University District

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

Since February, High Ground News’ On the Ground team has been embedded in the University District to work with business owners, residents and other community leaders to help craft the narrative of this dynamic neighborhood.

Community members say they love that their neighborhoods and the University of Memphis are growing in terms of people and amenities, but there’s also a fast-growing concern — more cars.  
Added vehicles cause roads to degrade faster, add to congestion and take up parking. Stakeholders say excessive and illegal street parking also blocks access for drivers and can potentially delay help in an emergency.

Related: "Coffee and community journalism: On the Ground in the University District"

“I love the fact that there are really nice businesses on the [Highland] strip now that I like to go to, but there’s got to be a balance somewhere,” said Verlinda Henning, a longtime resident and president of the University District Inc. community organization.

Residents and business owners are concerned conditions will worsen as the city launches its Memphis 3.0 comprehensive plan and vision to restore density to the center city, and they wonder how the City of Memphis and the University of Memphis will plan to curb the increase in cars and parking.

“If UNDC and the university just sat back and didn’t participate in this discussion, a few years down the road you’re going to have just absolutely chaos,” said Cody Fletcher, executive director of the University Neighborhoods Development Corporation or UNDC.

The UNDC works in close partnership with the university to guide and enhance the commercial areas and neighborhoods around the 21,521-student university. The nonprofit’s primary focuses are infrastructure improvements and recruiting commercial development. UNDC manages the Tax Increment Financing or TIF dollars earmarked for housing and environmental improvements.

Fletcher and Nick Oyler, the City of Memphis’ bikeway and pedestrian program manager, said the core partners — UNDC, University of Memphis, and City of Memphis — are actively working on a number of initiatives including streetscaping and traffic calming, increasing parking quotas on new developments, improving access to other forms of transportation to ensure the University District’s growth is safe and sustainable.

Quick Growth and the Parking Problem

In the last five to ten years, the commercial areas 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 multi-family housing developments geared 
mostly towards students and young professionals.

The Stratum, Gather on Southern, Highland Row, Crescent Highland and The Nine are the largest multifamily buildings, and Fletcher said two more similar builds are in development and three more under discussion.

The two under development — ThirtySix01 and Stella —would add a combined 675 beds but only 315 parking spaces.

“That’s one of the big challenges of all these apartment buildings and highrises going up, they’re not providing places for people to park,” said Henning.

The university also lacks adequate parking. Most of its 21,521 students visit the main campus each week, but there are only 9,200 parking spaces.

As a result, stakeholders including businesses owners, residents and the UNDC said student-led parking lines the streets west and south of the university and fills nearby lots reserved for businesses. The businesses post signs that limit parking time or threaten towing, and the UNDC works with the Memphis Police Department to issue hundreds of tickets in cluster campaigns, but the cars always return.

Highland Row is one of the many new mixed-use, high density developers to be built on or near the Highland Strip in the last few years. (Ziggy Mack)
“These streets surrounding the university are very small,” said Fletcher. “When they were constructed, it was only single family housing and it was at a time people at most had one car in their family. Streets were not constructed for the current level of traffic that we’re seeing.”

“You get run off the road cause there’s no place for a vehicle to go,” added Henning. “Suppose there’s a medical emergency, a fire, a crime.”

On January 23 the Board of Adjustments put a 30-day delay on the ThirtySix01 project so the developer, UNDC and other stakeholders could take time to consider solutions for parking.

According to the district’s overlay guidelines developed by the UNDC and Memphis and Shelby County Office of Planning and Development, housing developers must provide 0.5 parking spaces for every bed. Overlay plans are an added layer of development guidelines above and beyond existing land use regulations and the University District is one of the only overlay areas in the city.

Eighty-six percent of students live off-campus, and Fletcher said 90 percent of students have a car. The UNDC would like to see a 1:1 ratio but is working towards a more realistic 0.75 spaces per bed.

UNDC is also working with the university and Memphis Police Department on ways to increase the frequency of ticketing and towing and may consider other solutions like improved signage, painting curbs and residential parking zones.

When a Car City Grows Up

Memphis is working to return density to its core, but it’s hard to change a grid built for cars and the behaviors of drivers.

“The challenge is reality, which is that Memphis is a car city,” said Fletcher.

“Memphis, like most cities in the US, is going through this period of rude awakening where for decades and decades we built our transportation network to function really well and efficiently for motor vehicles,” said Oyler. “The result has been not just that it’s become more difficult to get around in other ways, but in many ways has become dangerous or even deadly to do so.”

Unfortunately, the problem must be addressed and there is a limit to land that can be dedicated to driving and parking.

“We can’t build our way out of congestion,” said Oyler. “We can’t continue to widen the streets and take away land for development and the adjacent properties.”

The solution, said Oyler and Fletcher, is making other options — bus riding, biking, ridesharing, pedestrian travel — readily available and more attractive than the expense and hassle of driving. 

“It’s ensuring that you have adequate facilities for each mode of transportation,” he said.

Taking to the Streets

Improving pedestrian access can include widening sidewalks and setting them back from the street, planting trees for shade, improving curb cuts for wheelchairs and strollers and installing protected lanes for bikes and scooters.

In 2012, the UNDC headed street improvements on Walker near Highland and in April 2018 the UNDC and City of Memphis kicked off work on the Highland at the Walker intersection. Once completed, it will feature sidewalk upgrades, crosswalks, signage with flashing lights, a median and ground murals.

In the next few years, they hope to expand the efforts down Highland from Midland to Kearney avenues and down Walker to Patterson Street.

“It’s all designed to slow traffic down and make it safer for people to cross Highland,” said Fletcher. “We would love if that section of Highland would become something similar to Madison Avenue in Overton Square.” 

Richie Jarvis owns Trilogy Tattoos and Piercing at 530 South Highland Street. He said he’d also like to see Highland with a 20-mile speed limit like Overton Square. He’s worried about pedestrians and his business. Twice in 2018 his building was struck by a speeding car.

“The first time they hit it did structural damage, cost thousands of dollars to fix, and this past time did $25,000 worth of damage,” said Jarvis.

Scooters, bikes, buses and pedestrian travel are all pieces of the puzzles if the University District hopes to reduce the number of cars on its roads. (Ziggy Mack)

Group Project

Fletcher said along with the city, UNDC and university, residents and neighborhood associations can also play a role by safe development, like requesting speed humps from the city. Students too can play a part in the solution.

“That is something that the university is thinking about is how to involve students in the process,” said Fletcher. “These students would have lots of really good ideas and know better than us old people how students might respond positively to campaigns or ideas or education, things like that.”

Oyler said aside from parking quotas, the core partners hope to work with developers on infrastructure and amenities. Builders and businesses might sponsor wayfinding signage or new bus stops. For block-wide development, they might include pedestrian pathways to break up buildings.

Going the Distance

Even if the area immediately surrounding the university is pedestrian friendly, students still need their cars daily to get to work, the grocery store or a movie theater.

“The university is trying to be creative in addressing this,” said Fletcher.

Some solutions being considered by the partners include subsidizing ride or bike share programs for students or people living in the new apartment developments. Another option is to bolster the University of Memphis’ Blue Line shuttle service to take students to essential or popular locations nearby.

The University of Memphis is getting six new Explore Bike Share stations this fall and is subsidizing 2,000 memberships for one year.

For greater distances, the city is coordinating with MATA for a rapid transit line from University of Memphis to Downtown through Midtown and the Medical District. It’s not a complete solution, but it’s a start. The route was approved in September 2018.

“This will be a new high frequency, high-quality bus service, buses coming every 10 to 15 minutes that will connect the university with neighborhoods to the west,” said Oyler of the route.

Oyler said installing sheltered bus stops with benches that “give a sense that people who are taking transit actually belong and have some dignity,” would bring new riders, as well as improve the experience for existing riders.

Oyler said it’s ironic that the University District is working to figure out shared transit. When the school first opened in 1912, the area was rural and cars were uncommon. Most people got to school by train or trolley.

“Here we are 100 years later and that’s what we’re trying to get back to,” he said. “It took us 100 years to go full circle and realizing that maybe what we thought was progress really wasn’t and we want to get back to what we had.”

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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