Studying Parcel-Level Tax Data

Tuning up a city’s land-use plan to operate at maximum efficiency.

Shortly after Memphis adopted its new comprehensive plan in 2019, the city took an unusual (some might say radical) step that immediately increased its density.

Memphis 3.0 Comprehensive Plan collage showing images of the city of Memphis

Photos courtesy of the City of Memphis

It did that by “de-annexing” roughly 10 percent of the city’s footprint and turning the land, roads, and homes to surrounding Shelby County, explained John Zeanah, head of the planning departments for both Memphis and the county.

“Memphis had simply grown to unsustainable levels,” he said, noting that the city was having difficulty providing urban-level service to residents living on the outer edges of the city. “It had swelled to the point where we were roughly 340 square miles with a population density of fewer than 2,000 persons per square mile. It definitely needed a tune up.

“We needed a new strategy — which the city dubbed Memphis 3.0 — to deal with that and other issues. The city decided that being fiscally sound in the future meant growing up and not out, which had been Memphis’ philosophy for decades,” he said.

The city started the process of cutting back by examining parcel-level tax data taken from tax assessor rolls for “each unique real property of record within the city,” focusing on areas of Memphis that were low density, challenging to deliver municipal levels of service, and areas that specifically asked for de-annexation along the perimeter of the city, Zeanah said.

Land across the city was then evaluated on several factors that influence development capacity, he added. Parcels were assigned one of five categories: open space, agriculture, developed, undeveloped and under-developed.

Development status was further analyzed by growth controls, such as zoning and suitability factors, including density levels, environmental constraints, and availability of infrastructure, to arrive at scenarios allocating new residential, commercial and industrial growth.

Ultimately, Memphis conducted community-wide discussions around future growth choices. For each of the three scenarios, the city used the data collection to calculate the impact on a variety of financial and quality-of-life variables, he said.

 Fortunately, that new philosophy really resonated with a lot of residents, he added, noting that the change was made in part because of pressure from the state legislature. “We were told to take a sober look at the way Memphis had grown physically and what needed to be done in order to trim back to a size that was more fiscally manageable,” he said.

By lopping off 35 square miles from those far-flung reaches, which is 10 percent of its land, the city lost 6,998 residents or 1.2 percent of the population. That changed the overall number of people per square mile in Memphis from 1,900 to 2,100, which remains relatively low. By contrast, the city’s core has a density of 4,500 people per square mile.

Memphis now has a population of around 650,000; a figure that has remained flat since the 1970s. At the same time, the city expanded its land area by 50 percent. “That growth increased the responsibilities of city government with very little new revenue coming in,” he said. “As costs went up, the city adapted, shifting a higher percent of its budget to public safety and less for things like parks and public works.”

The new comprehensive plan was a long time coming and was the first one done in more than 40 years. But before the city could begin work in 2016, it had to rebuild its comprehensive planning department, which was a casualty of budget cuts during the Great Recession. The city achieved that goal with donations from Memphis’ philanthropic community. Within a few years, the funding for that staff was eventually rolled into the general budget.

The city also hired Opticos Design, a respected design firm based in Berkeley, Calif., that focuses on building Missing Middle housing and walkable neighborhoods, to assist with different elements of the plan. Its efforts in Memphis earned it the APA’s Daniel Burnham Award in 2020.

Dan Parolek, a co-founder of Opticos Design and author of the book “Missing Middle Housing,” said Memphis is wise to focus on specific nodes or anchors for density.

“Partly why that’s important is because it takes more of a place-based approach to land use,” he said, noting that nodes were included in “just about every neighborhood prior to 1940.”

While density metrics can be used as reference points, he said they are not “super helpful in finding what the ultimate buildout is. So, when we do this, we… start out with a very specific form, scale and intent.

“That becomes the foundation for scale and typology. We feel that’s a more effective and clearer policy direction for a city’s land use. I often tell cities that they should get rid of density and talk instead about the range of housing and building types that they want to deliver.”

Cities should focus on a mix of housing all within the same walkable neighborhood.

To create a healthy mix of land uses from a sustainable fiscal revenue flow point-of-view, he stressed that cities should focus on a mix of housing all within the same walkable neighborhood. (When pressed, he estimated that housing begins to pay for itself when there are around 18 units per acre.)

The node should also deliver enough population density to support transportation alternatives. Finally, there should be commercial amenities like restaurants, shops, a grocery store and even medical offices.

“The pattern we’ve promulgated in our land-use planning where you have to get in a car and drive everywhere is not the future. Fortunately, I think we all kind of realize that now.”

Opticos has worked with numerous cities and counties around the country on their land-use strategies, ranging from Seaside, Fla., to Cincinnati, Ohio, to the Hawaiian island of Kauai.

And in Modesto, Calif., the city is now updating its housing plan with the aim of adding more duplexes, fourplexes and other buildings blended into mixed-use developments on now empty properties, said Jaylen French, the city’s Community and Economic Development Director. “We’re looking at ‘opportunity sites’ that have been vacant along major transportation corridors.

“We’re also reviewing city policies and zoning codes that could be barriers to developing those locations, such as setbacks and parking that minimized the availability.”

While no decisions have yet been made, planners will soon produce a document with suggested code changes and new development standards that should encourage developers and present new opportunities to create walkable neighborhoods.

“Missing Middle housing will absolutely be part of the plan with duplexes, fourplexes, ADUs and apartments,” he said. “We need a wider diversity of housing including affordable housing.

“We’re a suburban community, but we think an ideal place for mixed-use development is on those traffic corridors that are close to shopping, entertainment, dining, jobs and things like that. This study will give us the opportunity to push the needle toward more of the new urbanism design.”

In Memphis, Mayor Jim Strickland said redoing his city’s land-use plan was key to “building a future that means greater population and economic growth in the city.”

He said the region is booming, with $15 billion in “recent, current, and future development happening in the Greater Memphis area. And for the first time in decades, more of that is happening inside our city limits than in the suburbs.”

“A large portion of this investment is centered around our downtown [where several 300-foot-tall buildings are planned],” he wrote in the forward to the new “Build Up, Not Out” Memphis 3.0 plan. “And that’s good because the downtown is everyone’s neighborhood, and it’s the soul and core of our city. But as much as we celebrate what’s happening downtown, it’s just as important what’s happening down the street.”

Most of the redevelopment efforts will be placed on what Strickland called neighborhood anchors. More than 15,000 Memphis residents took part in the process that resulted in the new comprehensive plan, which he said “is a road map to better transportation and transit, investment in our core and our neighborhoods, and investment in opportunities for Memphians.”

Zeanah, Memphis’ planning director, said the comprehensive plan identified more than 90 anchors outside of the city core.

“The strategy is to build up anchors throughout the city,” he said. “They would be places of mixed use that are transit served, walkable communities where our efforts would have a ripple effect on surrounding neighborhoods.”

The plan centers on how the city can generate the most economic activity, being mindful not only of the desires of residents, but especially mindful of the market conditions of each of the anchors.

Zeanah explained, “In thinking about market conditions, we came up with three degrees of change for our anchors: One was to let the market continue along its path without much public assistance. The second is to accelerate where we wanted to see change in character and see more intensity in growth and require some public subsidy to incentivize private activity.”

He said while the downtown has a thriving private market, some of the more “audacious” projects in the city core will probably need public support to make them “pencil out.”

The third area, he said, is called “Nurture,” where there is really little to no market activity, but there is a strong neighborhood desire for change and where the public sector along with nonprofits and philanthropy will be relied upon to make early investments to stimulate growth over time.

The first major investment that has occurred since the plan’s adoption is called “Accelerate Memphis,” which was designed in 2020 and has been in the early stages of implementation over the last 18 months.

He said the city is now putting $200 million into neighborhood centers, anchors, parks and streets and other community amenities to build them up and “hopefully stimulate private activity.”

To back that up, the city has done rezoning in and around its anchor areas to encourage a broader mix of uses and encourage more density. “So, the comprehensive plan is also a tool to inform policy decisions that come before the legislative body on land use,” he said.

“Finally, our implementation program has relied on continuous planning, working at the community level in areas where the private sector wants to stimulate private activity or where there is already some growing private market activity. We want to make sure that the way that investment is taking place is consistent with the plan.”

Other parts of city government are also involved. The transit division, for example, is reimagining how streets and housing elements align with future land-use patterns identified in the comprehensive plan.

Memphis has no specific formula for creating a healthy mix of land uses for an anchor to create a sustainable fiscal revenue flow. “It depends,” Zeanah mused. “The way we approached that question was analyzing the differences in scales of each of the anchor areas, depending on the surrounding neighborhood and depending on the degree of change desired, as well as the connectivity of anchor areas to one another.

“Where we could create a greater concentration of higher density anchors within a district, that gave us the opportunity to think about a more urban center with a greater scale of development.

“Within neighborhoods that might be second-tier suburban communities in the city where a lot of the development patterns are single-family residences, the healthy, sustainable scale of the nearby anchor development is likely something that is a couple of stories and what the plan calls ‘house scale’ in nature.”

Chuck Marohn, head of Strong Towns based in Brainerd, Minn., said Memphis made the right decision to stop growing horizontally and even shrink to better cover the cost of running the city.

Marohn, a civil engineer by training, has called subdivision developments of single-family homes a “Ponzi scheme” because that kind of growth doesn’t ultimately cover the cost of infrastructure replacement.

“The short answer is that we need to grow organically again,” he said. “I think we should go back to the traditional way that cities were built. It was incrementally, block by block based around people and not automobiles.

“It’s what many call mixed use, but what I call “real neighborhoods” where commercial and residential are going on near each other and are compatible with each other. That wouldn’t solve all of a city’s problems, but I believe it would go a long way.”

A Primer on the Value of Data Visualization Parcel by Parcel

Joe Minicozzi, founder of the Urban3 planning outfit in Asheville, N.C., likens analyzing parcel-level tax data to a physician viewing an MRI.

The goal for Minicozzi, in part, is to help show how well a particular land-use mix (residential, commercial) or density is performing in terms of covering the costs of running a municipality — with an eye toward adjustments in a municipality’s land-use plan.

“All cities are a little different, because of state policy and the damage that they’ve done to themselves (with their growth policies),” he explained. “But like a surgeon, we need to see their data first, before the surgery, and like a surgeon uses CAT scans or X-rays, we have to start with the data. And that to us is a “Value Per Acre” model or a sales tax generation model.

“It shows us the data, down to a parcel, so we can see their economic performance geospatially, and connect land use to economics.

“In most states, we pay for government by paying property taxes. In some states, municipalities are run off retail taxes. This money goes to core services of government and infrastructure.

“So, the money comes from an actual parcel, and services and infrastructure are delivered to that parcel. At a base level, that is where the ‘exchange’ is delivered

“But this begs the question, ‘does the revenue generated cover the costs and investment to the parcel?’ The technology and data exist to demonstrate this, and we’ve developed a model to show this exchange in a transparent way. We’ve done this for several cities, and our graphics show the net productive parcels and the net negative parcels. Net negative means that the parcels are consuming more than they’re paying, or put another way, they are subsidized by the net positive parcels.

“Once a municipality sees the cash flow, they can adjust policies or planning to compensate. And that compensation can come in many forms. It could be eliminating the direct subsidy by charging a more equitable stormwater fee, or changing zoning so that the base level of zoning doesn’t allow ‘under building’ on the property, or any host of policies that could affect economic performance, including raising the property tax.

“The key is to be agnostic until the model is run. Then it will show you where the problem is. As an analogy, a doctor won’t know which bone is broken until an X-ray is performed. Once we all “see” the data, it’s clear where the subsidy is happening. From there, the community can make a decision. If this subsidy is intentional, they can keep going with it — if they can afford it.

“Oftentimes, however, the subsidies are unintended consequences of policies that can be adjusted, or external factors outside their control. But regardless, they now know the source of the problem and know where/how to address it.

“The low-density development pattern that most communities have built since WWII has been the result of invisible subsidies, and we give communities the ability to see the economic flows for themselves, and judge whether it works for them to continue the pattern.

“By using software to visualize the economics, regular citizens can be involved in the conversation. We have seen that, like a doctor showing the X-ray of the broken bone, that citizens are more willing to engage in the conversation once they can see it for themselves.

“This isn’t to blame anyone for the condition, but give them a relative position to understand the issue so they can move forward. It demystifies the problem, to help them move to action.”

Graphic: taxable value per acre in South Bend, IN (click on the image to enlarge it)

Graphics courtesy of Urban3

Graphic: taxable value per acre in Oviedo, FL (click on the graphic to enlarge it)

Graphics courtesy of Urban3


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