University District

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

Across the country, cities including Memphis are working to draw investment and people out of the suburbs and back to the urban core. But cities face major challenges in growing each neighborhood with equal care and protecting vulnerable low-income families from being displaced.

Shared prosperity is a new approach to economic development that includes community engagement at every level of planning and ensures the entire community benefits, not just select hot spots.

“It’s inclusive growth; it’s not economic growth that’s happening in pockets and only benefiting a select group of folks while others are being left behind,” said Dr. Charlie Santo, chair of the University of Memphis’ Department of City and Regional Planning.

Inspired by this shared prosperity model, the University Neighborhoods Development Corporation is working with the University of Memphis Office of Economic Development and Government Relations, University of Memphis Design Collaborative Studio and the University of Memphis Department of City and Regional Planning to create a plan for future development efforts in the institution's surrounding district.

The plan will potentially impact all aspects of neighborhood development including housing, infrastructure, public amenities, commercial development and more and include short and long-term strategies the partners can fund and initiate themselves. It would also include opportunities to recruit and help manage other partners and funding sources including philanthropy, government programs and private development.

“We will end up with viable, identifiable strategies, investment ideas, projects and programs that we can apply directly to the district and with hopes that we can scale,” said Ted Townsend, the university’s chief economic development and government relations officer.

The partners expect to have a draft of the plan by May and begin pitching to funders including the Kresge Foundation by early fall. They would ask for funding in the range of $50 million to $100 million to implement projects and strategies outlined in the plan.

The partners say tangible examples of projects and strategies will come from working directly with community members in the next two months, but they’re confident their shared prosperity approach — designing alongside neighbors, ensuring investment is equitably distributed and using the university as a core anchor — can become a benchmark in Memphis and beyond.

The model is also unique because it puts a major metropolitan university at the forefront of active community development. Townsend said prosperous, inclusive development in the University District is critical to the entire region.

“Traditionally a university would be seen as just the academic partner, here to provide the academic research and the analytics,” said Townsend. “We will absolutely do that, but we have infused this element of activation, and that is not traditional.”

The University of Memphis' land bridge is under construction and will soon allow for foot traffic over the Southern Avenue railroad line. It's one example of large-scale development projects underway in the University District. (Ziggy Mack)

The Pitch

In fall 2018, the Shared Prosperity Partnership — a coalition of national funders including the Kresge Foundation, the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, the Urban Institute, and Living Cities — convened a group of Memphis leaders in community and economic development for two days to ask how shared prosperity and its investment could help support local community development efforts. The partnership is focusing on four cities including Memphis to help uncover what a robust, equitable community development ecosystem might look like. 

Cody Fletcher, executive director of the University Neighborhoods Development Corporation, attended the initial convening.

“Kresge basically put out the call that they want to invest in Memphis,” said Fletcher. “ ... they want to have people put together thoughtful proposals, and I think that’s exactly what we’re doing.”

In January, the spring 2019 graduate studio class with the University of Memphis Design Collaborative and Department of City and Regional Planning joined the planning team. The partners tasked the studio team with researching the district and engaging residents and other key community members in designing the University District's shared prosperity plan.

In March, the studio’s core team — 11 graduate students, three faculty members and a Design Collaborative Studio research associate — will begin working with residents, business owners and other area leaders to explore major challenges and opportunities and build possible solutions that benefit everyone.  

“They have asked us to come up with what is essentially a playbook of various approaches that both the university and UNDC can take to create shared prosperity in the neighborhoods around the university,” said Santo.

The Challenge

The studio’s broad directive is to work with community stakeholders to understand how they want to see the community grow with equity. The project partners also charged the team with several key questions informed by community work during planning for the current University District Comprehensive Plan in 2007 and planning in 2018 for Memphis 3.0.

The team is exploring the potential for Messick High School, which last held high school classes in 1981, as a community hub similar to Crosstown Concourse with classrooms, retail, nonprofits and restaurants. The partners also want strategies for extending the booming growth around the Highland Strip south to Park Avenue and east to the university’s South Campus.

“Our idea looking at this area is there’s a pocket that’s thriving, the Highland Strip, and how do we expand from there and keep going with it,” said studio team member Aubrey Toldi.

There are also bigger, more complex questions like how the district can avoid gentrification and displacement and how the university and UNDC can use their core assets — research capabilities, institutional connections and financial power — to lead sustained development.

The Studio

The graduate students along with three faculty members — Santo, Assistant Professor Dr. Andy Guthrie and Andy Kitsinger, director of the University of Memphis Design Collaborative — and Jessica Buttermore, a University of Memphis Design Collaborative Studio research associate, form the core team.

They will meet six hours a week for 15 weeks and spend countless hours working outside the classroom.

The spring studio is technically two capstone courses combined to give graduating masters students an opportunity to apply what they’ve learned to real-world problems facing Memphis communities.

“We’re taking on what almost seems like an impossible challenge of what is the middle ground between disinvestment and stagnation and displacement and gentrification,” said studio team member Lauren Kirk of the shared prosperity project. “Is it really possible for an area to revitalize and thrive and still be inclusive?”

The partners say the district has a wide diversity of income levels, races and nationalities and levels of education, and care must be taken to ensure diversity is preserved and development isn’t focused only on specific hot spots for the benefit of a few. 

Graduate students Shea Stock (L) and Aubrey Toldi catch up on research done since their last meeting. (Cole Bradley)

The Process

The team started by researching shared prosperity, success stories from other cities and University District data including maps, property reports and past plans.

“We’re specifically looking at education — higher ed anchor institutions — and how they can affect the community around them, but this can also translate to other anchor institutions,” said studio team member Shea Stock.

They’re currently working through their engagement strategies and will have several rounds of engagement and multiple methods like interviews and focus groups.

They’ll then draft a plan that includes short and long-term opportunities for the university and UNDC as they take a lead role to initiate, recruit and manage responsible development.

Most of the team will graduate in early May, and staff from the UNDC and University of Memphis including summer graduate assistants will refine the plan and proposal before submitting it to Kresge in late summer or fall 2019.

Planning for Everyone

“[Shared prosperity] is a vision created and shared by the community. It’s drawing in new partnerships, voices and data across all sectors of life, business and education,” said team member and graduate assistant Margo Jordan.

“It utilizes the resources, assets and intrinsic advantages of this area, [and includes] procurement practices that focus on racial, gender and economic inclusion and sustainable practices that benefit the existing residents.”

Santo said development across the city has increased in the last couple of years, and that growth can be a great thing if it’s intentional.

“I can go to Overton Square, and I can go on the Greenline. Those are nice amenities, but they don’t necessarily reach everybody,” he said.

In the last five to ten years, the commercial areas just along Highland Street, Walker and Park avenues around the university’s main and south campuses have seen an influx of new business and commercial construction, as well as large multifamily housing developments geared mostly towards students and young professionals.

Fletcher and Townsend said the studio’s community engagement is also a chance for residents and other stakeholders to see that the university has heard and shares their concerns — overcrowding, traffic and parking shortages and possible gentrification — and is looking to be a partner in the solutions.

The partners say some community members feel the university is disconnected and devoted solely to its own growth, so the university and its partners look forward to using the shared prosperity planning process as a way to better connect with neighbors.

“We want their voices to be heard. We want this to be really intentional and sensitive and for all of those folks to know that they have en engaged partner,” said Townsend. “And we want this forward leaning posture to be the underlying message that we send to everyone. Our doors are open and we are a university that is reflective of the community we reside in.”

Many Ways to Fund a Vision

The UNDC and university have also asked the studio to figure out how funding sources other than philanthropies fit into the plan, including government programs like improvement districts, Opportunity Zones, Tourist Development Zones and Tax Incentive Financing.

The area around the Highland Strip recently won a TIF designation which will generate an estimated $20 million over 20 years from property tax revenue earmarked for infrastructure improvements and affordable housing.

“The thing that, from the UNDC’s perspective, that’s probably most intrigued us is the potential to create a community improvement district,” said Fletcher.

A CID is funded by a special tax on commercial properties. The only local example is Downtown’s similar Central Business Improvement District designation.

Fletcher said CIDs are difficult to develop and take considerable research and planning, and those requirements make the studio a huge asset.

“I think we’re sort of uniquely poised to be able to do that because we have the benefit of having the class to be able to do a lot of that groundwork and prep work,” he said.

Opportunity Zones are a federal tax incentive program to attract private investors to low-income areas. Those funds could be used towards something like revitalizing the old Messick High School, which is currently owned by Shelby County School and used for support staff. The building, which opened in 1908, will be vacant soon as the district consolidates administrative facilities.

“It’s a large piece of land. It’s in a location where it’s an Opportunity Zone, and it could be used to really anchor that Messick-Buntyn community,” said Fletcher.

Townsend said the goal is to figure out ways to attract and stack revenue and investment streams — from funders like Kresge to government programs and the university itself — and use them to implement intentional development.

He wants to see the university “go from think-tank to do-tank.”

Next Steps

Fletcher said the ultimate goal is to create a vibrant district for all involved, and the plan could truly be a game changer.

“If this plays out the way that we hope it does and the way that we’re planning for it to, it would be a monumental event for the University District,” said Fletcher.

Santo said it could also be monumental for the university itself.

“I think long-term, we’re talking about changes to the way the university operates potentially,” he said. “That means everything from developing curriculum in a different way so that students in different disciplines have opportunities to engage and improve the quality of life in the neighborhood to potentially thinking about procurement policies and how the university makes its purchases.”

“I tend to see that people only appreciate the school when it’s doing well, when basketball’s doing well or football’s doing well,” said studio team member Lucas Skinner. “I think it would be nice if people could just constantly be proud of it.”

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.