Missing Middle: Affordable infill or neighborhood disrupter?

Nick Della VolpeOpinion

Last September, we told you about the city’s proposed Missing Middle Housing zoning plan which would allow multi-family housing to be added in TDR traditional land use zones, which feature grid-street pattern neighborhoods here. Under the proposed plan, builders could add duplexes, tri-plexes and townhouses on existing small lots in these traditional single-family zones.

Cheryl Ball, the city’s policy director, initially presented this as useful infill housing on vacant lots located in these traditional zones, RN-2 thru -4 (later extending this to include RN-1) – places which have nearby shopping and bus service available. Interesting concept. A sprinkling of that type housing might help families find affordable space near downtown.

Discussion. But where is the proposal now, five months later, as it hits City Council’s January 23, 2024, agenda?

It seems that the original, narrow infill/ vacant lot approach is gone. The focus now seems to allow a broad right to build multi-family units in those traditional districts. Does that leave developers free to engage in wholesale single-family house teardowns in order to build more lucrative multifamily units? Beware, when a buck’s to be made, stuff happens. Especially when there are no clearly enforceable architectural restrictions or guardrails in place to preserve the existing community’s integrity.

This is cause for concern – everyone’s concern. Established neighborhoods, like Parkridge, Fourth and Gill, Old North, Mechanicsville, Oakwood-Lincoln Park and Lonsdale, are part of Knoxville’s history and charm. We need to protect the sense of community that holds these single-family neighborhoods together.

Much of this existing housing stock is historic, quaint Craftsman and Victorian style homes. These older neighborhoods have undergone decades of reclamation, rebuilding and restoration – hands-on work infused with love and sweat equity. Their renaissance is worth protecting.

Fountain City Town Hall has already raised serious concerns to the council that the proposal may “lead to the conversion or demolition of existing structures.” Such redevelopment, under weak restrictions, “serves the interests of investors over the interests of homeownership. … [and] will certainly reduce the inventory of affordable housing available for purchase.”

Conclusion. Our city leaders must proceed carefully, mindful of the limited parking and recreation areas available in these compact neighborhoods, and of the value of protecting existing homeownership, itself a vigilant deterrent to crime. Include strict, enforceable design criteria. Restrict this to vacant lots; install guardrails against wholesale teardowns. Integrated not disruptive change. Let’s not displace existing affordable homeownership.

In short, we need to think this Missing Middle proposal through before leaping ahead. Our history and heritage are precious assets to preserve as we move forward.

Nick Della Volpe is a lawyer, a gardener and a former member of Knoxville City Council.


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