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VOL. 121 | NO. 27 | Monday, January 30, 2006

Uptown Development Shows No Signs of Slowing

By Andy Meek

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MOVING ON UP: Memphis' storied Uptown development is still proliferating at a fast clip with no signs of abating any time soon. -- Photograph By Andy Meek

Uptown Memphis, the 100-block Downtown neighborhood east of Harbor Town, offers a case study in how a plucky development partnership can transform a distressed area into the kind of gathering place made famous on the TV show "Cheers," where "everybody knows your name."

Galvanized by developers Jack Belz and Henry Turley and known as Memphis' original suburb, the neighborhood was once filled with traditional mixed-income housing.

But as Memphians migrated east over the years, Uptown became one of the most blighted, scarred pockets of the Downtown area.

Even so, the neighborhood will soon welcome more residents and businesses. The recent announcement that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is helping fund a small high school in the area's Bridges Center also has generated interest.

"We've had a lot of inquiries about the availability of land since the story about Bill Gates came out," said Alexandra Mobley, asset management and marketing manager for Uptown Memphis.

Brisk business

The construction of 78 new single-family homes is immediately on tap. The site work has been finished, a construction contract has been awarded, and work should begin once the closing is finalized Thursday, Mobley said.

After that, work will begin on a 69-unit facility for senior citizens who want quality housing in the area. Most are looking for units with one bedroom.

"So building a bunch of two and three-bedroom houses wasn't working out quite as we had planned to be able to include that group," she said.

The item required a revision to the Uptown partnership's revitalization plan for the area, which was submitted to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development late last year. It changed the plan for 175 single-family public housing rentals to 106 rentals in addition to the 69-unit senior facility.

Uptown's construction is typical New Urbanism, in which communities are built with homes, jobs, stores and other needs all within walking distance. Homes are built with front porches, and importance is also given to small neighborhood parks.

The group has HUD's verbal approval, and the federal agency is expected to sign off on the plan within days, Mobley said.

"We really only dreamt up the idea in August last year, and we've been just working so hard that we haven't really had a chance to tell many people about it yet," she said.

After that, more homes are scheduled to be built.

Built-in coziness

Uptown's construction is typical New Urbanism, in which communities are built with homes, jobs, stores and other needs all within walking distance. Homes are built with front porches, and importance is also given to small neighborhood parks.

That sense of community might have been what endeared the area to its most famous former resident. In 1949, a struggling family moved from Mississippi into the neighborhood's Lauderdale Courts apartments, a community-oriented development where front doors faced each other and children played in grassy courtyards. That's where, in apartment 328 at 185 Winchester Road, Elvis Presley spent his formative years.

Neighboring influence

On Uptown's southern boundary, the sprawling St. Jude Children's Research Hospital complex is in the throes of a $1 billion expansion, and many of the medical center's employees live in Uptown's nearby homes and apartments. Three of Uptown's apartment communities are being leased and managed by Memphis-based ALCO Management Inc., a 30-year-old company that develops and manages apartment projects throughout the Southeast.

"And these guys are pumped to be able to be connected with something that is right here in their hometown and so much a part of transforming that area of the city," said spokesman Bob Hetherington.

Downtown rises again

Uptown resident Julie Ray, who owns Café Francisco at 400 N. Main St., is constantly struck by Uptown's building activity.

"I've been there for almost five years now, and there are a lot of things going on in my part of the neighborhood," Ray said. "The police have also become very proactive in getting rid of the last of the bad apples, so that's more exciting to the community than anything."

Other community-oriented developments may be on the way. In addition to new shops, restaurants and other businesses, two groups have expressed an interest in bringing a nursing home and child care center to the area.

Tight squeeze

But with all that activity, Uptown is running out of large tracts of land.

"Of course, there's always a need for good, quality care of any kind in any city, but one of the dilemmas we're facing now is that, to build a nursing home or a good child care center, you need about five acres of land in one place," Mobley said. "There just isn't five acres of land undeveloped out there anymore that isn't programmed for something else."

New Hope Christian Academy in Frayser has expressed interest in taking part in Uptown.

"They're saying, 'We already have these things in place to serve residents who are moving in (and) we want to come and tell you about them,' which is really great," Mobley said.

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