Midway Point

After 15 years, Uptown prepares for another growth spurt

By Madeline Faber

A quality, affordable neighborhood for low- to moderate-income Memphians. That’s developer Henry Turley’s ongoing vision for Uptown, a North Memphis neighborhood benefiting from $150 million in redevelopment efforts.

Facing each other across the Wolf River Harbor are Turley’s two biggest developments. Prior to the late 1980s, Harbor Town was a 132-acre stretch of vacant land on Mud Island. Now, property taxes from the high-income neighborhood help to fund Uptown, the neighborhood across the harbor.

Uptown has reached the halfway point in a 30-year hyper-focused renewal effort through the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency and public-private partnerships. (Photos: Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

“Everyone had just neglected this area,” Turley said.

In Turley’s mind, there’s no reason why neighborhoods on the fringe of Memphis’ core can’t be clean, well-lit places. Turley-built houses in Harbor Town and Uptown even look similar.

With 15 years under its belt, the Uptown redevelopment is at its midway point and is soon to go through another growth spurt as the neighborhood is now benefiting from two major developers.

Fifteen years ago, the City of Memphis’ Community Redevelopment Agency drew a tax-increment financing district was around the area stretching north-south from the Wolf River’s terminus to Poplar Avenue and west-east from Harbor Town to Ayers Street. The TIF designation allows property taxes from high-income Harbor Town to be fed back into a pool of funds overseen by the CRA to be used by master developer Lauderdale-Greenlaw LLC, a joint venture between Downtown stalwarts Henry Turley Co. and Belz Enterprises.

The district raises about $5 million a year for Uptown redevelopment efforts, and the fund will continue to grow until 2030.

Habitat for Humanity of Greater Memphis now has access to the CRA pool and is set to build the neighborhood’s first subdivision: 21 new homes set to rise next year on what was an abandoned, crime-ridden lot.

The Bearwater Park subdivision will push development beyond Uptown’s original target zone, which stretches north-south from Chelsea Avenue to A.W. Willis Avenue and west-east from the Mississippi River to Manassas Street. With the original target area safe and stable, the developers plan to give the territory further north and east the same treatment.

“Going on the other side of the street over Manassas, it's Uptown 10 years ago,” said Alex Mobley, vice president of Lauderdale-Greenlaw. “You can really see where we've worked and where we haven't.”

That means improved infrastructure, access to quality schools and housing, and increased police presence in areas of North Memphis that haven’t yet seen the benefit of outside investment.

Creating a community

Uptown’s history and future is invested in decentralizing poverty through bringing mixed-income and diverse partners to the area.

Turley and Belz were first drawn to Uptown in 1999 as a private partner in the redevelopment of Hurt Village. The team partnered with the Memphis Housing Authority to replace the public housing complex with a new mixed-income community, backed by $35 million in Hope VI funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“So the idea is that when you have a public housing development that puts all of the people who make no money essentially in one place, then you're not decentralizing anything,” said Mobley. “Henry and Jack Belz said, ‘Why would we stop at the Hurt Village site and not address the issue on the other side of the street in every direction?’”

Henry Turley and Uptown coordinator Tanja Mitchell stroll past houses Turley developed on Mill Avenue. (Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

When Lauderdale-Greenlaw first started work in the area, there were more than 600 vacant lots. Now, that number is closer to 15.

To date, the CRA plan has helped build 549 multifamily apartments and 268 single-family homes and perform more than 100 rehabs aimed at creating a neighborhood that is one-third rental, one-third affordable homes for sale and one-third market rate.

Similar to the Hope VI effort that launched the Uptown redevelopment, Habitat for Humanity is building its Bearwater Park subdivision on the site of the former Cedar Court apartment complex.

Memphis Habitat for Humanity president and CEO Dwayne Spencer’s plan is to build a neighborhood from scratch that incorporates mixed incomes with intentional infrastructure and community development. Currently, the area is an open field with sparse older development and 10 new rental homes built by local nonprofit Oasis of Hope Inc. Crime and blight still linger.

Habitat has had a presence in Uptown since 2012 building homes and performing rehabs, but the subdivision will be a unique hyper-focus for the organization. Overall, Habitat plans to build more than 50 homes and perform 100 critical repairs in the Uptown neighborhood.

MLB-Uptown, the tax-exempt arm of Lauderdale-Greenlaw, is working with Habitat in acquiring the lots and bringing infrastructure to the area.

“The whole goal of bringing all this attention and focus to this one place is to kind of bring this positive energy in hopes that not magically, but through some progressive collaborative steps from the ground up in collaboration with the CRA and police departments and other agencies, we will bounce the negatives out of the neighborhood,” Spencer said.

Habitat’s Uptown initiatives drew the attention of former President Jimmy Carter, who selected the Bearwater Park site for the 2016 Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project, the latest in a longtime collaboration between the Carters and Habitat for Humanity International.

The Tennessee Housing Development Agency donated a $1 million matching grant to the effort, bringing Habitat closer to its $5 million fundraising goal.

Homes near KIPP Memphis Collegiate Middle will house KIPP families or teachers. (Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

In November, Carter and other dignitaries broke ground on new Uptown homes. One of the first structures to be completed in Bearwater Park will be dubbed the President's House.

After construction on the 21 homes is finished next December, the President’s House will become a community center, housing Uptown coordination and neighborhood association meetings, offices and police officers.

“It makes a lot of sense to dedicate that work in a neighborhood that's devoted to holistic revitalization,” Spencer said. “We're not a silo anymore because revitalization is so much more than new house construction. It's got to be all these other things.”

Schools have sprouted up …

Uptown’s stakeholders are hyper-focused on the area. Uptown coordinator Tanja Mitchell hosts monthly public joint agency meetings where representatives from the Memphis-Shelby County Office of Construction Code Enforcement, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the Uptown police team and citizens rap about issues in the community.

"We've had a real transformation,” Turley said. “When we came, there were no schools that you attended by choice."

Now, he pointed out, the area has three charter schools, a handful of community centers and a community police force dedicated to Uptown, in addition to the officers that are part of the Memphis Police Department’s regular precinct.

Like in the suburbs, people can live in good houses and send their children to good schools, Turley added.

Michael Whaley, founder and executive director of Memphis College Prep Elementary School, has clearly felt the area’s transition.

Lauderdale-Greenlaw vice president Alex Mobley and Memphis Habitat CEO Dwayne Spencer visit a nearly finished Habitat build on Looney Avenue in Uptown. (Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

When Turley first helped Whaley settle on the location at 278 Greenlaw Ave., they had to recruit all over the city to fill classrooms. When the school opened in 2010, 5 percent of College Prep students lived in Uptown. Now, that number is closer to 30 percent.

Looking to accommodate more students, Whaley is shopping for a new location outside of Uptown to house the elementary school, but he plans to keep a presence at Greenlaw with after-school programming or an early childhood learning center.

“When Henry and I first talked about it, his idea was, ‘How can we make education a focus of community development and growth?’ And here we’re actually seeing it,” Whaley said.

Surrounding KIPP Memphis Collegiate Middle at 230 Henry Ave., nonprofit group Promise Development Corp. is at work on a 10-home development. Six new homes and four rehabbed homes will be rented out to KIPP teachers and families to encourage a wrap-around approach to education and community growth.

Financing through the Tennessee Housing Development Agency will keep rent affordable.

“We're trying to build a community and give people a sense of neighborhood in the North Memphis area as well as remove blight,” said Kim Hill, a board member with Promise Development Corp.

Mobley emphasized the role of community pride.

“It's not the fact that the building comes down and it’s fixed,” Mobley said. “You can't fix a neighborhood. You can't fix people. But you can do things that make people realize that they need to have pride where they live.”

… But what about the long-awaited grocer?

Uptown still has its perennial struggles. Pockets of crime and blight persist, and commercial development is slow to start. Lauderdale-Greenlaw has been campaigning for 10 years to recruit a grocery store to the area.

Alex Turley, vice president of real estate with Henry Turley Co., said he’s spoken “to every grocer you could possibly think of.”

Grocers keep echoing the same concerns. The immediate demographics couldn’t support the necessary sales. Infill is difficult. They’ve never operated a store in a transitional neighborhood before.

“It takes a long time for people to truly believe something has changed,” Mobley said.

Still, the developers are optimistic.

Memphis College Prep founder Michael Whaley and Henry Turley worked together to find a location for the school in Uptown. (Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

This year, the Memphis-Shelby County Economic Development Growth Engine granted a tax break for the site of the former Chism Trail Grocery, at 544 Jackson Ave. With lower operating costs and tax burden, Turley is hoping for some positive feedback within the next few months. A $500,000 improvement grant from the CRA also is available to potential developers.

A grocery would attract additional development to the planned Uptown Center, a commercial plot ready for a drugstore, office space and additional small retail.

“When I first started working at Uptown, I got one question. … ‘Is it safe?’” Mobley reported at a September EDGE meeting. “That’s all anybody ever wanted to know. Now, I get two questions: ‘Where are my kids going to go to school and where am I going to get my groceries?’”

‘We’re not really through’

In Uptown’s backyard is St. Jude, the area’s biggest economic engine. In November, it was announced that the hospital and ALSAC, its affiliated fundraising arm, are on the precipice of a $9 billion expansion.

The area is expected to see $1 billion in new construction and 2,000 new jobs, with the surrounding neighborhoods feeling significant impact.

In anticipation of the St. Jude connection, Lauderdale-Greenlaw is building three new market-rate homes. They’re the first spec homes built in Uptown since 2007 and the first ever to be built with a two-car garage.

“St. Jude likes to have their people nearby,” Alex Turley said.

The homes will be subsidized through the CRA’s Affordable Housing Development Initiative, which differs from HOPE VI developments in that the incentive is attached to the buyer, not the home. Therefore, higher-income buyers can purchase the home even if their income deems them ineligible for a subsidy.

“These homes will be a good indicator of the market in terms of not only the buyers and the market demand but how the lending markets have recovered since the crash,” said Mobley.

If the first three sell quickly, 20 more AHDI homes are planned for the surrounding block and MLB-Uptown’s inventory of lots.

Henry Turley hopes that the expansion will also grow St. Jude’s role with the neighborhood developers. He imagines Uptown development ending at a point further east.

“I would like to see St. Jude connected with Le Bonheur through a neighborhood that we, St. Jude and Le Bonheur all work together in, and they encourage their employees from low and moderate incomes to live near work,” he said.

“We’re not really through here.”