Patching Up Poplar

Initiative looks to make busy street pedestrian-friendly

By Bill Dries

Its narrow traffic lanes are unforgiving and its storm water drain grates make driving the outside lane a perilous endeavor.

Improvements of sections of the Poplar Corridor in East Memphis are being considered to help remedy traffic and pedestrian issues, some of which could include removal of utility poles and improved streetscapes.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

Sidewalks disappear and resume from block to block, while street crossings for pedestrians are daunting even for the most determined and fleet-footed runner who has to navigate stoplights and traffic.

Add the numerous wooden utility poles that line Poplar Avenue in East Memphis and it’s easy to see why this is one of the city’s most maligned stretches of road.

So Shelby County Commissioner Heidi Shafer has been talking with business leaders along the corridor about some minimal streetscape changes along three “test miles” of Poplar – the Poplar-Perkins area, Poplar and Kirby Parkway and Poplar and Ridgeway – to make it more walkable.

“You’re either on the north side of Poplar or you are on the south side of Poplar,” she said. “And if you are going to go to the north side or the south side, you have to get in your car to go. The goal is to pick one-mile segments and do demonstration models on them. Make it easier to walk and easier to shop and walk. Time the lights. And then on certain parts of Poplar we want to do some repaving.”

Shafer and business leaders, including Steve Guinn, who is Highwoods Properties’ Memphis vice president, are talking to the state about funding and plan to take their idea to the Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Guinn’s office is at the Poplar-Ridgeway intersection.

“Poplar and Ridgeway obviously is near and dear to my heart,” he said. “There’s easy things to do just visually which would be to take those medians that are concrete and put some planting in them. They are already there. … Start to liven it up.”

Shafer is pursing the infrastructure changes that are a government function and Guinn is part of a forming business alliance.

“This is more about just visual streetscape and trying to create a more pedestrian friendly environment and an environment that helps the properties look better and therefore would help the properties become more valuable,” he said.

Shafer would like to see utility poles uprooted on some of the test miles in favor of underground utilities similar to the streetscape plans now taking shape on Elvis Presley Boulevard in Whitehaven.

“It would take some pressure off Poplar by not having those utility poles there. And then we want to regrade it … just to make the drive along Poplar more feasible,” she said. “If you look at just the streets and the utilities and then form an alliance of the businesses along Poplar corridor so they can start to get with each other and talk about improving their properties – really making it a destination place – I believe we can attract a boutique hotel to the area and make it someplace that is a destination. We have all of the elements except you can’t walk it. It’s harder to walk in Memphis than it is in Manhattan.”

That could be improved with something as simple as street light timing.

The Poplar-Kirby Parkway intersection efforts would match up the Memphis side of the border with Germantown.

“They now have pavers at crosswalks,” Guinn said of Germantown’s streetscape standards. “The lights are on arms instead of strings and they are painted black and the lighting is all consistent looking. … It helps the entire tax base I think.”

The stretch of Poplar is like Elvis Presley Boulevard in several respects. It is a state highway and a heavily-used retail corridor that grew quickly from its rural landscape roots without much in the way of uniform streetscape standards.

“Poplar hasn’t really had much attention in a long time,” Shafer added.

The last major Poplar Corridor study wasn’t about road issues. The Poplar Corridor study of the 1980s was about where commercial development began and residential development ended.

Merchants in the shopping area anchored by the Malco Paradiso theater got together in the fall of 2009 to talk about the retail environment in the area following some crowd control problems at the movie theater that were quickly resolved.