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Big Stink Over Asphalt

City planning flaws created Optimist Park fiasco

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If anybody knows about the ups and downs of Optimist Park, it's June Lackey and Lillian Chance. The sisters have resided in the embattled neighborhood all their lives on land that has been in their family for three generations. During WWII, their grandfather opened a little neighborhood store called Keesler Grocery, which was taken over by the sisters' father in the 60s, and then their mother. The store was torn down in the late 70s, but Lackey, 77, and Chance, 79, are still there, living next door to each other in the houses in which they were born. Dogwood trees bloom in the front yard and nicely kept flower gardens grace their properties. And by next month, they'll have an excellent view of the asphalt plant that's being built across the street on N. Davidson just a few blocks from downtown."It shouldn't be put there," says Lackey, who suffers from sinus problems and migraines. "It's right in downtown, and it's going to be against people's health. I can't afford to move. Besides, I wouldn't want to move. This land belongs to my daddy's daddy. We've been here all our lives. No other place would be home."

"I think the whole thing's rotten," says Chance. "I don't have anything good to say about it. You just hate to have something like this coming in right under your nose. I've lived this long and had fairly good health. I don't need no problems like this at my age. I think our government officials have made a mess out of things."

Actually, that's a pretty astute assessment of the situation. The fact that an asphalt plant is scheduled to be built on a three-acre parcel of land which last year was targeted for retail and residential development demonstrates once again that backing up neighborhood plans with concrete action isn't exactly our city officials' forte.

Falling Through The Cracks
After nearly nine months of work and deliberation, the Optimist Park neighborhood plan was finally approved in March 2002. The plan was a collaborative effort between residents, business owners and the city's planning staff. At the time, a big ballyhoo was made of the new plan, which called for mixed-use development, designed to transform an area that has long struggled with drugs, crime and general neglect. Residents and city bigwigs hailed it as a new start for Optimist Park and, politically speaking, as a clear sign that this the would take care of its fragile inner city neighborhoods.

One little problem. The zoning for Optimist Park-which is largely industrial-was never changed to accommodate these ambitious new plans. This, it turns out, is quite common.

"When a neighborhood plan is created, it just puts forth zoning recommendations, it doesn't change anything," says Planning Commission vice-chairman David Hughes.

"When neighborhood plans are adopted, sometimes it comes with a downzoning (scaling back zoning from industrial to multi-family, for example) and sometimes it doesn't," says Planning Commission chairwoman Mary Hopper. "Getting the plans approved can be enough of a chore. I would hope people understand that any neighborhood plan is long-term."

In the case of Optimist Park, because of the large amount of industrial development already present, the city council decided not to rezone the property. The reasoning was that to change the zoning would have created a large number of non-conforming land uses, and would potentially limit property owners from improving their businesses. And this, of course, rendered the previously completed neighborhood plan utterly useless. Get it? We don't either.

Even in the bizarro world of city politics, it all seems a little loopy. Even some city council members say so.

"Historically, city council rarely goes back and changes zoning," says Councilman Malcolm Graham. "It's not like you adopt a neighborhood plan then go back and change the land use. That makes sense, but that has not been our practice in the past."

"In hindsight, had we simply enacted the zoning to match the neighborhood plan when we had the opportunity, this wouldn't be a problem at all," says city councilman John Tabor, who served on the Planning Commission for nearly a decade.

But, as Optimist Park residents and business owners will tell you, it is a problem.

"It seems like too many things fell through too many cracks," says Linda Williams, president of the Optimist Park Community Association, who is leading a campaign against the asphalt plant. "We don't want the city council saying, "Oh, this is just so bad, I feel sorry for you.' We want them to say, " feel sorry for what's happening, and we need to do something about it.' That's what our elected officials are for."

"This asphalt plant is completely opposite to the city council's plan for this community," says William J. Proctor, president of AFI, a distribution and fabrication business located across the street from the asphalt plant's proposed site. "It will have both short-term and long-term consequences. It will blunt any retail and residential development, decrease property value, and negatively impact the lives of the residents. What he's doing may be legal, but ethically and morally it is wrong."

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