By Gene Pearson, FAICP, Professor Emeritus of City Planning, The University of Memphis

Warning: This post may damage some brain cells, but it’s for your own good.

The following statement is from AC Wharton’s 2015 campaign web site:

“The concept of a City of Memphis Planning Office will be evaluated to ensure that City issues, challenges and problems are being evaluated through a city-centric lens and that plans for the future are being produced by an adequately staffed, future- oriented team of planners.”

In 1955 there were two planning commissions and two plans for growth, one for Memphis and the other for the rest of Shelby County. At the time it was determined that these planning bodies and their plans were competing with each other and that Memphis’ growth outside of its borders had no official input from Memphis about such growth. Thus, the Memphis & Shelby County Planning Commission was created, and in the 1960s, this joint body produced the greatest set of plans before and since for the urbanization of Shelby County. During this time, the Memphis & Shelby County Planning Commission was adequately staffed with well-trained planners. This staff even provided assistance to the suburban municipalities before they formed their own planning staffs.

In the 1970s, two things happened that set the course of planning we see today.

First, Memphis and Shelby County hired a national organization, the American Society of Planning Officials (ASPO), to evaluate the planning function. ASPO concluded that the joint Planning Commission of leading citizens was too removed from actual decision-making by the City Council and County Commission.

ASPO also concluded that the location-specific plans of the 1960s were too easily ignored. For example, there was a detailed plan for the location of schools based on a desired development pattern throughout the County. If implemented the school patterns and residential densities would have eliminated the sprawl we see today. The school boards and our elected officials ignored this plan.

ASPO recommended that a so-called “policy plan” be produced in place of the “end-state blueprints” of the 1960s. Such a policy plan would not have too much specificity about location, but would have statements like “encourage a development pattern that maintains residential densities found in places like Central Gardens and avoids scattered subdivisions requiring costly infrastructure extensions.” There is argument to this day about which approach is best for economic and community development.

The other recommendation from ASPO called for the creation of the Land Use Control Board to replace the joint Planning Commission. This new Board would primarily be responsible for recommending zoning changes and approval of subdivision plats. The plans-making function would be done on behalf of the City Council and County Commission. The professional staff would serve both appointed and elected bodies. This organizational approach was to get the elected officials directly involved in growth policies.

In 1981 the Memphis City Council and the Shelby County Commission officially adopted the “Memphis 2000: A Policy Plan” as their guide to zoning, subdivision, tax, and budget decisions. This was an update of the 1960s Comprehensive Plan.

Unfortunately and after ASPO’s work, the federal government stopped providing grants to hire professional planners to staff the planning departments in cities like Memphis, and the Memphis staff saw a reduction in force. Developers’ fees for zoning and subdivision applications provided funding for the land use controls staff, and City/County funding for the comprehensive planning staff grew in the 1980s and 1990s because of demands from development. There was even an attempt to update the 1981 plan, but the two legislative bodies never adopted it.

By the early 2000s, the staff of Memphis & Shelby County Office of Planning and Development (OPD) was generally adequate until 2007 when land development dried up due to the recession, and OPD lost its entire comprehensive planning staff because of budget problems in the City and County.

This is where we are today.

Mayor Wharton is thinking of his own planning office, and the loss of the plan-making capacity at OPD offers a perfect vacuum. At the same time the Chamber of Commerce’s Chairman’s Circle has a “moon mission” for the preparation of a Comprehensive Plan that sounds like what the Office of Planning and Development is charged to do on behalf the City and County elected officials. Several powerful private groups are also trying to figure out how to organize the planning function for Memphis.

On top of this our suburban legislators (Norris & Todd), with the support of Mayor Luttrell, want the State to eliminate Memphis’ extraterritorial powers to zone property for development and grant subdivision approvals. This would be devastating to Memphis’ ability to control sprawl and loss of population. There is also a bill before the General Assembly that would allow de-annexation referendums, which would have a huge negative impact on Memphis. Where will the madness stop? Can or should Shelby County serve a de-annexed Cordova? Memphians would pay most of the costs but have no revenue.

What do we do now? I honestly don’t know except to fight the legislation that will be before the General Assembly.

Most of the City’s elected and civic leadership would say we need a Plan. However, I don’t believe they have a notion about who should prepare such a plan or who should implement it; and we already have existing plans for growth like “Fast Forward”, “Greenprint”, “Sustainable Shelby Implementation Plan”, and the MPOs “Long-Range Transportation Plan: Direction 2040”. The latter plan actually works against Memphis’ desire to stem its population loss because it accepts a “trends” model for highway construction (i.e. sprawl, which will be the subject of another post).

I think that there needs to be a unified policy for the future of Memphis and Shelby County, but I don’t know what Wharton is looking to do.  Whatever happens, there needs to be a planning staff that is able to produce a Comprehensive Plan and neighborhood plans to guide development, revitalization, and redevelopment in Memphis. Maybe the Land Use Control Board needs to become a Planning Commission again. The staff needs to become a City Division and placed side by side with the Division of Finance when plans are actually translated into investment budgets.