Thursday, March 24, 2005

In The Zone

There was a time when I would read about zoning changes and my eyes would glaze over. They bored me to tears. Then I got into neighborhood organizing and I realized that if one does not pay attention, zoning can cost you the quality of your neighborhood.

Tonight the Planning Commission is scheduled to hear a zoning change request from a developer who wants to convert a store at Garfield and 5th Ave. in Salemtown into "something with residential and office space"; so says the rumor mill. To do that he has got to have a zoning change from residential (R6) to "Mixed Use" (MUL). Alternatively, the Metro Planning Department Staff is recommending a change to a different, more restrictive "Mixed Use" category (MUN), based on the idea that Garfield and 5th is designated a neighborhood center.

Are your eyes glazing over yet? Even if they are, do not assume that the difference in details is unimportant just because it does not jazz you. The details are important and we all know details are where devils reside.

I'm confused as it is that a store already sits on residential property. Either the current property owner got some sort of exception or he is bending the zoning laws somehow. All I know is that the distance that I live down the block equals the time it takes to eat a small, single serving bag of chips or other snack food.

How do I know this? Because the neighborhood youth who buy Doritos or Cheetos or Fritos from the corner store and then walk down the block past my house finish their snacks just in time to throw the empty bags on my front lawn. It's nearly a daily ritual. I have a new measure of time when telling people how to get to my house: walk to the corner of Garfield and 5th, buy a bag of Lay's, and walk south; by the time you finish the bag, swivel right and throw it on the ground; the house that sits on the newly littered property is mine.

Hence, eventhough I haven't really probed the issue of how a store can sit on residential property, I won't be sad to see it go away. The only question that remains is, "What will take its place?" This is where details become important, so unglaze your eyes.

According to the Planning Department's report, the developer who is buying from the previous owner expresses "uncertainty" regarding intentions with the property. Also, the report says that, under the requested zoning change (MUL), the developer could just as easily place a fast food restaurant as quality residential and office space.

Fast food restaurant?! Suddenly I'm having visions of empty potato chip bags giving way to Big Mac wrappers and of supersized coke cups hurled from car windows onto my lawn. There's nothing sexy about a neighborhood gone from the chip bag to the fry basket.

So, I'm very interested in this re-zoning request. My intention is to go to the Planning Commission tonight and find out what the developer's intentions are, raising questions or taking issue as needed. I have the benefit of living in a historic part of the city so I have some argument in favor of a stricter zoning change.

And the Planning Department's recommendation is a stricter zoning change. The long-term plan for Salemtown is to reserve space for Neighborhood Centers, which maintains that structures be built where neighbors gather and/or live and that those structures be built to the sidewalk to sustain a "mainstreet character."

If I have a choice, and I think I do as a resident of the neighborhood, I support the more restrictive, "mainstreet" re-zoning. The developer can still build a business or residential units but not simply in whatever form his or her heart desires. He or she still has some responsibility to the neighbors who actually have to live in the vacinity of his or her development.

By the way, if you are still confused and blurry-eyed and in need a primer for understanding planning and zoning, the Tennessean offered one in a recent edition.

03/24/2005, 6:00 PM Update: Well, for all my bravado and bluster about attending the Planning Meeting tonight, thanks to my own poor planning and confusion on meeting times, I failed to attend. "Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing," was Shakespeare's quote, right? Thankfully, though, two neighbors did attend and spoke in favor of the more restrictive MUN. If they had not attended to represent the Salemtown Association, the MUN probably would not have passed, which it did. Looks like we won't have to worry about a fast food operation on the block. Hello, mainstreet, and kudos to W.W. and M.R. for recovering my fumble.

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