VOL. 131 | NO. 121 | Friday, June 17, 2016
The Tipping Point
Young Brings Data Focus to City Planning
JOHN KLYCE MINERVINI | Special to The Daily News
Memphis stands at the threshold of incredible possibility. In this series, we introduce innovative Memphians who are driving our city forward and forging its future success.
Want to gaze into the future? Hop into Paul Young’s Infiniti and ride around Downtown for an hour. “These three blocks will be something of a spine for the neighborhood,” he says, as a light rain falls on the windshield. “We envision five- or six-story buildings with restaurants and retail at street level, commercial and residential up top.”
We’re cruising down Overton Avenue between Front and Third streets. These days, it’s a wasteland of parking lots and boarded-up buildings. And that’s remarkable, because these three blocks form a straight line between two of Memphis’ most visible, most successful assets: St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and Bass Pro Shops at the Pyramid.
That’s where Young comes in. In January, Mayor Jim Strickland tapped him to be the city’s new Housing and Community Development director. At the end of this month, he will unveil a new plan for this neighborhood, affectionately dubbed “The Pinch.”
“We see far too many neighborhoods where the private market is inactive,” Young observes, with the Pyramid peeking over his shoulder. “My goal is not to replace or compete with the private market, but rather to create an environment where it can flourish.”
Born and raised in Memphis, Young is the son of two Baptist ministers. Although he never took an active role at church, it was one of his mother’s sermons that helped him find his calling.
“She was preaching a series on Rick Warren’s ‘The Purpose Driven Life,’” Young recalls. “She said, ‘Your blessings are not just for you. They should be a blessing to all people.’”
“I felt like she was talking just to me,” he adds.
Inspired, Young called the Memphis & Shelby County Office of Planning and Development and offered to intern for free – but they had a better idea. Young became their graduate assistant, meanwhile enrolling at the University of Memphis and earning his master’s degree in city and regional planning.
After a short stint in New York, he returned to Memphis and began to rise through the ranks of government, serving in various posts in the city and county. At age 36, he is the youngest person to hold his current job.
But if Young has been getting a lot of press, it’s at least as much for who he isn’t as for who he is. He replaces Robert Lipscomb, an enigmatic figure who resigned last fall.
Over the course of 23 years, Lipscomb disbursed hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of federal funds to housing and community development projects, earning him a reputation as “the most powerful man in Memphis.” But his critics point to a lack of comprehensive planning. They further contend that large, expensive projects like Peabody Place ($26 million) and the Pyramid ($200 million) failed to produce promised jobs or long-term economic growth.
As a city employee, Young had several opportunities to work with Lipscomb.
“I think Robert was a passionate person who wanted to change this community – and he did,” Young observes. “If you think about it, where we’re sitting right now wouldn’t be here without him.”
He’s got a point. We’ve stopped for iced tea at a nearby cafe, the Office at Uptown. The neighborhood around us – green lawns and handsome single-family homes – was built by Lipscomb, in partnership with developers Henry Turley and Jack Belz, on the site of two former public housing projects.
But despite sharing many goals – a focus on neighborhoods and a desire to repopulate the urban core – the two men’s approaches to city building differ sharply.
“I want to make decisions transparently, in a way that is based on quantitative analysis,” Young says. “Often we have a gut feeling about where projects are needed, but we have to back it up with data.”
As his first major project, Young is working with the Division of Planning and Development and the Office of Performance Management to develop a comprehensive plan for the city of Memphis. It covers everything from land use and transportation to capacity building for community development agencies over the next two years.
He is also leveraging federal funds to develop a down-payment assistance program for Memphians in targeted neighborhoods and a weatherization program that will help them insulate their homes. The latter is a particular favorite, as it combines a neighborhood focus with sustainability and economic development.
“My vision is to live in a city where the poverty rate is dramatically lower,” Young says. “Where families live in safe, appealing neighborhoods and communities. Where everyone has access to good jobs and a living wage.”
We’ve driving down Lauderdale Street, a single block from FedExForum. It’s a street that lends itself to contemplation, a place where past and future meet. To the west, behind a heavy iron fence, stands Foote Homes, Memphis’ last large public housing project. At a cost of $200 million, it is slated for demolition and redevelopment beginning in fall 2016. It also happens to be the place where Young’s grandmother lived, and the place where his father grew up.
Just across the street stands Cleaborn Homes, itself a former housing project and a harbinger of Foote Homes’ future. Today it is an appealing subdivision, a mix of low-cost and market-rate housing, built in a clean, contemporary style. Both redevelopments were started under Lipscomb – and Young is keen to finish them.
“I think many of our choices are driven by our surroundings,” Young muses. “If you live in a place that looks like nobody cares, then you act like nobody cares.”
“Now look at that,” he says, pointing to Cleaborn Homes. “That looks like a place where you or I would want to live. Where we could be proud to live.”
Paul Young is a New Memphis Fellow driving our city forward. Learn more at newmemphis.org.