Recode workshop 3: Houdini and the invisible code

Nick Della VolpeOn the Grow

The third city council Recode workshop, held on April 4, left me speechless. Well, almost.


The three-hour session started with a crisp presentation by the East Tennessee Community Design Center on the results of its sponsored Feb. 1 Recode design charrette which applied the proposed Recode to six potential redevelopment sites to determine workability issues like parking, etc.

That was followed by highlights from design roundtable by the East Tennessee chapter of the AIA, raising questions about strict specified materials and design standards for commercial buildings and the possibility of flexibility, allowing architects to present alternative plans that meet or better specified requirements on a particular project.  The architects turned in a 40-page report detailing both issues, which, we are told, will be posted soon on the Recode website.

The architects’ presentation was followed by a rather confusing thrashing-through of nearly a dozen “open policy questions” posed to council by Planning Director Gerald Green.

The Missing Code. For the rest of the meeting, council found itself debating the “open policy issues” on Recode without the benefit of the promised, but not yet completed, 5th revision of the 280-page tome. That revision is now scheduled to be issued at the end of the month.

To aid the evening’s workshop review in the absence of the hard copy text, Green had emailed a discussion of key points to council that afternoon. The public was not shown or given the advance handout, nor was it projected on the overhead screen during the meeting. For most folks in the audience or watching this at home on CTV, this was mostly a dumb-show, with snippets of the information discussed publicly. So much for transparency.

To many, this discussion seemed Faulknerian: “all sound and fury signifying nothing.”

Yet decisions were being made (at least tentative ones), so that the planners would have a “sense” of what council would like to see when revised draft 5 is released “at the end of April.” Those proposed changes are still being coordinated with Camiros, the Chicago consultant. Isn’t it time for the city to take charge of this draft? We need to obviate anymore backroom changes from afar. This ball is now in council’s court.

As noted, council was given a discussion piece by Green to help focus the discussion. See it here: Policy Issues3_2019-04-04 More on that in a minute.

Timing. Vice Mayor Finbarr Saunders still maintains that this Missing Code rewrite should be put to a formal council vote on May 14, notwithstanding the need for council members and members of the public to review the weighty tome and then discuss the pros and cons at neighborhood meetings before enacting the code into law. City council members Andrew Roberto, Lauren Rider and Mark Campen urged more time be allowed for review and reflection. Maybe holding a follow-up workshop on May 14.

Others, including council members Stephanie Welch, Saunders and George Wallace, appeared ready to vote now and then leave the mayor-appointed stakeholders committee in place to monitor how or if it works and/or fails over the next two years.

Neither council members Gwen McKenzie nor Seema Perez attended the workshop, so their views on timing are not known.

What exactly is the mission? Interestingly, council member (and mayoral candidate) Marshall Stair expressed concern that the original goal of fixing the “outdated” existing zoning code did not square with the current undertaking that includes rezoning all 73,000 parcels of land in the city. He observed that council often spends hours hearing and debating on single zoning changes at regular meetings. How are they to tackle everything at once?

Good question. Director Green argued there are 60-year-old mistakes on the zoning map that need correction (for example, the old practice of wholesale zoning land as industrial just because it is located near railroad tracks hurts homeowners seeking residential loans), so why not do the rezoning now? Oh! Wait! Their home is just most folks’ largest investment.  Let ’er rip!

Content. Here is a snippet of the “policy changes” that were discussed at the workshop … some of which were hard to follow without the mystery handout … but are nonetheless important. Details on this might be easier to follow by watching the whole meeting online on CTV, but here is a summary:

  • The ADU compromise, requiring the homeowner to live on the premises, plus providing one off-street parking space, seemed to trump other suggestions that these property density novelties be left available on every residential tract, instead of being subject to public review as a “special use.” Also, it seemed likely that ADU size will be limited to 30 percent lot coverage, instead of trying to prescribe square footage sizes.
  • The architects’ pitch for an alternate “performance standard” for commercial development, to be more flexible than the existing prescriptive design standards for materials and design requirements, will be added to the next draft. It would involve an internal staff review, not a separate planned zone process.
  • Duplexes should be allowed in RN-2 and RN-3 zones on lots over 8,000 sq. ft. (not 7,000 or 7,500 sq. ft. specified in earlier drafts).
  • Standards for home occupations will again include a 25 percent maximum-area-of-house requirement. Arguments were made by council members and citizen speakers to focus mainly on external changes to property appearance and usage, in order to limit neighborhood intrusion. Yet a fixed percent limit helps enforcement when there is a neighborhood complaint.
  • Higher building height should be allowed in the downtown warehouse district. Perhaps 125 feet (instead of 85)?
  • Arguments for more detailed lighting standards will be looked at, and some requirements added now, while others would be the subject to an 18-month review by planners.
  • Landscaping concerns about bonding and enforcement were mentioned as being worked on, with Codes Department head Peter Ahrens stating he will seek two additional code enforcer positions in the proposed budget to help resolve enforcement concerns.
  • Public Forum. Even with the late hour, council heard from some 10 speakers on their concerns about the timing and impact of Recode. Care in acting was urged to preserve neighborhood character and the investment value of homes. More time for review and reflection was requested. One speaker urged a side-by-side comparison of present requirements and proposed changes to facilitate public review. One gentleman urged putting this on the ballot to let the people decide how much change citizens desired. Another urged dropping ADUs or limiting them to a special use application. Ann Rowland said we need to be more explicit about defining what is “affordable housing” and being sure to include it in the new code. Council was also urged to preserve public review of zoning changes and approvals so that neighborhoods could stay involved in the process.

Conclusion. Citizens must stay engaged in this process. It’s still evolving. Recode affects the kind of city you will live in.

A final question: where new ideas and uses are being introduced, why not do a test case on a small scale before broad city-wide adoption? You know, stick your toe in the water before diving in headfirst. It might be the shallow end of the pool!

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