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VOL. 132 | NO. 205 | Monday, October 16, 2017

Leaders: Pinch District Development 'Knitting Together' Neighborhoods

By Andy Meek

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The theme that keeps emerging when stakeholders and key officials talk about redevelopment of Downtown’s Pinch neighborhood is that of connecting pieces. The pieces are areas and landmarks around it that have been the focus of investment and attention and traffic while the Pinch has somewhat stalled.

Memphis Medical District Collaborative president Tommy Pacello, center, leads a discussion at the most recent Daily News seminar on redevelopment of Downtown's Pinch district. He was joined by Looney Ricks Kiss principal Frank Ricks, left, and interim Downtown Memphis Commission president Jennifer Oswalt, right. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)

That won’t be the case for much longer, though, for the few blocks that make up the Pinch massed roughly between the Memphis Cook Convention Center, Uptown, The Pyramid and the campus of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. That was one of the takeaways to come out of The Daily News’ recent seminar – part of its regular seminar series – that focused this time on redevelopment of the Pinch, including the plans of St. Jude for the area.

The timeliness for a discussion around what’s happening in the Pinch District, which encompasses small businesses as well as major landmarks like St. Jude and the Pyramid arena, is that the Pinch is one piece of the city’s larger, multi-pronged Gateway Project. That’s the name for what’s actually a collection of projects tied thematically to the city turning 200 years old in 2019.

Another catalyst is the multibillion-dollar expansion under way now on St. Jude’s campus. The hospital also wants to improve the neighborhood immediately outside its campus to make it more attractive and inviting to visitors.

Looney Ricks Kiss principal Frank Ricks, whose architectural firm has helped city officials work up a plan to guide the Pinch’s redevelopment, pointed to what’s happening in the area as indicative of a kind of culture shift in Memphis. It’s what he calls a culture of planning, which has been increasingly evident in recent years in Memphis.

It’s not hard, he says, to get a sense of whether that’s present in a city, even one you’re just visiting. You can tell from the built environment, when you pick up a newspaper and see what’s being talked about, what officials and newsmakers are focused on.

“I’m very excited,” Ricks said, “with what’s going on for the past several years in the city and particularly in the Pinch. The Pinch is one of the most history-rich places in the city. This was really the first sort of business district in Memphis, in the early days.

“St. Jude was talking about expansion plans, and we got a call saying, ‘We need to understand the cost of improving the infrastructure’ - that’s where this really started. The city had some other needs, so this (plan) really started out as a very utilitarian exercise. And then along the way, we started saying, but what if.”

The “what if” showcased by that plan for the Pinch includes along North Third Street the possibility of office and other uses. Retail along Overton Avenue and Main Street could anchor those streets, and a green space or plaza at Overton Avenue outside St. Jude’s Overton Avenue entrance is shown on plans as being surrounded by shops, restaurants and other activities.

Memphis Medical District Collaborative president Tommy Pacello calls what’s happening now and what’s on the way for the Pinch indicative of a “knitting together” of Downtown and Midtown through the medical district. He also sees as a positive that it’s not one entity pursuing one vision for the Pinch – there are multiple stakeholders wrapped around a vision that’s less a blueprint than it is “aspirational,” in Ricks’ words.

“Development,” Pacello said, “is something that shouldn’t happen to a place, it should happen with a place.”

Adds interim Downtown Memphis Commission president Jennifer Oswalt, “The convention center renovation over the next 18 months or so, that really is a key factor to drawing the private development on the other side of Pinch. We’re talking to some developers who are already interested in formalizing their plans. And I think you’ll definitely see some activity in the next year.”

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