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VOL. 122 | NO. 147 | Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Germantown Leaders Position Town For Smarter Growth

By Eric Smith

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DOWN ON MAIN STREET: Germantown will have a new look when its Smart Growth plan is initiated. The town's future Main Street is
depicted here.
-- Rendering Courtesy Of The Lawrence Group

If you can't grow outward, grow upward.That's the tack Germantown has chosen for "Vision 2020," an ambitious redevelopment initiative centered on Smart Growth, a movement designed to transform the city's commercial core and put the "urban back into suburban."

Germantown's Mayor and Board of Aldermen on Monday will give a final reading to the proposed Smart Code - a drastic revision to the city's zoning codes.

If approved, the new codes will shed the old principles of Germantown's commercial zoning, which prohibit mixed-use development and limit building height, and instead foster "New Urbanism," a city zoning concept that combines commercial, residential and retail space with pedestrian-friendly sidewalks and intricate streetscapes.

"One of the big points of Smart Growth is giving this center part of Germantown that sense of place that brings people in," said Andy Pouncey, assistant city administrator.

Breaking through boundaries

The heart of Germantown's central business district is the intersection of Poplar Avenue and Germantown Road, extending about a mile in all directions. Anything built within that 700-acre zone will be subject to Smart Growth standards.

"We don't have a town square where you park your car in one area and walk around and you shop and stroll," said Mike Palazzolo, city alderman and the bank president at Germantown's Landmark Community Bank. "We wanted to come up with that kind of flair and concept."

New Urbanism has been around for years, but it's found new life in cities trying to revitalize blighted areas or those trying to prevent stagnation.

Downtown Memphis' South Main Historic Arts District is the former. Germantown is the latter, evidenced by its inability to annex or expand outside its borders.

"We're almost to the stage of build out," Palazzolo said. "This is something that will be a long-term benefit to our community that will be far-reaching. It's going to help stabilize the tax base and give us sustainability."

Germantown's civic and business leaders began working on Vision 2020 about three years ago as its previous long-range plan came to an end. As the city's available land was gobbled up by developers, Germantown was faced with the dreaded property-tax plateau.

"Environmental sustainability and financial sustainability - that's what this is basically all about," Pouncey said. "The city is bound in, and has to think creatively about how to sustain itself into the future."

Keeping it in the village

For John Wagner, owner of two city businesses and a member of the Germantown Economic Development Commission, it became imperative to find new means of revenue to maintain the city's topnotch amenities and quality of life.

"In the past, as we got more police service, as we got better libraries, as we got ambulance service, all of those things were coming from residential property taxes," he said. "In the future, as we want an even higher standard of living, we're going to need more tax - that's just logical."

But instead of looking at raising property taxes, Germantown sought to generate better, "smarter" use of its commercial space and create a walkable town center instead of the hodgepodge of shopping malls scattered about.

With the help of organizations such as the Santa Rosa Beach, Fla.-based Seaside Institute, and using cities like Carmel, Ind., (an affluent suburb of Indianapolis) as examples, Germantown began looking seriously at rewriting its city zoning codes.

The new codes will call for compact buildings with commercial and retail space on the bottom floors and residential on top. Also, the storefronts will be closer to the street, which would have angled parking in lieu of the current trend of huge parking lots fronting box stores.

"We wanted self-contained, mixed-use, higher density communities where you've got shopping, office and residential all interspersed in a village setting," Palazzolo said.

One component of the new codes will be to allow taller buildings, as long as the buildings are constructed at lower elevations, keeping the sightlines about the same as they are now.

"Now the central business district becomes a destination area where you go and park your car behind a building or underground or in a parking deck and you go to a sidewalk café and eat and you go and get your shoes repaired and you go and get your eyeglasses fixed," Palazzolo said. "All that in kind of a village setting."

Straighter roads, better sightlines

Part of Vision 2020 is a dramatic improvement of some of Germantown's busiest roads.

Wolf River Boulevard soon will be extended, eventually connecting Walnut Grove Road to the eastern edges of Collierville near where Tenn. 385 will extend. And Germantown Road will be realigned so it's no longer disjointed near the railroad tracks and Poplar Pike Road.

Other components of the Smart Growth include adding trees and burying power lines to improve the scenery for visitors to the new town center.

The plan was crafted by the St. Louis-based Lawrence Group, and city leaders already are starting to envision what their community will look like once it's finished - although the first of numerous projects aren't expected to begin until later this year.

"We can kind of close our eyes and see it completed," said Steve Wilensky, chairman of the board of the Germantown Area Chamber of Commerce and director of UT Medical Group-Germantown. "But we have to be patient and realize that it's not something that happens overnight. An awful lot of steps have to happen before it does. We're in that first phase now, but Germantown needs a go-to, central business district."

Still, Wilensky, who is tasked with selling Germantown to prospective businesses, said he believes this will make his job a whole lot easier.

"I don't have any doubt that that will be the case," he said. "When people are looking to relocate to the area, Germantown is still one of the top areas they look at. The added attraction of being able to locate your business here will stand out as another plus."

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