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Taylor Berger

Taylor Berger is co-owner/operator of the local restaurant group PartyMemphis.com. He also works as a development consultant and is an affiliate broker at Trotz Real Estate Services.

Memphis’ code amendments are squelching small, creative developers

By Published: January 24, 2019 4:00 AM CT

How many guys have caused three amendments to the Unified Development Code? I own this dubious distinction and I’m curious why. Rather than helping find solutions to the inevitable problems that arise from anything new, Memphis has basically outlawed them.

Who exactly is driving the opaque process by which the Office of Planning and Development amends the UDC, and what does it mean for a city struggling to attract and retain people and businesses?

The most recent UDC amendment puts the brakes on large outdoor restaurant patios in certain neighborhoods. Dubbing places like Loflin Yard and Railgarten “beer gardens,” the amendment would severely limit live outdoor music performances and make it much harder for developers to open places like this at all. The Land Use Control Board will hear the amendment Feb. 14.

Previous amendments include one passed after the Tennessee Brewery “Untapped” revitalization project that makes it more difficult to replicate that project, which led to a $50 million multi-use development and saved the century-old historic building. My stalled “Truckstop” project at the corner of Central and Cooper also triggered amendments making it harder to use shipping containers as building materials in Shelby County.

Whether or not you personally like my projects, it’s worth considering what these amendments mean to our neighborhoods and entrepreneurial spirit of Memphians. First consider other cities like Austin, Dallas, Philadelphia and New Orleans, each of which I visited for inspiration when considering my recent projects. Suffice it to say, my projects would not stand out in these cities.

Each of them has a rich outdoor nightlife, and has populations of young people and business that is absolutely booming.

After Untapped, the mayor of Louisville brought me and my development partners to Louisville to help their city develop a program to replicate what we’d done at the Tennessee Brewery. While we were there, our city government was changing the law to squelch these kinds of projects.

What’s essential to my development history is the creation of beautiful places for people to gather casually in a mix of outdoor space and rehabilitated historic buildings. We try to provide good food, drinks, music and activities and then let the customers enjoy themselves and each other.

The New York Times noted Loflin Yard and Railgarten specifically last year, along with Old Dominick Distillery and Crosstown Concourse, as projects demonstrating how to turn “blight into bright lights.” In a city with so much blight, creative use of these buildings and vacant lots is key to creating the kind of energy and traffic that spreads around neighborhoods and gets people excited about their city.

The city process killed Truckstop and nearly stopped Railgarten and Loflin Yard – a process now made even more difficult by amendments to the Unified Development Code. Step back for a minute and consider what this means. While big developers get incentives, small creative ones get roadblocks.

It’s hard to raise money for a startup in Memphis, especially when bank financing is off the table. It’s even harder to make money for those intrepid investors who back a startup. We’re all fighting for piece of the pie in a city that seems to be losing residents. When we let bureaucracy decide what the business landscape of our city looks like, we risk getting some really boring results.

I trust my customers and neighbors to guide me in my development path. Railgarten and Loflin were new concepts, and each of them has evolved to fit within the neighborhood. Customers have loved them, and helpful neighbors have advised us on how to decrease our impact with respect to issues like noise and parking. Heeding their advice, these projects have evolved to fit within the neighborhoods not by force of law but by natural symbiosis.

So what’s the root cause of Memphis’ aggression toward small, creative development like my projects? I don’t think there’s anything vindictive going on here; it’s not personal. The problem is we’re scared. We fear the new and unknown because we haven’t seen it before and we don’t quite understand it. We worry about what’s going to happen to the old stuff and so we focus on the problems with the new stuff, like parking and noise, when we should be focusing on the vastly larger and arguably more important elements of these projects.

Let’s help find solutions for the problems without losing sight of the bigger picture. These small developments are crucial to the growth of our city. If we stall them, we lose out to other cities actively recruiting the young people and businesses who demand things like this where they choose to live. Start by opening up the process to all stakeholders by which amendments to the UDC are considered and drafted.

<strong>Taylor Berger</strong>

Taylor Berger

Topics

Unified Development Code Office of Planning and Development Development

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