A community meeting about rezoning sparked conversation and plans for changes regarding how city officials engage with neighborhoods such as Boxtown that bear the consequences of Memphis’ history of discriminatory zoning.
“There were a lot of really great points raised,” John Zeanah, director of the Memphis and Shelby County Division of Planning and Development, said after the meeting Tuesday evening at the Levi Branch of the Memphis Public Library in Southwest Memphis.
“I’m glad that we were able to get a little bit deeper into other areas of zoning classifications that seem to be a problem for certain neighborhoods. That allows us to go back and conduct some further study about where there might be additional changes.”
City officials organized the meeting after public concerns arose at the Nov. 2 city council meeting before the final vote on proposed comprehensive rezoning ordinances that would restrict various land uses, including gas stations and used tire shops. The ordinance includes limits on the location of what council members called nuisance-prone businesses that are disproportionately located in Black, low-income neighborhoods.
However, during the public comment period at the meeting, four people from Southwest Memphis expressed fears that the rezoning would negatively affect their existing businesses or that they simply had no idea the measure was on the table.
Councilman Edmund Ford Sr., who represents Southwest Memphis, chastised his colleagues and planning staff for what he considered overlooking his constituents. He demanded the council delay the vote until a community meeting was held.
Ford and Councilwoman Cheyenne Johnson attended the meeting along with Zeanah, who presented details and answered questions about the comprehensive rezoning.
The pair of ordinances would redraw boundaries on the zoning map, as well as the rules that decide what can be built in those zones. The changes would restrict the arrival of some types of new of businesses, including gas stations and used tire shops, which received extra scrutiny from the council earlier this year.
In March, the council placed a 245-day moratorium on new gas stations, citing data showing that Memphis has six gas stations per 10,000 people, which is above the national average of four per 10,000 people. The council’s resolution also said such businesses are disproportionately concentrated in low-income, Black neighborhoods. In the meantime, they asked city planners to come up with zoning changes to address what they consider nuisance-prone businesses.
The ordinances are set to go back before the council on Tuesday.
At the council meeting, Linda Street, vice president of the Walker Homes/West Junction Neighborhood Association, said she’d never heard about a public meeting concerning the rezoning, though one is required by law.
The city’s mailed notices, sporadic signs, and posts on the Nextdoor app aren’t one-size-fits-all methods for public notice, she said.
“Our people are not on Nextdoor,” Street told the council.
“Thirty-two percent of our population is elderly. I’m the main one that communicates a lot of things to the people in the community,” Street said. “We applaud you as far as keeping the gas stations out. … Just make sure we’re informed.”
During the community meeting, Zeanah explained that the rezoning would only affect new developments and not existing businesses or construction that’s already been permitted. This brought clarity for the local owner of a used car lot, Deshun Fletcher, who initially worried the rezoning would hamper his business and interrupt remodeling that’s underway.
“I feel alright about it,” Fletcher said. “It’s basically trying to stop all of these new things that are popping up in the area that we really don’t need and could potentially be public nuisances … so I feel pretty good about it.”
Fletcher said he was notified of the rezoning by a sign in the community, but wasn’t exactly clear on what the changes would do. This prompted Zeanah and the council members to rethink their approach.
For such a rezoning, the code only requires the planning division to notify the affected property owners, Zeanah said. He also told the council last week that in addition to the minimum notice required, they also posted about the rezonings on Nextdoor, the neighborhood-based social media app.
However, after talking with Southwest Memphis residents, Zeanah said future rezonings will incorporate more meetings like Tuesday’s and a broader process that includes coordinating with neighborhood associations, as required for planned development permits.
“…We send (notice) to neighborhood associations within a certain area. I think we’ll honor that practice as well, so that neighborhood associations don’t just see the signs but they at least have some documentation for what’s going on and where to look for more info.”
Batsell Booker, president of the Boxtown Neighborhood Association, attended the meeting. Booker was a key voice in the opposition that ran off the Byhalia Connection Pipeline, which he considered an example of a history of disregard for Boxtown residents. That history of environmental injustice was central to his question for Zeanah.
“You look over the years at how the landscape in Memphis has changed, going down Third Street, everything west of it has become more commercialized,” Booker said. “All the schools west of Third have been moved out and so much commercial (business) is moving in and being built into the residential neighborhoods.
“Who makes that decision to allow commercial in the middle residential areas? Even some of the most toxic manufacturing companies we have are in our residential neighborhoods; predominantly Black (neighborhoods.) Who makes those decisions?”
Zeanah walked through some history of American zoning law, highlighting differences between today’s practices and more than 100-year-old practices used before the city and county adopted new ones in 2010. A key difference, Zeanah said, is that although old zoning laws blocked industrial development from residential areas, anything could be built in industrial zones including businesses — and homes.
“That practice … not only does it date back to the 1920s but it’s also, unfortunately, the reason why in many cities in the U.S., including Memphis, we have predominantly African American neighborhoods in industrial areas,” Zeanah said. “It’s because those zones didn’t separate between industrial and residential the way they should have and the way we do now.”
“And, unfortunately, because of a lot of the discriminatory practices of the past, what ended up happening is a lot of builders who wanted to build housing predominantly for African Americans were essentially steered in that direction of those industrial zones and that’s why we have neighborhoods so close to industrial areas.”
Zoning discrimination isn’t just limited to housing, Booker added.
“It’s even getting into the planning of the expressway, how it divides different (income) levels and colors of people — it’s designed for that.”
“And that, too, especially in the 1950s and 1960s when a lot of our expressways started being built out, it was predominantly African American neighborhoods where those largest expressways were (sited),” Zeanah said. “That’s a part of the history that we as a community have to repair. Not only do better — but repair.”
Carrington J. Tatum is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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