As planning director for the Memphis & Shelby County Office of Planning and Development, Josh Whitehead wears the hat of a mediator – a facilitator of wishes among government, private business, developers and citizens.
It’s work that has seen plenty of coverage and plenty of controversy lately with the rejection of a proposed McDonald’s in the University District and the planning of a new concept restaurant, Truck Stop, at the corner of Cooper Street and Central Avenue in Midtown.
“I think that’s what OPD’s job is, to help an applicant hit a level of compromise,” Whitehead said.
He pinpoints his interest in community planning to a pecan pie. As a boy growing up in Plano, Texas, he’d made his way uninvited through the dessert. His mother told him she’d need a bottle of Karo syrup to whip up another pie and that he was responsible for going to the store for it.
“Plano was, and still is, such an auto-centric environment (that) some seemingly simple task like going to get a bottle of Karo syrup from the supermarket, it was terrifying to me,” he said. “I didn’t do it. I rode my bike who knows how many miles to get to the major arterial, and then it was straight down the major road to get to the shopping center where the grocery store was. It was such a terrifying experience for a child on a bike on that road.”
It was an experience that stuck with him and is a reason he’s sought out urban environments in which to live – and one that began him on his path to planning. It was a path that would ultimately begin in Memphis, where he had moved with his parents and attended Houston High School. He began college at Christian Brothers University, eventually graduating from the University of Memphis with a bachelor’s degree in geography with a concentration in urban planning.
A natural fascination with older, pre-war, original cities found him looking in the Rust Belt for graduate school and enrolling in the University of Cincinnati for a Master of Community Planning.
“There was a particular street in Cincinnati that I drove through and later found out it’s the largest National Registered Historic District in the country,” he said. “But even more than that, it’s really a district that’s been altered very little since it was built up in the 1870s. I thought I was in Europe. I’d never driven through anything like it in America, and I said, ‘I want to move to this place.’”
He stayed in Cincinnati for two years after graduation to work with the nonprofit Citizens for Civic Renewal on regional planning. He was offered a stipend to further his education and felt he had a decision to make between a Ph.D. or juris doctorate. During his work in planning, he’d realized there are legal aspects to many of the issues he worked on. With that understanding, he enrolled in the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.
“There was no degree that I had to fight harder for, or was more proud to achieve, than that degree. That was not an easy three years.”
He graduated in 2005 and, wanting an urban setting, moved to Chicago. His search for work took on ever-widening circles until he finally found interest from two entities – the city of Germantown and the Memphis & Shelby County Office of Planning and Development. The Germantown job panned out, he moved home, and he took the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP) exam to become a certified city planner.
He would move over to OPD five years later, eventually becoming planning director in 2010. His career has been a trek begun on that busy road he pedaled down in Plano, but he says the door to his current job was opened by his law degree.
As Memphis continues its move to more progressive thoughts on land use and road sharing within the city, Whitehead is excited to be at the forefront and to share his devotion for the Unified Development Code and Midtown Overlay, with its nod toward urban sensibilities such as bike lanes, buildings that edge sidewalks and a minimization of surface parking lots.
Still, though, his days are spent in mediating and seeking compromise, and trying to find that “healthy balance between pushing the change that you want, but also being careful that you don’t scare away the marketplace.”