The University of Memphis is in the early stages of updating its campus master plan, and it will seek input from its neighbors as it moves into its next century of higher education.
The U of M has hired the Smith Group JJR of Ann Arbor, Mich., to lead the effort with Memphis-based LRK Inc. serving as the local partner.
Soon, representatives from the university and the planning firms will begin talking with neighborhood stakeholders to gather their input on the master plan, an inclusive approach that might not have happened several years ago.
For many years the University of Memphis, which celebrated its centennial in 2012, was the proverbial island unto itself.
The University of Memphis is in the early stages of updating its campus master plan, and it will seek input from its neighbors as it moves into its next century of higher education. (Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)
A proposed McDonald’s at the corner of Highland and Southern, has pitted university area stakeholders against the fast food chain. (Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)
The University of Memphis is moving forward with plans to purchase the closed city library on Highland Avenue and has held preliminary talks with city officials about acquiring nearby Audubon Park. (Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)
The city’s largest university had insulated itself from the surrounding neighborhoods, showing little interest in how the area around the university was designed or developed. Communication between the university’s leadership and neighborhood groups and property owners was nearly non-existent.
But starting around a decade ago the university, under the direction of former president Shirley Raines, began taking a much more active interest in the health of the surrounding neighborhoods and the city as a whole, physically through development and urban planning and academically through engaged scholarship that sought to get faculty and students engaged in hands-on learning experiences in the unique urban environment Memphis and the area around the campus provided.
“What occurred at the University of Memphis over the last 10-12 years are two things that were happening nationally,” said David Cox, executive assistant to U of M interim president Brad Martin.
“There was an increasing realization that having a research university is central to a city’s economic health and that you can’t have a great city without a great university and that’s certainly true. And universities began to realize they needed to pay attention to the environment around the schools if they were going to survive. To have a great university you must have great students and faculty and part of attracting those students and faculty is having a safe, pleasant environment.”
To help develop the optimal neighborhood, university officials did something that they probably would not have considered years earlier – they enlisted the aid of area neighborhood groups and other stakeholders.
Half a dozen neighborhood associations from around the U of M joined forces to form the nonprofit University District Inc. Businesses in the area are represented by the University District Business Alliance and the nonprofit University Neighborhood Development Corp., formed by a mix of neighborhood activists, business leaders and university officials, to implement a LRK-designed neighborhood development plan.
The creation of those groups and the university’s increased engagement have produced multiple benefits, especially improved communication.
“Before, we didn’t have the strength of these organizations,” said Tony Poteet, assistant vice president of campus planning and design. “What these organizations have done is make it very easy for communication to happen.”
In 2007, the university’s Graduate Program in City & Regional Planning, Department of Architecture, the UNDC, UDI, the city’s Division of Housing and Community Development and the Memphis and Shelby County Office of Planning and Development, along with others, created a comprehensive plan for the university neighborhood, which ultimately became the University District Overlay, a set of special zoning regulations approved in 2009 that encouraged a mix of uses and a more pedestrian-friendly environment and sought to make sure new development conformed with the area’s urban nature.
“The great thing that evolved from this plan was the special overlay district, which was created before the Unified Development Code was formed and formally adopted by the entire city,” Poteet said. “We already had a code because of the linkage between the academic programs at the university and community.
“We are partners with the neighborhoods and we are all kind of looking out for each other’s best interest and what we want this key piece of the city to be. What we were all trying to do is improve the surroundings, making sure new development is the type that supports the walkable, bikeable urban character that is here in the district. The university being a public institution, we really are bound to being partners and looking out for the whole area, not just the state campus.”
Poag & McEwen’s planned Highland Row development hit a snag during the economic downturn, but the project could be back on track. (UNDC)
The university is pursuing several options that could expand its footprint in the area. The university is moving forward with plans to purchase the closed city library on Highland Avenue and has held preliminary talks with city officials about acquiring nearby Audubon Park.
The planned $450,000 purchase of the shuttered library is part of a long-planned effort to create a grand new entrance to the school from heavily traveled Highland Avenue.
The library purchase was originally part of a planned partnership between the university and Poag & McEwen Lifestyle Centers to redevelop part of the Highland strip. The plan had the university developing the block bound by Highland Avenue, Watauga Avenue, Midland Avenue and Brister Street as a new gateway entry to the main campus.
Poag & McEwen’s planned Highland Row development hit a snag as credit markets froze up during the economic downturn, but there’s a possibility that the project could be back on track.
“We are still hoping for Highland Row,” said Cecil C Humphreys Jr., a UNDC member who grew up in the area and owns property there. “The (tax increment financing district) is still in place and hopefully the original project will materialize soon.”
Those hopes were bolstered earlier this year when the university sought approval from the state to partner with a nonprofit developer to build residences on the upper floors of a mixed-use facility to be built between Midland and the Junior League of Memphis on the western side of Highland.
And work on another game-changing project – a major redevelopment of Walker Avenue – is slated to begin construction next year. Thanks to a $500,000 grant from the state, Walker – home to University District institutions like Brother Juniper’s Restaurant, Garibaldi’s and RP Tracks Restaurant and Bar – will be remade into a much more appealing, pedestrian-friendly environment featuring bicycle lanes, new street lighting and a community plaza or courtyard.
The university also is in the midst of replacing the aging Richardson Towers residence halls, the twin 10-story buildings that have served as the main on-campus student housing buildings. A new $53 million, five-story dormitory at Patterson Street and Norriswood Avenue will replace the existing 40-year-old towers.
On its Park Avenue campus, the university is building a four-story, 177,000-square-foot Community Health Facility that will house the Loewenberg School of Nursing and School of Communication Sciences and Disorders.
The university will soon launch a major effort to improve pedestrian safety on Central Avenue. The first phase includes sidewalks on the south side of Central and the construction of a new intersection at Zach Curlin Street and Central. Following phases will include the construction of a new center median on Central and new sidewalks.
Several new developments – all complying with the overlay – have already occurred along Highland, including The Stratum apartment building, which features commercial space on the ground floor, and a Family Dollar store.
But one planned project that does not entirely comply with the overlay, a proposed McDonald’s at the southeast corner of Highland and Southern, has pitted university area stakeholders against the fast food chain. McDonald’s made changes to its original site plan to gain recommendation from the Office of Planning and Development and win approval from the Land Use Control Board but the City Council decided in October to delay a final vote on the restaurant over concerns about the site’s design.
Officials with the UNDC and other advocates for the overlay say city planners and the council should not allow one developer to disregard the zoning guidelines since other developers have already found ways to comply with the design standards.
“If the overlay isn’t uniformly enforced then it’s not going to be able to serve its purpose,” said Humphreys. “I’ve been especially pleased that the university has taken an active and vocal position supporting the overlay. On the McDonald’s project they have been very out front.”
The look and feel of the area will play a major role in one of the university’s main goals – increasing student enrollment. Over the last two years enrollment has dropped by 1,500 students and university officials hope to increase enrollment at the school by 700 students next year and 1,000 more the following year.
University District officials say one way of attracting more students to the university is producing a surrounding that draws students in instead of running them away.
“There has been talk of a need of increasing enrollment and I can’t think of anything that would make the school a more attractive destination for students than a more attractive neighborhood surrounding it,” Humphreys said. “The school needs the neighborhood as much as the neighborhood needs the school.”