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Talking In Code

Proposed changes to Unified Development Code may help tattoo studios.

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It's hard out there for a tattoo shop owner. At least, that's been the case since 2010.

That's when the city's Unified Development Code, which forbids tattoo shops, along with palm readers, psychics, fortune-tellers, and massage parlors in Commercial Mixed Use (CMU-1) zoning areas, was adopted. But that zoning code, which guides construction across the city and county, may be changing soon, depending on how the Memphis City Council and the Shelby County Commission vote on a proposed set of amendments to the code.

The council holds its final vote on the changes on July 17th, and the commission makes its final decision on August 13th.

CMU-1 zoning areas, primarily for small businesses and retail, include communities such as Cooper-Young and the Broad Avenue Arts District.

Last Tuesday, a city council committee discussed the possibility of amending the code and providing people with the chance to apply for a Conditional Use Permit to open certain businesses in CMU-1 areas. Such permits enable the city to consider special practices within a particular zoning district.

"People would have to go to the Board of Adjustments. The board would look at the particular neighborhood and determine if there were going to be any negative impacts, etcetera," said Josh Whitehead, planning director for the Memphis & Shelby County Office of Planning and Development.

Babak Tabatabai was a recent victim of the code's current stance on tattoo shops in CMU-1 districts. In November 2011, Tabatabai signed a lease to open a tattoo shop and art gallery on Broad Avenue.

After investing nearly $30,000 in the building and its remodeling, he received a rude awakening from the Historic Broad Business Association that the district was not zoned to allow tattoo shops.

He applied for a zoning variance to open the shop, but it was denied during a public hearing held at City Hall in March. Since then, things have taken a turn for the worse.

"Not being able to open the shop has affected everything," Tabatabai said. "If I would have been able to open, I wouldn't have lost my house. I owe twenty grand to someone who invested money in the shop. It's affecting my investors, people who were going to work for me, me being able to come up with child support payments."

Prior to 2010, the city's zoning code allowed tattoo parlors to be considered as general retail in all of the city's commercial and industrial zoning districts.

The new code not only prevents new studios from opening, it also hinders existing tattoo shops from expanding or moving to another location.

Tattoo studio Underground Art on Young Avenue was located in a CMU-1 district prior to 2010, but they've still felt the affects of the newer code. If the business wanted to expand, it wouldn't be allowed to under the current code.

Underground Art owner Angela Russell called the 2010 code changes "ridiculous." She said the code's stance on tattoo shops is largely attributed to their being viewed in a stereotypical light.

"Tattoo studios are about art," Russell said. "We don't sell drugs. We don't beat people up. Some of us are mentors or parents. It's insane that anyone would think that a tattoo studio is going to negatively impact a neighborhood."

Although he said he's not fond of tattoo parlors in general, city councilman Jim Strickland said the conditional use permit would be the best option for Tabatabai.

"I think the compromise would give him an equal opportunity to open his business but also equal to the people who are against the tattoo parlor," Strickland said. "While I feel for his expenditure of the money while not knowing the rules that govern his building, I think that you do have to look at the broader issue, which is what's in the best interest of the street."

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