Aaron Tuley, the face of the city’s planning consultant,  preached his gospel to a citizens group and to the city’s planning commission Wednesday night. It may not be easy winning converts.

"Many may not like the message."
“Many may not like the message.”

Tuley is a senior associate with the Texas-based Kendig Keast Collaborative, which reached the halfway point in its two-year planning study last June. The idea is to plan for an expected doubling of the city’s population in only 20 years.

According to Tuley, we’re going to have to mend our urban sprawl ways if we are going to accommodate all this growth and attract the kinds of companies every community is after.

Tuley says national trends are moving away from large-lot, suburban subdivisions. He reports that young urban professionals are marrying later in life and are looking for small apartments or even lofts in an exciting urban center. Older couples without kids are ready to downsize.

Square neighborhoods better than oblong strips

He favors development that is square or circular and pedestrian friendly as opposed to oblong and auto dependent.

Tuley calls for neighborhoods with mixed uses, which means single family-homes intermingled with multi-family development, commercial and office space. The idea is to cut down on the length of auto trips if you can’t eliminate them entirely.

Projected growth will require cutting back on large lot homes

He adds that the city can’t meet the needs of its projected population if it continues to provide mostly large-lot single family homes.

Even the plan he is recommending only supports a population increase of about 120,000 people in those two decades. Projections are for about 160,000 more people within the city and surrounding county lands. The choice is between accepting a lower growth ceiling or promoting more dense development.

Tuley is asking city officials to look at land use in a new way. He doesn’t like the city’s package of overlay districts, which impose additional requirements on the underlying zoning. And he would like to cut the city’s approximately 31 zoning districts in half.

Replacing the old idea of zoning with districts based on neighborhood character

He seeks approval for a map that would determine land use based on the character of an area rather than pure density. To underscore his point, he showed a neighborhood made up of both 15,000 and 12,000 square foot lots. Much of the character of a neighborhood comes from lot width, and much of lot size can be hidden because it is achieved through depth.

Tuley argued that if one is judging by “character” some of the 15,000-square-foot lots in this neighborhood have more in common with the 12,000 square foot lots than they do with other lots zoned for a 15,000 square foot minimum.

Tuley’s plan is for fewer districts, based mainly on their character, with a smogrgasbord of density options in each. In other words, the more amenities, like open space, that a developer provides, the greater density he can have.

A dubious councilman

But the counter views are strong. Councilman Rick La Lance asked how the process of drawing a land use map had gone so far already without more input from the council, citizens and planning commissioners.

Tuley stressed that this map is a first draft and the final draft will reflect the wishes of city leaders.

LaLance also urged everyone to read every line of the consultant’s study. He is concerned about a sentence that states this land-use map will be used daily to govern development decisions. That is not such a radical idea. It’s what happens now with the city’s existing zoning map. It’s also what has been going on for years in cities that have general or comprehensive plans adopted as law by their city councils.

At the moment, the city’s 26-year-old plan is purely advisory.

Heavy industry not consistenjt with Joe B. Jackson’s character

Tuley says the city’s “jobs corridor” along Joe B. Jackson Parkway has the flavor of a suburban, light-industry park and office center, not a heavy industry zone. Yet, the council has had no problem rezoning to heavy industry there if a developer asks for it. Nor has the council shown any inclination to fix a flawed industry section of the zoning ordinance.

Fix the zoning ordfinance

Right now, the heavy industry zone is full of nasty uses that are hostile to any homes nearby. This website has consistently called for a zoning system similar to what Knoxville has. I-1 might be planned industrial districts, I-2 business parks with light industry only, I-3 heavy industry and I-4 outdoor industrial storage, like oil and gas tanks. A Knoxville planner told me I-1 and I-2 are virtually the only industrial zones located near homes.

After the session, I asked Tuley if an innovation district, a big trend in city planning, is possible here. He said it Is. Innovation zones try to attract the latest in established high tech companies along with startups and fledgling companies. They provide incubators and accelerators to help the new companies succeed. They also contain a mix of other uses, like housing, parks and entertainment, so that workers intermingle and often stimulate each other with new ideas.

Accepting higher density “in our backyards” will be a require an education effort

Tuley also has to do a selling job with the public. The task he faces was underlined by two projects that came before the planning commission Thursday night. In both cases, citizens in neighboring developments complained about the density in each proposal. The common theme was that the new homes should be more like the ones there already.

After the session, one staff member noted that the density in one development, which includes condos, might be less than if the lots were devoted to single family homes. In essence, the occupants of the condos may well be young people or seniors without children.

As some of the commission members responded to the citizens’ complaints, Tuley could be seen nodding his head in agreement. How many of his proposals will survive is open to debate. We are in free market-heaven here.