Landlocked Germantown models urban growth strategies

Germantown is looking to densify by supporting major-dollar mixed use projects that are new types of development for the suburban community.

Germantown is landlocked by other municipalities, so the current 18 square miles the city contains will forever remain the community’s makeup. When Germantown acquired about 1,400 acres near Forest Hill-Irene and Winchester roads in the late 1990s, it signaled the end of growth possibilities for the city.

But rather than sit back and accept that reality, Germantown leaders over the years have worked to shape the suburban community’s future through a variety of plans that enhance density and favor an urban, walkable environment.

“We only have so much land remaining so we want to be clear and calculated about what we want to do with that land. I think we’ll hopefully see not a climax but everything keeps getting bigger,” said Cameron Ross, Germantown’s economic and community development director.

Those planning efforts have played a major role in the continued growth of the city with developments completed, underway or in planning stages to the tune of more than half a billion dollars just since 2012.

TraVure office and retail development site in the West Poplar District of Germantown, TN.

Some of those developments include TraVure, a contested mixed-use development that brings office, hotel and retail use into a densely residential area.

Mike Palazzolo was elected mayor of Germantown in 2014 and previously served three consecutive terms as alderman beginning in 2004. He’s been part of many of the discussions about how the city looks 30 and 40 years down the road.

Those plans include the Smart Growth Plan that was adopted in 2007 to focus on the city’s Central Business District and updated in 2012 that now includes four other commercial districts.

“The city has five commercial areas and we need to make sure we get the highest use,” Palazzolo said.

About 85 percent of Germantown’s land is zoned residential, so city leaders know they need to maximize the commercial land, especially since they knew they didn’t want to change any residential zoned land to commercial.

Germantown’s five districts are West Poplar Avenue District, Wolf River District, Central Business District, East Poplar Avenue District and Forest Hill Heights District. The Smart Growth Plan includes zoning regulations that promotes new developments that include mixed uses that are more walkable.

The renovation and repositioning of the Saddle Creek Shopping Center has added 40,000 square feet of new retail space.

West Poplar is centered on Poplar near the Memphis boundary where the $90 million TraVure development will bring 150,000 square feet of Class A office space, 35,000 square feet of retail and a Hilton hotel development. The hotel project is the second of four phases for the TraVure project, which serves as the western gateway to Germantown.

When complete next year, TraVure continues Germantown’s transformation with development that adheres to its Smart Growth Plan while also providing options that corporate offices seek.

“We’ve been lucky to have dealt with forward-thinking government in Germantown to see how these components in an urban, intimate, walkable setting is a stark contrast to multi-story buildings set in a sea of parking,” TraVure developer Ray Gill told High Ground News.

“There’s pent-up demand in Germantown for office space because there hasn’t been much office space developed there recently for a variety of reasons.”

Ross said that Germantown needs to adapt if it wants to continue to attract office growth. Many real estate leaders believe that ServiceMaster’s move from East Memphis to Downtown could signal a migration back to the urban core.

“ServiceMaster’s move Downtown is a good example of wanting to be part of something greater,” said Ross. “It’s going into the national development models of corporate offices wanting to be part of something instead of building a campus out on its own.”

West Cancer Center in the Wolf River District of Germantown, TN.

Another one of those focus areas is the Wolf River District, which has become Germantown’s health care corridor.

The corridor, which is located along Wolf River Boulevard on the northern boundary of the city, includes offices and campuses for Campbell Clinic, Baptist Rehabilitation Hospital, West Cancer Center, Sutherland Cardiology and Charles Retina Institute among others.

Along with the actual health care services rendered at these offices, the Wolf River District also is home to recreational opportunities with portions of the city’s 22-mile trail system that connects to the greater Wolf River Greenway that, when complete, will connect to the Mississippi River.

The Central Business District is the heart of the city. The high-end Shops at Saddle Creek is home to national name-brand retailers and nearby Germantown Methodist Hospital serves the region. Whole Foods opened recently and Trader Joe’s is not far behind.

The Central Business District also includes the new Thornwood project at the corner of Neshoba and Germantown roads. The mixed-use development will see a variety of office, retail and residential users once it’s eventually finished over six phases. A variety of additional apartments and retail space will follow a Hampton Inn & Suites that is under construction.

“It creates an 18-hour environment. When looking at emerging trends and the data it’s driving how development is moving. We’re happy with that kind of use.”

And the $200 million Town Center development recently was proposed in the district along Poplar Avenue just west of the Shops at Saddle Creek. It could include 250,000 square feet of retail, nearly 60,000 square feet of office space, hundreds of apartments and a hotel.

These major dollar mixed-use projects make up new development territory that officials hope will bridge the attraction of suburban life with the opportunity of an urban environment.

East Poplar Avenue District includes the area around Poplar Avenue and Forest Hill-Irene Road where the Shops of Forest Hill contain Target and Sprouts Farmers Market, among other retailers. The larger StoneCrest Investments and Boyle Investment Co. properties feature a variety of commercial opportunities as well.

The Forest Hill Heights District is home to a variety of corporate names including FedEx, ThyssenKrupp Elevator Manufacturing and Crew Training International. It also is home to undeveloped land with more potential for growth.

Whole Foods Market in the Central Business District in Germantown, TN.

“That plan has helped us hone in on those key commercial areas where we wanted to do a different way of looking at things,” Ross said of the Smart Growth Plan. “We’re more thoughtful instead of just adding things.”

The more than half a billion dollars in investments that have started or been completed over the past five years include the complete renovation and expansion of the Shops at Saddle Creek, TraVure and Thornwood as well as various infill properties around the city.

“We called that Smart Growth in 2008 but as times change and the city takes a closer look it’s moved on to a placemaking strategy of creating and enabling legislation that drives development for what people want to see,” Ross said. “It’s what drives people to instead of through Germantown.”

That includes work such as improving streetscape in the Central Business District. It also means big plans with the potential Town Center and its retail, restaurants and movie theater possibilities where people can walk from their home or office all within the same development.

The $200 million Town Center development would include 250,000 square feet of retail, nearly 60,000 square feet of office space, hundreds of apartments and a hotel as well as retail, restaurants, a movie theater and employers.

“It creates an 18-hour environment,” Ross said. “When looking at emerging trends and the data it’s driving how development is moving. We’re happy with that kind of use.”

A 24-hour environment would mean nightlife. While Germantown doesn’t have a lively nightlife scene it does have its share of restaurants. Ross said they hope that when Germantown residents think about going out for an evening on the town that they consider the city’s dining options along with Downtown Memphis or Cooper-Young.

And for residents to get to that point, it’s required Germantown leaders and developers to be on the same page.

Residents have been engaged in planning discussions through the years. And the consistent message is they want a community they can live, play and work in.

Germantown leaders aren’t concerned with competing with other Shelby County municipalities as much as they are following the lead of similar cities in other parts of the country. The city works off a list of 80 or so U.S. cities that have AAA bond rating, such as Alpharetta, Georgia, and Carmel, Indiana.

Methodist Le Bonheur Germantown Hospital in the Central Business District of Germantown, TN.

“I think our city has looked at peer communities around the country that are close in size to Germantown, 30,000 to 60,000, 70,000 in population,” Palazzolo said. “We look at what they’ve done as far as building a sense of place, a sense of community and walkability.”

Palazzolo stresses that an important factor in deciding any growth plans for Germantown has been the inclusion of the residents. He mentioned the current Memphis 3.0 planning process that could be important for the Bluff City’s long-term goals. Much like various neighborhood discussions in Memphis, Germantown also has engaged its citizens through the years.

Palazzolo said they’ve been part of the process every step of the way.

“We have a highly motivated residency here that’s well educated and very engaged,” he said.

“Our long-term vision has had citizen participation. They own all of this. It isn’t a mayor’s vision or community vision and separate economic development vision or aldermen’s vision. It has been the community’s vision over parts of four-plus decades.”

Read more articles by Lance Wiedower.

Lance is a veteran journalist with more than 16 years of experience in newsrooms in the Memphis area as a reporter and editor, including most recently as managing editor of The Daily News. He regularly contributes to The Daily News, including a biweekly travel column, The Daily Traveler. 
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