Like many marginalized communities, the Memphis neighborhood of Highland Heights suffers from a lack of investment, so much so that basics many take for granted — like public spaces — are nowhere to be found.
However, if a proposal by the Heights Community Development Corporation
and a group of stakeholders receives funding, a three-block stretch along Bowen and Summer will be converted from roadside dead space to a community anchor called The Corners.
“There are no public space amenities for people, currently. It is designed to move cars,” says Dane Forlines, director of special projects for the Heights CDC.
The 1.75 mile-long walkway would connect to the Hampline and Wolf River Greenway.
“The Corners is a design change along the Heights Line
route. It’s meant to be more of a lingering space — kind of like a gathering public space, as opposed to a path,” says Forlines. “It kind of meanders from one side of the street and then back to the other.”
“It’s meant to be more of a lingering space — kind of like a gathering public space, as opposed to a path,” says Forlines. “It kind of meanders from one side of the street and then back to the other.”
The modern design is the work of Chicago-based Olin Studios.
“When they finally gave us the visualization images, the pretty pictures of what it would look like, my first reaction was, ‘Man, they have blown our budget,’” says Forlines.
In addition to permanent additions, like sidewalks, the blueprint also calls for a variety of nuts-and-bolts elements like curbs, gutters, street trees, and benches. The use of commonplace materials will help keep costs down to $3 million. An interactive fountain, which would operate much like a splash pad, would provide a place for children to have fun and cool off.
“All of those things would be movable. It does integrate those privately-owned properties too. There are two of those areas in the design,” says Forlines. “There is over 30,000 ft. of public space that we’re creating that is in the public right-of-way.”
There would also be plenty of grass for Adirondack seating, or to picnic and play. Community members currently use nearby Treadwell schools’ space. Often, they are asked to leave the property by a security guard employed by the school district.
Although curb appeal and livability will certainly improve, many residents have a more fundamental reason for the hope of improvements. Before competing plans were presented by various firms, a public forum was held last August. Several other events and meetings have been held where residents can address their needs and concerns.
“The number one priority we are hearing from residents and stakeholders is the need for improved traffic safety on National Street. Drivers are driving way too fast and it is uncomfortable for people walking and biking, as well as unsafe for drivers,” says Meghan Medford, a local business owner who founded the Summer Ave. Merchant’s Association
One of many known drag strips that street racers haunt throughout the city, the roadway between National Ave. and Faxon Ave. is particularly dangerous. According to Forlines, speeds often exceed 80 miles per hour; the posted limit is 40 mph. Pedestrians are often prominent in the area, too. Along with residents, the school has expressed concern. The layout of the plaza would force drivers to slow down.
“Instead of providing drivers a straight stretch for them to build speed, a driver is constantly navigating a turn. So, that forces them to slow…” Forlines says. “As we do that, when the roadway shifts to one side of the street, that leaves the whole opposite side of the street to become a public space area.”
“Instead of providing drivers a straight stretch for them to build speed, a driver is constantly navigating a turn. So, that forces them to slow…” Forlines says.
Making their case
Another underlying reason for the walkway is the likelihood that the investment would lead to continued economic development. To further sell the community to outside investors, residents would like to use their own voices.
“It’s practical in that it will also be able to draw businesses that will encourage foot traffic, venues for families to gather, entertain, and host events — which is a key way to encourage community building and engagement,” says Mireya Chaffee, an employee at Treadwell School who moved to Memphis a year ago.
“It’s practical in that it will also be able to draw businesses that will encourage foot traffic, venues for families to gather, entertain, and host events — which is a key way to encourage community building and engagement,” says Mireya Chaffee.
Nevertheless, before businesses set up shop and outside dollars start flowing in, the Heights CDC still has to sell the plan to city officials. Originally, the goal was to cover the bill with a grant from Accelerate Memphis. The $200 million initiative — a part of Memphis 3.0 — seeks to invest in improvements for long-neglected neighborhoods, like the Heights.
“We are continuing to have to make a case for the project because they have expressed they are not intending on building this using the Accelerate funds, despite not having an alternative design,” says Forlines.
So far, they haven’t bitten, although no final decision has been made. If that door shuts, a fundraising campaign could be held. Other sources of investment were hinted at, too.
“We will still pursue some type of public-private partnership with public funding coming from some other source, like the capital improvement plan or something like that,” says Forlines.