Tuesday, March 11, 2003

Memphis Sprawl: The Mayor Speaks

Sunday's Commercial Appeal had a guest editorial from Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton as part of the CA's weeklong series on urban sprawl. Let's look through it:
Making our community a wonderful place to live continues to be a top priority of Shelby County government, as it has been for more than a quarter of a century.
Would this be the same government which has allowed unrestrained growth during that time period? The same zoning boards which have routinely allowed whatever changes developers wanted, regardless of citizen and neighborhood protest?
But growth and development issues involve more than rezoning parcels of land and building new neighborhoods. They raise questions about the best use of our limited amount of land, and challenge government in many other ways.
Limited? For who? Folks already live in eight neighboring counties who consider themselves Memphians. How does Shelby County plan to control them? Snatch them into a Regional Planning Collective?

Large swaths of land have already been built and paved over. Even if we stop growth today, we'll still build more roads and development just to service what's already there.
Construction of new infrastructure - roads, sewers, parks and schools - drives up debt. New developments often divert from the inner city investment dollars needed to support existing infrastructure, draining the government treasury of the funds it needs to provide essential services.
So why hasn't any of this been addressed by previous governments? Could it be that Memphis and Shelby County governments have been running a pyramid scheme, constantly keeping the city borders moving outward at a pace that just outpaces debt and infrastructure needs?

The whole County has already been divided up, just see the Master Plan on file at the County's offices. Every government already knows what to count on. But we are slowly getting closer to the County's edges. And I suspect that, in part, is why Wharton and the CA are addressing this issue. When you can't grow out, you have to cannibalise. They're trying to set up the transition.

I also suspect that consolidation plays a part here. I still maintain that Wharton is Mayor Herenton's stalking horse for the consolidation issue. Wharton is enough of his own man, and dignified enough, to not be obvious about it. He also realises the political trauma he'll bring on himself if he's too clearly aligned with Herenton. You'll notice that Herenton is quiet on the smarth growth issue, as Wharton is trying to stay low on consolidation.
Memphis and its surrounding suburban developments make ours a community of contrasts. A revitalized downtown is once again becoming a business and entertainment district where people want to live. Downtown has become a magnet for the arts and a tourist destination, but other older areas of the city are steadily losing population, spinning off social problems such as housing deterioration, under-performing schools and crime.
Again, nothing new. We've been discussing these things since I arrived here fiften years ago.

Plus, he's being a bit ingenuous. Crime and bad schools aren't directly correlated to folks moving out. Most of our crime is a function of lost jobs and drugs, and bad schools. The bad schools are the result of disastrous mismanagement by school leaders, County and City leaders, and teacher unions, all protecting political turf at the expense of children.

Notice that Wharton holds up the downtown as a model and the beacon. That's deliberate. The whole CA series has been doing this. It is, I'm pretty sure, their intent. They all hope to convince Memphians and Shelby Countians that the huge drain of resources into the downtown is for everyone's ultimate good.

It's a battle of developers. The Turleys and Belzs of the downtown versus the Hynemanns of the outer edges. The Turley/Belz group have the ear -- and pocketbooks and hands and voices and backbones and friends-- of our elected leaders and their bureaucracies. This is all about protecting prerogatives, namely the Turleys' and Belz'. It's little wonder that Tuesday's CA has this puff piece on Henry Turley.

It's not that they are doing better, but that they are in charge. If County developers had the kind of explicit public support and direct money that downtown developers did, they too would be making "magnets and tourist destinations," which they are doing, in a way, with their clean, new subdivisions and strip malls. It's just more utilitarian and blunt.
Shelby County Commissioner Bruce Thompson has observed wisely that growth into the suburbs is arguably a matter of the migration of our population rather than actual growth. If he is right that we're not experiencing real growth, why are we spending so much money to build new infrastructure for a nomadic population?
"Smarth growth" means taking the area as a whole into one umbrella of control. Therefore, the growth of the whole area in population negates Thompson's assertion.

Why are we building all this new growth then? For the one reason Wharton, and the CA don't state anywhere. The eight hundred pound gorilla in the living room. Race.

Since the Sixties, whites have been fleeing farther and farther out, trying to outrun the grasp of the City and the faster-growing population of black Memphians. The turnover of City government to the black majority in the late Eighties only speeded up the process. It's ugly, but true. No amount of social engineering can, or has, changed this. Nothing Wharton does, short of throwing the blanket of "Memphis" over an eight county, three state area will change that.

Developers go where the people want. Growth policies by the County only encouraged this for the past thirty years; zoning laws play a part as well. But very few people want to live in walking distance of public housing projects, or majority-black, low income neighborhoods, even blacks themselves when they have the economic and financial choice. No "smart growth" plan will change that.
We need smart and sustainable growth. We need zoning laws and planning decisions that will keep our neighborhoods stable for the long run.
Here's the nub of it. What he's just proposed is more and more-restrictive laws; tighter zoning controls (except for developers, of course); yoking the people to social engineering schemes. This is all too little and far too late. The horse is out of the barn by thirty years; reining it in will take monumental effort. Attempting to do that will only drive more and more people across County and State lines.
Subdivisions that were built when the first county mayor took office in 1976 are declining in value, as newer developments spring up in other areas. Germantown Road, once a mostly wooded and serene strip of road, is now a thoroughfare for heavy traffic and commercial development. Buildings along it already are being abandoned, threatening the sanctity of nearby neighborhoods.
The first sentence is simple fact. Neighborhoods always decline over time. The Parkway used to be the most expensive and swankiest homes in the City. Now, parts of North and South Parkway approach slum status. It's like he's saying that "over time, mountains tend to flatten into plains." Well, duh!

The second part of this paragraph is smoke and mirrors. The County has been allowing this kind of development all along, even encouraging it. Former Mayor Jim Rout has been the developer's friend all along, as have predecessors. Wharton is proposing to suddenly reverse course. It'll be messy and violent, as we'll soon see.
Developers, city planners and other government officials debate the impact of this kind of unbridled growth.
Suuuuuure. And developers have always controlled and won the debate. Wharton is trying to tilt the balance back to government. Good luck.
But there is no question about this: If the current patterns of development remain the same and our growth policies do not change to provide for sustainable growth, the county's current $1.5 billion debt will soon mushroom to $2 billion. That ultimately could threaten county government's ability to provide basic services.
Too late, it already has. And the debt issue he raises is more to do with an unfair, legalistic funding scheme than growth itself. It's a straw man, designed to frighten you into joining the cause. Solving the school funding issue would solve the debt problem, largely. Continued growth can provide the tax and income base needed to reduce the debt.
During my campaign last year, I pledged that the development of a long-term comprehensive growth plan for Shelby County would be a top priority. I am bringing that pledge to center stage Tuesday by convening the first countywide Alliance for Equitable Growth Summit at the Cook Convention Center. This summit will bring to Memphis some of the nation's leading experts on growth, development and policy.
Eh. We're going to import someone else's ideas. Again. And sell it to Memphians and Shelby Countians as the greatest deal since...the Pyramid?
The summit's goal is to bring to the surface all of the questions surrounding development, including the one that may be most critical: Does growth cost taxpayers or does it pay for itself?
Growth unrestrained costs taxpayers, of course. The mess it creates is awful, as we all know. But it's thirty years too late to fix.

What Wharton is hoping to do, to repeat, is to tilt the balance of control in growth back to the government. I shudder to imagine the Shelby County Commission with even more power.
If we conclude that growth does pay for itself, at least in the short term, how do we ensure that it also pays for itself in the long term? And if we conclude that growth doesn't pay for itself, what changes can we make to ensure that it does? Our plan is not to stop growth, but to manage growth so it is sustainable.
Notice he doesn't define "sustainable." Too bad, as that's the crux of it. If he means leap-frogging the leading edge of development back to the City's center, to move outward once again, it's a bold plan and likely undoable. If he's talking about creating a dynamic sytem of constant growth in pockets around the City and County, then it's admirable, but without bold and major zoning law changes, and conquering the race issue, he's not going to get there.

Zoning laws work against him. The kind of density that city centers are made from is written out of the law nowadays. That's a big reason why suburbs look as they do, after the availability of large tracts of land. You can't assemble those kinds of tracts without using eminent domain in the inner city. Good luck with that, when it's the developers' own property being taken from under them. We've already seen how slow the process is downtown, with clearly substandard properties. Specualtive property ownership will be tough to overcome.

Seeing how he proposes to shoehorn suburb-style subdivisions into the inner-interstate area will be interesting. Or does he picture the very expensive kind of development we see out on Mud Island? That's going to push out a whole lot of the people already living there. Where does he propose they go?

In the inner city, the infrastructure - streets, lights, sewers, hospitals - already is in place.
And much of it is very old and in need of replacement. He's proposing to add stress to an already stressed system. A recipe for more infrastructure costs.
We must encourage balanced growth by developing policies and incentives that make rebuilding inside the city as attractive as building outside the city. Providing quality schools in all parts of our city, making inner-city streets safe and attractive and cutting bureaucratic red tape can help.
Frankly, the schools thing won't be happening any time soon. Crime isn't going to go down soon either. Leaders like to point to how safe downtown is, which isn't true; go down there and see for yourself. Lots of the kind of folks (low income, low education blacks) who scare off the middle-class whites congregate there. Go after 3PM and look at the ghost town.

What they've also done is push the homeless and vagrants a bit farther east. Into my neighborhood, in fact. That's not solution. You only continue to push those folks around to the lowest income area, or densest building spaces, where they can slip out.

Cutting bureaucratic red tape? Hasn't happened and won't soon. Too many perquisites to protect behind that red tape.
For example, LeMoyne Gardens once epitomized the worst of urban life, but now symbolizes the best that local urban dreamers can accomplish. The miracle of LeMoyne Gardens paves the way for the builders of Southwind to rebuild Hyde Park and Firestone.
Unfortunately, the definition of miracles is that they happen rarely. They also require a real-world investment of sustained money and time, and a guiding plan. Who's going to control the plans for my neighborhood?
The summit is designed to be a catalyst for change in the way county government deals with growth - change that will result in better stewardship of our land and resources. If government and developers work together to make available affordable housing within our urban center, protect our rural communities and conserve resources, county taxpayers could save perhaps millions of dollars.
"If government can regain the upper hand, we can promise utopia." Doesn't sound quite so believable when you put it like that, does it? Notice, too, all the weasel words he uses there. Gotta watch yer back.
It's no secret that Shelby County is laboring under a budget crisis. More than half of the county's $1.5 billion debt can be attributed to the cost of building schools.
Move more folks back into the inner City and you'll need to upgrade or replace schools. Maybe even build some more.
As our community expanded to the east in past decades, poor planning by government and developers resulted in crowded suburban neighborhoods and overcrowded schools in need of relief.
Wait! Doesn't this contradict exactly what he said in the first paragraph? Yes, yes it does. Oops.
We can change that with cooperation and careful planning to identify the best areas for public investment - areas where new roads, new sewers, new parks and new schools should be built to accommodate sustainable growth.
Again, didn't he just say a couple of paragraphs previous that coming back to the inner city would mean less of just the kind of spending he now proposes? Yes, yes he did. Can't have it both ways, Mayor.
Good growth policies can help shore up our economy and our sense of community. This week's three-hour summit won't result in dramatic change overnight, nor will it offer the final word on any of the issues addressed.
"Sense of community" comes when the Land Use Board and city planners respect the people who already live there, and hear their desires for the direction and shape of growth. Letting developers do what they want, regardless of prior zoning or neighborhood needs, is what got us here. Memphis has an enormus number of neighborhood associations, and some of the most powerful. That bespeaks of strong communities already. How about the City and County respect those voices?
It will, however, pave the way to developing enforceable policies to guide governing bodies as they make critical decisions on growth. It will be a catalyst for public debate and ultimately could inspire changes that will help preserve Shelby County's natural beauty and civic prosperity for future generations.
The City and County could simply reform their own actions, listening to the people and not being the servants of developers, reforming zoning laws to allow dense downtown-style land use (ie. allowing people to live over commercial and retail establishments and allowing much closer mixing of residential and commercial use on a tighter scale).

But not the kind of development on Mud Island. Take a look some time. Acres and acres of tightly-packed apartment blocks or small homes with a single tiny commercial block (one grocery, one video store) to service it all. It means lots of folks driving in and out to take care of basic needs. Instead, allow more, small commercial areas so that you have a variety of several small businesses every few blocks.

He could also get the Land Use Board to toughen its spine, and the County Commission to act for the people and not the developers. Don't let people move all the way out to the edges of the County and beyond, and then demand large, straight roads through established neighborhoods and parks just for their commuting convenience. Let them either find jobs out there or bring them over. But don't let them compartmentalise our community for their own purposes.

Start there, Mr. Mayor, and then we'll see what happens. Then you can try for your "smart growth" grand plan.

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