The City Takes a First Step Toward Mixed-Use Zoning

In Perspectives by Joe Sullivanleave a COMMENT

After a false start last year, the city appears to be on the verge of lifting what amounts to a ban on residences in commercial zones outside of downtown.

A year ago the Metropolitan Planning Commission proposed a mixed-use zoning ordinance for Bearden that would have allowed residential in addition to commercial uses along a stretch of Kingston Pike from Western Plaza to Northshore Drive. But the complex 42-page proposal raised questions in many quarters and drew fire in some. So in November MPC tabled the ordinance.

“We were trying to do too much. It’s a big step to go from a 1960s zoning ordinance to a 2016 ordinance in one step,” says MPC’s executive director, Gerald Green.

Instead, with the backing of Mayor Madeline Rogero and City Council, MPC is taking a two-step approach to incorporating provisions for mixed uses into a comprehensive update of the city’s zoning code.

For starters, MPC is proposing to allow residential uses in commercial zones under the existing code via what’s known as “use on review.” An ordinance setting standards for such uses is due to be offered for public comment next month, and Green is hopeful of getting approval by MPC in March and City Council in April.

Once the ordinance is in place, developers seeking to make use of it would submit their building plans for MPC approval, but City Council action wouldn’t be required (though any use on review decisions could be appealed to Council).

New residential structures could be stand-alone or part of a mixed-use development, but would be limited to multi-family dwellings with a minimum of three units on a minimum of two stories, but with no limit on their height. However, Green says their height could be limited by parking requirements.

More expansively than the abortive Bearden mixed-use ordinance, the use-on-review ordinance would apply to all of the city’s commercial corridors that are zoned C3. That primarily means Broadway, Central, Chapman Highway, and Magnolia in addition to Kingston Pike. (Cumberland Avenue and the South Knoxville Waterfront already have what are known as form-based codes of recent vintage that govern the size and shape of buildings more so than their uses.)

At the same time, the city has launched what’s being characterized as a complete review and overhaul of its antiquated zoning ordinance.

“We need an up-to-date ordinance that protects the things we all value in our neighborhoods and commercial areas while allowing the kinds of smart, sustainable growth that will move Knoxville forward,” Rogero said when setting the process in motion.

At a cost of $280,000, a Chicago-based consulting firm, Camiros Ltd., has been retained to conduct the process, which is expected to take close to two years. The Camiros team will be in town starting Jan. 31 for what Green terms an “initial scoping session” in conjunction with city and MPC officials.

It’s hard to fathom how Knoxville could have gone so long with a zoning code that precludes people from living close to where they work, shop, and eat out. The development boom and vibrancy that downtown has achieved in the only type of zone that has allowed for this is proof enough of its desirability.

While the new code is sure to protect traditional residential neighborhoods from commercial encroachment, elements of the Bearden mixed-use proposal are likely to be incorporated for commercial zones. In addition to building design, alignment, landscaping, and parking standards, these include an emphasis on pedestrian friendliness, bicycle lanes, and accessibility to public transit so as to lessen dependence on (and interference by) automobiles.

In the meantime, Green believes the use-on-review approach can encourage good development on a parcel by parcel basis.

“What it doesn’t do is address the district as a whole,” he says.

So I could, for example, find a vacant lot and build a great looking mixed-use building. But next door there could be a vacant lot where someone decides to build a 24-hour convenience store with gas pumps in the front. So it can create a pedestrian-oriented island in a sea of other uses.

In Bearden, there are at least two developers who have shown an interest in proceeding with the sorts of projects that are envisioned. One is Tony Cappiello who has been planning a new four-story building in Homberg Place with shops and restaurants on the ground floor and 40 to 60 apartments on the upper floors. The other is Asheville-based Biltmore Properties, which envisions the inclusion of residences in its makeover of Western Plaza that is well underway.

Joe Sullivan is the former owner and publisher of Metro Pulse (1992-2003) as well as a longtime columnist covering local politics, education, development, business, and tennis. His new column, Perspectives, covers much of the same terrain.

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