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VOL. 132 | NO. 78 | Wednesday, April 19, 2017

RegionSmart Speaker to Highlight Suburban Retrofitting

By Patrick Lantrip

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Redevelopment is a ubiquitous term in Memphis right now. Major projects such as the Crosstown Concourse and ServiceMaster’s new headquarters are located well within the city limits, but according to Ellen Dunham-Jones, that is only just one piece of the puzzle.


“My research focuses on retrofitting suburbia,” said Dunham-Jones, professor of architecture design at Georgia Tech. “I maintain the world’s only database that I know of that tracks dead big boxes, dead malls, strip malls.”

And at the RegionSmart Summit, scheduled for April 27 at the Halloran Centre for Performing Arts & Education, Dunham-Jones will share, among other things, case studies of retrofitted big boxes that the Mid-South’s smaller municipalities may find useful.

“A lot of post-war suburban property types are aging,” Dunham-Jones said. “They’re underperforming, they have really high vacancies and they are creating a lot of challenges for the suburbs now that downtowns were facing 10 years ago.”

Dunham-Jones and her partner, June Williamson, addressed this issue in their 2009 book, “Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs,” which documents successful retrofits of vacant big-box stores, dead malls, aging office parks and other properties into more sustainable places.

“These underperforming properties, I think, provide opportunities for these suburbs to address the 21st century challenges they were never designed for,” she said. “Issues of sustainability were not on anybody’s mind in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.”

She said that for many decades suburbia had more jobs, but now they’re shifting back into the inner city.

“More and more jobs are going back into downtowns,” she said. “Since 2005 more Americans in poverty have been living in suburbs than living in cities.”

During her presentation Dunham-Jones said she will select examples from the more than 1,500 properties in her database that are relevant to the Mid-South.

“I won’t show them all, but I’ll show a few case studies that exemplify really good ways in which these difficult properties have been addressing these challenges,” she said. “Some of the examples I will show are redevelopments, some of them are re-inhabitations with a more community-serving use, and sometimes what makes the most sense is actually re-greening the property and reconstructing the wetlands.”

One of the areas in Memphis she said she is most interested in is the Medical District and its use of tactical urbanism, which is a way of developing blighted areas by using incremental, small-scale techniques.

She said she will also address the redevelopment of large former malls, especially in older suburbs.

“Generally speaking, there is a lot more retrofitting in the older suburbs because the buildings have had more time to sort of live through their lifespans,” Dunham-Jones said. “A lot of suburban commercial buildings were not built to last that long.”

However, she noted that suburban residential was a different story.

More information on the RegionSmart Summit and its lineup of speakers can be found at regionsmart.org.

PROPERTY SALES 27 150 2,415
MORTGAGES 57 228 2,835
BUILDING PERMITS 157 441 6,509
BANKRUPTCIES 61 133 1,920