Aug 22 2007

I hope some of you were able to attend today's presentation by Ed McMahon on "Preparing for Blount County's Future: The dollars and sense of preserving community character."

Mr. McMahon is the Urban Land Institute Charles Fraser Senior Resident Fellow for Sustainable Development. His powerful and entertaining presentation gave community leaders, conservationists and developers a lot to think about.

With slide after slide, he showed the right ways and the wrong ways to develop, and in the process introduced new ways to think about land use and a variety of successful, common sense approaches to smart development. There were numerous before and after examples that illustrated inspiring successes and a few devastatingly stupid mistakes.

Earlier in the day, Mr. McMahon spoke to members of planning commissions from all over Blount County at a breakfast session, and to local elected officials at a later meeting. We hope they were paying attention.

We estimated there were close to 200 people in attendance at the public meeting. Mr. McMahon was introduced by County Mayor Jerry Cunningham. Numerous developers and real estate people were there, along with conservationists and community activists, and the local media. We also ran into South Knoxville City Councilman Joe Hultquist, who said he was going arrange for Mr. McMahon to give his presentation to Knoxville and Knox County officials.

Mr. McMahon made too many excellent points to cover in a blog post, but here are some highlights...

• To travel is to learn. Mr. McMahon's time spent in Europe inspired his career and a new way of looking at development and growth.

• He asked the simple question: What do you want Blount County to look like in 20 years? Further, what are you building today that will even be worth preserving 20 years from now?

• Land use planning is about connections -- connecting people with the community's character and historic and natural resources to create a better quality of life and stimulate the economy.

• Growth is inevitable. Simply opposing growth and development is not enough. We must figure out what we can agree on and be creative in asking for and demanding smarter development, and be open to working with developers to get what's best for the community, and educate developers and the public on the economic benefits to developers and the community.

• Smarter development results in a healthy environment, a vigorous economy, and a vibrant community.

• Money does in fact grow on trees. Countless opinion research polls show that consumers prefer to shop at commercial developments with trees and landscaping as opposed to standard strip malls with acres of asphalt. Preserving trees in residential areas increases property values and saves energy.

• One concept is to "give the best of the city to everyone." For example, preserving prime riverfront property for public spaces and parks may not appeal to condo developers or those who would prefer to have it on the property tax rolls, but in the long run the residential and commercial property around those parks and green spaces will be far more valuable. The same land used for a golf course would be more valuable to the community, economically and otherwise, if it were developed as public green space with walking trails, etc., and would be far less expensive to create and maintain.

• Community image (i.e. appearance) is critical to the community's economic well being, and a positive image contributes to economic vitality and quality of life.

• The surrounding environment is the single most important factor affecting the market value of homes and property.

• Historic preservation connects us with the past and tells us who we are. Mr. McMahon gave several examples, though, where certain structures or historic sites were preserved but were surrounded by strip malls. Historic preservation should be an integral part of the development around it.

• Why should every community look like every other community? Tourism is one of the top industries in every state. Why would anyone want to visit your area if it looks the same as everywhere else? We must decide what the unique character of our community is and preserve it and enhance it with compatible development.

• Big box retailers and fast food corporations have a Plan A, B, and C. Plan A is the cookie cutter architecture. Plan B has slight aesthetic modifications. Plan C is custom designed to fit your community and its character. Insist on Plan C and give incentives for them to do it. There were numerous examples of this including MacDonald's, Target, and even Wal-Mart building Plan C in communities that insist.

• Mr. McMahon mentioned the relatively new concept of "form based zoning" (which by the way is being adopted for the Knoxville South Waterfront development project). He had a great, concise definition: "Developers control what goes on inside, the public controls what goes on outside."

• Strip malls are retail for the last century. Town centers are the new retail frontier of the future, and preferred by most consumers. Restaurants follow cinemas, retail follows restaurants, and shoppers follow it all. Town centers report significantly higher retail sales per square foot than strip malls. The goal is to create "places that attract the consumer's affection," which will keep them coming back.

• States with the strictest environmental regulations have the strongest economies.

• Keys to success: Develop a vision, inventory local assets and resources, build plans around enhancing assets instead of tearing them down, use education, incentives, partnerships & voluntary initiatives, not just regulations, pick and choose among development proposals, cooperate with neighbors for mutual benefit, consider aesthetics as well as ecology and economics, have a quality of life lobby.

• Chattanooga was presented as an example of an outstanding transformation, that started small, proved the value, and grew from there.

• Cost is not the most important factor, and "how much will it cost" should not be the first question. The first question should be "what do we want to do?" Then figure out how to pay for it. Smart money follow smart planning and growth.

• America doesn't like sprawl, but America also doesn't like density. The key is amenities, character, and charm.

• The only place in America where nobody listens to anything being said is at Public Hearings. By the time it gets to that point, everyone comes with their minds made up. The time to positively influence growth and development is in the planning stages, and this requires input and involvement from all stakeholders in the community.

• During the question and answer session. Joe Gallagher made an excellent point: Planning meetings typically attract developers and special interests. We need to get more public participation from conservationists and concerned citizens.

UPDATE: The Maryville Daily Times files this report.

Excellent summary. McMahon

Excellent summary.

McMahon was an excellent speaker. He knew his topic. Very motivational. Almost too motivational. After a while I was almost depressed thinking about what could/should be versus what is and will be

Don't get me wrong. Alcoa, Maryville, and Blount County are trying in many areas. The Green Belt and all parks, building/re-building their downtowns, and trying to keep us safe are examples.

A few recent developments have made me sad/mad, the new Wal-Mart shopping center in Maryville and the Dollar General Store in Alcoa. Neither of which "fit our community and its character".

I hope our local governments are open for additional input. I know they are busy. I just hope planning will fit into their time.

One thing

One thing I wanted to jump up and yell about was his frequent reference to "building and developing on the metro lines" and the tremendous economic benefits.

I wanted to point out the irony that Blount County has no public transportation at all.

It sounded like they were going on a tour of the area (including Townsend) after the meeting. I just wish Joe Gallagher was conducting the tour instead of Cunningham.

Being the cynic that I am, I almost got a sense that this was lip service being paid by the sponsors (homebuilder's association, area realtors, the chamber, Cunningham, etc.) so they can say they are being sensitive to smart growth and conservation but nothing will change.

I am encouraged, though, by the fact that the Smoky Mt. Convention and Visitors Bureau was the main sponsor, and they are a huge stakeholder in what McMahon was talking about. Joe Gallagher made another excellent point that the last thing we want to see happen to Townsend is what we see happening to Wears Valley.

If the GOBs were just giving lip service, it may backfire in the long run. There were lots of interested, engaged people, and McMahon may have, as he put it, planted some seeds, seeds that could grow into a movement the powers that be can no longer ignore.

Thanks for posting this,

Thanks for posting this, I've been reading your blog for awhile, and I had hoped Joe Powell was trying to get us together for a meet. I will share this entry with some folks. Keep up the good work!

Oh, this is Mack from

Oh, this is Mack from Nashville. Don't know this format yet. Sigh

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