VOL. 10 | NO. 41 | Saturday, October 7, 2017
Connecting The Pieces
By Andy Meek
The Pinch District – a Downtown mini-neighborhood of only a few blocks sandwiched between the Memphis Cook Convention Center, Uptown, The Pyramid and the campus of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital – has been a neglected donut hole of development for years, as investments have poured into other areas of Downtown around it.
That’s poised to change in a big way, though, for what was the first neighborhood in Memphis immigrants flocked to, and that became the city’s first commercial district.
Populated today with landmarks and businesses like Bass Pro Shops at the Pyramid; restaurants like Ferraro’s, Westy’s and Alcenia’s; and the Balinese Ballroom, among other things, the Pinch also happens to be one piece of Memphis’ multi-pronged Gateway Project, a collection of developments tied thematically to the city turning 200 years old in 2019.
The Gateway Project includes enhancements to the riverfront, Mud Island River Park, the convention center and the Pinch, which saw a kind of hollowing out over the years as the once-thriving district lost residents who relocated to the eastern parts of the city. Still, key institutions remain, like St. Jude – which almost a year ago hosted state political leaders and city of Memphis officials to jointly announce $37 million in state and local investments into public infrastructure around the children’s hospital.
A multibillion-dollar expansion is underway now on St. Jude’s campus. The hospital, meanwhile, also wants to improve the neighborhood immediately outside its campus to make it more attractive and inviting to visitors. St. Jude leaders are helping city officials and other stakeholders map out the details of a Pinch District redevelopment that’s still taking shape.
St. Jude’s expansion beyond its current borders could be a matter of office and residential or multifamily space on the upper floors of mixed-use buildings that have commercial space or retail on the ground floor. Because most of the existing buildings in the Pinch District have two stories, the upper floors would be in new mixed-use buildings that could range from two-story structures to high rises.
“St. Jude Children's Research Hospital is in the midst of a multibillion-dollar strategic expansion that will increase the number of new cancer patients treated on our campus, significantly enhance research and patient-care capabilities, impact more children globally and create more jobs in our community,” Richard Shadyac Jr., president and CEO of ALSAC, the fundraising and awareness organization for St. Jude, told The Memphis News. “We are confident that the Pinch District initiative being supported the state, city and county will not only create a more inviting environment around the St. Jude campus but will benefit surrounding neighborhoods and Downtown Memphis as a whole. This initiative will also be important as ALSAC and St. Jude work to attract and retain top talent from across the nation and around the world in support of our life-saving mission.”
Jake Schorr has owned the restaurant and bar Westy’s since December of 1983. He’s seen the Pinch from the vantage point of more than three decades of change. And while he’s eager to see more businesses like his own in the area to help make the district more of a destination, “Right now, the Pinch is not the destination. Something like Westy’s is the destination.”
Schorr also acknowledges “the really big deal here is the psychological aspect of St. Jude building something.”
Their investment, in other words, helps catalyze so much more to come.
For a deeper look into the Pinch redevelopment – including a look at what’s on the way as well as why the whole thing is significant – The Daily News is hosting a panel discussion Oct. 12 at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, 1934 Poplar Ave. Set to begin at 3:30 p.m., panelists will include Memphis Medical District Collaborative president Tommy Pacello, interim Downtown Memphis Commission president Jennifer Oswalt and Looney Ricks Kiss principal Frank Ricks, whose architectural firm has helped city officials work up a plan to guide the Pinch’s redevelopment.
Seminar sponsors include Landmark Community Bank; Clay & Land Insurance; Allworld Project Management; Turner Construction Co.; Bass, Berry & Sims; and RJ Young.
Pacello, for his part, talks about what’s happening in the Pinch as representative of a larger positive force that’s helping elevate city neighborhoods. Every city goes through development cycles, he says, and part of what’s happening now in Memphis neighborhoods like the Pinch and Edge districts, to name two examples, is an effort to link up development holes with the rest of the city and revamp them.
Over in the Edge District, another example of this transformation of a kind of gap neighborhood can be seen in the $73 million Wonder Bread redevelopment, a large-scale mixed-use project that will transform the former bakery site between Downtown and the Memphis Medical District.
Commercial uses include Orion Federal Credit Union looking at relocating its corporate headquarters – currently at 7845 U.S. 64 – to the bakery development on Monroe Avenue.
The Memphis City Council has also approved funding to help finance the development of a 481-space parking garage that’s a key part of the Wonder Bread redevelopment.
That project, to be sure, is on a different scale than what's happening in the Pinch. But the factors behind their transformations are similar.
Also, the Pinch District, and the Memphis Medical District more broadly, showcase another key phenomenon in Memphis real estate development at the moment. Neighborhood institutions are becoming more involved not just in what happens on their own campus but immediately outside in their neighborhoods and in the spaces between them and other institutions.
“What I think is happening in the Medical District generally, but even at a micro level in the Pinch or the Edge neighborhood and other places, is that the institutions there are really having this market-stabilizing effect,” said Pacello, who lives a couple blocks away from the Pinch. “They’re being more and more intentional in how they’re investing and spending not just at their own campus, but in the areas between and around their campuses.
“Where we are in Memphis is we’ve got these really awesome nodes of activity, and in many cases where we find ourselves today is being in the business of connecting those things. You’ve got Uptown and the core of Downtown and the Pinch District that need some attention in between. And once you’ve got the Pinch District done, you’ve got Uptown, Harbor Town and the St. Jude campus connected back in with the core of Downtown. That’s a huge, huge win.”
The upcoming $60 million renovation of the Memphis Cook Convention Center is the next part of the Gateway Project that’s shown signs of life in recent weeks. One thing that came out of the most recent Memphis Medical District Collaborative board meeting was that there’s a lot planned in the area for employees and students in terms of housing, but Oswalt said “they need it soon,” so there’s also some urgency to the development.
“For us, we’ve really been focused on connecting our neighborhoods, and we believe to make Downtown the best it can be we need a diverse population of offerings for people,” Oswalt said. “We’re most excited about the connectivity and the fact that (the Pinch) has been this hole for a while. And so just seeing the plan come to fruition is really great for us, as well as it just makes such sense with what’s trying to happen in the Edge and the medical district – it’s just an extension of that.”
Design and architecture firm LRK prepared a plan that maps out what redevelopment of the Pinch could look like and it has been serving as something of a guide for the discussions. The plan presents multiple new land uses in an area where the existing buildings that remain set the style of new buildings to come, changing dramatically the look and feel of surface parking lots that dominate the vast gaps between those existing buildings.
The plan shows that along North Third Street, for example, office and other uses related to St. Jude are expected on their expansion property. Retail uses outlined along Overton Avenue and Main Street anchor those streets, and a green space or plaza at Overton Avenue outside St. Jude’s Overton Avenue entrance is surrounded by shops, restaurants and other activities.
The plan also recommends that ground-level uses along Second Street, Front Street, Shadyac Avenue and Jackson Avenue should be active to a lesser extent than on Main Street and Overton Avenue, and that in every instance, parking – both surface and garage – should be located to the center of street blocks and hidden from the view of pedestrians by buildings.
“Before, there was no such thing as this massive St. Jude expansion,” Oswalt said, describing the momentum underway in the Pinch District now. “It just so happens we’re now to a point where we have St. Jude’s announced expansion. We have the convention center, we have a successful Bass Pro in the Pyramid, and then we’ve got the riverfront concept – so it’s all just coming together. There’s no more missing pieces.”