MPC Drafts an Ordinance to Create Building Design Guidelines in Certain Areas

Last Thursday, the Metropolitan Planning Committee approved an ordinance that would allow the city to designate overlay zone districts, which offer design guidelines for areas whose zoning ordinances do not include them. There was little discussion on the ordinance, other than a few words from MPC director Mark Donaldson, and it will be passed along to the Knoxville City Council to take a look at.

"I suspect we could've put this on consent," Donaldson said at the meeting, referring to the consent agenda items that don't need any discussion to be approved. None of the MPC commissioners present objected.

MPC's Corridor Overlay District ordinance is designed to allow the city to designate overlay districts in any areas that would benefit from them, and change the zoning map. Those overlay districts will provide supplemental regulations that specifically protect natural, historic, or aesthetic features, and improve roadways to promote safe use by cars, bicyclists, and pedestrians. Some other goals of the overlay zone districts are to promote sustainable and harmonious street designs.

"Generally, they offer an opportunity to do site-specific design-related guidelines that may not be applicable to the entire community," Donaldson says. "It fills in gaps in our current [zoning] ordinances."

Knoxville's zoning ordinances, he says, are old and usually don't have any provisions for how new buildings should look, or what design styles architects should work within. Overlay districts provide guidelines to work within.

Donaldson says overlay zone districts have existed in Knoxville for at least 25 years—the Pellissippi Technology Overlay District was the first one, and it was created to "raise the level of design" in new buildings along Pellissippi Parkway north of I-40. Some other existing overlay zone districts encompass neighborhoods like Lonsdale, where, Donaldson says, there was a modular house on an empty lot. Unfortunately, the modular house's blank wall was oriented to face the street. Though it stuck out like a sore thumb, "there was nothing in our regular ordinance that prevented it," Donaldson says, and so the infill housing overlay district was created.

But previously established overlay districts were approved separately. MPC's new ordinance would give the city the ability to apply an overlay zone to sections of roads (corridors) that would benefit from the change. Affected land and building owners and the MPC would still be involved in creating the design guidelines that would ultimately take effect in the overlay district.

But overlay districts are really just Band-Aids, Donaldson says, that patch up existing gaps. An alternative for areas going through redevelopment is a form-based zone district, which includes predetermined design standards for newly constructed buildings to adhere to. However, the emphasis with this type of zone district is definitely more on design, and much less on building use. This approach, Donaldson says, is being taken with the South Waterfront redevelopment district and the Cumberland Avenue corridor project.

"My preference would be to continue using [form-based zones]," Donaldson says, because overlay districts' design standards are determined after non-optimal buildings have already gone up, and they are sometimes subjectively applied by a board (not the MPC).

Kim Henry is the chair of the Downtown Design Review Board, which approves or denies designs for buildings within the Downtown Design Overlay District.

"There's always going to be conflict," Henry says of the design standards, but "there was so much [community] input on the front end" of the creation of the overlay district. She says she does not know if anyone has decided not to build because of the design guidelines.

Donaldson says a very basic design standard is having windows and doors that face the street, and MPC's guidelines emphasize that streets and sidewalks are how the public accesses storefronts and other businesses downtown. But the guidelines also deal with building placement (it shouldn't be too far back from the sidewalk), and historic building preservation (you can't just leave the facade and build a concrete structure behind it).

But the City Council still has to take up the proposed ordinance before anyone can establish more overlay zones in the city. Mayor Madeline Rogero, who Donaldson says asked MPC to draft the ordinance, says through spokesperson Jesse Fox Mayshark "We're aware of [the ordinance] and are studying it."

"There's been more interest in creating quality public space [recently]," Donaldson says, which includes design guidelines in addition to traffic calming on specific streets. As Knoxville forges ahead with its redevelopment of areas from the center city outward, Donaldson says overlay districts are "another tool that can be used in a redevelopment area."

The proposed ordinance passed by the MPC was brought up amid the plans to give Washington Pike, from I-640 to Murphy Road, a bit of a makeover to increase vehicle capacity (it's currently a two-way road) and provide better bike and pedestrian infrastructure, Donaldson says. The MPC ordinance would allow the city to create an overlay district to encourage attractive development along the revamped roadway.

But Washington Pike isn't the only place Donaldson would like to see more specific building design standards applied. Clinton Highway, Central Street as it approaches downtown, Magnolia Avenue, and Chapman Highway are ripe for zoning ordinance upgrades, Donaldson says, which could come in the form of overlay districts if the city passes the MPC ordinance.

"Wouldn't it be great if we got quality [development]?" Donaldson says about the possibility of adding overlay districts along those roads. "Good design can induce good investment."

If there are no delays in the city's review of the ordinance draft, the City Council is expected to give the ordinance its first reading during the June 11 meeting.