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VOL. 121 | NO. 41 | Friday, February 17, 2006

Urban Land Institute Forms Memphis District

Regional leaders slated to tackle code and sprawl issues

By Andrew Ashby

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THE LONG VIEW: Bob Barber, Hernando's director of planning and the Mid-South District Council's Mississippi coordinator, stands in front of a mural in the DeSoto County Courthouse. The council will help with planning and land-use issues in West Tennessee, eastern Arkansas and northern Mississippi. -- Photograph By Andrew Ashby

From outdated development codes to suburban sprawl, Memphis has plenty of issues when it comes to land use and planning. The Mid-South District Council, a local chapter of the Urban Land Institute, is forming to help guide the city and its surrounding areas in responsible growth.

"We thought that as our membership continues to grow in this area, it would be good to have our own district council to deal with issues of importance to this area," said John Dudas, chairman of the Mid-South council's executive committee.

Metropolitan Memphis currently is part of ULI's Atlanta District Council, but has more than 100 local members. ULI is a national organization that focuses on proper land use as well as urban and rural planning. It has more than 20,000 members in all areas of the real estate industry, including developers, architects, planners, engineers, lenders and college professors.

The group coalesces

MDC is in the process of being certified by the ULI headquarters in Washington. It will cover West Tennessee, eastern Arkansas and northern Mississippi.

Hernando director of planning Bob Barber is the council's Mississippi coordinator, while George Wittenberg, coordinator of the University of Arkansas-Little Rock's Urban Projects and Design program, will be the council's Arkansas coordinator. The council should be certified this spring.

ULI offers a number of resources for MDC, said Dudas, who is the vice president and director of strategic planning for Belz Enterprises.

First, ULI holds meetings related to the real estate industry. The biggest meetings are held in May and October, with usually more than 5,000 members attending. The meetings feature national and international guests who talk about the economy, land use, development and other real estate issues.

"We thought that as our membership continues to grow in this area, it would be good to have our own district council to deal with issues of importance to this area."
- John Dudas
chairman of the Mid-South District Council's executive committee

ULI also publishes its own material with a large online bookstore of publications focusing on land-use issues.

The group also has a consulting panel, with volunteers going to cities to help with issues about everything from development plans to zoning. Dudas pointed out ULI had a panel in Memphis four years ago, giving advice to city officials and developers on what to do with the Mississippi riverfront.

Getting down to business

The first goal of MDC is to identify issues of interest to the local membership. Then, programs will be developed to address those issues, possibly by bringing in speakers to deal with relevant topics.

Frank Ricks, a founding member of Looney Ricks Kiss Architects, has been involved with ULI for three years. He's been impressed with the organization and said he thinks it will help the region's development through smarter growth.

"For me personally, what we're trying to do is learn to build and sustain better communities and cities," Ricks said. "Hopefully, the district council will be a group that will be called upon to offer input and, through the ULI network, we can bring in outside expertise through speakers or special projects."

Value-added planning

Proper planning is good business because it creates neighborhoods that will retain people and businesses, the group's leaders agree.

"We know that if we use our land irresponsibly, it ends up costing the taxpayers and the business community (more) than if the land was used in a responsible manner," Dudas said. "You have a tendency to develop inefficiently. The infrastructure is generally not planned appropriately to intensity of development. In many cases, you have to rebuild your infrastructure because you did not plan carefully enough on the front end."

Ricks and his company work around the country and see many different approaches to planning and land-use issues.

"We see a lot of cities that take these issues head-on and very seriously and they've made dramatic improvements in the quality of the neighborhoods and, therefore, their quality of life," Ricks said. "I'm hopeful on a personal level that the ULI district council can help bring some focus and resources to helping us do that."

Dudas pointed to Portland, Ore., as an example of good urban planning.

"Portland has had a very deliberate and effective planning process for a number of years," he said. "As a result, they have been able to avoid a lot of the urban sprawl problems that other cities experience. They have also experienced a good deal of central city revitalization."

On the home turf

MDC will focus on Mississippi's DeSoto County, Arkansas' Crittenden County and all of Shelby County.

"Memphis is the dominant urban area in the region, but there are benefits to be spread far and wide," Barber said. "Across the Mid-South region, the interests and the issues are incredibly diverse."

Sometimes in the development process, certain groups tend to isolate themselves and focus on their own interests.

"The Urban Land Institute does a good job of breaking that down," Barber said. "Most folks want to do a good job at whatever their work is, and we certainly can stand to learn from one another and learn to do it better."

In the end, MDC can help bring a better quality of life to this region through its work.

"It is a direct relationship between quality of life and the quality of planning and land-use decisions," Barber said. "It couldn't be a closer relationship. Any effort to improve land-use decisions and planning in a community is an effort to improve the quality of life in that community."

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