The Mod Squad

Supporters see Midtown Overlay District as a stabilizing force

By Aaron James and Sutton Mora Hayes

[singlepic id=50 w=320 h=240 mode=web20 float=right]On Saturday, January 16th, a couple hundred or so concerned Midtowners crammed into the auditorium at Memphis College of Art to hear and share ideas on the Midtown Overlay District (MOD) currently being proffered by the Memphis Regional Design Center. MRDC Executive Director Chooch Pickard officiated the assembly, with Memphis and Shelby County Office of Planning and Development (OPD) Associate Director Mary Baker and City Councilman Shea Flinn along for official support.

The following quote from the MRDC website provides perhaps the best introduction to the proposal (reprinted here with permission):

“The Memphis Regional Design Center in conjunction with the Memphis & Shelby County Division of Planning and Development, the Midtown Memphis Development Corporation, and the Cooper-Young Development Corporation is pleased to announce the launch of efforts to develop a plan for the future of Midtown Memphis. The Midtown Plan will include an overlay district that will cover areas of Midtown that are not currently covered by the Medical District Overlay or the various Historic District overlays indicated on the (adjacent) map…While providing specific design requirements that will ensure that proper development is occurring in Midtown, the plan will give developers some predictability, increasing the vitality and economic stability of the area.”

The Cooper-Young Development Corporation was approached by the MRDC to be a part of this planning process a few weeks before the meeting. The CYDC has been laying the groundwork for creating a Master Plan for the Cooper-Young neighborhood for the past couple of months as a part of its new strategic plan, adopted in October 2009. The CYDC’s role will be to review the proposed changes, plans, and amendments and bring them back to the neighborhood for comment and review. They will be working with both the Cooper-Young Business Association and Community Association to ensure the concerns of our residents are addressed and that everyone has a chance to view and comment on the plan. The CYDC believes that it is important that any planning done in Cooper-Young be done within the context of what is happening in our larger area. However, its role in the process will be to ensure the needs of our neighborhood and property owners are addressed.

The MOD, assuming it is eventually adopted and signed into law by the City Council, will provide additional zoning restrictions that supersede current, more generalized zoning requirements. It may also include design guidelines for streetscapes, building setbacks, height restrictions, and off-street parking. Also proposed are provisions to limit offensive uses, inappropriate building materials, and fences. All proposed development projects within the overlay boundary would require plans reviewed by OPD, which will be responsible for notifying the public and soliciting input from all concerned parties. The ordinance will not, however, restrict the rights of property owners to demolish structures at their discretion, which would have been helpful with such recent losses as the Anderton’s building.

Existing zoning requirements were described as “as loose as they can get.” The bulk of Union and Cooper, for example, is currently zoned “Commercial Highway,” which allows for essentially unrestricted development. Councilman Flinn described the MOD as “setting the ground rules for future developments and providing the community a voice.” With functioning overlay district guidelines in place, controversies such as that currently surrounding Overton Square will hopefully be avoided, or at least minimized, in the future. The CYDC believes that this overlay plan is the first step in creating a true “master plan” for the neighborhood. It will not answer all our concerns, but it will provide us a starting place for the conversation.

Following Q&A, Memphis Heritage Executive Director June West shared a bit of information that caused an audible gasp to ripple through the crowd. It seems that Rhode Island–based CVS Pharmacy is interested in the First United Methodist Church property at the SW corner of Union and Cooper.

Further details and notices of relevant public forums will be passed on as they develop.

Finally, Ms. Baker reported that the developer currently interested in the Overton Square property has asked her office to remove review of their proposed site plan from the OPD February meeting agenda, but she went on to clarify that they have not, in fact, withdrawn their application entirely.

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