On a sunny autumn afternoon a couple of years ago, an iconic piece of Germantown history treated residents of an East Memphis neighborhood to an impromptu street party.
For a few quirky hours, Greentrees neighbors gathered, gabbed and gawked as the Kirby House, one-time headquarters for a three-state plantation operation, inched along and ultimately sputtered to a halt in the middle of a not-quite-wide-enough residential street. Eventually, on an overnight trek, it lumbered to its new location on Messick, several miles from its original site. The process didn’t go as planned, but in hindsight, relocation of the landmark served as a memorable sendoff of the old to make way for the new.
The home’s original tract, just inside Germantown’s city limits east of Kirby Parkway between Poplar and Poplar Pike, is part of a long-time, family-owned piece of property that’s transforming into a splashy mixed-use development, TraVure, epitomizing the changing face of Germantown. A $90 million project with offices, retail and hotel space, the Gill Properties development will serve as the city’s front porch for anyone entering Germantown from the west. It’s the cornerstone of the city’s Western Gateway, also known as the West Poplar Avenue District, one of five “nodes” of commercial growth defined in the strategic plan to guide the suburb once known for horse farms into the 21st century.
It would be a mistake, however, to think of the plan as no more than rezoning to allow commercial development. The blueprint, which critics caution may be moving a little too fast while others say it’s moved not much faster than Kirby House, is what city leaders see as a total vision. They say it’s a guide to help a landlocked city grow in a smart way to its full potential, with the tax base to support a growing school system and other amenities. Melding all those parts — commercial development, schools, services, recreation — in a city still yearning to be a quiet bedroom community is a tall order.
“It’s a collection of what our residents and citizens have desired over time,” Mayor Mike Palazzolo says of the city’s vision, encapsulated in its Forward 2030plan. “We’ve done comprehensive planning three times over 20 years, so I think the citizens have fully embraced that they want to maintain the bedroom suburban community feel in their neighborhoods, but they want more of a thriving commercial district.”
Well, maybe not “fully embraced.” TraVure, which joins other high-profile projects such as the $150 million Thornwood development, Forest Hill Heights and major upgrades to the city’s Saddle Creek retail center as examples of the city’s commercial momentum, was one of the most contentious projects ever approved by Germantown. Strong opposition from residents of the gated Nottoway community to the east sullied aldermen’s unanimous approval.
And, in a broader sense, the speed of growth and inherent change that growth portends has created uneasiness, a friction manifested in municipal elections earlier this month. Charges of a lack of transparency in how the city communicates with the public before proceeding with big plans fueled challenges to two incumbent aldermen, one of whom was defeated.
Pauline Lathram, who writes a blog called “Shining a Light on Germantown,” says people are more aware of things because individual issues affect them. Whether it is controversies over the city’s loss of the three namesake schools, the battles over the realignment of Germantown Road and West Street or the a proposed school site opposed by some, there is more awareness by citizens.
“There are a lot of people getting upset,” Lathram said.
Against this complicated backdrop, Germantown, traditionally thought of as one of Shelby County’s most affluent communities, is trying to find its way into a new era — an era that includes addressing the needs of a municipal school system that’s increasingly a priority for the younger demographic moving into the city.
Suzanne Jones was a parent before she was a school board member.
Jones was one of two new school board memberselected Nov. 8, but it was five years earlier when she began her education about Germantown schools.
“We moved here just as Memphis was rescinding its (school) charter,” said Jones, who has children in Houston High, Houston Middle and Dogwood Elementary. Test scores and the quality of Germantown schools then, as part of Shelby County Schools, was a “big selling point” on picking Germantown when Jones and her family relocated from Milwaukee.
When Germantown soon after formed its own school district along with the county’s other suburban municipalities, Jones was an even bigger fan — “I’m a firm believer that smaller is better when it comes to school districts.”
Eventually, she took the plunge and decided to get involved in the process by running for a school board seat. That’s when she began to get a clearer picture of what people think about schools and, more broadly, how their tax money is spent.
“We’re still largely an older community,” Jones said. “So the first thing I did as I talked to people during the campaign was just a lot of explaining about the school district. But everyone, regardless of whether they had school-aged children, resoundingly said schools are so important. It resonated that great schools lead to good property values. What I encountered more than a reluctance to spend money on schools was a desire to make sure money is being spent correctly.”
City Administrator Patrick Lawton agrees with the assessment that residents see the value of education and are willing to invest in strong schools. He notes that 98 percent of residents have at least a high school diploma, and about 66 percent have college degrees and beyond.
As superintendent of Germantown Municipal School District, it’s Jason Manuel’s job to balance school needs and wise use of money. Part of the challenge in doing so is that the district is in largely uncharted waters, where some of the conventional measures of planning for growth don’t apply.
“We don’t fit the traditional model,” Manuel said. “We’re not talking about an undeveloped area where houses are being built and people moving in. There’s not a lot of that type of development. It’s really just a change in the population you already have, and how can you predict when a couple of empty-nesters are going to decide to sell their house and downsize? That’s a hard planning document.”
One thing for sure is that growth is occurring, however unpredictable the pattern. In the three years since the district started, K-5 enrollment has increased by 544 students. Middle school enrollment jumped from 863 to 1,134 in the same period.
“We had an initial blip because we didn’t get the three Germantown schools,” Manuel said, referring to the Germantown namesake schools — Germantown High, Middle and Elementary — which remained with Shelby County Schools after Memphis surrendered its charter and the county system reorganized to incorporate the former Memphis City Schools. Most Germantown students attending those schools were absorbed into Germantown schools, accounting for the large initial enrollment bump. “But we’ve seen continued growth since then as kids have returned to public schools from private schools and from a turnover of older families moving out and younger families moving in.”
There’s no question the city, with an average age of about 46 and population of just over 41,000, is getting younger as schools draw a new mix of people into the community.
“The information we get is largely anecdotal on age demographics, but you can see the larger numbers at the lower grade levels who will eventually move up through the system, and the younger siblings who will replace them at the lower levels,” Manuel said.
“I like to say our city is getting younger by the semester, or at least by the school year,” Palazzolo said. “We’re starting to see those folks moving from Harbor Town or Cooper-Young and are starting a young family. They settled here for the public education.”
All that translates into growing needs to accommodate the growing number of students. A search is underway for a new elementary school site — a proposed site on Winchester drew flak from parents — and expansion is in progress at Riverdale Elementary, where a 64,000-square-foot addition will eliminate 23 portable classrooms and provide a middle school wing in addition to the elementary.
The city used its half-cent sales tax option to meet its required ongoing funding obligation to schools, which get money from the state and county. The system has about an $8 million reserve, Palazzolo said. The district cannot, however, issue bonds and will, therefore, always depend on what Palazzolo called a partnership with the city for capital improvements. The city budgeted $1 million to re-roof Dogwood Elementary and issued bonds for the $12 million Riverdale expansion, for which the school district will reimburse part of the cost. Then there is the cost of the new elementary school when a site is determined.
Manuel and Palazzolo each express hope the three Germantown namesake schools will eventually become part of the municipal system, but that would mean payments to Shelby County Schools for the buildings and maintenance costs associated with owning the aging structures.
Lawton said the city has been preparing, however, and is equipped to deal with schools. As early as 2005, city leaders looked at a school system as part of the mix of the city’s future look. The school system, in fact, is seen as an economic engine, more than worth the capital investment. A 25-year review prepared by the city, looking at 1990 to present, calls the school system a “defining event in the city’s history, one that will serve as a catalyst for future economic growth and sustainability.”
“We weren’t sure how it was going to happen,” Lawton said of forming a school system. “At the time (2005), we were talking about a special school district. But once you have that vision, you start dreaming about what that’s going to look like by the time 2020 or 2030 gets here.”
To make sure it looks the way they want, Lawton said city leaders knew they needed a tax base that would support schools needs as well as other services and public amenities that people moving in, largely because of those schools, would expect. The other side of the coin, development provides entertainment, retail options and other pluses to attract and keep residents at the same time it’s contributing to the tax base.
THE TOTAL PACKAGE
In that sense, schools are just part of the total package. They’re a big part of defining Germantown’s future, but schools and school planning are just one part of the total vision for the city, Lawton and Palazzolo say.
As far back as the early 1990s, before a municipal school system was on the city’s radar, leaders considered how the city would move forward in an orderly way as more than a residential community.
“There was a point in time in the early 90s when the city realized we can’t do what we’re doing on a residential tax base,” Lawton said. The city’s residential property tax rate has actually decreased by 23 cents since 1990, from $2.16 per $100 of assessed value to $1.93 in 2014, but of increased property values.
But city leaders also knew the landlocked suburb didn’t have much room to grow outward, and that its mostly residential makeup wasn’t likely to change.
‘We have roughly 20 square miles of space,” Palazzolo said, “and about 17 of those are residential. That’ll probably never change. So roughly three square miles is commercial. Those three square miles are made up of five business districts that we call nodes.”
Along with the Western Gateway, the city has identified the Wolf River District, Central Business District, East Poplar Avenue District and Forest Hill Heights District as its clusters of commercial development.
“We had to ask ourselves, ‘How do you maximize the use of those areas?’ ” Palazzolo said. “You’ve got to get a little denser. We want walkability; we want neighborhoods close to the Central Business District, for example, to be able to get there on foot or pushing a stroller or riding a bike. That’s kind of the goal.”
Ray Gill of Gill Properties, the TraVure developer, thinks Germantown has done a good job of balancing growth with its residential history. He thinks his project — which eventually will bring together a 150,000-square-foot, five-story office building, 35,000 square feet of retail space, hotel space and restaurants — will be a good fit with the city’s desire for higher-density development on the limited property they have.
“I think Germantown, in many ways, is being cutting edge,” Gill said. “Other cities, like Franklin (Tennessee), have recognized what they need to do from a planning perspective, but I think Germantown has been one of the leaders.”
It goes back, Palazzolo said, to those lifestyle issues that bring younger families to the city in conjunction with its schools. The city must find ways to make the best use of its available property to provide what people want — and that keeps them in Germantown while providing a tax base.
Questioning younger families who moved to Germantown for schools about their desires, Palazzolo said, provides useful insight.
“I started asking them questions about why they came here in particular, and they’d say things like, ‘Well, you know, after we spent some time out here, Germantown wasn’t as boring as we thought it was,’ ” he said. “And so that makes you kind of perk up. They then started talking about greenways and bike paths and parks. We’ve got 29 parks and over 40 miles of greenway and bike paths. So those things are starting to attract the next generation here.”
The city also has developed into a medical center with four of the six largest physician practices in the region located along the Wolf River Boulevard corridor. Germantown Methodist Hospital, Campbell Clinic and West Cancer Center also are in the area .
“That just happened organically,” Lawton said. “I think it really got rolling with Campbell Clinic about 1990. They were willing to make that investment here, and it served as a springboard.”
Germantown leaders hope to draw on the successes of other communities as well, hence a field trip to Carmel, Indiana, earlier this year. Carmel, considered a model for the Smart Growth concept Germantown would like to emulate long term, reimagined things like density, land use and transportation probably 15 years before Germantown started thinking about it.
“They decided to look at their city in a different context,” Palazzolo said. “They invest 1 percent of their annual budget in art; they have extensive greenways and bike paths. So we decided to take a look and share best practices. Some communities do things well, and it’s OK to emulate them.”
QUESTIONS AND CONCERNS
There are some, though, who believe the grand plans should slow down, at least a bit.
“There are a lot of cumulative issues that have affected enough people and groups of people that a tipping points has been reached,” said Lathram of the “Shining the Light on Germantown” blog.
Among others providing an alternative voice is Dean Massey, the city’s newest alderman who defeated incumbent David Klevan Nov. 8.
“When I talked to voters, a lot were concerned that Smart Growth is really just a means for the government to regulate the use of private property,” Massey said, “while at the same time allowing certain people in government to change the rules when it benefits a preferred developer or project.”
Massey said he thinks many residents are concerned about a perceived “over urbanization” and a loss of the sense of community.
“There is a push to transform Germantown into a transient community,” Massey said, “and that was a concern for a lot of the residents I met. I am not opposed to growth, but I think we must preserve our sense of community … we have to decide how much of our community we’re willing to sell out for revenue.”
Concerns over growth, and the dealings that are a part of it, boosted the campaigns of Massey and David Nischwitz, who fell short in his bid to unseat Alderman Rocky Janda.
Alderman John Barzizza, who supported the two challengers, agreed that the pace of growth has been “pretty rapid.”
“Sometimes I get comments about things moving too fast and not enough transparency in dealing with it,” Barzizza said. “It may be a little disconcerting for average citizens.
“I had a lady ask me the other day, ‘What’s happening to our little bedroom community?’ My answer was that there’s certainly a need for more commercial development. She asked if I thought it was coming at the expense of residential. I told her I thought residential was pretty well set. The focus right now, though, is on more commercial development.”
Diana Schmied is one of the vocal people on social media questioning the way the city does business. While her observations come from afar — she moved to Ocean Springs, Mississippi, this past summer — she saw the changes in recent years. And, to make sure everyone understands her experiences, she has had a front seat on Germantown operations for some time. Her father, Ron Schmied, and her husband, Wade Morgan, both worked for the city’s department of development at different times over the past three decades. Morgan recently retired.
She said it’s like Germantown is stuck “in a schizophrenic” situation of trying to be a small town “and yet it wants to be a big city.”
“They don’t seem to be able to transition,” Schmied said, adding a closed group of citizens — some of it funneled from Leadership Germantown — seem to be in power. She said it creates a “self-perpetuating echo chamber. …They become a cheerleader for the administration.”
Lawton says it’s important to take the long view as he checks off what must happen for the city to thrive.
“If we’re going to be a community of choice in the future,” Lawton said, “these things have to happen: Education has to be strong, land use and transportation have to be there, public safety has to be a high priority, and we have to address the quality-of-life issues.”
Germantown Facts and Figures
DEMOGRAPHICS: 82 percent White; 6.7 percent Asian; 5 percent African-American
MEDIAN HOUSEHOLD INCOME: $154, 355
HOUSEHOLDS IN CITY LIMITS: 14,910
MEDIAN HOME VALUES: $281,300
PROPERTY TAX RATE: $1.93 per $100 of assessed value
PUBLIC SCHOOLS: Five that are part of the Germantown Municipal School District; seven private schools; three schools – Germantown Elementary, Middle and High — that are part of the Shelby County Schools district
FIRE DEPARTMENT: Four stations are located throughout the suburb. The department answers about 3,000 calls annually, 65 percent of which are medical. The city provides its own ambulance service. The average response time is about 5 minutes.
PARKS: Germantown lists almost 30 parks within its borders, ranging from athletic complexes to an off-leash dog park and a greenway along the south banks of the Wolf River.
POLICE DEPARTMENT: Almost 100 full-time police officers and 22 full-time dispatchers. Average response time for emergencies is 2.36 minutes; non-emergencies — slightly more than 4 minutes
TraVure: Site work on the TraVure development is underway on Gemantown’s west side between Poplar and Poplar Pike. The former site of Kirby Farms, TraVure is a $90 million development that will include 150,000 square feet of Class A office space in a five-story building along with 35,000 square feet of retail and a luxury hotel.
Thornwood: An upscale, 16-acre development on the northeast corner of Neshoba and Germantown Road – is already underway.The project with a capital investment of $150 million to $175 million includes a four-story Hampton Inn & Suites, 278 luxury apartments and a 5,000-square-foot Bob Richards Jewelers. The development includes 25,000 square feet of other mixed-use development, including restaurants and a pocket with benches for people to sit, visit and listen to the chimes of a seven-story bell tower, complete with four bronze bells cast in the early 1900s erected earlier this year.