The Heights

Neighborhood by design: Community design studio is space to imagine a new Heights

Until recently, 751 National Street was a vacant, nondescript building that previously housed Midsouth Millworks, a mom-and-pop cabinet shop.

In July 2018 Heights CDC — a nonprofit community development corporation working to improve livability and reduce crime and blighted properties in The Heights — leased the building for its new Heights Line Design Studio. In late September they purchased the property, which covers three structures and a sizable yard.

What was once beige and boarded up is now a colorful space complete with flowers, tables, giant games of checkers, and a community calendar on the windows. On Wednesday nights the main 400-square-foot meeting space is full of friends, conversation, laughter, snacks, and games.  

The Heights Line Design Studio gives Heights CDC a physical presence on National Street to anchor revitalization efforts and provides a space for the community to connect and share ideas on neighborhood development.

“[It] has become a community gathering space where people can come in off of the street and give their input while also learning more about other resources that the Heights CDC is connected to,” said Jared Myers, director of Heights CDC.

The studio is also a space for community members to help refine the design of the Heights Line — a proposed $3.5 million, two-mile linear park and greenline down National Street from Broad Avenue to Jackson Avenue — with interactive mapping and brainstorming sessions. So far they’ve suggested improvements to seating, lighting, greenery, and bike and walking paths.

One goal of the design studio is education and resource sharing. These handwritten booklets allow residents to teach their neighbors a variety of skills. (Cole Bradley)After more than a year of resident engagement in The Heights, the CDC hosted the Heights Line design mixer and charette on October 26 at The Liquor Store on Broad Avenue to grow interest among outside stakeholders like Wolf River Conservancy, Memphis’ Division of Housing and Community Development and the Sierra Club.

It was the first time non-residents were able to see and react to several proposed designs. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive.

“People want to see the existing medium as an asset,” said Daniel Ashworth, a senior associate and landscape architect with Alta Planning + Design, which has partnered with the CDC to design The Heights Line.

Myers said the next step for the Heights Line is to raise $90,000 to complete the design phase, seek approvals from the city, and begin fundraising for the estimated $3.5 million installation. For the design studio, the next steps are to demolish two of the property’s structures and convert the third into a larger community resource center.

“We plan to continue to engage residents with the [studio] while we raise the capital needed to transform it into a community center and office space for the CDC,” said Myers. “There are also ideas from the community to build new retail and food shops along National Street as the Heights Line is developed, bringing back the mixed-use and walkable neighborhood that used to exist before the decades of disinvestment that occurred.”

Proposed renderings of the re-design of National Street. (Alta Planning + Design)
Heights CDC loosely defines their boundaries as Graham Road and Scott Street east-west and Jackson and Summer avenues north-south.

Heights residents founded the CDC in 2012. They held focus groups in the area to determine the neighborhood’s needs and found four main concerns — vacant and blighted properties, lack of community spaces, drugs and violence, and speeding cars, including those on National Street.

The stakeholders approached the Binghampton Development Corporation, who agreed to incubate the fledgling organization until it was self-sustaining.

“I believe that other higher capacity CDCs in the city should also consider helping a neighborhood that is adjacent to them,” Myers said of the invaluable support.

In spring 2016, Heights CDC opened an office inside Treadwell Middle School, and while they plan to relocate their base of operations to the new design studio as it’s developed, they also plan to keep a satellite office in the school to maintain their close relationship.

To encourage broader neighborhood effort, Heights CDC helped found the Heights Coalition, a group of roughly 150 stakeholders including residents and people working in the faith community, education, and neighborhood development.

HGN Heights Line Bike Tour from High Ground News on Vimeo.

The CDC also works with community partners like the Mitchell Heights and Holmes Street neighborhood associations and code and law enforcement agencies to reduce the number of blighted properties. The CDC has purchased and rehabbed 10 properties, which are rented at affordable rates to families with modest or low incomes. 

From Trolley Line to Heights Line

In 2016, Myers and Dane Forlines, a Heights resident who has worked on urban planning projects in the Memphis Medical District, began to look at National Street as an asset for potential redevelopment. Forlines found an old streetcar map that showed a long-forgotten trolley line connecting Binghampton to Raleigh through The Heights and a bustling community surrounding it. They began to consider how to recreate that thriving community in today’s Heights.

“A large public green space connector like the Heights Line will attract other developers, improve health disparities, slow traffic, decrease air pollution, and promote economic development,” said Myers.
A month-long design demonstration showed residents the possibilities for the 2-mile Heights Line. (High Ground News)
Related: “Asylums, trolleys & forgotten soldiers: Five facts about The Heights you didn't know

Ryan Hall, director of land conservation with the Wolf River Conservancy, said the Heights Line would also serve as a vital north-south connector for bikers, and his organization has been glad to mentor and consult on the Heights Line project. The Conservancy manages the Wolf River Greenway, a connected system of bike trails and lanes that, once completed, will stretch 36 miles across the county.

“The hardest thing in this city, just looking strictly at [bike paths], is getting north-south connections,” said Hall. “Everything it seems, just like Poplar [Avenue], runs east to west. That’s what makes this unique, and it’s even more beneficial because it runs through a nice core neighborhood."

In October 2017, Heights CDC staged a one-month Heights Line demonstration project that shut down two lanes of traffic on National Street and replaced them with a protected bike and pedestrian path, colorful artwork, and planters with bright flowers.

Related: “The Heights Line pop-up project reinvigorates National Street”

Rachel Rodriguez and her husband, Alain, enjoy biking and walking with their three-month-old son but said sidewalk conditions and vehicle traffic in the Heights make it difficult. They loved the demonstration project and want to see it made permanent.

“It was so much fun. I would go out and walk or run around the area ... I felt like it was so cheerful,” she said. “I’m definitely in support of it. We bike that route anyway ... I went with the stroller the other day, and I felt like it was very treacherous.”

The project’s partners expect the Heights Line to open until fall 2020 at the earliest, but first they’ll go through at least one more round of community approvals before seeking approvals from the city government and beginning fundraising in earnest.

“We’re very far from turning dirt,” said Ashworth. “There’s a long process to go and we’re on the head end of it.”

Heights Line Design Studio

The demonstration project also gave Heights CDC an opportunity to meet neighbors on National Street, including the owner of 751 National.

“As we developed a relationship with the owner we built up a level of trust so that she knew that the property that had been a big part of her family would be used to better the Heights community,” said Myers.

In July 2018 they moved into the old cabinet shop and transformed it into a community center and base of operations for the CDC’s engagement work. Chattanooga, Tenn.-based nonprofit Like Riding a Bicycle helped gather more feedback on the Heights Line and raised awareness of the new studio through neighborhood canvassing and feedback sessions.

High school interns and members of Like Riding a Bicycle set off to canvas the neighborhood. (Cole Bradley)
There have been a number of community events including trivia nights and holiday and block parties to help reactivate the area and create opportunities for stakeholders to both network and have fun.

“We learned from the authors of the Neighborhood Playbook that purchasing a vacant building and activating it is a great way to engage residents and attract new stakeholders to the redevelopment of our community,” said Myers.

Heights CDC is also expanding its personnel. It hopes to hire Forlines fulltime in the near future and now has three high school interns who help staff and maintain the space alongside Heights CDC community coordinator Christina Crutchfield. The CDC is now turning its attention to acquiring more homes to repair and rent while finding new opportunities to support neighborhood organizations as it raises the last $90,000 needed for the Heights Line design phase.

Related: "Facts and Feelings: The push to improve safety in The Heights"

Myers said he’s most excited to work with Heights residents to identify the entrepreneurs and business owners among them who might benefit from the development on National.

“We want to ensure that this project is equitable and that not only will new residents to the neighborhood move in to the vacant houses we have, but existing residents will prosper from being a part of the revitalization of our own neighborhood,” he said.

And while there is still a long road of feedback, approvals, awareness efforts, and fundraising ahead, Heights CDC’s vision for National and the neighborhood as a whole is much more straightforward.

“I hope to see a green space running down National connecting people and places,” he said. “I hope to see families in every home and new businesses that are places where people can walk to and shop. I hope to see a healthier and safer Heights.”

Read more articles by Cole Bradley.

Cole Bradley is a native Memphian and graduate of the University of Memphis. Cole's worked locally as a researcher and community engagement strategist and began contributing to High Ground in Jan 2017. 
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