Development has been top-down for a very long time. Consider the Great Pyramids or even Memphis’ own Pyramid; it wasn’t the construction crews that made the decision to build. Traditionally, a person or company buys land and develops it how they choose. Even when government agencies are involved, significant decisions affecting a neighborhood often fail to include a significant representation of neighbors.
The Memphis and Shelby County Community Redevelopment Agency is taking a different approach. The CRA has $95 million to spend over the next 14 years on the redevelopment of Uptown and The Pinch District. During the week of April 19, the city-county organization held a series of community meetings to ensure that residents’ voices are front and center in deciding how that money gets spent.
It’s the first time since the CRA’s inception in 2000 that the organization has used a community-led model for a major development strategy. The strategy was so successful, in terms of both outcomes and level of participation, that the CRA repeated the process in its Binghampton focus area the first week of May.
What came out of its first sessions in Uptown and The Pinch — the need for street and alleyway improvements, more market-rate housing and retail, more programs for youth — will set the tone for the development of Uptown and The Pinch for decades to come.
The week-long intensive design charrette culminated in a block party with food, drinks, dancing and more. Even the harshest of critics were won over with the process.
“The whole week and then ending it with such a cool block party made them realize how cool Uptown is. They were happy to be a part, and they felt included. Really felt heard and considered,” said Tanja Mitchell, the CRA’s Uptown coordinator. Mitchell is also a resident and longtime community advocate.
The skepticism isn’t unfounded. As in most neighborhoods, development in Uptown and The Pinch hasn’t historically been so inclusive. Its original construct in the 1850s was the vision of two brothers, J. Oliver and William Greenlaw. In the 100 years that followed, growth was based largely on individuals and what they chose to build. By the 1960s there was almost no new growth in the area, and it fell into deep neglect.
The last major revitalization effort in the area began almost 20 years ago and was led by a partnership between the city and the development team of Jack Belz and Henry Turley.
An Uptown resident adds her priorities to a list of possible new developments. (Community Redevelopment Agency)
In the late 1990s, the City of Memphis and the Memphis Housing Authority, along with Belz and Turley, applied for a Hope VI grant and designation as a tax incentive financing (TIF) district for the distressed area in and around Uptown and The Pinch. Those two federal programs would allow for redevelopment of the area’s public housing, as well as infrastructure improvements and blight mitigation. The money would come from the federal grant and from a portion of property taxes earmarked for the updates. The focus and positive growth would then hopefully spur additional private investment.
The goal was to create a mixed-income community that allowed for a revitalization of the area without displacing its lowest income neighbors.
It was a grand idea and an arguably successful one that saw hundreds of affordable homes built, rehabilitation of the historic Lauderdale Courts public housing project, new lighting and street repairs, a program to assist homeowners with repairs and more frequent and well-attended community events. But the development strategy didn’t include time to collect perspectives, and community organizers like Mitchell met with many residents who felt disrespected and ignored.
To be clear, it wasn’t a matter of intentional disenfranchisement; it just wasn’t common practice in the ‘90s to think through a lens of community-driven development. Mitchell notes that the Turley-Belz partnership often gets a bad rap, but they were genuinely vested in the community.
“I worked for Henry Turley, and that man was passionate. It wasn’t just a project for him,” said Mitchell.
When the Turley-Belz’s TIF master developer contract ran out in March of 2017, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital — in partnership with the CRA, Neighborhood Preservation Inc., and the Memphis Medical District Collaborative — applied to renew and expand the area’s TIF district northeast towards the Medical District. The TIF development wouldn’t be managed by St. Jude, but it would support their own expansion plans.
When the plan was announced, community members expressed concerns that once again they would be excluded from the process. Both St. Jude and the CRA held community meetings to discuss the issue, and the results were two-fold.
First, a revised TIF application was submitted that included time for community listening sessions.
Second, the Uptown Community Advisory Committee was formed. The committee is composed of thirteen members (all residents, business owners, or community organizations) who make recommendations to the CRA on how the area’s TIF money should be invested.
The group is also charged with working alongside the CRA board and staff and other stakeholders to influence the creation of the Uptown Community Plan. The plan is intended to identify the community’s priorities for development and potential projects that work towards a shared vision of Uptown’s future.
The design charrette facilitated intensive co-work across the various stakeholder groups. Its output will serve as the foundation for the community plan.
Louisa Shepherd is a transplant to Memphis, a recent homeowner in Uptown, and a new member of the Uptown Community Advisory Committee. She joined because she heard about the TIF renewal.
“I knew that particular area was a point of interest as far as funding goes, and so I was interested to see how I could be involved in the process and have a voice in the goings-on and how that money was being spent,” said Shepherd.
Mitchell believes Shepherd is a great fit for both Uptown and the committee. She’s young, dynamic, well-educated, and passionate. She’s also an economic developer who’s seen big ideas make big impacts in other cities.
She can see the potential for Uptown. When she walks through the neighborhood, she envisions the possibilities in what she sees as an underutilized, hidden gem of a place.
“If I’m buying a house here, I want to be able to use my gifts and strengths in that area to help us make really good decisions about the path forward for our community,” said Shepherd.
The advisory board is still new. They’ve met once and advised on two proposed projects, one for a new fire station on Chelsea and the other for a housing development that would blend single-family homes and apartments near Saffarans Avenue and Second Street. They also participated in the design charrette. The CRA’s new tactic has already impressed Shepherd.
“I think the CRA should be commended for the effort that they put into intentionally including the community in the process of progress and developing the area,” she said.
The charrette consisted of three individual listening sessions — the first to set the tone and present the past and current states of the neighborhood, the second to collect community feedback, and the third to complete the prioritization and make sure all suggestions were heard and recorded correctly.
The first session saw around 50 attendees, the second closer to 80, and Friday there were roughly 100 people involved in the process.
The charrette culminated in a block party in the Explore Bike Share building at 61 Keel Avenue. The week’s work and the culminating event were important not just to the community’s planning, but its sense of community and bottom line too.
Throughout the week, local restaurants including Ms. Girlee’s, Roxie’s, and The Office @ Uptown catered the sessions and the block party’s DJ, caterers, and event planner were all local minority vendors.
For Shepherd, hearing her neighbors discuss the area’s assets during the sessions, and then seeing those assets represented in the block party was the highlight of the week.
“Knowing that there are these little hidden gems in my neighborhood and exploring that was probably my favorite part, and the culminating event is a good example of happening upon a really cool spot in Uptown,” she said.
Maryland-based Torti Gallas + Partners was chosen to facilitate the community-led process.
Shepherd, who has a background in economic development and works for EpiCenter (Memphis’ organizing agency for entrepreneurial development), said she’s confident in the process, in part because she’s confident in Torti Gallas.
“I have full confidence in the CRA. They’ve brought in some really great consultants, some of whom I know personally from my time living in other cities and they really know their stuff,” she said.
From the sessions came many suggestions for how to spend the TIF dollars. Unfortunately, many top priorities can’t be addressed via the TIF. The money can only be used on the development of affordable housing, infrastructure improvements such as roads, lighting, signage, utilities, landscaping, or blight mitigation. So pleas for a grocery store, retail spaces, and youth programming can’t directly be answered through CRA spending though those concerns are reflected in the greater Uptown Community Plan.
What can be addressed are concerns like street, sidewalk, and alleyway improvements. Once complete, they can help to attract private businesses and developers who can further improve the neighborhood.
Mitchell said stakeholders also expressed a desire for more market-rate housing. Uptown was intended as a mixed-income community, and it’s done a good job of balancing public housing with subsidized housing for low-income families, but there’s still a gap for homeowners paying full price.
Similarly, there was a missing voice at the listening sessions. Public housing residents weren’t as well represented as other stakeholder groups, something the CRA hopes to address in any future sessions.
In both cases, the gaps need filling if the community planning process is to realize its full potential.
“It’s an important voice, if we’re to have a truly inclusive neighborhood, we need the inclusion of all residents no matter how you got to Uptown….it takes all of us together to truly make this thing work,” said Mitchell.
For now, the results of the charrette are being digested and synthesized into a report that will be presented back to the CRA, their partners, and community members by the end of May. After a final approval, implementation will begin on the top priorities and quickest wins. The priorities that can’t be addressed with TIF dollars will still be cataloged for inclusion in the community plan.
As the work begins, the Uptown Community Advisory Committee and the many other active stakeholders will continue to work for full inclusion in the process and towards their bold new vision for resident-led, whole-community development.