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VOL. 129 | NO. 83 | Tuesday, April 29, 2014

No Annexation Declaration Directs New Path

By Bill Dries

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In seven words last week, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. got the attention of hundreds of planners who gathered in the city for the “Memphis Boot Camp,” a summit of sorts toward the idea of changing the city’s philosophy and approach to community development and economic development.

“Annexation is not where the action is,” Wharton told those gathered at the opening session Tuesday, April 22.

In a discussion at the end of the week with the editorial board of The Daily News, Charles Marohn, president of the “Strong Towns” organization that has been working with the city since 2012, termed the declaration “really a powerful thing.”

“We didn’t have that conversation two years ago,” he added. “Over time, I really see at all levels that dialogue starting to shift and there being a greater awareness at the executive level, at the high levels of the city, in the private sector and the nonprofit community that there’s some basic structural things that we have to fix.”

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. recently said the way to grow the city is through existing neighborhoods, not through annexation. 

(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

While the conference included discussions about examples of efforts to bring back to life areas like the Broad Avenue Arts District in particular, Marohn and the other planners pushed for something beyond that.

“There’s a lot of small little things that need to be dealt with. There’s some momentum things that we need to shift around to give all those other things a better chance,” Marohn said. “We’ve got to stop spending billions of dollars fighting congestion out on the edge of the city while our sidewalks here and our streets here and our most productive neighborhoods rot away and go to waste.”

Wharton seemed to agree at the opening session.

“For 50 years we have misinterpreted or misunderstood growth to mean you’ve got to get busy, you’ve got to expand, you’ve got to get outside the parkways, you’ve got to build new housing,” he said. “Over 60 years that has been the pattern. And true growth has really been elusive throughout all of the strategies that we’ve had.”

His declaration on annexation is likely to go unchallenged as other political factors have made it unlikely. The city annexed the South Cordova area last year but it wasn’t a new annexation effort. It came at the end of a court battle that lasted for more than a decade, so long that the plaintiffs in the case, trying to stop the annexation, weren’t aware it was nearing an end. It also caught Wharton’s office off guard.

Wharton’s predecessor as mayor, Willie Herenton, was fond of saying that annexation is the only way the city could grow. But toward the end of his tenure, Herenton took no position when the long-held timetable for the annexation of Southwind came due. The council also opted to vote down the annexation.

In the just concluded session in Nashville, Tennessee legislators passed a law requiring referendum approval of any annexations by residents living in the area a city or town proposes to annex.

Nevertheless, Marohn sees Wharton’s declaration as an indication of broader changes in thought at City Hall.

“To me it was like this whole thing is shifting when the mayor stands up and says growth is not our answer, further outward expansion is not our answer,” he said. “To me it was like a ‘Halleluiah’ kind of moment.”

Past the moment is a new way of looking at the value of retail and other commercial development being advocated by Joe Minicozzi, principal of Urban 3, an Asheville, N.C., financial analysis firm. Urban 3’s parent company is a real estate development firm with $13 million in assets, which lends itself to Minicozzi’s approach to valuing such development by the acre.

“We’re essentially doing ‘Moneyball’ for cities,” he explained as he looked at the value of the Wolfchase Galleria mall valued at $81 million and compared it to the D.T. Porter Building, Downtown’s first and oldest skyscraper.

“We do the per-acre analysis because it’s hard to compare the mall against the Porter Building,” he explained. “But it would only take six acres of the Porter Building to equal the entire property tax gain of the Galleria. … Think of the services it takes to service 143 acres of stuff.”

Look for a transcript of the editorial board conversation including Tommy Pacello of the Mayor’s Innovation Delivery Team and Mike Lydon of Street Plans Collaborative in an upcoming issue of The Memphis News.

Sponsors of the boot camp included the Urban Land Institute-Memphis, Livable Memphis, Community LIFT, Hyde Family Foundations, Community Foundation of Greater Memphis and the Greater Memphis Chamber.

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