The State of Recode Knoxville

It’s been almost two years since I first wrote about Recode Knoxville and I was pretty late to the party. It was February 2017 that the effort officially got underway with with the outside consultants who guided the process. Gerald Green, Executive Director of Knoxville/Knox County Planning (formerly Metropolitan Planning Commission), says that even a year before that the process started as the groundwork was laid by writing an RFP for the consultants.

After over three years of work and months past when approval of a final plan was anticipated by City Council, I sat with Mr. Green to learn what has caused the delays and to learn the source of the remaining opposition. I also wanted to learn where the proposed changes to the code stand with City Council set to take up the topic once again, tonight.

A small group has formed on Facebook to oppose the effort to rewrite the codes. They are calling for the issue to be on the ballot and saying there has been no transparency, the process has been rushed and  participation as not been representative. Mr. Green responds that there have been over eighty public meetings. He’s gone through the process in two other cities with far fewer public efforts. He also points to the media coverage, KUB newsletter updates, press releases, outreach efforts via Centro Hispano and the Urban League and the enormous input on their website.

Some of the resistance he ascribes to a fear of change. He also questions if people understand the current codes and the difficulties they present. He thinks most people think current codes work well. He points to the Regions Bank at the corner of Central and Broadway that is not only acceptable under current codes, but is the only acceptable kind of development. Proper urban development would currently not be allowed on that property without an appeals process.

Recode Knoxville, Presentation of Technical Report, Central United Methodist, Knoxville, September 2017

To look farther down Broadway, he notes the used car lots that would not be permitted in the future because that area will be zoned more for pedestrian usage. That said, every existing car lot would be allowed to remain until someone decided to replace them with better pedestrian-oriented construction. The new zoning would not close any business and would likely increase the value of the property in question.

Residential areas have also been a source of concern for many. The primary change there is design standards (very modest ones) have been put into place that will protect the value of the neighborhoods.  94% of residential zoning doesn’t change. 3% of the remaining portion is simply acknowledging parks and other green spaces. Other small changes involve acknowledging uses already present – like churches currently located in residential neighborhoods are sometimes (depending on size) being rezoned to institutional.

One struggle, in his opinion, is that sometimes equal or even greater credence is given to small groups than to the professional opinions of those charged with making the changes. Small constituency groups have gotten small changes which add up to potentially compromising the goals of the process, while few individuals or groups understand or are concerned with the bigger picture of what Recode is attempting to address.

One myth the group has struggled with is that somehow the changes to zoning would cause an increase in taxes when, in fact, zoning only addresses uses and has nothing to do with taxation. The primary potential impact, Mr. Green says is that vacant lots might get developed, increasing the tax base. Residential owners could, therefore, conceivably get lower taxes.

Gerald Green, Executive Director of MPC, Knoxville, May 2017

On the agenda tonight is to look at final changes to the text that have been proposed by council and/or staff. He hopes these will be approved so the group can turn its attention to the map. He says there are about 70,000 parcels of which about 30 are still being discussed for possible changes. He stressed that the new codes allow uses not expressly forbidden whereas the current codes prescribe a very specific use and require pursuit of variances for anything outside that use.

He also wants to make clear that the codes will be a living document, meaning they can be changed further after adoption should a reason arise to suggest that makes sense. A stakeholder’s committee will remain in place for two years after passage to allow a mechanism for expressing concerns. It’s a continuation of what he calls “unprecedented” public input.

You have (at least) one more chance to attend a public meeting when city council convenes tonight at 6:00 PM. It may be one of the more interesting city council meetings and there is a chance to show your support or opposition to the effort. It’s not likely the process will end tonight, but the meeting might be a serious step in that direction.


  1. Pay special attention to the last segment of the article concerning “up-zoning.” Recode sounds alot like up-zoning:

  2. Joe Hultquist says

    As a former City Council member, I can certainly testify to the difficulty of revising the zoning code in any significant way. A total re-write like Recode isn’t the only way of doing it, but it may be the most effective – if it can make it across the finish line. Zoning is hard, and almost inevitably someone’s ox is going to get gored (at least in their perception) at some point.

    That said, an omnibus rewrite is sure to create problems. Hopefully not as many problems as it solves, but inevitably enough to create significant headaches for some time to come. So, while the process can’t go on forever, it has to be thorough, and concerns need to effectively addressed up until the final vote. Obviously, the more problems that are fixed on the front end, the fewer there will be to address later. But, it goes beyond that. Once passed, there will be a tension that can’t be easily dismissed. It will be between the pressure to fix glaring (and not so glaring) problems, and the equally strong pressure to “give it a chance” and let it run some sort of course over some period of time before “tinkering”. These are the practical and political realities in play, and they’re unavoidable.

    So, my caution would be to (a) make sure we’ve covered everything we possibly can prior to passage. That includes substinative concerns and issues that arise at the 11th hour. And, (b) have in place a process to begin to address the inevitable shortcomings, oversights, etc. in a fairly quick and expeditious manner. This latter part will have to have buy-in from existing Council members who will continue after December, as well as Council and mayoral candidates.

  3. Recode is a confusing mess designed to obfuscate the developer friendly and driven purposes which are pushing this radical social engineering.

    Ask yourself, “if Recode is so straight forward and easy to underatand why can’t city and planning officials answer questions about what is permissible in a given location?”

    The answer is, like ObamaCare, you will find out what is in it only after it is adopted. As caselaw developes around interpretations and exceptions the ‘developer hidden gems in Recode’ will become apparent.

    Recode attempts to advance the pipedream of a city dominated by public transit by creating transit corridors. Ha ha. It does not work. Charlotte has seen “transit orientated corridors” along the tram line develop with *more parking* not less than codes previously required.

    Then there is the issue of Granny Flats. It isunclear at this reading of Recode if a Granny Flat must even be tucked away in the back yard. It could possibly be in the front yard and larger than the original structure. California is an excellent place to look for evidence of the abusive developer deployment of Granny Flats.

    Lastly I shall point out everyone should be leary and deeply suspicious of an official such as Green who states the planning professionals know better than the public.

    After all, are the current codes, and problems, not a direct result of planning professionals? Those who ‘have all the right answers’ are attempting to now sell you a pig in a poke.

    Knoxville, beware snake oil salesmen.

    • Jimmy Ryan says

      Leland, I am not surprised you’ve showed up from Pigeon Forge to bash this process, which pertains to City of Knoxville residents and property owners. I’m going to address your comments one by one. I have ignored your ObamaCare reference because in this case, the public has had access to the very document you claim holds ‘developer hidden gems’ and in my thorough evaluation of the document I can tell you your claims are unsubstantiated.

      1) City and planning officials *can* answer questions about what is permissible in a given location – it’s actually been outlined in each draft within the following handy table – which is what anyone would reference when asked what is permissible where.

      2) ReCode is not attempting to advance a pipedream of a city dominated by public transit. It’s attempting to allow mixed-use development along urban corridors and in urban neighborhoods, which the current zoning code does not allow.

      3) ‘Granny Flats’ are called ‘Accessory Dwelling Units’ (ADU) within the draft document, and their requirements are located on pages 10-4 and 10-5 of the linked document. Yes, ReCode is clear that ADU’s are not permitted in a front yard or corner side yard – and there are many more requirements restricting their development – including size and that one of the dwelling units must be occupied by the owner of the property.

      4) Current codes and problems are a direct result of antiquated viewpoints and practices from the 1950s and 1960s – the same codes that resulted in the deterioration of our downtown core. Just like anything else that may have been normal practice during this time-period (like smoking and drinking during pregnancy) the general public has learned from their mistakes and found ways to promote public policy that corrects them. The Downtown Knoxville that everyone has once again come to know and love would not be able to be developed within the confines of our current code. ReCode is attempting to fix these mistakes.

      Knoxville, beware uninformed nay-sayers.

  4. My understanding is that Recode is basically supposed to make it easier for mixed-use zoning throughout the city. Which is great. A lot more people want to be able to be able to live above a business with much more security than an average single-family home, and not have to worry about maintaining a yard. Suburbia is cancer. It’s ridiculous that it’s taken this long to get it to a vote, let’s just get on with it.

  5. There have been changes from one revision from another with no notification to affected property owners. For example, I checked the original proposal and it looked okay, but in my block between revisions several lots were suddenly changed from single family residential to multifamily (and vice versa). So if a property owners do not keep on checking each revision (and know when to check), they’ll get screwed.

  6. I think this whole thing is just to fatten the pockets of the developers who have ties with the city. It’s ridiculously obvious. Using the guise of making it better for pedestrians has been used on every construction project for the past 3 years. These developers and construction companies only want to get paid big money, and their friends in city government has been paid good endorsements to make sure that happens. Wake up Knoxville!!!

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

      Developers don’t make more money by making their developments more pedestrian friendly. They often lose money doing that and have been known to fight it. Developers have not paid city officials to make this happen. That is a serious accusation. What knowledge do you have of this happening?

      • I do think developers benefit by some of the minimums. For example the latest draft online says anything on cumberland has to minimum of 2 stories and max of 10 stories. That’s a sweet spot for getting good money but not going so tall you have to switch to different building methods that are more expensive. Some of the neighborhoods have minimum lot sizes which would put the lots in a certain price range. I guess that last one would be the one that concerns me a little. If a lot is so big it might take away from affordable housing options. None of this seems corrupt mind you. At 415 pages it’s hard to absorb all of it. Im more excited about then worried at this point. I think it gives developers an expectation of return on what they are doing and mixing in stuff residents want. Im excited to see making everything pedistrian friendly. Even if people dont walk to work it is nice to take your pets out or walk to the store or whatever.

  7. It is extremely frustrating to have been involved (only as a volunteer) with the Recode Knox efforts for the last 2+ years and now, in the 11th hour, see all these people finally wake up and voice concern in one way or another. Knoxville was not hiding these meetings, nor the website or even the public calls to review the recode documents and provide commentary… so I call BS on any claims that the city was not being transparent in the process.
    Recode is meant to provide a better process for developing complicated commercial and industrial zones in the city so they can be mixed-use and more pedestrian-friendly. Without Recode we will have to trudge along at a snail’s pace with stop-and-go construction projects along Broadway and Central for many more years before we see any meaningful change. Just because it is being done now does not mean that it is working fine.. it just means that a handful of people have a strong amount of determination and a lot of patience to deal with the red tape. Our current code is a SNAFU (Situation Normal All F**ked Up) and it doesn’t have to be and the city is trying to fix this.
    The last point I would like to make and Gerald Green’s presence alone proves is that Knoxville is not special with our zoning problems; many cities are currently dealing with zoning issues in one way or another right now. Most of these cities are actually fighting single-family zones that are creating massive sprawl in some of our countries largest metros. Knoxville is not trying to touch single-family homes but is just simply trying to better define vacant and underutilized portions of our city for redevelopment in the future. Knoxville is not the manufacturing and textile powerhouse we once were, so those districts should be revised to allow for better living opportunities and community development in the bedroom neighborhoods of our CBD. Anyone that has visited Asheville in the last 5-7 years would easily say that they are having a positive moment in their development downtown and in the surrounding neighborhoods. Well, Gerald Green previously worked for the City of Asheville and helped them with their rezoning process, so that alone gives me confidence that we found someone to guide us that knows our region and knows our demographic and is willing to help our city reach its best potential.
    I fully plan on going to show my support for Recode Knox tonight. Thanks for the write-up, Alan!

    • Thanks for helping to explain, Oren.

    • Jimmy Ryan says

      Agreed Oren. I think what we all need to do at this point is show our support (and I would encourage in written form) to City Council and the Mayor for ReCode passage. Particularly, I would encourage anyone in support of ReCode to send an email to City Council *today* so that they can have it before tonight’s meeting.
      “Vote YES for ReCode”

    • I knew about this years ago and I’m just a regular concerned citizen. Anyone anywhere should have known and been aware of all of it. That is absurd. What I have read from anti-Recode is total hogwash scare tactic.

      What I want to know is what the anti-Recode people have up their sleeves since their arguments are fake. Who is paying them to run ads? What are their legitimate complaints since their expressed ones are false?

      Seems like it’s either something fishy or just a group of trolls who want to throw wrenches into gears for fun.

  8. Alan, do you know if there is a summary document that simplifies the Recode proposal? Or perhaps an article that would make sense of Recode for the average person? The information I’ve seen on it is vast and confusing. For example, the latest article I read talked about increasing density to handle a larger population, but didn’t articulate how this is to happen. It doesn’t really tell me what I want to know, which is, exactly what does this propose and how does it affect property owners? .

  9. Thomas Hensley says

    Move interference from the city and small vocal groups on what owners and the taxpayers of the property can due with their property. It just never ends, those that don’t own property and don’t pay property tax want to tell those that do, what to do. Buy and try to develop some property, see what it is like to try and navigate the system.

    • Amen! Amen! Amen!
      So True, Once The “Codes” are Brought into Effect then The Path to Navigate The New “Codes” is Often Squed. Pathway to Navigate the New “Code” Should. be Clearly Outlined and Changes to the “Code” Need to Be Spelled Out Plainly…….Good Luck!

  10. Kenneth Moffett says

    Indeed that branch bank has long struck me as one of the most inappropriately sited and simply inept buildings in a city with more than its share. Sadly enough I expect many citizens would not perceive why it is being called out as exemplifying the shortcomings of current codes.

  11. Danielle Nance says

    Do you know which 2 cities went through the Recode under his guidance

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