By Stephen and Kate
Odds are that many MML readers were in receipt of an email circulated last month rallying folks to protest against what were described as immediate plans to build a big box pharmacy store on the corner of Boultier and East Fairview. Garish lighting? Impermeable cover? Parking lots? Hopefully by now most people know this was only a rumor. There are no such plans to ruin the character of one of Midtown’s best neighborhoods … yet.
To preempt any damage that might be done to Cloverdale’s commercial district (and thereby the neighborhood’s character), the City of Montgomery has decided to push for SmartCode zoning in the district. City Planner and Montgomery native Tyler Caldwell (also a Midtown resident) came to our Cloverdale-Idlewild Association (CIA) meeting this past week to spread the word about the proposed change to the zoning. He was there to explain the city’s proposal (and the concept of SmartCode), and to invite interested community members to learn more about the proposal.
Right now the Five Points area is basically zoned B-2. And it doesn’t have historic designation, so any new buildings constructed in those B-2 lots would be under no special obligation to “mesh” with the existing architecture and use of the area. In other words, there’s nothing now stopping a big box pharmacy (or any other awful chain store) from moving into the neighborhood.
Sure, SmartCode designation wouldn’t stop a pharmacy or an Urban Outfitters from moving in. But it would force their buildings to be in character with the neighborhood and compliant with pedestrian friendly guidelines. For example, SmartCode requires buildings to be close to the street with parking behind the building. This encourages cars to slow down. It also encourages pedestrian traffic — something that Montgomery has struggled to promote for a long time, especially in neighborhoods that are short on sidewalks. SmartCode requires sloped roofs and allows for mixed use development, so that apartments can be built above stores. It’s designed to promote urban living so that cities don’t just become places where you work and then flee for the suburbs afterward. One of the goals of SmartCode is to have buildings that can be reused over a century, rather than with a five year lifecycle.
All of which seems like a pretty substantial improvement from the status quo. As Caldwell said: “If Joe California the real estate investor buys the building (neighborhood bar) Bud’s is in, there’s nothing in place right now to stop him from building something out of the character of the neighborhood.” We sure don’t want Bud’s to leave (where would we get our Stella Artois? Our dollar Sunday pool? Our hair smelling of cigarettes for days afterward?), but if they did ever close up, we certainly wouldn’t want a Taco Bell in their place.
Fortunately, Cloverdale residents have been seeking a solution to future bad development for several years. Caldwell was quick to credit the neighborhood for coming up with the zoning ideas that have become standard in places like downtown and Hampstead. He cited the Five Points charettes that happened from 2005 to 2008 as creating a comprehensive plan for the neighborhood. The current SmartCode designation proposal is really just an attempt to implement something the community’s already gotten behind.
Those seeking more information can meet Caldwell tonight. He’ll be talking at the Old Cloverdale Association’s meeting on Monday, July 19th at 7:00 in the basement of the Cloverdale Playhouse.
The city will be holding drop-in meetings for the public from 4-7 on August 5th and 6th in the basement of the Cloverdale Playhouse. Staff from the city will be there to answer questions and solicit input. They will present exhibits designed to show differences in the neighborhood under the existing B-2 zoning and the proposed SmartCode zoning.
After these two days, the rezoning proposal will go to the planning commission within 90 days. That is the official public comment period for the proposed change. “Because this community is so involved,” said Caldwell, “we wanted to be proactive and give credit for initiating this plan in 2006.”
We’re wary of anything that takes sneaky linguistic tweaks to make itself sound better. And certainly the phrases “smart growth” and “smart code” could be used to justify any number of bad urban development and city planning ideas. But in this case, it looks like the city and the developers have the right idea. The goal is to fight the soullessness that is a near-inevitable threat in every city in the world (thanks to our globalized mono-culture). And an ounce of prevention is worth an unfathomable attempt to cure bad development post-facto, especially in a society that values property rights. Montgomery is really trying to get this right, and it seems like the changes are great, laudable, and worth supporting.
Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with a dog, a cat, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.