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VOL. 125 | NO. 124 | Monday, June 28, 2010



Renaissance Avenue

Local artists, restaurant owners and entrepreneurs breathe new life into Broad

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When Larry Schmitt bought a two-story building on the corner of Broad Avenue and Collins Street in 1993, he knew the place needed some TLC.

“I walked in and thought, oh, the floor’s pretty dirty,” said Schmitt.

Actually the building had a dirt floor. But after several incarnations as various types of businesses, it is set to bloom into a modern, upscale family restaurant, the likes of which can be found throughout the Cooper-Young business district.

Despite the building’s proximity to a shadowy warehouse adjacent to the Hollywood PetStar across the street, Jason and Rebecca Severs, the owners of Bari Ristorante near Overton Square, chose the building’s 2,000-square-foot downstairs for their new lunch and dinner spot to be called Three Angels Diner. They plan to open this summer (see Restaurant Insider, Page 23).

Like the building, the western end of Broad has started to emerge from leftover obscurity caused by the rerouting of Sam Cooper Boulevard into a hot spot for visual arts. And art is something that residents can bank on.

Jerry Couillard of Metalworks stands by a metal top hat that his shop recently made for the opening gala celebration of Le Bonheur Children's Hospital. The business creates metal arts.

“We knew there was a burgeoning arts presence on Broad Avenue and had been for years with a number of skilled artists and artisans on the street in live/work spaces – these two-story storefront buildings where they would have their living quarters upstairs and their production facilities downstairs,” said John Weeden, executive director of the UrbanArt Commission, which in 2008 moved to 2549 Broad from an office suite Downtown that it shared with two other nonprofits.

The group was attracted by low rent, easy access to Sam Cooper, Interstate 40 and the Parkways, and the growing sense that Broad would be reborn as the next Memphis arts district.

“We looked at Peabody Place and Cooper-Young, but we found them prohibitive for the amount of space available,” said Weeden. “We are currently in a building that I believe is 100 years old and had previously been used as an upholsterer’s shop.”

The group has three times as much space as they had previously and pay less than they did Downtown.

‘Viper’s den’

That’s exactly how Cooper-Young and the South Main Arts District gained their identities: by appealing first to artists, whose livelihoods depended on finding inexpensive places to live and work. Upscale businesses followed and rent increased in both areas.

Hamlett Dobbins, an artist and art curator at Rhodes College, was among those who took a chance on Broad back in the day.

Dobbins moved his wife and two children from Kimbrough Towers in Midtown to a two-story storefront with a three-bedroom apartment above a space he uses for art exhibitions called Material. He found himself sandwiched between the photographer who suggested he look into the building and a stained-glass artist’s studio.

The price was right, but the neighborhood was clearly challenged by two rowdy bars nearby.

“It was a real viper’s den,” said Dobbins. “We would come outside and there would be 6-foot transvestite prostitutes in fishnet stockings going in there. Or we would pull out of the parking lot in the back and there would be prostitutes in cars with their johns, there would be drunk rednecks (urinating) on our fence and people who were clearly high wandering around.”

On Friday and Saturday nights, parades of motorcycles would thunder down the street making it difficult for Dobbins’ children to sleep.

Then the artists of Broad watched as Sam Cooper and all of its traffic shifted one block south to an area that years ago had been cleared for a continuation of Interstate 40 through the heart of Midtown, a development that never happened.

“Huge areas of property had been demolished to make way for the interstate and that really hurt the neighborhood,” said David Brown, owner of Splash Creative, an ad agency that left Downtown in 2008 and moved to Sam Cooper, a block away from Broad.

“That whole line of property became Sam Cooper Boulevard,” said Brown, who is president of the Historic Broad Avenue Business Association. “So we still have a physical division between Broad Avenue and the area that moves south toward Binghampton.”

Mixed use

Still, the street became walkable. One of the bars that plagued Dobbins’ family was sold and became The Cove, an upscale cocktail bar. Because Broad has four lanes that were no longer needed, the business association petitioned for – and was granted – angled parking spaces fronting the stores.

Now 16 arts- or design-related businesses are on the street including T. Clifton Art, a commercial gallery and custom frame shop, which was lured away from a previous location on Summer near Highland Street. Owner Tom Clifton is planning an expansion in the coming year.

“To become an arts district, I think you’ve got to have artists live in the neighborhood. That’s crucial,” said Weeden. “That’s why Broad Avenue is more dynamic (than other neighborhoods)

in some regards in terms of art production because the folks here are making art not just because it’s their passion, but because it’s their living.”

Weeden also points to the slowly growing number of restaurants on the street, which also attracts nonresidents. In previous years, Broadway Pizza was the lone stalwart eatery.

“You need a mix of different activity – the kind of amenities where you can meet people and have a conversation over food and drink,” said Weeden. “Slowly things are building to where you have an around-the-clock culture centered around the arts.”

The third element Weeden mentioned is residential growth. That remains a challenge for Broad.

“There’s not a great deal of residential real estate here, so it can only accommodate so many art studios and live/work spaces,’ said Weeden. “But that can change. In the future it could be opened up to where residential condo type development could happen.”

Brown said the north side of Broad, which is currently zoned for light industrial use, could be the best option for residential and commercial development.

A dance company called Collage Dance and organizers of the Junkyard Museum are exploring warehouse spaces north of Broad. Modeled after the City Museum of St. Louis, the Junkyard Museum, which offered a two-week summer camp this June, will offer interactive, musical sculpture exhibitions made entirely of recycled and found objects.

What’s more, the businesses have started raising funds for development through the well-attended Arts Walk in October for the last six years. On July 23, the business association hosted a second art

walk called the Summer Walk.

A Broad future

In 2006 neighbors and business owners participated in a city-sponsored charette to investigate the future potential of Broad Avenue.

A charette is a planning process whereby leaders in various community disciplines from across the country meet the locals and perform a study on how to rehabilitate and reinvent a neighborhood.

“The Office of Planning and Development has been working for years on a unified development code,” said Brown. “They brought together a lot of planners around the country to do a charette here. It was done then as a test of the unified code that the OPD was working on. We were the guinea pig and we were very glad to be.”

The result was a strategic development plan called the Broad Avenue Plan, which includes increasing street parking, green spaces and

sidewalks, as well as turning warehouses into conglomerations of retail bays.

The plan also gives the business association some muscle in dealing with property owners whose buildings are not up to code or not in character with the rest of the street.

The Land Use Control Board (LUCB) on June 10 passed the OPD’s recommendation to support the Broad Avenue Plan.

“(The vote) went pretty quickly, it was really obvious that everyone was in favor of it,” said Brown, who attended the LUCB meeting along with Robert Montague of the Binghampton Development Corp.

“It was unanimously passed. I think planners look for local people who are willing to take a little bit of risk and do a lot of hard work. And that’s what it takes to bring back an urban neighborhood that’s seen better days but has good history.”

The plan will move on to the City Council.

The Severs look forward to an artistic traffic roundabout, which, according to the plan, will be in the same block as their new restaurant.

“We’ve been looking for a space and we’ve had this concept for about two years, but we weren’t thrilled about anything we’d seen so far,” said Jason Severs. “This space we were thrilled about.”

In March 2009 city councilman Jim Strickland wrote a resolution naming Broad Memphis’ newest arts district, a piece of recognition that has artists and business owners thinking about how the avenue can remain distinctive among Memphis’ other arts districts.

“I think that there is some feeling that South Main and Cooper-Young, as vibrant and quirky and great as they are, have become more mainstream,” said Weeden. “That has to do with the rising rent and the businesses that are able to pay those types of leases.

“They tend not to

be live/work spaces that traditional artists can cover. I do think there’s a pioneer spirit to Broad Avenue that’s very raw. Because of the way that the real estate parcels are configured, I don’t ever see it being gentrified to the point of South Main or Cooper-Young.”

Dobbins, for his part, said that he hopes the neighborhood doesn’t become too commercialized too quickly, but a few more creature comforts would be welcomed.

“Think about it,” said Dobbins. “Do you ever really go to South Main to look at art? We try to keep a low profile here, but if it means that there would a bagel shop within walking distance of my house, I would love that.” n

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