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VOL. 124 | NO. 145 | Monday, July 27, 2009

Highland Hip

University area drag crafts a better fit between town and gown

By Bill Dries

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A train streaks past Southern and Highland at dusk. The Memphis City Council approved a redevelopment plan and zoning overlay for the aging Highland Strip, and the University of Memphis plans a more formal entry from Highland.

The Highland strip is growing a skyline. The Stratum on Highland Street, a five-story apartment complex, was the first new structure west of the University of Memphis to sprout last August on the storied commercial strip itself.

The Laurels, a four-story condominium complex with 40 units, is going up to the north at Central Avenue and Highland. And the campus will be taking a noticeable move toward the street in the coming years.

The new emerging Highland strip is four or five stories at the most with retail at street level and residential space above. The plan is to make the street and sidewalks busier with more foot traffic from the campus and the surrounding neighborhoods.

This month, the Memphis City Council approved a redevelopment plan and a zoning overlay the University Neighborhood Development Corp. has been working on for years.

“We want it be to vibrant and we wanted to really show that connectivity with the university campus,” said Andrew Trippel, an urban planner involved in putting together the plan. “Because we do want to increase the density in terms of the number of people living in the university district, that definitely means that when you can’t go out, that you go up.”

The demographics suggest some apparent contradictions.

Impersonal, disparate

Brent Ruffin, from left, Sam Ward and Chad Yarger of the band Above Only perform a set at Newby’s on the Highland Strip.

The stretch of Highland and the neighborhoods on all sides of it are the closest thing Memphis has to a town-and-gown college area. But most of the students are commuters, and those who don’t live at home or in a dorm are flung across the neighborhood and the city in aging apartment complexes, subdivided houses or duplexes.

The Normal Station neighborhood’s population grew by 51.3 percent from 1990-2000, according to U.S. Census figures. The University District Comprehensive Plan attributes the increase to an increase in “multifamily and/or elderly high-rise units.”

Many retirees also live in the area, according to a 2006 study commissioned and adopted by the UNDC. (See sidebar on Page 22.)

The university is developing a more formal entryway on Highland that could include a new music school.

Behind the forming Highland streetscape closer to the ground are single-story changes, especially in the area between Highland’s east side and Patterson Street, the first street into the University of Memphis campus.

A warren of 10 apartment complexes under the “Campus View” banner by the railroad tracks are showing their age. Other houses close by are being demolished, and at a glance it’s difficult to tell what’s occupied and what might be next on the demolition list.

A lot is jammed into the small area, including several rows of businesses along and off Walker Avenue.

Peter Moon and Rick Johns opened the bar and restaurant RP Tracks there in 1987.

“Midlife crisis No. 6” is how Moon says they came to the area. They knew the owners of Tiger Book Store, one of the mainstays of the Walker part of the district, along with Garibaldi’s Pizza and Brother Juniper’s.

Business has been good enough that they’ve expanded to Highland.

Today, the old Highland Cue pool hall is RP Billiards. Gone is the unadorned industrial layout of pool tables lit by fluorescent light fixtures. Early ’70s pool hall has given way to darker wood paneling with more subtle lighting and a restaurant with the pool tables.

University of Memphis student Brandon Marshall practices break-dancing with a small group of enthusiasts outside Whatever, a retail shop on the Highland Strip near Southern Avenue and Highland. 

And across the street, construction began on The Stratum in 2007.

Kemp Conrad worked for Trammel Crow’s new higher education group when the real estate company took a look at the campus housing situation several years ago and teamed with MetLife.

“We saw an underserved market in terms of nice housing opportunities around the university,” he told The Memphis News. Assembling the parcels of land where Dixie Photo Lab and McLaurine Bakery stood for decades was not a major obstacle.

“All of them were either going to be put up for sale or people wanted to sell,” said Conrad, who has since won election to the Memphis City Council. “They were all right there together. Luckily it wasn’t as difficult as some assemblages will be because we had motivated sellers.”

Today, the Stratum is home to students from Rhodes College and Christian Brothers University as well as the University of Memphis.

“It changed the whole streetscape,” Moon said.

“I look at it differently than some other folks do. I drive into this neighborhood five or six days a week, turn a key and have to make a payroll. … It gives you a different perspective than just being in a tall building and never walking the street.”

With demolition work and new campus construction nearby, Moon said Walker is the logical starting point with a specific plan of its own coordinated with the large UNDC plan and ready to face the public.

“We haven’t got the money for it yet or the landowners to all sign off,” he said. “My thought is, let’s get it started on Walker and then we go north with it. Walker you can do a little easier.”

The Stratum on the Highland Strip features 85 units and 215 bed spaces and houses students from the University of Memphis, Rhodes and CBU.

To Moon, the hard-fought success of Midtown’s Cooper-Young neighborhood is a guide.

“What drove the residential was the commercial,” Moon told The Memphis News. “Once Café Ole opened and the bank went in … All of a sudden it became OK to buy a little house on one of those side streets and fix it up.”

‘Core’ ideals

But the University district is a bit different in that regard. There are many homeowners in the six neighborhoods in the immediate area, but out of necessity there must remain a lot of rental property – single-family homes with lots of roommates, duplexes and apartment complexes.

With about 7,000 housing units in the area, more than half are rentals, according to the University District Comprehensive Plan. The other variable is the University of Memphis as the dominant landowner with 363 acres.

There was a time when the university’s general plan was to push north across Central to Poplar Avenue and make Poplar a front entrance to the campus. Some campus housing north of Central is the most visible remnant of the drive. It generated a lot of opposition in the neighborhoods north of the campus.

“That’s just not a part of our plan,” said David Cox, executive assistant for partnerships and administration at the university, when asked about the status of the old plans. The campus master plan lists a set of goals that include the line “development north of Central will be limited.”

University of Memphis President Dr. Shirley Raines has changed the institution’s focus to a campus entrance on Highland. The entrance will be an open space along with a welcome center and alumni center, according to the school’s updated master plan. A new music center is to be built just east of the new entrance.

Cox said the general goal is “a strong healthy core.”

A pedestrian seeking protection from the sun walks down the Highland Strip. 

“We’re looking for positive design in the university area as a way of enhancing the educational quality of the university, but also importantly building strong healthy neighborhoods in the middle of Memphis,” he said.

The university’s interest in Highland included a call to developers and Josh Poag, who had lived on Ellsworth Street, the first parallel street to the west of Highland, heard it. That’s how Poag-McEwen Lifestyle Centers came to buy the site of the Highland Street Church of Christ last year.

The four-story center to be built there is called Highland Row with ground floor retail, some second-level retail and 230 condo units on the upper three floors.

It is a $63.5 million project whose size will have an impact beyond its footprint.

“We all hope this will be the instigator to help the whole area, raise the bar a notch,” Poag said.

The church is awaiting demolition. The stained glass windows and other fixtures have been removed.

“We’re waiting on the demolition until we’re really ready to start construction,” Poag said. “The project is the exact same. Where the economy has affected it is just the timing of the project – stating the obvious.”

Highland Row will occupy a city block between Junior League Headquarters on the corner of Central and Highland and WHBQ TV (Fox 13) on the other side. Poag & McEwen also owns eight parcels at the back of the lot facing Ellsworth. The homes will be replaced with townhouses that will serve as a buffer.

“That’s something the neighborhood asked for early on,” Poag said. “It’s completely reasonable. No one wants to face the back of a shopping center.”

For locations, click here.

Those and similar concerns are the reason the development plan comes with a map that deals with the height any buildings should be in certain parts of the district. The height requirements, which top out at five stories, are part of a zoning overlay plan considered essential in projects like the University District undertaking.

“It will keep us between the goal posts, so to speak,” said Moon. “It will prevent 50-story, A-frame buildings from being built. … How many drive-in businesses do you want to have on Highland? You’ve got to have that document that controls.”

That would also extend to parking. Much of it is now on open lots or in the backs of businesses. Planners consider those eyesores, wastes of space and a disincentive to foot traffic.

Thinking back, and ahead

The district plan calls for parking garages with retail on the ground floor and other alternatives, as well as limited and enforced meter parking on Highland.

Trippel compares the Highland area to nearby stretches of Poplar and Madison avenues from East Parkway west.

“Let’s put a majority of the residents within easy access to the commercial areas,” he said. “Put the bigger buildings along the major streets rather than in the middle of neighborhoods. … In a sense, we’re really trying to roll back time, I guess.”

The university also wants to try to concentrate student housing more – dormitory and off campus – in a way that might begin to change the university’s traditional commuter student base.

Moon said the change is long overdue.

“When parents come in and bring their kids in from Munford to look at the school, they are going to look at not just what’s on the campus,” he said. “They are going to look at surrounding neighborhoods and the business area that’s next to the university. How rundown does it look? How safe does it look?”

The scale, he suggests, should resemble a small town in a big city.

“Have it a quaint, sophisticated, artsy area to live in. That’s what I see,” he told The Memphis News. “Whatever it takes to get it done, we need to get it done. … The university needs this area to be vibrant or they are an inner-city college.”

The alternative to that is a mix of town and gown in a way that blends with but doesn’t invade the neighborhoods.

“A lot of students are living out in complexes on the city’s edge,” Trippel said. “So to be able to bring them back in and to have that housing available – I think that’s a blend. We’re not trying to gentrify the area by any means.”

The university’s primary role as landowner could extend to public-private partnerships off campus and other types of hybrids that are still just ideas.

The university has its own McWherter Library just a few blocks from the Highland branch library, which was the first branch library in what is now the library system. One of the ideas still being discussed is allowing area residents access to both libraries and making material from McWherter available to students who might want to visit the Highland branch.

Such arrangements are a way around some limitations that come with the uniqueness of the area and its inhabitants.

For instance, adaptive reuse on the scale that it has been used Downtown isn’t an option.

“We don’t have those three- and four-story buildings that we can convert to condos or that we can convert to apartments,” Trippel said. “They’ve never existed. So we have to encourage them to come in and to find a footprint and space within a built environment that’s as natural as possible and as conducive to successful revitalization as possible.”

Good old days, depending

Very little sentiment is in the plans for the old Highland Strip, as it was known.

The strip was the Memphis version of counterculture in the late 1960s and early 1970s to teenagers and young adults of a very conservative Memphis.

What was considered long hair here wasn’t long by San Francisco or New York standards. Rock bands were the icons on most of the T-shirts, not political slogans or symbols. One of the shops was appropriately named “Just Jeans.” There was one “head shop” farther south that sold items such as rolling papers for cigarettes.

Another store sold the then-exotic waterbeds. Tickets for a rock show at the Mid-South Coliseum or Auditorium were sold in several of the shops on the strip.

The strip was low to the ground and colorfull, and parts of it deteriorated quickly. What’s left is the single-story suburban strip shopping rows for new tenants, new times and conflicting memories of the old times.

The strip from the railroad tracks north was more colorful and less conventional than the strip south of the tracks, which included a post office, an Army surplus store and a McDonald’s. The surplus store did a booming business in the old dark green Army jackets that, along with T-shirts and bell bottom blue jeans, were the dominant look on campus as well as the strip.

A year or two into the 1970s, the drug traffic around and outside the shops as well as a persistent problem with teenage runaways picked up enough that it became a problem for the locally owned businesses that had prospered.

That drew the attention of Memphis police and several raids after police began going undercover to make drug buys.

There won’t be an attempt to re-create that Highland Strip.

Cox said the university’s goal is to give the larger area “a sense of place” – a deliberate identity for an area defined by a constantly changing population.

These days, the campus itself is changing. Next year, the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law moves Downtown and off campus. The Loewenberg School of Nursing is moving to the south campus at Park Avenue and Getwell Road. The UNDC plan calls for the south campus to become a setting for more of the university’s research missions. The Panhellenic Building will become a community health center.

Dorms are becoming what the university’s master plan calls “villages” within a campus, where the borders between town and gown are in the process of blurring – instead of the town overwhelming the gown.

“I think it’s a very exciting opportunity for Memphis and for the university to really create a true college town,” Conrad said. “Think of Vanderbilt West End (in Nashville) and what that’s like. Create kind of a 24-hour environment. That would be our next real economic development engine.”

PROPERTY SALES 21 82 6,474
MORTGAGES 7 53 4,088
BUILDING PERMITS 240 353 15,714
BANKRUPTCIES 38 58 3,328