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Urban Suburban

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It looks like downtown Memphis' housing market may be getting some new competition. And it comes from a reliable, even traditional, source of real estate competition: the suburbs.

Germantown presented a Smart Growth Plan draft last month for its 700-acre central commercial and government district, complete with a new logo, wi-fi hot zones, and central city condos. It is, in short, a plan that puts the urban back into suburban.

The draft, created by the Lawrence Group, follows Germantown's recent Vision 2020 plan, one of the goals of which was mixed-use redevelopment in the heart of the city.

According to community input from the Smart Growth draft, the public wants to see Old Germantown preserved and enhanced, a walkable/bikeable community, and more housing options, with mixed-use condos the most often cited. In fact, 95 percent of study respondents said they wanted to see townhouses, patio homes, and condominiums in the $150,000 to $349,000 price range, indicating to the consultants that there is a market for housing types not currently available.

The study even mentions installing countdown timers at pedestrian crosswalks!

If you're not familiar with the timers, they tell pedestrians how many seconds they have left to cross a street. They're simple and very helpful, especially on heavily pedestrian thoroughfares. But ... they seem sort of out-of-place for a traditional, vehicle-driven (ahem) suburb.

Smart Growth itself seems an interesting choice for Germantown's future. The design movement encourages compact, mixed-use communities in which people can walk to a variety of destinations.

Under its recommendations, the draft says that "buildings should always frame and enforce pedestrian circulation, so that people walk along building fronts rather than across parking lots or driveways."

Now think about Germantown Parkway. I don't even like to drive it; I definitely don't want to walk across it.

In other ways, the Smart Growth Plan may not be that surprising. Germantown doesn't have a lot of open land left; it needs to utilize what it has in a way that brings in the most tax dollars.

Despite growth in its retail and medical sectors, Germantown is still very much a bedroom community. Eighty-five percent of the city's total tax revenue is residential. An inefficient land-use plan, like the one it has currently, is a loss of potential tax revenue. And urban properties are hot.

Twelve miles to the west of Germantown, the downtown Memphis renaissance, facilitated in part by Peabody Place, AutoZone Park, and FedExForum, has followed the rest of the country in an overall condo-fication. Why shouldn't the suburbs follow suit?

About a year and a half ago, The New York Times even ran a trend story about "the loft look," fake lofts (flofts?) being built in gated, suburban neighborhoods. The "flofts" have the same brick, the same exposed ductwork, and the same open floor plan as historical downtown buildings that have been converted to condos, but they've been built from scratch.

Unfortunately for Germantown residents, however, the plan has encountered one hitch: Like overgrown grass and visible trash cans in Germantown, it's illegal.

"The development concepts in this plan are currently illegal under Germantown's existing zoning and subdivision regulations," reads the draft. "In fact, the current standards are completely antithetical to the urban design principles of this plan and the city's vision of a 'mixed-use,' 'pedestrian-friendly' central district that would 'create sense of place for the community' as articulated in the Germantown Vision 2020 document."

The consultants assume that the existing code will be changed. If so, this just may prove the old axiom: The grass is always greener, especially when there's less yard.

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