First Floor Housing

The Johnson City Regional Planning Commission approved changes to the zoning code Tuesday that would allow first floor housing in the city’s downtown area. The changes will now go to the Johnson City Commission for final consideration.

Changes that would allow first-floor housing in Johnson City’s downtown have cleared their first governmental hurdle.

The Johnson City Regional Planning Commission unanimously approved amendments to the city’s zoning code on Tuesday that would allow ground-floor housing under certain conditions in the city’s central business district, which is zoned B-2.

Shane Abraham, a downtown developer working with Philip Cox on a mixed-use project on Main Street called The Henry, said that, unlike 100 years ago, there aren’t many businesses that need a 5,000-20,000 square foot space.

“Certain buildings have scenarios in how they’re laid out that you could provide some ground floor residential off a neighboring alley or other thoroughfare,” Abraham said.

The changes would allow first-floor housing to front any private or “non-street public space,” including courtyards, alleys, parking areas and walkways.

Horizontal and vertical live-work units would also be allowed as new construction or redevelopment under certain circumstances.

Development Services Director Preston Mitchell said the amendment is drafted so that only commercial storefronts can face public streets, but doorways providing access to downstairs or upper floor housing would be allowed on the front, rear or sides of buildings.

A draft of the amendment said any building in the district would still need to primarily reserve ground-floor space along principal streets for non-residential uses.

The changes will now go to the Johnson City Commission, which will consider them on three readings.

Planning Commissioner Benjamin Whitfield, who was on a subcommittee that reviewed the amendment on July 1, said members initially had concerns about losing street frontage downtown to residential units, but he said the language included in the amendment steers housing away from those spaces.

“We had several developers that were at the meeting as well, and they also voiced concerns that there is demand for these units in the city right now, and we’re not able to provide for them,” Whitfield said. “I think this is a good move for us.”

Chairwoman Stacey Wild said commissioners on the subcommittee were presented with several examples of how first floor housing has been developed in cities like Knoxville, which was implemented to the benefit of those areas.

Wild added that many commercial spaces in the downtown area are “unrentable” because of their size.

“There’s not the demand for that type of space downtown, and so this will enable additional development,” she said.

Many of those commercial spaces are simply too big, Whitfield said.

“No one needs that much space,” Whitfield said, “so this should help I think do more infill downtown and put more people downtown.”

Mitchell told members of the Planning Commission that several downtown developers have asked the city if it could expand residential opportunities in that district.

The downtown area has prohibited first-floor housing, which Mitchell said was appropriate because it protects traditional mixed-use projects and allows ground floor spaces to be reserved for economic activity. Housing on the upper floors also allowed residents more privacy and security.

“But as our downtowns redevelop and grow there are, we find, new opportunities for residential development,” Mitchell said. “The market has changed a little bit. We’re not just building vertical mixed-use anymore.”

Warehouse space can now be converted to lofts, Mitchell said, and the market is supportive of live-work spaces.

Ground-floor housing has existed in the downtown area and was grandfathered in when it was prohibited.

When it comes to The Henry, which involves the redevelopment of four previously city-owned buildings at 309, 313, 319 and 323 E. Main St., Abraham said there won’t be an opportunity for ground floor housing for much of the project, noting the application will be “minimal,” but it could pertain to a couple thousand square feet of space in one of the buildings.

“I think it will be a big win for the city as developers learn how they can apply this to buildings downtown,” Abraham said about the overall benefits of the change. “The long-term effect is getting more residents down there.”