Recode workshop: Density is concern

Nick Della VolpeFeature

The community continues to ask, “Where are we going? What’s the schedule to get there?” City Council provided the first glimpse at last week’s Recode Knoxville workshop.


A long meeting. The council met for 3-1/2 hours after booking the room for 1-1/2 hours. There was just too much detail to cover. Council members George Wallace and Marshall Stair stressed Recode is about modernizing the 50-year-old zoning text.

Wallace said Recode is “zone neutral,” that is, it would neither up-zone nor down-zone neighborhood properties.

Maybe not. Those “calming” notions evaporated after the draft’s many flaws surfaced, and when MPC director Gerald Green stated that MPC’s map review and discussions with neighborhoods revealed areas where zoning changes were needed. These would be recommended to MPC. During public forum, Oakwood Lincoln Park’s Deborah Thomas confirmed her community’s desire for less density, by downzoning to RN-1.

When questioned on going beyond zone neutrality, Green said: “If not now, then when?” From a planning perspective, it was best to make these changes now, during a general rezoning. Council member Stephanie Welch added that the current push toward mixed-use already reflects changes. So does the administration’s relentless push for greater density.

Good news. Recode consolidates ideas and text that have grown by accretion over the years. The current code is a bit awkward to read and use. Both versions, of course, must cover dry, technical stuff. Recode adds clear graphics and chart summaries to make technical points easier to read, and substitutes cleaner organization for the patch-work-quilt we currently have. But old, does not necessarily mean ineffective. The existing code reflects solutions gleaned from many hard-fought zoning battles over the years. Specific standards and requirements had been added to avoid repeats of pesky problems that surface when general rules are applied to specific facts. Too many have been omitted. Those standards and lessons need to be preserved.

Details. Much of the workshop was focused on the residential zones, since 85 percent of the 73,000 land parcels covered are residential. Council member Finbarr Saunders asserted we’ll be “getting down into the weeds.” They did. Council member Andrew Roberto, in particular, had done his homework and asked questions that demonstrated the need to restore some of those older, experienced-based standards to the draft.

Recode gaps questioned. Why, for example, were provisions for low- and medium-density zones omitted? High density is defined and retained? The Camiros rep (Chicago consultant) said the omitted terms were hard to define – but during public forum, former Council member Carlene Malone stated those definitions are just numbers (low density allows under 6 units per acre, medium under 24) and have been used by MPC in 1-year plan reviews annually since the 1980s.

Not surprising, density remains a controversial issue. Gerald Green said multi-family and higher density should be advanced along major corridors where bus transportation and retail services are available. Recode does not stop there.

Other concerns. For home occupations, why did Recode drop the limit on portion of a house that can be used for business (25 percent) or the requirement that only on-premise manufactured goods be sold? Both Camiros and city codes chief Peter Ahrens said they were “too hard to enforce.” Citizen speakers, like Malone, later pointed out that if we have no standards, citizens can no longer challenge the abuse cases that will arise. Good intentions, without strict standards, cannot be enforced.

Also questioned were omissions for home daycare standards, and definitions for commercial dog kennels which are needed to identify zones where such activity is permitted. Too many barking dogs in one yard can destroy a neighbor’s peace and quiet. Interestingly, Community Forum had identified many of these “standards” omissions in May, after the first draft was released. They were not adopted. Those comments have been renewed in round two.

Accessory dwelling units (ADUs) remain controversial. Both speakers and written comments requested that any ADUs allowed be confined to owner-occupied properties lest outside speculators convert existing homes into two rentals and disrupt neighborhoods. The “don’t worry, not many will be built” assurances did not satisfy. Could wide-open ADU development generate too much density or traffic problems in neighborhoods? Or even make low income housing less affordable and less available? Others argued no, ADUs might increase such housing. What does the marketplace elsewhere show?

Where does Recode take us? This “vision” question keeps cropping up from different quarters. Builder Tim Hill raised concerns about parking requirements that affect near-downtown parcel development – requiring something like the current C-2 zone, not the proposed CG-3. Elizabeth Rowland (progressive action committee) was concerned about avoiding teardowns in older neighborhoods. Louise Gorenflo (environmentalist) urged “public transit-oriented development” leading to a “zero-carbon future,” to head off climate change. Council member Seema Singh-Perez was concerned that desire to protect the “unique character of neighborhoods” might limit diversity or inadvertently preserve historic racism. Deciding whether or how to tackle such concerns is no easy task.

Schedule. MPC remains committed to presenting the final package (third draft) to the full Planning Commission for a vote by Nov. 8, thereby putting the ball in Council’s court in early December. MPC plans to hold additional community meetings on the third draft from Oct. 22-30. Gerald Green said staff would accept further comments from the public.

Some council members said December adoption was not required. They are willing to hold additional workshops before final Recode action.

Community Forum rep Larry Silverstein urged Council to slow down, to extend the review period, explaining some neighborhoods are just beginning to understand how this technical package will affect their future. Silverstein asserted it’s time for council to “take charge.” There is “no need to rush.” We want “the best zoning code possible.”

To be continued…

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