Wednesday, December 20, 2017

City Officials misrepresent and ignore Forest Hill Heights Small Area Plan

I plan to write about the Mayor's proposed moratorium on stand-alone apartment complexes in the City at a later time. First we need a bit of background.  

Although I prefer not to take stands on particular zoning issues in this blog, I take seriously the promises the City makes to residents, and wish that our leaders would as well. "Bait and switch" is a tactic that does not sit well with me. I will also allow my readers to judge whether the City has been entirely honest, competent, and transparent the way it has handled the approval process of apartment complexes in the Forest Hill Heights (FFH) area. Please remember that this blog is devoted to the issues of honesty, competence, and transparency in City government, and not specifically zoning issues, except to inform the citizens.. 

Current Planned Apartment Complexes in FFH Greatly Exceed the Number Envisioned in the Smart Area Plan  

The City contracted with Robert Charles Lesser Company (RCLCO)  to help with planning in the Forest Hill Heights area. Here was the result, given in November of 2015, which was included in the Forest Hill Heights Small Area Plan. The "market potential" is found on page 24. 

Please Click on this to enlarge.

Something jumps out at me from this chart. At the end of ten years, the "market potential" for multi-family rentals in FHH is 252 units! We are only two years into the ten year period and the BMA has approved the 310 unit Watermark complex and the Planning Commission has approved an outline plan for Viridian at 300 units, for a total of 610 units (the Viridian was reduced by the Planning Commission from their application which was for 370 units. We do not know what the final number brought before the Planning Commission will be--it could be bigger!).  

Several City officials have talked about the Small Area Plan for Forest Hill Heights in various meetings recently.  Let's see what some of them had to say. I am going to start with the Mayor, who gave us this slice of wisdom from the September Planning Commission meeting (transcribed below):  

This is verbatim from our mayor--  

We all participated in the Small Area plan, many of the residents here and property owners and stakeholders did, and so I would hope we would try to adhere to the plan to the best of our ability. I keep remembering that somewhat of a figure of 500 units in total, that was a concept and that wasn’t necessarily written in stone and stipulated if that would only apply to multi-family. I hope we would stay somewhat in that vicinity and this body’s got a lot of experience and wisdom so I know this is a tough task but you guys are up to it. 
(specific question by Planning Commission member) 
500 may not be the magic number and neither will 601 but not more than 1000, I mean when I cast a vote, and I will, at one point in time.

So, the mayor misremembers the number of apartment units envisioned by the small area plan, effectively doubling the recommendation of the ten year buildout, and then saying, well, not more than 1000 is okay. His answer would be that he added the for sale multi-family together with the rentals, and that he is justified in doing so because of "market conditions".  Even adding them together, the 500 figure was a total for ten years (at the end of 2025)  And exactly how have market conditions changed since 2015?  Why do we keep stating market conditions drive rentals over ownership units? Nothing has changed since 2015. If anything, a recently published  Wall Street Journal article states that the trend towards renting is over.

Director of Development Cameron Ross very briefly discusses the numbers of units in his report to the Planning Commission, but does not report the results in any way that can be tied back to the details of the study. He attempts to make it sound as though what the City recommends relates to the Small Area Plan. Basically he did the same thing as Mayor Palazzolo, but he added ALL housing types together when giving the numbers, including single family.  He neglects to mention the numbers that make up the totals-- multi-family rentals, or even total multi-family (that includes rental and ownership units.) This clip is only one minute long, and it is worth a listen.

Could Mr. Ross have been using the "total" numbers in order to imply that the Watermark Apartment units actually fit into the Smart Area Plan? If he had not added all residential units together, and used instead rental multi-family, Watermark alone would not even be consistent with the Smart Area Plan. Imprecise and selective information sharing such as this by our Director of Economic Development to the Planning Commission is particularly concerning because the commissioners depend on the City staff.  In one recent Planning Commission meeting, a commissioner had to ask why the residents were saying that originally FHH was zoned for office use. The answer was that in 2016 a Smart Growth T5 "overlay" was put on the area, which opened it up for apartment complexes for the first time. I won't link that part of the meeting here because I do not want to embarrass anyone and I definitely don't want to discourage commissioners from asking questions, even if they should already know the answers.   

Needless to say, the commissioners did not question Cameron Ross  about the detailed composition of the recommended housing units in the Small Area plan. After all, he did not offer that information at the meeting. The commissioners either had not checked the details of the plan themselves, or they just did not care.

Here is Planning Commission member Dike Bacon touting the "great" Small Area plan and its public meetings that he participated in as he explains his yes vote for the Watermark complex.   

Again, I find it quite odd that people touting the process of developing the Small Area plan, and the citizens having input, at the same time ignore the actual result of the process, either by conveniently forgetting what was in it, randomly throwing out different numbers, or completely neglecting to mention the types of different housing units envisioned.  

At least Mr. Bacon acknowledges that there is increased density in Watermark and gives the rationale. However, he does not speak of the 300 units in the proposed Viridian complex, which has made it through an important stage in the Planning Commission.  Instead Mr. Bacon is addressing the increased density of the Watermark, which originally applied for 225 units. Discussions with the City brought the number of units up to 310. Although the City claims that this is due to wanting the configuration of the buildings to match the street frontage, probably the main reason is that the Watermark developers submitted an unsatisfactory looking retention pond in their first version, and the City did a tradeoff with the developers, allowing them to build more units in exchange for a decent looking retention pond.

Now I have to go back to my post on the last BMA meeting. It was actually Forrest Owens' comments that finally made me search out the Small Area Plan that the City officials had been touting.  It is worth linking his comments again (transcribed below):  

Beginning at the 1:15 mark in the above clip, Forrest Owens states the following:  

(snip) In all matters of development in our city we strive to be process driven, and we follow a plan, whether it is the comprehensive 2030 plan, or whether it is our land use plan, or in this case, whether this is our Small Area Plan—the Forest Hill Heights Small Area Plan.  And we went through the Small Area Plan process, what has it, been 12 or 18 months ago. Where we discussed the length the location in Forest Hill Heights where multifamily was proposed, and it was exactly as Mr. Ross displayed, there has been multifamily planned here, it just so happens that this is the first project that we are getting here within the Forest Hill Heights area out of the gate, and I am not extremely happy about that. I do believe that density is not a bad thing and that having some multifamily in here is necessary to create a vibrant, walkable community that is going to have neighborhood services that we want, where people can get their community coffee or their dry cleaning and live in close proximity to that and walk to that………..(snip) and I think that Germantown is where we are today based on leaders who have had the strength to follow a plan against controversy, this is not easy for me to go against maybe the wishes of the few, but I am following a plan that we gained public consent on and I know as a land use planner by trade and that when we follow a plan we get desired outcomes. (snip)

I started to try to count the number of times the word "plan" was used in the above clip but I lost track. I, too, believe in process. Heck, I am ALL about process. Process is transparency. Process, in this instance, required acknowledgment that the Smart Area Plan's recommendations on numbers of units for certain types of residential housing were different from the votes of the Planning Commission, and different from what was being voted on at the BMA meeting. Mr. Owens voted for both Viridian and Watermark, and  the total units of these complexes (610) greatly exceeds the amount of not only rental multifamily (252) in the FHH Small Area plan, but also the total multifamily (497) in the plan ....for the full ten year period. (The proposed moratorium does not apply to Viridian, and the Watermark complex is fully approved). Ignoring a recommendation in the plan requires an explanation for the deviation.

But no such recognition and no such explanation occurred. Is this process? I would call it arbitrariness instead. Simply saying you are following process does not make it so.

The process I believe in is consistent, open and complete. Forrest Owens cites the location of the Watermark when discussing the Small Area Plan, but not the numbers. Watermark gets something of a pass because it is in the area that multifamily was planned. The issues are--why is it all rental when the plan called for more sales units than rental units, and why did the Viridian get through the Planning Commission meeting in September with only three no votes?  

In short, Mr. Owens touts the process, believes that good decisions come out following process, yet he ignores the results of the process without explanation. There is a disconnect here.

Can someone please tell me why we wasted time, effort and money on meetings and consultants to come up with a Small Area Plan when the results are treated so carelessly?  I value time and I obviously value money. Why did we throw both out the window?  More importantly, why are our City officials touting the Small Area plan when they seemingly don't really care what it says? 

It has only been two years since the Small Area Plan for Forest Hill Heights was published. The only thing that has changed in the area since that time is that a school is now being planned for the general area. The City officials touting the Small Area Plan could have made the argument that things are different now due to the school location, and that is why they weren't following the Small Area plan. The school may be creating more demand for housing in the area.  

However, no one made that argument. I believe that there are two reasons for that: 1. They would rather pretend that they are following the plan, and 2. If they mention the school, then they might have to come up with actual rational projections on the number of public school students that will be living in the new developments.  

I don't have time to discuss the issue in detail in this blog post, but we have serious overcrowding in GMSD, and the new school is meant to address those issues, not to handle an influx of new students from new developments. 

Cameron Ross left out information about the projected number of students from the developments in the December 11 BMA meeting when he challenged Mr. Barzizza's estimates on the number of students that would be coming from the apartment complexes. 

Here he cites the developer's low estimates (ratio of .18 students per unit) to answer Mr. Barzizza, rather than our own Superintendent's estimates. Note that I am not criticizing the developer for their estimates, but Cameron Ross for using those alone, as he was well aware that Jason Manuel's estimates based on Germantown's numbers were higher. What seems strange to me is that Mr. Ross is so attached to the developer's Colorado figures that he actually went to the trouble to ask them to break it down by elementary, middle and high school!  


In the November Planning Commission meeting , Superintendent Jason Manuel stated that he used a ratio of .31 students per living unit to estimate the number of students from the new complexes, based on Germantown history. Mr. Ross obviously attended that meeting and heard every word. Yet he chose to ignore it completely later at the BMA meeting, and only use the developer's numbers from Colorado, without even mentioning our own superintendent's estimates. 

Here is a clip from Jason Manuel's presentation at a Planning Commission meeting:  


In a later blog post I will briefly discuss the Mayor's proposed moratorium on apartment complexes.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Anatomy of the BMA Meeting December 11, 2017

Almost everyone is too busy to attend BMA meetings, especially this time of year, and most do not even have the time to listen to three hours of recorded video. In this post I present a few highlights and clips from the latest meeting in a user friendly format, so that busy citizens can become familiar with some important issues without feeling too burdened. The clips may be watched if my commentary is inadequate or if you are particularly interested in the subject. I also link the full YouTube video at the end.

After the awards were given to the number one nationally ranked Houston Girls' Soccer team and the teacher and student of the month, the BMA meeting Monday night moved on to more controversial issues. It is evident that there is a split in our BMA, and in the city, as many citizens feel that  there is an ongoing effort to overdevelop the Forest Hill Heights portion of the city (on Winchester in southeast Germantown). On Facebook some have expressed concern about the area turning into "another Cordova". These commentators mean nothing ill about the fine residents of Cordova, but they do not welcome challenges that increased density and apartment buildings may bring (more traffic, higher crime rate, and crowded schools). They note that dense apartment complexes along Winchester Road do not have a good history of affording stability to an area. In fact, David Nischwitz had noted in his candidacy for alderman this past election that his employer's apartments on Winchester and Hacks Cross had some of the highest crime rates of any complexes across the southeast. 

Currently two large apartment complexes are being planned for the Winchester area--the Viridian is 380 units and is located north of Winchester on the Collierville border, and Watermark is 310 units and is south of Winchester on Crestwyn. A third apartment complex (Parc) project was pulled by the developers. They reportedly were told that this needs to come back as something other than a stand alone project.  This could resurface at any time, with something like an added FedEx Office or coffee shop added. The Mayor proposed a moratorium on stand alone apartment buildings last week, and that moratorium will be voted on at the next BMA meeting. Also in the works is Goodwin Farms, a small lot development of 200-232 homes north of Winchester at Crestwyn. 

The controversy in the meeting started right out of the gate with the Consent Agenda. Never mind that the Consent Agenda is supposedly reserved for items that have no opposition. Apparently the contention is that the governing body often hides items in the Consent Agenda so that discussion on them will be limited, and the citizens will not be allowed to hear a full vetting of the items involved.  

Here is very the short discussion of the Consent Agenda: 

Alderman Massey objected to two of the items on the Consent Agenda, namely  

10B Forest Hill Heights Supplement #2  for the FHH Small Area Plan which he said was for "rehiring the same folks that determined that the current density level and apartments and things of that nature is the correct path." Mr. Massey feels that item needs further discussion and should not be buried in the Consent Agenda. 

10E Recognition of the Grant Award from the Memphis Association of Realtors-- Mr. Massey feels that this needs full discussion because the grant was used to bring a North Carolina consultant into town to give a speech about the advantages of Smart Growth. He wants Germantown citizens to know the groups that are promoting Smart Growth and the density that it brings. (The National Association of Realtors actively supports Smart Growth policies.)

Rocky Janda moved to accept the Consent Agenda, and the motion was seconded by Mary Anne Gibson. 

The Consent Agenda was passed 3-2, with Rocky Janda, Mary Anne Gibson, and Forrest Owens in favor, and John Barzizza and Dean Massey opposed.  

Since I am going chronologically through this meeting, we temporarily drop zoning issues and dive into "stop loss" health insurance for Germantown employees. Germantown is self-insured, but is protected for claims over $115,000 for each employee. The vote for the stop loss insurance contract was Agenda item 11. I am not including the entire discussion for the sake of brevity. The discussion does speak to the different philosophies of two aldermen, and I therefore concluded that this issue was worthwhile to include in this post. The clip begins with some of the questions to staff after presentation on the proposed stop loss policy, the cost of which goes from $590,000 this year to $617,000 next year.

Alderman Massey points out that the total costs of health insurance for employees and retirees has gone from six million dollars to seven million dollars, which is "not sustainable." He states that what he pays for insurance through the Germantown plan is "very very low" and not something he could get in the corporate world. 

He also he said he was tipped off "today" (the day of the meeting) that the bids for the stop loss insurance only gave a few days notice to potential bidders. Alderman Massey states that this was the likely reason that only one bid was made for the stop loss insurance. (Note: although not included in the above clip, Rocky Janda had earlier claimed that the competitive bidding process was responsible for saving the City a substantial sum of money on the stop loss insurance. To me, receiving one bid does not seem competitive.) The staff member stated there had to be as much history as possible to give to the bidders, and this accounted for the time frame. Furthermore she said she informed potential bidders that they could request more time. Alderman Massey, who is in the insurance business, said that this strategy is unlikely to produce any more bids, because the companies will just move on to another project. 

The different philosophy emerges at 10:29 in the above clip when Mary Anne Gibson suggests that this all should have been discussed in the privacy of staff offices, so that everyone could be "prepared" for the meeting before the public. Alderman Massey stated that he did not receive the alderman packet until the Friday before the meeting Monday. Furthermore his belief is that these issues should be discussed in a public forum so that the citizens can be informed. I also wondered how he could have discussed this with staff ahead of time if he only found out the day of the meeting that little notice was given on bidding.

This agenda item passed, although Alderman Massey abstained because of the solitary bid received on the stop loss insurance.   

Returning to zoning issues, Item 13 on the agenda, Public Hearing Resolution 17R26 – Amendment to the Outline Plan of the Forest Hill Heights Amended Planned Development, provides for extending the T5 Smart Growth zoning designation to the entire Forest Hill Heights area, and removal of a limit of twelve units per acre. Translation: Practically anything would be a "go" in the entire area, most notably--apartments.  And apparently the units can be squished closely together. Thus the Watermark and Veridian would be just the tip of the iceberg as extending the T5 zoning to the full 200+ acres of Forest Hill Heights would result in even greater population density. This of course would potentially further exascerbate the issues of greater traffic, crime, infrastructure needs, and overcrowding of schools. If the Mayor were serious about halting the growth of the area, it would have made sense to pull this item from the agenda, rather than simply placing a temporary moratorium on future stand alone apartment projects.  

Although the complexes currently being discussed are not affected by this particular agenda item because the zoning in these areas is already "T5", the residents of the Crestwyn area took the time and effort to express their extreme frustration over the state of affairs in their neighborhood, and talked of past promises broken, potential school overcrowding, the history of deterioration of apartment buildings, and their lack of faith in the current politicians. 

One of the residents of the area who lives on a one acre lot stated that he had worked in the real estate industry for decades and never once had anyone tell him that they wanted to live near an apartment complex. 

Now we get to hear what the aldermen have to say. 

Mary Anne Gibson asked whether the police department would be able to take care of safety in the area and she got a "yes" answer. There really was not enough content on how she felt about the apartment complexes or zoning to insert a clip. 

John Barzizza spoke of the number of calls against the apartment projects he had from citizens, and stated that his job is to serve the public, and that the public does not want apartments. He also talked about the possibility of school overcrowding. 

In this clip, Forrest Owens states that all developments have controversy, and this is a case of NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard). He notes the importance of following the process, and the process includes multi-family in this neighborhood. Density is not a bad thing and is necessary for a vibrant community. He notes his background as a planner.  

As an aside, I feel NIMBY is only partially relevant to the feelings of citizens about the large number of apartment complexes being planned. Please remember the informal survey of Germantown that was posted by a resident on NextDoor (see this blog post). Condominiums are favored over apartments  by responders at a rate of 92% to 8%.  Also there were Facebook commenters from all over town that were opposed to this project. Admittedly it does affect the homeowners in one corner of the city more than the rest of us, so it is reasonable that they would take a more vocal role in opposing the project. NIMBY is a derogatory term, although Mr. Owens clearly stated that he did not intend it that way.

Rocky Janda parroted a lot of what Forrest Owens said-- namely that Germantown residents always resist projects but that the leaders realize this and go forward anyway, to the betterment of the community. Everything always turns out fine.

Director of Economic Development Cameron Ross answered a question about Watermark in the middle of the clip. I edited out some of his comments challenging the number of school students that Alderman Barzizza estimated could result from the apartment complexes. This edit was because it did not fit into Mr. Janda's remarks. The issue of how the apartment complexes will affect our overcrowded schools is discussed briefly below.

After Mr. Janda spoke, Alderman Barzizza then answered the comments by Cameron Ross on the number of extra school students that the apartments would supply. Mr. Ross had stated that the developer's Watermark estimates were based on a school system in Colorado. I know, it seems strange. Supposedly there would probably be about 18 public school students per 100 apartment units. Since the two apartment complexes currently planned for the area have about 700 units, around 124 extra students could be expected, if one uses the Colorado statistics. Mr. Barzizza believes that the statistics used do not apply to Germantown, because so many families are specifically looking for Germantown or Collierville schools, and his experience with private schools indicates that large numbers of students are actually switching from private to public schools.  He notes that we do not want to have to go through another school site selection process any time soon. 

As a side note, other factors lead me to believe that the developer's estimate is low. First, this area is very near where our new elementary school is planned. In fact, it seems no accident that all the development in this area comes at exactly the same time that the elementary school site was announced. We also need to remember that our Mayor actively and vehemently promoted a school site property very near the one ultimately selected, and one of his criteria in selecting the site was that the school would attract "rooftops" to the area. Boy, was he ever right!! Well, the rooftops come because families are seeking schools. This really is not that hard to figure out.  

Secondly, the developers were quoted in the Memphis Business Journal as saying that Germantown's "fantastic schools" was one of the criteria for selecting the site! 

Finally, GMSD is using a an estimate (31 students per 100 units) that is almost double the one the apartment developers gave, and is based on a rate which applies to the realities of Germantown rather than Colorado. Using the GMSD estimate rather than the Colorado estimate would lead to a result of over 200 students from the two apartment complexes. 

In all of these estimates, we are not even counting the small lot home development, Goodwin Farms, which will be located very near the school. If there are 200 homes in Goodwin Farms, the GMSD estimate would mean 62 additional students in our public schools.

Now, back to the meeting. 

Below are Alderman Massey's remarks. He stated that people were not counting on zoning changes when they bought their houses, and the huge changes in the area will affect both their way of life and their property values. Smart Growth is being used to inundate this one particular neighborhood with apartment buildings--they are not being spread out throughout the city. Although the proposed Parc complex has been put on hold because of the moratorium, the other two complexes are not affected by the moratorium, and mixed use complexes are also not affected. There is no guarantee that the moratorium will not be lifted at a future date and the Parc apartment complex will be back. People did not know when they bought their houses that Smart Growth would be applied to the area. They had counted on the area being subject to office buildings but not residential apartments. The CIty is not living up to its promises.

Things got testy when Mr. Massey stated that Forrest Owens' profession calls for him to lobby for apartment buildings across the country (he is an urban planner). Mr. Owens strongly objected to this and insinuated that Mr. Massey declared that he had a conflict of interest, and he does not. Both Mr. Owens and Mayor Palazzolo stated that Mr. Owens recuses himself when there is a conflict of interest. Mr. Massey reiterated that there is no conflict with this particular project, but that Alderman Owens' profession is one that includes lobbying for many other apartment complexes.  

The discussion deteriorated, a vote was taken, and the result was a vote of 3-2 in favor of applying T5 Smart Growth zoning to the rest of the Forest Hill Heights area. Aldermen Owens, Gibson, and Janda voted yes, and Aldermen Massey and Barzizza voted  no.  

After a break, the BMA began discussing the Watermark warrants that comprised Agenda Item 14. Warrants are exceptions to the Smart Code that need to be approved by the BMA. Most of the warrants were not controversial, but because Alderman Massey is against the project, he voted against the warrants. Alderman Barzizza voted against the warrants with the exception of the ones that involved safety. To me, one of the oddest warrants is to create parallel parking spaces for Watermark on Crestwyn. Obviously this will narrow the street. For the most part people do not know how to parallel park safely on a narrow street with lots of cars passing. All the warrants passed because Aldermen Janda, Owens, and Gibson were unanimous in their approval of each of the warrants.  

One thing that sounded a little odd about the discussion of the Watermark complex was that the term "public spaces" was used several times. The complex will not be fenced, and there will be "pocket parks" and green space, which is consistent with Smart Growth. Public space is also consistent with Tax Incentive Financing! Let's hope that there will not be any suggestion of using tax incentive financing for an apartment complex, just because there is a bit of grass that the public can walk on. I am not predicting this, because the idea that Germantown would be givng tax breaks to an apartment complex is clearly outlandish, but we need to keep our eyes open for the possibility. That would be a gross misuse of TIF. TIF is discussed briefly in this blog post.

Sign ordinances and other agenda items were discussed and passed. 

The full list of agenda items and the full video may be found here on the City website. 

Germantown TV posted the full video on YouTube.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Learning from the Riverdale Expansion Project

By Meg Skinner Jackson 

Meg Jackson is a parent who attends Germantown Municipal School Board Meetings on a regular basis. She has a BA in Economics from the University of Memphis, and freely admits that she would rather repair a toilet or rewire a light fixture than pick out paint colors or curtains.

At the November 20th school board work session, I sat through a presentation of plans for Germantown’s new elementary school. The meeting took place in the multipurpose room of Riverdale’s beautiful new addition. As I sat there, I couldn’t help but notice that the new school design bears a striking resemblance to the building in which we sat. It is not surprising that the new elementary school would be similar in design. Throughout all of the discussions for the Riverdale addition, Superintendent Manuel and his staff talked about establishing a “Germantown brand”. The Riverdale expansion would be the first example, and the look and functionality of every school to be built or remodeled in the future would reflect this brand.

Before designing the new yet-to-be-named elementary school, the Germantown Municipal School District gathered a great deal of community input. At the beginning of this year, the district posted a survey asking stakeholders what they would like to see in the new elementary school. The results were prepared and presented to the Design Review Committee in March, but this was well before many of those same community “wants” had been put into practice at Riverdale. Let me say right here that the middle school building at Riverdale is impressive. It is bright and colorful and has many modern features. However, as I watched the PowerPoint presentation and listened to the discussion, I started to wonder about a few things. Were there elements to the design that were merely pretty and not practical? Before we spend $25+ million dollars on a new school (which is essentially Riverdale 2.0), I think we need to gather as much constructive criticism about the building we just opened. I wanted to ask the students, teachers, and parents who use the building every day what they like and don’t like about the building. I created a simple fill-in-blank survey asking for feedback, and will attempt to summarize the results here, but before we get started, here are links to the GMSD Board meetings and PowerPoint presentation.

The discussion starts at the very beginning of the work session video, but the sound quality is not the best. It is helpful to scroll though the Power Point slides as you listen. You can get more information about the Design Review Committee and view their meeting minutes by using this link.

The Riverdale Survey

The survey link I created was posted in various places on Facebook and Next Door. As of this writing, I have received 37 responses. The distribution of respondents is shown in this chart.  
Overwhelmingly, people in all categories think the Riverdale building is beautiful. They especially like:

·       The layout of the building
·       The windows and lighting
·       The water fountains with bottle fillers
·       The technology
·       The dedicated spaces (The Science/STEM lab, band room, choir room, art room, the multipurpose room, and the new gym are all a big hit.)

As one would expect, the responses indicate that this building is a tremendous improvement over the portables it replaced. It is worthwhile to note that parents of special education students were particularly complimentary of the new building. They like having an elevator, having dedicated classroom space, and they like the modern bathrooms with adequately sized handicap stalls.

There are a few issues with the design, however. Some of these I believe are already being addressed in the new building, but some are not. I will attempt to break them down. 

The Gym

While parents, teachers and students alike seem to love how the gym looks, several complained that is noisy. It lacks sound baffling, and the acoustics are terrible. Further, they stated that there is not enough seating, suggesting that there should be bleachers on both sides. There were also complaints that there were no water fountains in the gym, and no offices or storage rooms for PE teachers. Locker rooms are not attached, are too small, and are not set up to provide privacy for changing clothes. Specifically, students who are changing clothes are visible anytime someone opens the hall door. One commenter indicated that the basketball goals may have been installed incorrectly.

These complaints are particularly concerning, because at the presentation for the new school, it was stated with pride that the gym would be identical to Riverdale’s new gym. Looking at the PowerPoint presentation (which is very fuzzy and difficult to see online), it appears that the new elementary gym only has bleachers on one side, and that the PE offices, storage, and locker rooms are not directly attached. I hope the district will consider adding water fountains to the new gym, and hope that noise/sound issues will be addressed at both locations.


Noise complaints were not isolated to the gym. Respondents mentioned similar problems with noise in the multipurpose room. Sound baffles were installed to address the issue, but they are not working. I can attest to that from my experience sitting through the school board meeting. Sound was bouncing all over the room. It was difficult to hear much of anything, and I was seated within 15 feet of those who were talking. If you watch the video link posted above, you will see what I mean. One teacher indicated that the walls between classrooms do not contain soundproofing, so what is going on in one room can easily be heard by students in the adjacent room. There is also a fair amount of noise from people walking down the halls, and from the scraping of chairs on the upstairs floor. I would have to imagine that is distracting and does not provide the best learning (or teaching) environment.

The Parking and Carpool lines

There were many comments about the lack of parking at Riverdale and the very limited queuing area for carpool drop-offs. I am happy to report that this issue is not likely to repeat at the new elementary school. Whereas Riverdale can only queue a scant six cars on property, the new school will be able to queue a whopping 160! The city and district were both concerned about traffic backing up onto Forest Hill Irene, so they have worked hard to accommodate as many cars as possible on the property. A couple of respondents suggested a covered walkway for students. Note that the new school plans do show a covered area to protect students during inclement weather as they wait for bus (or car pick up?).

The Front Entrance

Three non-staff indicated that the entrance at Riverdale is now difficult for those with disabilities and for those who are trying to enter with a stroller. Apparently, the handicap parking spots are not located close to the main entrance, and the wheelchair ramp is long and steep. Riverdale was trying to make do with the land it already had, so there were some challenges with fitting in some of these logistical details. I am hopeful that the district will pay closer attention to the location and ease of accessibility of handicap parking at the new school. They may want to ask those in wheelchairs for their input, keeping in mind that not everyone has a power chair nor an attendant to push them.

The Restrooms

There are not enough stalls to accommodate the students, and they are not sufficiently supplied with paper, soap, etc. When the Riverdale plans were unveiled at a public input session, I saw that there were not enough bathrooms and asked the architect about it. He was not concerned and was convinced that what they had in the plans would be sufficient. Apparently, it is not sufficient. To compound the problem, the stalls are equipped with small toilet paper holders (the kind that hold one small roll at a time) instead of the large holders one usually sees in public restrooms. It was noted that they are frequently out of toilet paper.

From what I can see (again, the PowerPoint is blurry), the new school may also have a bathroom problem. The second floor shows two sets of restrooms, and I see two, possibly three (?) bathrooms on the first floor. It is more difficult to corral first graders than middle schoolers through a restroom break. More stalls mean less time wasted during the day. One of the board members pointed out that there was no teacher bathroom on the second floor of the new school. The board agreed that the architect should probably find a way to squeeze one in somewhere so the fourth and fifth grade teachers would not have to travel downstairs for a restroom break.


There is not enough space in the new building. This was the number one concern mentioned by parents, students, and staff. The building lacks enough classrooms. Those dedicated rooms that everyone loves? Some of those are being used as regular classrooms. Many feel that the Science lab and STEM lab should be separate, because two classes cannot meet in there at the same time, which hampers scheduling. In fact, this lab has been commandeered as a regular classroom, so students are not able to use it for science lab. It was also highly recommended that the new school have a computer lab, something Riverdale lacks. More than one person noted that while band, art, and choir all had their own dedicated rooms, orchestra does not. The orchestra must travel like nomads, sometimes using a room in the old building and sometimes using the multipurpose room, where the acoustics are terrible. Everyone agreed that the new school should be built with more space than it needs. All felt that the additional space would be filled in no time, allowing the “dedicated use” rooms to remain dedicated as intended.

Beyond the lack of classrooms, all categories of respondents said that the school needs more storage space. Neither teachers nor students have enough storage in the classrooms. There are not enough lockers, causing students to share lockers. Inside the classrooms, students do not have anywhere other than backpacks to store supplies. This causes multiple trips across the room to retrieve what they need from their backpacks. More on this in the next section, but it can be noted that there will be no lockers in the new elementary school. Instead, the students will have cubbies and backpack hooks. During the board meeting discussion, they mentioned the possibility that these cubbies and hooks could possibly be located outside, in the hallway. I sincerely hope I misunderstood what they were saying, because as a mom, I can tell you that even when property is being supervised inside a classroom, things go missing. I would have to imagine that any item stored out in a hallway would be fair game for sticky fingers.

The Furniture and Finishes

There were many compliments about the new flexible furniture. Parents like how it looks and how it can be configured in many different arrangements. Teachers, on the other hand, have mixed feelings about it. Some feel that the furniture in their rooms does not adequately meet their students’ needs. Others want more storage for students such as below-the-chair baskets for easy retrieval of classroom items. It was suggested that the district consult teachers in each content area to determine what type of furniture their classrooms should have, since different subjects have different needs. The durability of the furniture is a big concern. Several parents and teachers commented that it is not of the highest quality, and many fear that it will not last long. Several items are already broken! Better quality furniture was highly recommended for the new school.

The round tables in the multipurpose room are also problematic. It is odd that the same people who chose classroom furniture that could be configured in so many different ways would also choose large round tables for the multipurpose room, which do not make good use of space. (Note: Wedding and conference planners know that round tables require significantly more space than rectangular tables.) Further, these round tables appear to require a great deal of manpower to set up and put away every day. The rendering for the cafeteria in the new elementary school shows the same round tables. Presenters stated that the new cafeteria will only seat 250 students at a time. I have to wonder if we could fit more students into the cafeteria by using a different table shape. Otherwise, this new elementary school may be doomed to repeat the extended lunch schedules that other schools have, where first lunch begins at 10:20, and the last begins at 1:00. The new school will house 739 students at optimal capacity and 815 at maximum capacity. However, Superintendent Manuel mentioned that if they were to use all available rooms, the building could accommodate up to 900 students. I’m not sure how many students can be seated at once in our existing elementary school cafeterias. Please, someone let us know so we can compare, but I imagine that the “old” Riverdale cafeteria holds more than 250 students at once.

In addition to the furniture, some respondents questioned the durability of the interior building finishes. The floors and the drywall are already showing signs of wear. The building has only been open for four months. This is a problem that really should be resolved in the new elementary school. Since there is no soundproofing in these walls, maybe a different type of building material should be considered altogether. And speaking of building materials, let’s talk about... 

The Glass

There seems to be a love/hate relationship with all that glass. While everyone loves the natural light if provides, safety remains a concern. It was noted that for tornado drills, students must evacuate to the old building. This poses the question, “Where will students in the new elementary school go?” The new school seems to have an abundance of glass too. The other concern for the glass is the incredible amount of maintenance it requires. Glass is irresistible to children, who like to leave handprints all over it. The cleaning staff cannot stay on top of 900 hands walking down the halls every day… and that is with 451 middle school kids. Can you imagine how much worse it will be with 800 K-5 kids? And since a few comments indicated that the heat and air is not functioning well at Riverdale, I have to wonder if that is due to faulty or inadequate HVAC systems, or if there is simply too much heat loss/gain with the glass.


From reading the responses, I have a few takeaways that the district should consider. They really need to survey their teachers and staff anonymously to determine improvements that can be made to the new school design. Teachers will be more honest when they do not fear repercussions. At a minimum, the new school needs:

·       More space, both in number of rooms and storage within the rooms
·       Better soundproofing and acoustics
·       More durable and appropriate furniture and finishes
·       Bigger gym with more seating, water fountains, and attached locker rooms, storage, and office space
·       Restrooms with an adequate number of stalls, soap dispensers, toilet paper holders, and paper towels
·       Less glass (or increased staff to maintain it)

I hope it is not too late to address at least some of these issues without significantly impacting the budget. It would be a real shame not use the information we already have to prevent future mistakes in design. We will be living with the new school for many decades, so we should do whatever we can to make sure it fits our needs.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Request: Survey About Riverdale School

The Germantown Municipal School District is preparing to build a new elementary school on Forest Hill Irene Road. They are using the Riverdale Middle School expansion building as their guide for the new elementary school building. The addition at Riverdale is beautiful, and it is an example of what the district calls the "Germantown Brand." But before we move forward with another building (link to plans), I feel it is important to critique the design of the district’s first project.

What do you feel the Riverdale building design got right, and where does it fall short? Please take the following survey and let me know your thoughts. I am particularly interested in receiving feedback from teachers, students, and parents who use the Riverdale facilities day-to-day.

I am not affiliated with the school district in any official capacity. Responses you give will be used only as research for the blog and will be kept completely anonymous (unless you provide your name and specifically say it is OK to use it).

Thank you,

Meg Jackson, Guest Blogger

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Cost of Sports Complex--$5 million?, $20 million? Or what?

The City is requesting our feedback on the  Germantown Preliminary Master Park Plan

Your comments are to be made hereThe City, in its non-transparent, hurried way, wants us to comment on the Master Parks Plan, and only gives us until Friday to do it. The problem is that we are lacking complete financial projections and also lacking basic data on the need for sports fields in the city.  

We don’t know the projected cost of any of the elements of the Draft Recommendations of our Comprehensive Parks Master Plan. I am not sure how the public is expected to be able to give commentary without any idea how much each improvement will cost. Although the entire plan and its component parts should at least give us ballpark cost estimates for each part of the master plan, I am concentrating in this post on the proposed sports complex, because the PowerPoint emphasized its economic impact. As you will later see, the case for the economic impact is weak, at best. Since the City's presentation did not include an estimated cost of the facility, I put pencil and paper to it and came up with a ballpark figure of about $15 milion. I will explain how I came up with that figure later. 

I am a huge supporter of public parks, and I do not mind paying higher taxes for amenities. I also love kids' sports. What I do mind is paying for a costly tournament level sports complex in the southestern part of the city which has no impact on the vast majority of Germantown residents, and may become a financial burden to the City in the future. While there very well may be a need for more sports fields to serve the youth in Germantown, there does not seem to be any statistical analysis of how many fields are needed and for what sports. No discussion is given to whether or not land needs to be acquired to support the current and future expected level of sports participation. Instead there is emphasis on the supposed economic benefit of tournaments that are hosted. If there is an economic benefit, a formal cost/benefit analysis should have been done. If the proposed sports fields are really for the participants and youth in Germantown, the case should have been made for that.

The “economic impact” we are given has some problems--it is not translated into City revenue projections, and it does not seem to take into account the fact that the location of this proposed sportsplex is in the far southeastern portion of the city, and the economic impact is likely to be spread among Shelby County, Collierville, Memphis and Germantown.   

The plan details some possible economic benefits due to the number of participants in various sports within a region. It shows the Mike Rose complex in Shelby County as a competitor of our complex. At another point, they point to a little synergy, because 3 of 17 regional events held at Mike Rose have to rely on other sports fields. Just as any fields we build would have an economic effect on surrounding areas, the Mike Rose fields already have an economic impact on Germantown, due to their location. If our Sports complex means fewer tournaments at that sports complex, there would be little net economic benefit for Germantown. 

How much in fees will this sports complex generate? How much incremental tax revenue will this sports complex bring Germantown? The amount of spending per person attending tournaments is estimated for the six or seven tournaments we expect to host per year, but we were not even told how this affects our tax revenues. I did some preliminary calculations and if the expectations are met in terms of tournaments, and if all the revenue from people attending the tournaments is spent in Germantown (unlikely), the tax benefit in total for five years for the City is around $700,000. Yes, there can be a multiplier effect for total revenues, but the two to three million dollars that people would spend per year here while attending these tournaments does not justify the high cost of the fields. We need a complete cost/benefit analysis, and a needs assessment for the youth and other sports participants in Germantown before we can consider such a complex. 

My main question is, do we need new fields for the players we have living in Germantown? A good argument may be able to be made for that, although it was not made in the presentation.  Do we need land acquisition to accommodate those needs? I don't know. The emphasis on building fields capable of tournament hosting drives our costs up, and puts the needs of youth and other sports participants on the back burner. The economic impact of tournament hosting is too slight to justify the costs. The City could likely have given us a good argument to build more sports fields for our youth--that our current fields are insufficient in number. Instead it decided to make the specious argument that six to seven regional sports tournaments a year in the southeastern part of the city would be a driver of economic growth. And if we want the project to be economically viable, will we charge high prices for access to the fields, which could eliminate a lot of recreational teams, in favor of the competitive teams?

Does our administration badly want this part of town developed? Yes it does. Two projects for the area just came before the BMA this past Monday (that is another story). And who can forget the way the administration tried to railroad the Crestwyn/Winchester site for the new school? Even after that site was ultimately rejected by the site selection committee, they persisted in trying to shove it down our throats. That effort failed, although the location eventually selected is in the the same general area on Forest Hill-Irene. 

As you can see, I have serious doubts about the economic case for building the sportsplex. Will it mean more tax breaks such as PILOTs or even TIF given to new hotels in the area, based on “pie in the sky” type economic projections?  I cannot definitively answer that question, I can simply pose it.  

Contrast Germantown’s preliminary Master Plan to that of New Braunfels, TX, a fast growing city of 70,000, just north of my hometown of San Antonio. 

New Braunfels Preliminary Master Plan for Sports Fields

I note the following things different between the New Braunfels study and that of Germantown: 

1. The New Braunfels plan only concentrated on athletic fields, and there were 65 pages of specific information on that alone. I feel that a separate athletic fields survey would have been appropriate for Germantown.  On our survey, there was very little about the needs for individual sports. We really have no idea from the information collected how many new sports facilities are needed for each sport.

2. A recreational trend analysis was given for each sport in the New Braunfels report. Do we even know how many kids in Germantown play various sports?  If we do it wasn’t included in the information the public was given. No national trends in sports was noted in the Germantown plan, as was done in the New Braunfels plan.

3. There is much greater detail given in the New Braunfels plan on the deficits in the current fields, including giving various grades for different aspects of each current field.   

4. In New Braunfels, in a referendum, voters agreed to purchase property for a new sportsplex.  Germantown does not seem to want that level of community input. No referendum is planned. 

I could go on, but I don’t really have time for that. This has to be published before the comment period ends on Friday. I therefore turn to the New Braunfels cost projections for a proposed complex, as a guideline to what the Sports complex could cost Germantown. Keep in mind that I would not have to use New Braunfels projections for Germantown fields if our draft recommendations had included them.   
The bottom line is that $25 million is the estimate for the development of a 100 acre sportsplex in New Braunfels, with various types of athletic fields. The emphasis for New Braunfels seems to be for local use rather than sponsoring tournaments, so their cost  per acre may be lower than ours would be.The $25 million does not include land acquisition.  

The conceptual plan for Germantown shows a 45 acre site. If our costs are in line with those of New Braunfels, we are talking about $11,250,000 in development costs. We spent upwards of $3 million for a school site in the same area, and the acreage was about 20% less than our proposed sportsplex.  My estimate therefore is that more than $15 million dollars will be required to acquire land and complete our sportsplex. We are not talking about the entire plan for all the parks-- this is for the sportsplex alone.

How is this to be funded?   

Do the residents of this City want and need this? Here are the priority rankings that were given in the by the 700 people (out of 39,000 residents) in Germantown that answered the survey: 

Development of tournament level athletic facilities and parkland acquisition are both in the bottom half of the priority rankings.  I remember being a bit frustrated filling out this survey. I want to support kids' sports, and I want them to have the appropriate facilities. How could I respond positively to that without the "tournament level" attached to the idea? I don't believe that was possible. The survey was flawed in the way it was constructed. The plan does not make the case for athletic fields either due to the community needs, nor is a solid case made for the economic benefit to the City. I am frustrated by both the survey and the recommendations.