Growing smart: A guide to developments in the University District

The University District is getting an overdue overhaul thanks to a visionary plan from the University of Memphis and fresh interest from private developers. As the potential of the neighborhood comes into full focus, we bring you a comprehensive rundown of the development projects planned and underway.
 
The University of Memphis is responsible for a large portion of the work happening in the school's surrounding district, but private developers are busy as well, transforming much of the blight, neglect and vacancy into new residential and commercial options for students and residents living in surrounding neighborhoods.

Loeb Properties Inc.'s interest in the area is an indicator of its momentum. The Memphis real estate firm recently bought its first holdings in the neighborhood. It acquired two buildings that formerly housed the Newby's bar and music venue at 535 and 539 S. Highland St. as well as a building and vacant lot at the most southern portion of the Highland Strip.

With the Newby's buildings and other property at 569 S. Highland, Loeb currently owns nearly 20,000 square feet of retail space on the strip.

Matt Prince says the developer sees opportunity in the University District.

"The area has fallen on some hard times of late, and we feel that we can upgrade the portions that we've purchased to their original character and help build a campus life and draw in some neighborhood traffic," says Prince, Loeb's Senior Vice President of Brokerage and Development.
 
University Central to Developer Interest 
Loeb's attention to the University District was spurred in large part by the U of M's master plan, which was updated last year and is highlighted by campus life and transportation improvements. The master plan was presented to the community in late October and currently is under review in Nashville. Pending approvals, it should be complete in April or May, says David G. Zettergren, Vice President for Business and Finance at the U of M.

The planning and improving has been underway for some time, though. The U of M has worked to create a sense of place within its urban campus, Zettergren says. It began five years ago building places on campus that would be attractive to students, like the newly built University Center, as well as adding elements like the Ramesses statue and bronze tiger statue.

The university is near completion on the large-scale Central Avenue safety improvement project. The $3.4 million project added a landscaped center median along Central, at the school's front door, as well as bike lanes, sidewalks separated from the street, LED sidewalk lighting, ornamental fencing, street trees and new street lights, landscaping and signage.
Cold weather slowed completion, but work should wrap up in the spring.

"If people haven't been to campus in the last five years, they're not going to recognize it," Zettergren says. "It's absolutely fabulous."
 
Student Housing a Hot Sector
Zettergren says university leadership is "ecstatic" about the private development underway or planned in the surrounding neighborhood.

"The success of our neighborhood is also a success for our students and the university," he says.

The housing component is especially important, and there are plenty of new options on the horizon for students.

Rael Development Corp. opened phase one of its Gather on Southern project last fall, and phase two is scheduled to open for the upcoming school year. Gather, located adjacent to campus on Southern Avenue, will provide more than 400 beds of student housing.

Construction on the $60 million Highland Row is underway, which will add 354 apartments to the area. A partnership between Milhaus Ventures and Poag Shopping Centers, Highland Row also will feature retail and office space, townhomes and a parking garage.

Another privately developed student housing project, The Standard, currently is under plan review and awaiting permits. It would add 360 beds and a two-story parking garage.

But the U of M isn't letting developers do all the work. This fall, the school will open Centennial Place, a $54 million student housing project that will replace the existing Richardson Towers dorm. Centennial Place will contain 660 beds in living/learning suite arrangements for freshmen and sophomores, as well as 144 apartment-style beds for upperclassmen.

If the school's enrollment is any indication, demand will be there. Thanks to new marketing and recruitment initiatives as well as its place in the American Athletic Conference, Zettergren says the U of M has received more than 14,000 applications for fall 2015, an increase of more than 300 percent from 2013. So far, 5,300 admissions for the upcoming school year represent a 200 percent increase from two years ago.
 
Neighborhood Success Breeds University Success
The U of M is mindful of its place in a broader neighborhood and has been active in working with two key community organizations, the University Neighborhood Development Corp. and University District Inc.

TK Buchanan is the community safety liaison with the U of M. She serves a unique function as the blight and crime consultant for the school, working closely with the UNDC, UDI and leadership in seven surrounding neighborhoods. She also is fulfilling the technical functions of UNDC's executive director until the nonprofit can afford one full-time. While the urban sociologist insists she isn't a planner, she has her hands in a lot of the surrounding development.

"The University District neighborhoods are very much pro-development, and this is obvious by the significant amount of time that they committed to work on a development overlay for the area," Buchanan says.

The UNDC designed the University District Overlay to control development, accommodate pedestrians and encourage a mix of property uses and amenities. Approved in 2009, the overlay encourages reuse and new construction that reflects appropriate use, scale and character of the surrounding neighborhoods.

"What they hoped to accomplish with that one document was to lay out areas where they would like to see density and redevelopment," Buchanan says.

Zettergren says the university fully supports the zoning laws, which ensure the surrounding neighborhood stays vibrant and cohesive.

There is still plenty of vacant land and commercial space, and the UNDC would like to see those spaces occupied by neighborhood service providers. Buchanan has a long list of needed services: small box grocery store, dentist, dry cleaner, pet sitting service and doggy day care, to name a few.

In spite of the vacancies, Buchanan is wholeheartedly encouraged by the progress the University District has made in recent years and months.

"We are very, very excited," she says.
 
Meanwhile, Back on the Strip
Renovations at Newby's are in full swing, and interest in the property has been high. Prince says an announcement could come in about a month on the new operator for both the venue portion and the restaurant and bar building. Intentions are to keep the Newby's brand on the strip.

Immediate, full-scale renovation at Loeb's other property--which currently houses three tenants including clothing store Icon and a smoke shop--is not on the agenda. Prince says Loeb will continue to eye potential purchases in the district that it can improve, redevelop and lease.

The Memphis community has heaped praise on Loeb for its redevelopment of Overton Square.

"We feel like we won the lotto when (Loeb) decided to develop our strip, because we've been watching attentively his efforts at the square, and we love how that turned out," Buchanan says.

Prince noted that the two neighborhoods are different in terms of the markets they serve and their primary anchors, but he acknowledged some parallels.

"It's similar in the fact that the properties have been neglected and we will bring vibrancy back to them and momentum in the area as a whole," he says. "And hopefully this activity is going to breed more activity."

Buchanan also is thrilled to see construction officially started on Highland Row, which has been on the table since before the recession. She has a bird's eye view of Highland Row, since the university purchased and kicked off renovation of the former Highland Branch library across the street. The U of M is transforming the library into a satellite location for UM Police Services supervisors and investigators, offices for community liaisons like Buchanan and meeting space for community activities.

"Now we can host neighborhood meetings there and have them right in the epicenter of all of the excitement of the redevelopment," she says.
 
Don't Call it 'The Strip'
The 'strip' is a moniker Hal Mabry would like to see retired.

Mabry has owned Peddler Bike Shop in the University District for 25 years. He thinks the term has a negative connotation and doesn't represent the district's bright future.

Commerce along and around the Highland corridor is thriving; Mabry's business is good and getting better.

Peddler has operated in the district since 1971 (Mabry purchased the store in 1990) but has occupied different storefronts over the years. After moving off Highland to its current spot at 3548 Walker Ave., Mabry has seen a noticeable increase in foot traffic and clientele quality. That should be bolstered further by the Walker Avenue Streetscape project.

Paid for by a $529,000 Tennessee Department of Transportation grant, the Walker Avenue project will improve the streetscape and enhance pedestrian safety near the U of M campus. It will widen sidewalks, improve lighting, green the streetscape, reorganize public and private parking and provide more public use spaces.

An active leader in the University District Business Association, Mabry points to his landlord Cecil Humphreys' efforts as an owner and developer in the area, as well as Loeb's recent acquisitions, as proof that the University District is on the right track.

“It’s something we hoped would happen for years, but, now that I see all the plans, it’s quite a bonus,” he says. “The density in the area just physically around my shop (creates) more pedestrian traffic so I have more opportunities to sell bicycles and do more business.”
 
Iconic Land Bridge on the Horizon
The U of M's most ambitious and visible projects aren't out of the ground yet: funds for a new Student Recreation Facility and land bridge are in place, and the projects are scheduled for completion in 2018.

Demolition of a 1970s building will make way for a $62 million, 192,000-square-foot rec center that will include gyms, a fitness center, an indoor swimming pool, racquetball courts, climbing walls, an indoor track and more. Outside, turf fields, tennis, basketball and volleyball courts and an outdoor pool will further enhance the activity offerings.

Perhaps most iconic will be construction of the $17 million land bridge, scheduled for completion by fall 2018. The bridge will connect the new rec center to the alumni mall in the center of campus. Set to span Walker Avenue, the Norfolk Southern rail line and Southern Avenue, it also will incorporate construction of a student amphitheater on the mall, as well as elevators, stairs and lighting.

Zettergren sums up the university's master plan--and the outlook for the entire district--succinctly: "There are just a lot of very good things happening."

Read more articles by Jane A. Donahoe.

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