University District

High-rises on Highland are a test for Memphis 3.0

The Memphis 3.0 comprehensive plan hopes to end the city's long love affair with cars and suburban sprawl in favor of dense, upward growth and reliable shared transportation. The Memphis City Council could adopt the plan as early as April, but residents of the University District say their community is fast becoming a proving ground for urban density.

“When we talk about density, we talk about it in the abstract … The reality is that density is now in the University District,” said Tk Buchanan, a longtime resident who also serves as the University of Memphis community liaison and daily operations manager for University District Incorporated, a nonprofit working to improve the area's neighborhoods. 

There are seven full-sized neighborhoods in the University District plus three smaller subdivisions with homeowners associations, according to Buchanan. At the core of these residential neighborhoods is the University of Memphis, a research institution with 24,000 faculty, staff and students. 

In the last few years, high-rise developments have erupted on and around Highland Street. Most of these buildings are concentrated between Central and Southern avenues, which places pressure on parking and pedestrian demands. The Stratum, Gather on Southern, Highland Row, Crescent Highland and The Nine are the largest of the district's new residential properties. The planned ThirtySix01 and Stella buildings would add a combined 675 residents. There are at least three more complexes under consideration.

Together, these new multifamily buildings represent thousands of new units, potential residents and cars clustered at the heart of this 5.3-square-mile district. 

High Ground News’ On the Ground community journalism program is embedded in the University District from January through March. We regularly meet with residents, business owners and other community leaders to understand the area’s bright spots and challenges.

Some longtime residents — homeowners and renters who grew up or raised families in the district — say the new high-rise and commercial growth focuses on students and young professionals without regard for deep-rooted residents. 

And while they do want a bustling community with strong pedestrian and public transportation options, they’re concerned developers are adding more people before building up necessary infrastructure, including safe crosswalks and connections, a reliable bus system, updates to utilities and roads and adequate parking. Ninety percent of University of Memphis students own cars, and the district is faced with finding room to house (and park) a growing population.

Related: “Passing cars: University District looks beyond car travel for solutions to congestion

“Only so many toilets can flush, only so many cars can go down the street,” said Buchanan. “We have to respect the limitations of our infrastructure and develop accordingly.”

Many longtime residents want investment beyond Highland to benefit a diverse set of community members. They want basic amenities, retail aimed at families and updates to public spaces including Davis Community Center. 

In March 2019 the University of Memphis announced Campus Elementary School is expanding to include a middle school. Once open, it will be one of only two middle schools located in the district and will serve children within a 1.5-mile radius. With new education option, some residents wonder if developers will foster a family-friendly environment in the University District.

Adapting dense development in the University District to incorporate the needs of longtime residents could shape similar Memphis 3.0-informed approaches across the city. 

The Highland Strip has seen substantial growth in the last five years. Evidence of the Highland-Walker street improvements include painted concrete and traffic barrels. (Ziggy Mack)

The Highland Street Dorms

The University of Memphis encourages students to live on or near campus, but only 14 percent of its roughly 21,500 students live in one of its eight housing facilities. Those buildings are, on average, 57 years old.

University president David Rudd told The Commercial Appeal in January that the school does not plan to build any new student housing, though it may soon assume management of The Gather due to a rash of violent crime. The multifamily building is 90 percent student occupied.  

Cody Fletcher, executive director of the University Neighborhoods Development Corporation, told High Ground News that many developers knew the university was moving to end new construction and responded by effectively privatizing student housing.

"I think developers have caught onto that and think maybe there's demand for these housing projects," he said of the district's new high-rises.

In spring 2018, the UNDC amended the district's design guidelines to add parking requirements for new construction. Developers must now provide parking for 0.5 parking spots per bed. Without a dedicated parking spot, many tenants are parking along the narrow residential streets. Fletcher said the district's roadways were built to accommodate 1900s-era traffic volumes. Without a strong plan for both parking and public transportation, continued population growth is unsustainable.

In a February 28 meeting of the Memphis and Shelby County Board of Adjustment, the UNDC argued against construction of the five-story ThirtySix01 at 3601 Midland and said publicly that the additional cars would intensify the already rampant illegal parking in the area. The board voted to approve the development. 

The UNDC and university are working to curb illegal parking by increasing the requirement to 0.75 parking spaces per bed, improving parking signage and extending university police jurisdiction to include ticketing near campus. 

The University of Memphis' land bridge is under construction and will soon allow for foot traffic over the Southern Avenue railroad line and better connectivity to campus. (Ziggy Mack)

Test Time

According to data compiled by UNDC and the University of Memphis Department of City and Regional Planning, the district has both a stable foundation to build on and challenges to sustainable growth that other Memphis neighborhoods will also face.

The data shows the district's average resident is under 40 and college educated.

Property values and incomes have made modest gains since the 2008 recession, though the gains vary widely across the district's neighborhoods. From 2010 to 2017, the University District neighborhood of Messick Buntyn saw an annual income gain of $4,644; Sherwood Forest saw a $277 decline and the area around South Campus saw a whopping $21,077 increase.

The data shows large swaths of the district are comprised of at least 50 percent rental properties. Since 2012, the rate of home ownership has dropped below 40 percent for significant portions of Messick-Buntyn, East Buntyn, Sherwood Forest and bordering Orange Mound.

The district also has a range of neighborhood conditions — compare Beltline with its 53 percent poverty rate and $37,500 median home value to Normal Station’s 27 percent poverty rate or East Bunytn’s $164,200 median home value — that make it a proving ground for equitable development practices.

The University of Memphis and UNDC are working on a shared prosperity plan to distribute development efforts more equitably across the district. 

Much of the data collected like income and home values show a clear divide. Messick-Buntyn, Sherwood and Beltline have less wealth, more people of color and are more vulnerable to gentrification compared to the neighborhoods of Normal Station, Red Acres, East Bunytn and Joffree. 

Related: “Sharing the wealth: Planning underway for equitable growth in University District

Family Matters

“Children live in the neighborhood, but you don’t see them playing outside,” said resident Vania Barraza. “I don’t see a place to bring the children and gather together.”

Barraza lives just north of the university’s main campus with her five-year-old daughter and works as a Spanish instructor in its World Languages and Literature department. She said she has plenty of nearby childcare options and paid amenities, including Children’s Museum of Memphis and Pink Palace Museum, but few free or public options.

“If you’re going to have a diverse community with different incomes, you really need to think about public space where money is not a barrier or condition to be with other families,” said Barraza.

Audubon Park is surrounded by three busy streets — Goodlett Road and Park and Southern avenues — with limited places for pedestrian access, and Barraza said the traffic is noisy. Residents at the February Messick-Buntyn Neighborhood Association meeting said Davis Park and its community center are in disrepair and plagued with trash. It’s hard to know what's offered because it has no clear calendar or online presence. 

There’s desire for more family-friendly retail like the new Bruster's Real Ice Cream parlor on the Highland Strip and a focus on more basic amenities like a wellness clinic and small grocer.

Buchanan said many residents are frustrated. They’ve asked for basic amenities in planning processes over the last 15 years, but development continues to focus on the university and students. A glance at the Highland Strip's newest shops shows an assumed student clientele with stores including VaporWize e-cigarette shop, Insomnia Cookies and burger joint Burgerim.

There's hope Messick High School, opened in 1908 and now serving as an administrative facility for Shelby County Schools, will be redeveloped as part of Memphis 3.0. Stakeholders hope to see a community hub that provides service organizations and activities.

The old Messick School graduated its last high school class in 1982. It's currently an administrative facility for Shelby County Schools, but community leaders hope it will soon be

Connections and Place

Barraza was born in Chile, spent time in Spain and lived in other U.S. cities including Washington D.C. before settling in Memphis ten years ago. She misses the walkability and density she found elsewhere and is glad to the University District growing.

“This is why I think Highland Strip is so important because at least you can walk a little bit, get a coffee and then walk and have a taco, then walk and have a beer,” she said.

But she’d like to see development include a heavier focus on placemaking, connectivity and beautification with safe routes for biking and walking coupled with reliable public transportation to draw people out of their cars and onto the sidewalks.

“Safety is something you create,” said Barraza. “Safety is created with a sense of belonging. More eyes around are going to create that sense of belonging and safety.”

In April 2018, the UNDC and City of Memphis kicked off upgrades on Highland at Walker that connect to earlier streetscaping down Walker. The work will include crosswalks, signage with flashing lights, a median and ground murals. In the next few years, the partners hope to expand the efforts from Midland to Kearney avenues and east to Patterson Street.

Pitching In Again

Residents can also play a role in the success of the University District.

“The thing that our area parks don’t have that other larger parks have is a friends group that active and raises money that supplements [the city’s] budget to get some infrastructure [improvements],” said Buchanan.

Residents can also get involved with neighborhood associations, which are critical to ensuring residents have a say in area development. But across the country and the district, participation in neighborhood associations has dwindled and remaining leaders are aging out.

Students and low-income residents often juggle multiple necessities — classes, work, family, home — with limited resources and free time to devote to community service.

But according to several neighborhood leaders, East Buntyn and Normal Station have more active members under 40 than ever before and are working to find ways to connect to students and other neighbors who may be struggling to fit in traditional service roles.

Buchanan said most of the district’s leaders, herself included, were students once and put down roots in the district because they loved university culture and wanted to remain a part of it.

“We like being around students. We like college life. We loved it so much we didn’t want to leave."

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.