Growing smart: Urban Land Institute brings know-how to city building

Behind many local neighborhood revitalization initiatives and real estate projects is the expertise of Urban Land Institute Memphis. Their work is varied and often complex, but their vision is simple: convene smart people to build better communities.
To outsiders, it might be said that Memphis has arrived. To those working on the inside, Memphis has been “there” all along. To them, it’s possible the city is just hitting a consistent stride.

Anna Holtzclaw sees it. She’s the District Coordinator for Urban Land Institute Memphis, a group of real estate-related professionals working to better the community, one neighborhood at a time.

“I think Memphis is at a tipping point,” Holtzclaw said in explaining why membership in the organization continues to grow. “We have a high level of community engagement and understanding in the impact our land use has in building the type of city we want to live in and for our children and grandchildren to live in. There is a heightened awareness of real estate’s impact. Beyond that, I think people are excited about the conversations we’re having.”

The ULI Memphis chapter has grown since its 2007 incorporation. Today there are 171 members, the most in its history. It’s a multidisciplinary membership made up of real estate brokers, architects, bankers, attorneys and anyone else who is essential to make a real estate project successful.

But what does ULI Memphis do? There are a number of ways the group is making a difference in the community. Many of the projects it undertakes originated in the group’s programming. For instance, a program on creating and sustaining healthy communities through urban agriculture became the impetus for Delta Roots, a 20-year plan that touches on 15 counties.

Another one is the Mid-South Regional Greenprint, a 25-year plan to create 500 miles of Greenway trails and 200 miles of bicycle paths across Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi.

Paul Young, Director of Legislative Affairs for Shelby County government, initially became involved with ULI with the submission of a grant application that led to the Greenprint plan in 2011.

“When we applied for the grant we wanted to find something the whole community could rally behind,” Young said. “Regardless of where you live or your political spectrum, you can see value in green spaces.”

A three-year process of meetings with more than 2,000 participants followed. Input came in from the tri-state area, all to put together a well-connected plan that since has been adopted by the Greater Memphis Chamber as one of its moon missions. So far, 17 municipalities have adopted the plan, essentially saying that as they move forward with planning of infrastructure that they will use the Greenprint as a guide for new trails.

Not all projects start the same way, Holtzclaw said.

“With Greenprint we got people talking about the green infrastructure,” she said. “It was out of those conversations that the idea emerged and we got the (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) funding. The plan was launched in 2014. … With Soulsville it is a specific product. Community Lift partnered with us and said, ‘We want to produce this product.’ They hired us to do the technical assistance panel. We convene and then produce the report. That’s new to us. We just started doing that this year.”

Technical assistance panels have worked in other markets and made an impact, Holtzclaw said. The panel works to engage members in a volunteer project to give back to the community with their specific knowledge in the real estate field. The first TAP came in the spring to explore Overton Square and what should go on the parking lot that is located between Hattiloo Theatre and Bar Louie restaurant.

“A nonprofit or government organization can call us and say they have a land use issue,” Holtzclaw said in explaining how TAPs get underway. “We work with them to make sure the issue is specific enough and make sure the scope is specific enough to be addressed in a one- to two-day panel.”

ULI Memphis recruits a diverse panel to look at the issue, spending the first half of a day receiving input along with stakeholder meetings. The second half of the day is spent figuring out what the recommended solution should be and putting together a recommended solution that is then presented to the community.

Moving forward, how to shape a community that millennials want to live in is an important focus. Earl Williams, Chief Financial Officer for Loeb Properties and current Chairman of ULI Memphis, is focused on the improvements in Overton Square, Broad Avenue and along Highland Street. Those are priorities for Loeb and also prime areas for the focus on younger Memphians.

“It’s not only just a redevelopment of retail space, it’s taking a look at it from a different perspective,” he said. “Take a look at what millennials want. What we want to do is look at how do we address the growth of Memphis and the different generations. They enjoy living in the urban core. They want walkable, bikeable communities. We need to look at developing that in Memphis.”

The ULI Fall Meeting recently was in San Francisco. Williams participated in a tour of the city’s multifamily housing.

“What excites me is what’s being built is what appeals to millennials,” he said. “It’s exciting product because San Francisco is so expensive and the unit size is small. So the focus is on amenities, and I see them working in Memphis. Everything being built has some type of rooftop garden.”

These common areas on rooftops or on ground floors provide residents unique gathering spaces where they can work – free Wi-Fi often is part of the package – and provide good entertaining opportunities.

“They create a sense of community because if you look at where they live, it’s so small and they’re not entertaining in their homes,” Williams said. “The real intent is to take that and put it on the roof or on the ground floor in community rooms. They create a sense of community within the complex, which I think is something that can be brought to Memphis and give it that Memphis flavor. What it speaks about is what millennials are looking for. We don’t have anything like that in Midtown. If we can provide the right incentives for building in Midtown, there is a market there.”

Holtzclaw said one of the important activities for her while at the San Francisco gathering was participating in a group that is made up of members from second-tier cities, where the ULI chapters are smaller – New Orleans, Indianapolis, Nashville and Jacksonville, Fla., among them.

“The biggest lesson is we’re all a whole lot more alike than different,” she said. “The issues we struggle with here are not unique. Other cities struggle with increasing infrastructure, how to retain talent. We’re much more alike.”

Possibly one way Memphis is different than its peer cities is the way the region works. With Memphis at the center of a three-state region, communities across state borders can find themselves in competition for some of the same projects.

ULI Memphis is working to change that dynamic, and it started in 2013 with the launch of the Mid-South Mayor’s Council. The group is made up of mayors from communities big and small in the Memphis area who might not otherwise have reason to come together.

The group meets six times a year.

“When we first got started they asked us why we wanted them to come,” Holtzclaw said. “We told them our agenda is for them to meet. Once in the room it’s up to them to decide what the agenda is. The fact you’re all here, our agenda has been met.”

So what is the gathering of mayors accomplishing? First, it’s bringing many individual constituencies together to make the region compete as one instead of separate communities.

“The bulk of the mayors all seem to value collaboration,” Young said. “They have wanted to figure out how to collaborate. It’s always just been a question of how do we make it happen. That’s the value of ULI in that it creates a space. One of the main benefits is the mayors actually know each other. It’s less likely you’ll see public spats.”

Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell is a part of the council. He said the urban/rural mix of the region can be a challenge, but one that can be overcome.

“We need to have more dialogue among regional elected leaders,” he said. “I can’t think of anything in this day and age more important than doing partnerships with neighbors. We’re a community that is urban in many ways yet we cross county lines and state lines. Some people call it regionalism. I just call it good partnering.

“We’d like to attract industry to Shelby County, but if they choose DeSoto or Tipton it’s still a partial win for us in Shelby County.”

Membership in ULI Memphis is open to anyone who wants to help shape the community while learning from some of the real estate industry’s stalwarts.

“The number one benefit is access to best practices and information, but also to people in the community who are making a difference every day,” Holtzclaw said. “It allows 20-somethings to have a conversation with Henry Turley and understand how he got started. It allows people to sit down with John Dudas and understand what Belz’s priorities are. One of the greatest advantages in a city like Memphis is our membership is so willing to give and share experiences with others.”

Alex Stringfellow is an associate with CB Richard Ellis Memphis concentrating on Downtown office properties. He’s also the chairman of ULI’s Young Leaders Group, and said the opportunity for younger members to interact with the city’s industry leaders is invaluable.

“One of the things most beneficial for people our age is having a chance to meet experts in the field, people it would be difficult outside ULI to get to know well and get to talk in a small group setting,” he said.

“We’re trying to fast track relationships that our co-workers in their 40s have had for 20 years with their peers. It’s a way to fast track and introduce people in the same field who are the same age. Over the next 20 years we’ll see each other on a lot of deals in a lot of settings.”

Read more articles by Lance Wiedower.

Lance is a veteran journalist with more than 16 years of experience in newsrooms in the Memphis area as a reporter and editor, including most recently as managing editor of The Daily News. He regularly contributes to The Daily News, including a biweekly travel column, The Daily Traveler. 
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