The commercial real estate development on the Highland Avenue border of the University of Memphis is both ambitious and challenging in its scope.
The recession arrived just in time to prove how challenging pulling off what amounts to a new entrance for the university will be.
We find the extent of the ambition and hopes well beyond the buildings that go up along what old-time Memphians used to call the Highland Strip.
As the university has found its desire to connect with the community in the last decade, and the U of M’s interim president, Brad Martin, renewing that desire, there are a few elements we don’t believe should be lost when construction begins.
Whatever the physical manifestation of this change is, it is crucial that it be geared to a younger population. That gets said a lot in Memphis when the talk around a set of renderings begins to move toward who will patronize and live in these structures.
It has never been more critical that the goal becomes more than talk in the University District. College students are older these days but still young enough that an “upscale” commercial mixed-use area might be branded as too expensive for the students on which this district will depend heavily.
Affordable doesn’t mean discount or something shoddy. It means something well executed within the reach of the young people we repeatedly say we want to retain and also attract to our city. If that happens no place else in Memphis, it should happen on the border of our largest institution of higher education. With that transformation, we believe the University District overlay is an essential guide for the development and it faces an important test as the Memphis City Council considers a proposed exception to its standards – the McDonald’s restaurant to be built at Walker Avenue and Highland.
Granting an exception would set a precedent at the outset of the overlay’s move to reality. The Memphis developers of the new McDonald’s, where Whatever and Southern Meat Market had been for decades, say they have to have a drive-thru lane for the business to work. Their estimate is 70 percent of their business would come through the loop drive-thru lane that pushes the building off the corner.
Yet, the restaurant would be a stone’s throw from the collection of businesses on Walker Avenue that are a testament to the willingness of university students past and present to walk that far. Indeed, the redevelopment of Walker between Patterson and Highland currently underway is specifically designed with just about every aspect of the design pointed at encouraging even more pedestrian and bicycle traffic.
The McDonald’s developers, who have operated for decades on the other side of Highland just south of the new site, should have a better read on the area.
If they don’t, we hope the City Council does.