VOL. 9 | NO. 14 | Saturday, April 2, 2016
By Andy Meek
Residents of the Memphis Medical District have begun filing in to the Premier Palace ballroom on Madison Avenue, along with area stakeholders, planners and other attendees who have business interests in the area.
Tommy Pacello (Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)
The meeting on a recent afternoon has been set to talk about streetscape improvements in the neighborhood. It’s also an opportunity to talk about what comes next for the medical district, an area that packs hospitals, universities, arts-filled neighborhoods such as Victorian Village, and more than 16,000 people and 8,000 students into an area bounded by North Parkway on the north, Vance Avenue on the south, Danny Thomas Boulevard to the west and Cleveland Street to the east.
One of the figures helping shape the future of the area is Tommy Pacello, president of the newly formed Medical District Collaborative.
He greets many of the meeting’s attendees on their way inside.
When he’s not doing that, he dashes around outside – picking up trash and any litter that catches his eye.
Expand that scene out to the macro level, and you’ll have a sense of what’s happening at the moment to set the stage for major transformation in the Memphis neighborhood that spans hundreds of acres and is home to major anchors like Regional One Health, the Memphis Bioworks Foundation and Southern College of Optometry.
From picking up trash outside one location to beautifying and improving streetscapes and public spaces across the district to adding signage, public art and more – what’s on tap is no less than a spring cleaning for a neighborhood that’s desperate for it. Indeed, a neighborhood whose prominence continues to rise thanks to its corporate tenants; the medical innovation, research and care taking place there; and the employees, students and residents who populate it every day.
“The question began to emerge, as Downtown continues on its upward trajectory and Midtown wakes up with investments at Crosstown and Overton Square and other neighborhoods are clicking on all cylinders – this area between Downtown and Midtown, why can’t we do more with this?” Pacello told The Memphis News.
‘Brilliant on the basics’
Pacello’s organization held its inaugural board meeting Feb. 1. That followed the area’s eight anchor institutions hiring consulting firm U3 Advisors – where Pacello is a special projects manager – in 2014 to design and help implement an “anchor strategy” for the district.
The collaborative’s board is chaired by outgoing Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare CEO Gary Shorb, who told The Memphis News the organization has studied what other cities like Philadelphia have done to improve their own medical centers.
Steve Auterman, architect and urban planner with Looney Ricks Kiss spoke about a series of proposed updates to the medical district at a recent neighborhood meeting in The Edge District.
(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)
“We’ve got a template,” Shorb said. “That, coupled with a lot of different partnership alignments, there’s a lot of people already doing good work. This is not an overnight journey. It’s going to take years to see a big difference. But I think it’s really going to take off.”
The collaborative, for its part, is armed with data to help ensure that happens.
In preparation for the $1.8 million in upgrades and enhancements the collaborative will pursue this year, it conducted an analysis that looked at the current realities of the district. It found, for example, that fewer than 3 percent of institutional employees and 6 percent of institutional students lived within the boundaries of the medical center, while only $50 million of “institutional procurement spend” was captured in Memphis.
Pacello’s team is part of an effort to get the stakeholders of the district all on the same page for the first time, so the effort can begin to pursue goals like optimizing land use, increasing local spending in the area and improving the area’s infrastructure, among others.
Pacello has been a point man for the medical district remake, giving different versions of his pitch and call-to-action presentations to a variety of civic groups and other organizations. He’ll do that again on Thursday, April 7, when he keynotes the latest event in The Daily News Seminar Series, this time on remaking the Memphis Medical District.
That event will run from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. in the Brooks Museum of Art auditorium, at 1934 Poplar Ave. It will also include a panel discussion led by a group of thought leaders and a Q&A session with audience participation.
“Where we are in the process – the work has started,” Pacello said. “The eight major hospitals and universities in the district, what they started to do is really about two years ago crunch the numbers on what the potential is in the district. That’s what U3 helped them do.
“Once they’d seen what the potential was, they said, ‘Let’s commit to doing it.’ But that was the hardest part, getting the anchor institutions. The hardest part in a typical city that’s looking at an anchor strategy is getting anchor institutions. These are the institutions that teach, heal and do research. We’re asking them to think about the pieces that make the outcomes happen for them – the dollars they spend, the money they spend just being these anchor institutions, the real estate they own – and think about them differently so it increases demand for the neighborhood.”
That could be done on a number of fronts. The anchor institutions collectively spend a few billion dollars a year on operating expenses. What if, Pacello asks, some of that spend could be redirected to local minority-owned businesses?
Those institutions also own about 250 acres of real estate. But 110 acres of that is in the form of surface parking and vacant land. What if some of that could be repositioned and become development opportunities?
“We’re not as focused on what’s happening on a particular hospital campus as we are on what’s happening between the campuses,” Pacello said of the collaborative’s effort. “Part of our work is making sure the district is brilliant on the basics.”
Tommy Pacello spoke about a series of proposed updates to the medical district at a recent neighborhood meeting in The Edge District.
(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)
Imagining the possibilities
A variety of partners have been tapped to help take that work down to a granular level. Architect and urban planner Steve Auterman, of Looney Ricks Kiss, walked attendees at the Premier Palace meeting through some of the finer points involved in revamping the district.
“When we first started walking through district and assessing what was there, it was about – what are the possibilities?” Auterman said during his presentation. “What do you like, dislike? How wide are the streets? Why is this cross-section here?”
He pointed out one particular spot on which sits a cluster of trees. It’s the kind of spot, he wondered aloud, where landscaping might work.
“One thing Tommy’s team is putting together is a team to go around the district, pick up trash, water plants, take care of weeds, so their team with a watering truck will be able to go around and maintain the area,” Auterman said. “That’s one thing that’s key – maintenance, to back up some of these improvements.”
The effort is about more than cosmetic fixes. Attendees at the Premier Palace meeting were also told that 163 pedestrian vehicular accidents occurred in the medical district between 2009 and 2013, resulting in six fatalities. The implication is that there are critical infrastructure and streetscape fixes that need addressing in the area.
The collaborative, meanwhile, is also looking at things like security and safety. Pacello, for example, identified three separate police forces at work in the medical district – the city’s, the University of Tennessee’s and Southwest Tennessee Community College’s. On top of that, other security teams also work for individual institutions.
Another thing the collaborative is looking at involves figuring out how to play the role of coordinator and data-sharer when it comes to safety concerns.
When asked to project a few years into the future and beyond and to imagine what the district might eventually look like, Pacello said he suspects there will be the addition of new, different types of housing – the kind that’s attractive to someone in their 20s and 30s as well as young families who want to live in an urban setting.
“We think you’ll slowly start to see a subtle transformation in the built environment that will gradually increase over the next five years,” Pacello said. “You’ll start to see a cleaner district, one that’s better maintained and landscaped. One of the things we’re also looking to measure is how much time people spend in the district. Some of the changes are subtle and some are behind-the-scenes, but they drive the local economy. Others are more visible – changes to the aesthetics of the place. We think it will all result in a higher profile generally of the medical district.”