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Left Behind

As the new outer loop nears completion, will the city's residents and businesses leave for greener pastures? And what does it mean for Memphis?

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According to the Mayan calendar, doomsdayers, and a new movie, 2012 will be the end of the world.

Even if the apocalypse doesn't happen in 2012, the landscape of Memphis still will be altered, albeit for less dramatic reasons.

In less than three years, the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) and the Memphis Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) hope to have the last segments of I-269 — Memphis' so-called outer loop — completed.

I-69 is a 1,600-mile national highway project that connects Mexico to Canada via Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas. The outer loop, designated locally as I-269, will connect with the Paul Barret Parkway near Arlington, travel south along the Fayette/Shelby county line, and link with the Bill Morris Parkway near Collierville before heading across the state line to DeSoto County and Mississippi Highway 304.

The I-69 corridor was designated by Congress during the 1990s to enhance economic development, and local officials argue that it will relieve congestion and improve area air quality.

But community advocates, citing historic precedent, worry the interstate will drive area residents and development further east, exacerbating Memphis' sprawl problem and costing taxpayers more money in new infrastructure, schools, and services.

"Sprawl takes resources out of the existing neighborhoods," says Sarah Newstok, program manager for the Coalition for Livable Communities. "Memphis' population is not growing. The people who would populate that area would move from somewhere else in Memphis."

Much of the city's population growth in recent years has been a result of annexation. At 346 square miles, Memphis is 40 square miles larger than New York City, but with 8 million fewer people. Under the reserve area annexation plan, Memphis eventually will balloon to almost 500 square miles, or roughly the size of Los Angeles.

Maybe comparing Memphis to those cities is not exactly fair. What if we compare Memphis to itself? In 1960, Memphis had 4,000 residents per square mile. Twenty years later, that number had dropped to about 2,500. Now it's down to about 2,000 residents for each square mile.

TDOT recently completed work on the $11.5 million section of Route 385 from Macon Road to the area north of Eads. That segment, which opened to traffic just over a month ago, is a lonely stretch of highway that peters off into a pasture near a lake.

TDOT also recently allocated $54 million for the second-to-last segment of the project, from Highway 57 in Collierville to Raleigh-LaGrange Road.

By the time its finished, I-269 will be about 25 miles from downtown Memphis and could open up new development outside Collierville.

"If I lived in Cordova, this would be very worrisome to me," Newstok says. "It's not just the urban core that should be concerned about this."

Shelby County population distribution from 1960 to 2008: Every dot equals 300 people.
  • Shelby County population distribution from 1960 to 2008: Every dot equals 300 people.

The offices of most community development corporations, or CDCs, are, at best, serviceable.

CDCs are non-profit organizations specializing in neighborhood revitalization, whether by economic development, services, or real-estate. Their offices often reflect their struggling, aging neighborhoods.

The Southeast Memphis CDC is another story. Visitors pull into a lush corporate office complex, each building with its own circular drive. In the hushed lobby downstairs, spotless glass doors are accentuated with gleaming silver handles.

Alan Gumbel, interim executive director of the Southeast Memphis CDC, explains that most of the area's office space was built within the last 20 years, a result of the construction of the Bill Morris Parkway. Now, with the construction of I-269, he worries how the area will fare.

"From a regional standpoint, creating new transportation corridors is essential," Gumbel says. "But the local effects can be devastating."

As new buildings are built in outlying areas, companies often abandon older offices for better real estate deals. Downtown's commercial stock, for instance, is an average of 47 years old.

Travel east, and the buildings get newer. Midtown's commercial stock is 33 years old; East Memphis' is 23. Along the Bill Morris Parkway, the average age of commercial buildings is 12 years.

If Memphis' population was growing, that might not be a problem. As it is, downtown has a commercial vacancy rate of 17 percent, while Midtown's is 23 percent. In the airport area, where the office buildings average around 28 years old, the vacancy rate is 46 percent.

The same goes for homes, warehouses, and retail stores. As the population migrates from one area of town to another, older buildings are vacated, almost as if a swarm of locusts came through.

Big-box retailer Best Buy, once located at Riverdale and Winchester, moved its southeast Memphis store a mile down the road to Hacks Cross. Fortunately for the neighborhood, another retailer moved into the Best Buy location, but it's not the same.

"Best Buy is a premium big-box store," Gumbel says. "The new store sells dollar items. It's catering to a population, and it's not vacant, but it's not Best Buy."

Just last week, the Norfolk Southern rail company announced a $129-million intermodal hub in Fayette County. The location was influenced by the I-269 route. Proponents of the road point to the facility as an engine for economic development. The hub should create about 400 jobs and will most likely result in new warehouse space.

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"In this case, development will move out of Shelby County and into Fayette County," Gumbel says. "You have to wonder what's going to happen with the warehouse space already here. ... Vacant warehouses don't provide tax revenue."

In fact, it's often the opposite with vacant buildings. If not maintained, they contribute to blight and safety concerns.

"If there are not steps taken to prevent it, we'll see a pattern of construction that hollows out the urban area," Gumbel says. "Southeast Memphis used to be a suburban community, but it will see the same problems as the urban core. This area stands on a knife's edge."

"People can argue that [highway expansion] isn't the only reason [for sprawl], and that's true: crime, education, old homes — there are a million arguments," says consultant John Lawrence. "But there is no question that where people have moved and built has followed some type of road expansion."

Lawrence is the former head of the Memphis Airport Area Development Corporation recently helped the Coalition for Livable Communities prepare a presentation on I-269 for the Memphis City Council.

"My concern is: Where do the new schools get built? Are the old schools closed? Where do the new parks go? How much are my taxes going to go up so that my neighbor can now move?" he asks.

During the 1950s, planners thought perimeter highways like I-240 would create a growth boundary for development and route traffic around the city. The opposite happened: Instead of highways circling the community, the community circled the highways. Instead of closing new areas off, the highways opened them up.

For his presentation to City Council, Lawrence plotted retail development from downtown Memphis to the Avenue Carriage Crossing in Collierville as viewed against highway construction.

In 1954, for instance, the central retail district was downtown. In the next decade, however, things changed.

"In the 1960s, the Poplar corridor was developing. At the same time, the southern leg of 240/55 was completed," Lawrence says. "By the 1970s, downtown had ceased to exist as a regional shopping destination."

During that decade, both the Raleigh Springs Mall in the north and the Southland Mall near I-55 opened. They were joined by the Mall of Memphis — just south of 240 on American Way — 10 years later.

"The speculation is that a lot of this developed as a result of access to the 240 loop," Lawrence says.

By the mid-1990s, the Poplar corridor was still thriving, but other older shopping destinations were struggling. Wolfchase Galleria, located off I-40 heading to Nashville, was in the works, and by the early 2000s, Germantown Road was well on its way to becoming what it is today: congested and home to countless chain stores.

The Mall of Memphis was closed in 2004 and later demolished, while the Southaven Towne Center and the Avenue Carriage Crossing were built.

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Consider these comparisons: In countries such as France, Italy, and the United Kingdom, there is less then 5 square feet of retail space per person. In the United States, there is about 20 square feet of retail space per person. In Memphis, there is more than 25 square feet of retail space per person.

"This is space, likely functionally obsolete space, where there are retail buildings, but not retail businesses," Lawrence says. "The question is whether or not this is a predictor of what will happen in the future."

"An outer loop has been in the major roads plan since the mid-1960s," says Dexter Muller, senior vice president of community development for the Greater Memphis Chamber. "It was supposed to go where Houston Levee is, but once development happened, it got pushed further out."

Proponents for the outer loop say it will help the area economy by spurring new development and relieving traffic congestion. That latter is especially important given the area's distribution economy. Freight needs to be moved as quickly and efficiently as possible.

When the state began planning for I-269, the chamber's major roads committee, which falls under Muller's purview, pushed for a parallel route to 240. They felt it would open access to areas of north and east Memphis.

"Without [the outer loop] we'll have significant congestion on I-240," Muller says. "If someone is driving from Jackson, Mississippi, and they want to go to Nashville, they don't need to drive all the way in on 240."

There seems to be good evidence for this: The section of I-240 from Bill Morris Parkway to the Poplar exit on I-40 is the busiest section of interstate highway in the Memphis area.

Rusty Bloodworth, executive vice president of Boyle Investment and a member of the local Urban Land Institute's executive committee, says I-269's positives are big.

"If you look at I-269's function, the primary reason is to pull truck traffic around the city instead of going through the city," he says. "A lot of us worried about economic vitality are very much interested in having another option to I-240. ... It's pretty difficult to maneuver in the peak hours of the morning."

Martha Lott, coordinator of the Memphis MPO, echoes concerns about congestion and adds area health as another reason why I-269 is necessary.

"If we didn't do anything, by the year 2017, we'd have 45,000 vehicles diverted on roads such as Houston Levee and Collierville-Arlington," she says. "That will put those roads over capacity. If traffic is bumper-to-bumper and people are sitting there, idling, they're causing air pollution issues."

Shelby County currently is identified as an air quality non-attainment zone, a fancy way of saying pollution levels exceed national standards.

Lott says one of the MPO's goals, as part of the Sustainable Shelby initiative, is to create more livable, pedestrian-friendly streets, and she sees I-269 ultimately helping with that goal.

"If we can divert traffic from surface roads, it allows those roads to develop into more walkable, bikeable streets," she says.

TDOT also cites the economic benefits of I-269. During planning phases, TDOT compiled an environmental impact study that said the area surrounding the highway would be converted from agricultural land to other uses.

"The proposed project will have a beneficial secondary impact on the local economy by supporting the local governments' efforts to recruit new industrial, retail, and other facilities to the project area," the report says. "The cumulative impact will be an increase in the tax base in the surrounding communities through new development."

The report said none of the proposed alternatives for I-269 would negatively impact the local economy. But that study focused on the land adjacent to the highway.

"The danger with this is we'll get a sucking of development and vitality out of the existing inner-city fabric," Bloodworth says. "There has certainly been a long trend of suburban movement that was fueled partially by federal policy since the 1950s and partially by automobile makers who figured out the more people drive, the more oil we sell."

"Just because we're trying to move people and freight doesn't mean we support sprawl," Muller says. "We may not have had the land-use control we needed in the past, but that doesn't mean you can't have it now, or that we shouldn't build a road that's needed for other reasons."

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How much I-269 affects Memphis and the surrounding areas — both positively and negatively — will likely rest with zoning and planning decisions by local government.

The Coalition for Livable Communities would like to see a regional conversation about I-269 — zoning in Memphis and Shelby County won't mean much without similar measures in neighboring Fayette County — but there's currently no mechanism for that.

"We're looking at this as an opportunity to do something we've never done and start having a dialogue about regional growth planning," Lawrence says. "A lot of people in northern Mississippi like northern Mississippi because of the rural quality of life."

The Coalition for Livable Communities have some ideas for preventing additional sprawl from I-269, including growth boundaries, special impact fees for developers, incentives to encourage the right kind of development, and fewer exits to discourage local traffic.

"The hard thing about trying to stop it or mitigate its effects is it's very far out and it's kind of abstract," Newstok says. "It's pretty rural, so it's not in many people's backyards."

Three years ago, Gail Sievers and her husband moved to 75 acres in the Collierville reserve area, just a mile or so from the Mississippi line, to breed Arabian horses.

"There are a lot of horse people who live up and down the street," Sievers says. She can't see her neighbors' houses from hers, but she can easily walk to them down the tree-lined road.

The Sievers currently own 16 horses and have an arena on their property where they exercise their animals.

A few months ago, they got a postcard in the mail. They initially thought the town of Collierville was rezoning its annexation area. Then one of their neighbors went online and saw a proposal for a four-lane road that would have provided access from I-269 to a planned high-density residential development. Sievers sprung to action, making flyers and putting them in her neighbors' mailboxes.

"The road went straight down the middle of our property, through our barn. It went through one of our neighbor's ponds and through our neighbor to the north's house and riding arena," Sievers says.

In January, the neighbors rallied against the road at a Collierville meeting, and planners listened, approving land-use guidelines for more than 1,500 acres. The plan should protect the Sievers property, but she believes at least one of her neighbors is interested in selling property adjacent to theirs to developers.

"There were developers at the meeting who kept pushing for a road through our property. They said, this will really help the neighborhood," Sievers says. "How can we run a horse operation with a four-lane road running through our property?"

In this case, officials heard the residents' concerns. But without an overall plan, the land around I-269 could become a patchwork of decisions from different jurisdictions.

"A healthy urban core can support suburbs and rural communities," Newstok says. "You can't have a healthy suburban community without a healthy urban core."

Special thanks to Dane Forlines at the University of Memphis and John Lawrence for maps and graphics.

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