArt Commission put their money where their mouths were by setting up shop in the area. Others have followed, and once again, we prove that Memphis is a DIY city where the most exciting work is being done at the grassroots (and encouragingly with grasstops support).
So many people, including our good friends at Livable Memphis, deserve so much credit for their use of Broad Avenue as the poster child for what can be done to make neighborhoods more appealing, more economically healthy, and more authentic. As Sarah Newstok at Livable Memphis says, it’s good to know what neighborhoods can look like when they are designed with people in mind.
University of Memphis’s Wanda Rushing, author of the excellent Paradox of Place, says that the history of Memphis is replete with stories of average citizens overcoming adversity and taking charge of their destinies. That, more than anything, is being witnessed on Broad Avenue, and that’s why everyone needs to support this reimagining of place on November 19-20 with its “New Face for an Old Broad” celebration. Besides being fun, it shows us a glimpse of what can be if we work together.
Here’s our April, 2006, p0st:
If there’s ever been a justification to create another TIF (tax increment financing) district in Memphis, we need wait no more. The Broad Avenue Corridor Planning Initiative gives us a powerful reason to act.
This seems especially timely to us, because a couple of weeks ago, we advocated that Memphis and Shelby County use the TIF as a way to decrease the overreliance on tax freezes by the Industrial Development Board and Center City Revenue Finance Corporation.
Like most taxpayers, we have been impatiently waiting on city and county governments to implement the recommendations from the well-reasoned consultant’s report about the current PIILOT (payment-in-lieu-of-taxes) program. The consultants made a compelling case that should have created a sense of urgency by our public leaders, but it was not to be, because of the powerful real estate interests arrayed in opposition to some of the key recommendations of the report.
A New Face
In a presentation some weeks ago by the consultants, one comment went unreported, but has special meaning for Broad Avenue. At that time, the consultants said that downtown Memphis seemed to have the momentum for a sustained recovery, and perhaps it is time to shift the focus of tax freezes from downtown to neighborhoods where they are more needed.
Broad Avenue would certainly head that list. The planning initiative to be unveiled tomorrow night is the most impressive in recent history.
The plan paints the portrait of an entirely new Broad Avenue and Binghamton, one that becomes an anchor for redevelopment and a model for the principles embraced in the new unified development code being written by the Office of Planning and Development.
And that’s why the Broad Avenue plan has even more importance than first meets the eye.
It’s About Being Urban
The same consultants writing the unified development code developed the plan for Binghamton, continuing the progressive thinking that has characterized their work so far.
They wrote in the Broad Avenue report: “The current development regulations in place today reflect a previous desire to ‘suburbanize’ the city and county with larger lot sizes, and development standards that reflect an auto-dominated environment. As part of the unified development code process, a set of more urban, mixed use, pedestrian-friendly development standards has been developed. The Broad Avenue Corridor area was selected to test the ability of the new regulations to effectively implement these improved standards. The lessons learned from the planning process will be incorporated into the larger Unified Development Code.”
From the beginning, the consultants writing the unified code have laid a foundation that can make the code a model for the country, shifting our community from a sprawl at any cost community to a more environmentally sensitive, more walkable, more mixed use view of the future.
Even without the ties to the unified code, the Broad Avenue Planning Initiative would be historic in its own right. Directed by Louise Mercuro of OPD, who always manages to inject innovation and aspiration into city/county planning projects, the initiative should mark the rebirth of the neighborhood destroyed by the highway (then intended as the I-40 route through Memphis and now Sam Cooper Boulevard) that carved it into two pieces and ripped its soul into even more.
To see the area now, it’s hard to believe that in 1956, it had three grocery stores, three dry goods stores, three doctors, a dentist, a civil engineer’s office, a lawyer’s office, several restaurants, a shoe repair shop, a barbershop and a handful of light industries. In other words, it was a functioning neighborhood. That ended in the late 1960s when the road construction displaced more than 200 residents.
So, how does the plan seek to solve this problem?
The plan intends 1) To reconnect the surrounding neighborhoods; 2) To promote diversity, mix uses, and mix incomes; 3) To make the streets more walkable; 4) To make it easy to built the right thing; and 5) To control the scale of new development.
To achieve these goals, the planning initiative proposed, among other things, a grand pedestrian gateway into Overton Park, public gardens and common spaces for the neighborhood, landscaping to make the area more walkable, diagonal parking to support businesses, new at-grade intersections crossing Sam Cooper Blvd., a shift from high-speed thoroughfares to walkable boulevards, and sidewalks safely located a distance from the road.
There are recommendations for retail and service businesses (such as a 40,000 square foot grocery store), lofts, senior housing and new housing.
Back to our original point about tax increment financing, there’s no better place for TIF district than in pursuit of this vision for Broad Avenue. In fact, it’s almost a textbook justification – it has a clear plan, it has mixed use with every type of land use and person, it is in dire need of infrastructure improvements such as sidewalks and streetscapes, it has right-of-way that can be sold to create new taxes for the TIF district, and it has some solid civic anchors such as the new school and new police precinct.
TIFs are now authorized in 47 states, and although they’re regulated by the state, they’re actually controlled by city governments to help redevelop areas that are deemed “blighted.” When an area is redeveloped, it creates new property taxes. From these taxes, the original property taxes (based on the unimproved values) are paid to the city and county, and the balance (the tax increment) goes into a special fund to pay debt service on bonds for the infrastructure. Usually, TIF pays for streets, sewers, parking facilities, land acquisition, planning expenses, job training, demolition and clean-up costs.
Tax increment financing is not perfect. No business incentive is, but it’s time to look beyond PILOTs to a time when we have a more balanced, diverse mix of business incentives in Memphis and Shelby County. Tax increment financing didn’t get anywhere last time it was discussed by local legislative bodies, but perhaps, with some much-needed controls put in place on the PILOT program, it’s time to revisit it.