Build it and they will learn: lasting lessons from temporary MEMFix projects

With the MEMFix: Edge District project launching this weekend, High Ground takes a look at the roots of the tactical urbanism movement in Memphis, beginning with the surprising success of Broad Avenue. With the support of adaptive city leadership and invigorated neighborhood stakeholders, each MEMFix has offered unique hands-on lessons.

Plans are wonderful things. But it’s what you do with them that counts.

In 2006 neighborhood stakeholders in Binghampton met with city administrators to create a neighborhood development plan in an effort to revitalize their area of town which had come to be a little under the weather.

Those plans would later evolve into a planning charrette and eventually include an ambitious vision for a bicycle facility to connect Overton Park with the Greenline.

Meanwhile cars continued to speed erratically down Broad Ave. while businesses slowly moved in and waited and made pocket-sized advancements to improve their part of the street.

Then a perfect storm of neighborhood associates, community organizations, University of Memphis planning students and volunteers came together and decided they didn’t have to wait. They could implement at least some of these plans themselves.

Looking to the Oak Cliff, Texas Better Block phenomenon -- in which volunteers commandeered two streets guerilla-style and put in pop-ups shops, patios and planters to give their disesteemed Dallas neighborhood a makeover -- local volunteers decided to better a few of their own blocks to see what would happen.

The storm became known as New Face for an Old Broad  event and has created quite the aftermath, namely a series of similar animation projects labeled "MEMFix." These neighborhood activation projects have been embraced by residents, businesses, and city government and created a new psychology around neighborhood revitalization.

“After developing a plan and not seeing a lot of implementation, you could see the frustration of residents and business owners. What happened was they began to take matters into their own hands and demand better for themselves and for the city,” Tommy Pacello, project manager for the Mayor’s Innovation Delivery Team, said. “They did a great job of highlighting the unseen potential of a neighborhood and demonstrating what it could be. The trick is it didn’t stop with the event.”

The inaugural NFOB initiative, a two-day event held in November 2010, took three blocks along Broad Ave. under its wing, cleaning up and painting derelict buildings, supplying them with temporary vendors, importing trees and attractive street lights, and restructuring the streets with fewer vehicle lanes, new bike lanes protected by sidewalks and parked cars, and colorful and more commanding crosswalks.

Traffic slowed down, food ran out, and storefronts and sidewalks were at capacity with between 14,000 and 15,000 visitors who came to see what a neglected neighborhood turned urban village in Memphis looked like.

“We had hoped for 5,000,” Pat Brown, now the director of creative placemaking for the Broad Avenue Arts Alliance, said.
Since the event four years ago, the neighborhood has seen $20 million in private investments, more than 25 new businesses, and more than 90 percent occupancy in its buildings.

“That’s in a short period of time and in a bad economy,” Pacello added.

The original catalyst for the event—to connect Overton Park to the Greenline via a two-way cycle track along Tillman and Broad—has now been funded in the wake of the development and investment.

There have been food truck rodeos, Asian-style night markets and the recently launched Water Tower Pavilion that reimagined a partially-used loading dock into a performance and event space using a $350,000 ArtPlace America Grant.

Traffic is still at a lower mph. The bike lanes are still protected. Drivers are ticketed for parking in the bike lanes. And it was all supposed to be temporary.
Rendering of the coming bike path connecting Broad Avenue to Overton Park

“This stuff is illegal. Painting on your road isn’t considered acceptable. The city engineer has strict guidelines, which we did follow. We used outdoor latex paint. It’s kind of temporary, but it’s still there,” Sarah Newstock, special projects strategist for Livable Memphis who helped facilitate NFOB, said. “I have so much respect for our city engineer. He said ‘Ok, but I don’t think I should be involved in the planning.’ He did the right thing cutting us loose. We learned what was allowed and the limits to what we can do innovatively and creatively within what is legal and what we could recommend to anyone thinking of revitalizing a neighborhood.”

Arguably the greatest success can be measured by the fact that Memphians have had the opportunity to experience three more revitalization projects modeled after the Broad facelift, and by the fact that the City wants to be a collaborator.

“The Mayor’s Innovation Delivery Team embraced MEMFix as an extended version of (NFOB), and they’ve made that a regular and accepted conversation in city departments,” Newstock said. “Now they’ve rolled it back around to us at Livable Memphis as future MEMFix planners. That in and of itself is an interesting model for public, private and non-profit relationships.”

Livable Memphis is a program fostered by the Community Development Council of Greater Memphis to facilitate neighborhood revitalization.

The Mayor’s Innovation Delivery Team works to reinvigorate disinvested neighborhoods through programming funded by a $4.8 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies.

“Our team was watching what happened, and we thought about what we could do to help catalyze it a little further,” Pacello said. First they could present another streetscape exhibition and brand it as MEMFix with the Crosstown neighborhood and the, at-the-time, potentially renovated Sears building up to bat.
Sears Crosstown Building
On Nov. 10, 2012, they did just that, this time with two blocks along Cleveland Street as well as the parking lot and loading dock of the Sears Crosstown building. The MEMFix Cleveland Street event included bike lanes and crosswalks, street trees and pop-up shops, and food trucks and live entertainment, and converted the “sea of pavement” on the side of the Sears building into a public plaza where they staged the movie “A Princess Bride” on a large outdoor screen once the sun went down.

This incarnation saw 10,000 visitors and was a little more temporary than its Broad Avenue predecessor.

“The city engineer was thinking, ‘Ok, there’s more traffic here, so we have to be more cautious.’ He reviewed the design, and we were allowed to use spray chalk, which is temporary and comes up,” Pacello said. “We were able to test some different types of pedestrian crossings that haven’t typically been used.”

According to Todd Richardson, co-leader of the Crosstown Development, which is the organization quarterbacking the redevelopment of the Sears Crosstown building, the event couldn’t have come at a better time nor been a better fit for the organization’s objective.
Temporary crosswalks installed for the Crosstown MEMFix
“Our goal for the last five years has not only been to redevelop the building, but also to build community. Part of that is putting Crosstown as a neighborhood back on the mental map of Memphians,” Richardson, an associate professor at the University of Memphis, said. “To be able to bring that many people to the neighborhood in a single day, I can’t praise the Mayor’s Innovation Delivery Team enough for organizing it, their vision and the creativity they put forth.”

“It was as much about making Crosstown a place to go and enjoy, which means a ton when it comes to redeveloping a building as opposed to redeveloping a building in a vacuum. From a Crosstown Arts perspective, really the goal is to create unique experiences around this specific area,” Richardson said, who also serves as co-director of the arts programming arm of the redevelopment project, Crosstown Arts.

In the meantime, Pacello and team were multi-tasking with developing other urban renewal programs while citizens and business owners in the University of Memphis area took it upon themselves to host their own reactivation project.

The MEMFix Highland-Walker event took place April 13, 2013 and was entirely neighborhood-directed. University District affiliates duplicated the pop-up shops and live performances and put in mini parks and kids’ activities areas and tried to redirect attention to pedestrians in the area.

“The City wasn’t involved. One of the big outcomes of the Highland-Walker project was the social capital that it built. It got the business association that was having occasional meetings and residents and businesses and students in the neighborhood engaged, which is one of the strong things that gets brought to the table through the project,” Pacello said.

The City was instead involved in positioning the next phase of the MEM-brand—MEMShop, a program to test new businesses and provide support to them through rental, marketing and planning assistance.

After a day-long trial run at MEMFix Cleveland Street, then a three-week expansion in Overton Square that December, the business incubator was all systems go in April 2013, when it returned to Broad to activate three empty storefronts with three fledgling businesses.

“It’s part of our ‘Clean It, Activate it, Sustain It’ model. It’s great if you can create an economic sizzle with projects like MEMFix, but if the growth is not nurtured and fostered, it doesn’t do a whole lot of good,” Pacello said. “These are deeper planning changes that provide a sort of economic gardening for small neighborhood-scale businesses to help them think strategically. It’s the ‘Sustain It’ component.”

City representatives were then ready to pass the torch back to Livable Memphis for the next embodiment of MEMFix, who secured a grant from the EPA and fixed their eyes on Soulsville to create a truly equi-partner collaboration between government, neighborhood, and non-profit.

Same model, different neighborhood, similar but uniqe outcomes.

“We had already been thinking about doing something like that, and they approached us at the same time we were thinking about it,” Jeffrey Higgs, executive director of the LeMoyne Owen College Community Development Corporation, said.

The intersection of Mississippi Blvd. and Walker was the focus, with cleaned up storefronts and temporary businesses spreading out half a block in each direction, a food court and a music stage in plaza-like areas, and the common thread that has tied all the vibrancy efforts together—a reimagined street.

“Making (the city) safer for pedestrians is a big part of what we do,” John Paul Shaffer, program director for Livable Memphis, said.

“Walking and biking is not just about getting people to exercise. It’s low-hanging fruit for community development,” Newstock added. “Design has a direct impact with the way people interact with their environment.”

The busy intersection was shrunk with paint and plastic pylons, and pedestrians were made the centerpoint using larger temporary bump-outs to create shorter crosswalks. “We tried to tighten the intersection and slow the cars down to make pedestrians more of the focus of the intersection, by making them more visible,” Shaffer said.

“If we’re going to have retail there, we need people to be able to slow down and shop and spend a little time there by making it pedestrian friendly,” Higgs said.

This time the City shouldered the street change responsibilities, and once a grant is finalized in the coming weeks, the changes will be permanent. “For South MEMFix, the City took a more permanent approach and said, ‘We’ll go out and do the installations for you. We’ll sketch out what it looks like and see how the community responds.’ Now we plan on making them more permanent,” Pacello said.

Other permanent changes include four improved buildings and two new businesses and a new MEMShop model for the neighborhood—Pop Up Ville, a resource hub of business and financial education, assistance and training for Soulsville residents. “This was a total community engagement piece to prep people for what the possibilities could be,” Higgs said. “I think it works. It has life and a useful purpose.”

The City and Livable Memphis have done some tactical learning as they’ve fine-tuned their tactical urbanism strategies and now bring to the table their latest project—MEMFix: Edge District, which they hope culminates in a best-of compilation of all their previous efforts.

Newstock sees a city-wide supportive climate that has been in place from the start of the DIY rejuvenation movement.
“I think people were just waiting for something to happen like that in Memphis, something tangible so they could see what Memphis could be like,” Newstock said.

According to Pacello, adaptive and perceptive city leadership is helping provide an environment that’s conducive to continued grassroots invigoration. “The idea is to build, measure, learn. Our city engineer deserves a huge recognition for how progressive and insightful he has been. You won’t see that in many other cities, the incredibly smart idea to build, measure and then learn. Instead of spending lots of money on studies, you just do these temporary projects and see how people respond,” he said.

Once the MEMFix: Edge District event on Oct. 18 is complete, Livable Memphis will finish compiling its “how-to” manual for future tactical urbanism projects so that when neighborhood stakeholders have a plan, they will also have an implementation model.

“People are looking for an opportunity to be a part of something great and creative and new. This is the perfect mix. Getting people involved in designing their own neighborhoods is a beautiful thing,” Newstock said.
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Read more articles by Lesley Young.