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VOL. 121 | NO. 218 | Wednesday, November 8, 2006

A Broader Vision

Larger plan for Broad Avenue corridor to be unveiled tonight

By Andy Meek

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PIZZA PIE: Michael McRae puts the finishing touches on an order at Broad Avenue Pizza, where business seems to have picked up in response to revitalization plans in the area. -- Photo By Andy Meek

On the big screen, the conventional wisdom is that sequels rarely improve on the original.

But in the real world, urban planners, business owners, residents and city officials are working to produce exactly the opposite result for a poverty-scarred Memphis neighborhood.

The neighborhood is the Broad Avenue corridor off Sam Cooper Boulevard, which decades ago was split to make way for the construction of Interstate 40. The area's downward spiral can be traced from that point on, when residents, businesses and prosperity itself were displaced by the forces of progress.

Today, the neighborhood's sequel is being written by the very people who will partake of it. For months, planners and local stakeholders have been sketching new zoning and development concepts for the Broad Avenue corridor, which is roughly bounded by Summer and Harvard avenues on the north and south and sandwiched between East Parkway and a rail line.

One small step

The latest taste of the neighborhood's future will be unveiled today at 6:30 p.m. at the First Baptist Church at 2835 Broad Avenue. Among other things, a unified combination of those draft concepts will be presented as a guiding vision for the area.

Earlier this year, community representatives were invited to participate in a charrette - a free-flowing planning forum - to chart the area's future. This evening's meeting will reveal, for the first time, how a team of consultants has taken the public's recommendations on how to improve the Broad Avenue community and parlayed them into planning codes and concepts.

"What this is, really, is us bringing out the new zoning for the first time," said Lee Einsweiler, a planning consultant who earlier this year started his own firm, Code Studio, in Austin, Texas. He's working as a subcontractor on several projects related to Memphis and Shelby County.

Another of the projects he's involved with is the overhaul of what will become the city-county Unified Development Code, the official name for the regulations that govern zoning and subdivision development in the region.

A broad experiment

And that's another reason this week's Broad Avenue update is important. That particular stretch of Memphis was chosen to serve as the Petri dish in which consultants could experiment with ideas that will help mold the larger development code project.

Like some of Memphis' other older neighborhoods, the Broad Avenue community has sections that need significant redevelopment, areas that may require wholesale replacement of what's there now and areas where all that's needed is a small bit of careful infill.

"So we're bringing out a set of new zoning districts that would apply in that area and which we also think fit into the model of what the new zoning might look like, city-wide," Einsweiler said.

The planning guidelines he'll be discussing at this week's meeting are spelled out in a roughly 75-page report, which will be condensed into a 10-page summary for audience members.

Robert Montague, executive director of the Binghampton Development Corp., said all the interest in redeveloping Broad Avenue also has served to garner attention from for-profit developers who may want a piece of the action.

"Because the redevelopment of the Broad area and the Binghampton neighborhood are our charter and our passion, we're going to be very interested in seeing that this maintains the flavor of the residents' input during the charrette process," Montague said.

A pizza the action

Dewana Ishee, owner of Broadway Pizza, has seen change ebb and flow around the pizzeria started on Broad Avenue by her parents 30 years ago.

And the tide appears to be turning. She points out a shuttered storefront nearby that's supposed to become a new Mexican restaurant. A hair and nail salon also is rumored to be opening in the area, and a coffee shop is supposed to be opening in the next couple of weeks.

Inside her restaurant, the walls of which are dominated with pictures of Elvis Presley, life continues much as it always has. A steady stream of regular customers drops by, such as a small group from Buckman Laboratories that eats there once a week.

"It'll be wonderful if they're able to redo the fronts of the buildings like I've heard they've talked about," Ishee said. "We have picked up some new customers, and our overall business is picking back up and looking good again."

Cleaning up

Also this week, on the same trip, the out-of-town planning consultants will be meeting with a local advisory committee to discuss further the full city-county development codes overhaul. They'll be getting the same overview of the Broad Avenue area, as well as of new general development standards - concepts that involve parking, landscaping and lighting.

They'll also help polish the consultants' work on various Shelby County-related codes, sending it all onward to the next step in the completion process.

"We're hoping to have kind of the final piece of the initial draft in place either toward the end of the year or in January, then back to the committee for review," Einsweiler said. "Then it'll go through kind of a grinding process with the committee and the staff.

"So I think we're looking at having a full document here finally sometime just after the first of the year."

The rewrite of the city and county's more than 20-year-old rules that govern zoning and subdivision development have other plusses, as well. In the past, Einsweiler has referred to the rules as some of the worst and sloppiest he's seen in the entire country.

That could be because the right idea easily can get lost in translation. Louise Mercuro, deputy division director of the city-county Office of Planning and Development, has said the ordinance contains such unintelligible legalese in some places that most of her staff can't understand it.

PROPERTY SALES 92 480 7,835
MORTGAGES 115 551 8,785
BUILDING PERMITS 325 1,167 17,068
BANKRUPTCIES 39 311 5,159