Whitehaven Plaza is first look at Memphis 3.0 in action

On January 23, the Memphis 3.0 planning team and several partner agencies kicked off a three-day public design workshop in Whitehaven. During the charrette, the team worked alongside residents and business owners to understand their vision for redevelopment of a critical neighborhood anchor — Whitehaven Plaza Shopping Center at the corner of Raines Road and Elvis Presley Boulevard.

“Raines and Elvis Presley is the key to Whitehaven,” said Hazel Moore, a longtime community leader, at the January 23 kickoff. “If you get the right things, people are gonna come up in here.”  

The plaza is a hub of shopping and community for Whitehaven neighbors with roughly 192,000 square feet of existing retail space. In the last seven years, the property owner has invested $1.5 million dollars towards repaving and renovations to recruit bigger name brands like Aldi’s, Sprint, Planet Fitness, BanCorp South and Margarita’s Mexican Restaurant to the plaza.

Despite the efforts, roughly half the property sits paved but vacant and ripe for public and private investment. The workshop is one of the first steps the city is taking towards Memphis 3.0’s implementation phase and activating important neighborhood anchor locations. 

A model of the sparsely populated Whitehaven Plaza was set up for the public design meeting. Stakeholders were asked to build their ideal plaza with additional buildings, greenspaces and other amenities. (Cole Bradley)
Memphis 3.0 is a guide for the city in terms of infrastructure development, land use and funding allocation and will impact virtually every aspect of growth from greenspaces and transportation to housing and businesses development.

For two years its planning team has engaged stakeholders and industry experts to understand neighborhoods’ needs and desires. Though not yet formally adopted, the city is already using Memphis 3.0 to guide resident engagement like the Whitehaven charrette, as well as decision making for infrastructure improvements like roads, sewers and parks.

“It provides a foundation for ultimately the direction in which the city wants to go with making strategic investment in terms of infrastructure to try to steer growth to certain areas versus others,” said John Zeanah, director of the Memphis and Shelby County Division of Planning and Development which oversees the Office of Comprehensive Planning and Memphis 3.0.

More Than Graceland

According to the Greater Whitehaven Economic Redevelopment Corporation, Whitehaven has more than 30,000 residents. If it were its own city, it’d be in the top 25 largest in the state. Trey McKnight, executive director of GWERC, said their data shows average annual income is $45,000 to $54,000. Shelby County’s average is $48,415.

McKnight, the planning team and several residents at the public meetings noted that it’s an aging but stable neighborhood with high home ownership and dedicated leaders. The team’s 
research shows around 4,000 people are moving to Whitehaven annually, and of those, about half are at or above the area’s current median income and looking to buy property.

“There is a market for houses for $100,000 to $150,000, it’s just not there for people to purchase … houses over $100,000 to $150,000 in our area, they sell within 60 days,” said a resident at the January 26 meeting.

Beyond housing, Moore summed up what many others in the public meetings said — Whitehaven residents have discretionary income and are tired of having to drive to Southaven and other parts of Memphis to spend it on the restaurants and shops they want in Whitehaven.

“It’s very important that you bring things that people actually and will support,” Moore told the planning team. “People out here, a lot of them, they’re not rich but they do have money [and will] go where they can get what they want.”

“We want to keep our 30,000 residents in Whitehaven so they can live, work, and play,” said McKnight of the possibility of a dense, mixed-use revitalization at the plaza.

Residents expressed frustration that development in the area always seems to be geared towards tourists visiting Graceland and noted that the progress they want to see — nicer streets, name brand restaurants, a movie theater, a Starbucks, signage and a neighborhood brand — would also encourage tourists to spend their dollars in Whitehaven. 

“One thing we heard a lot was, ‘We have Graceland, we have this great asset, people come to Graceland, but they don’t stay in Whitehaven,” said Melanie Batke, a municipal planner for the Office of Comprehensive Planning.

The 411 on 3.0

Memphis 3.0 is the city’s first comprehensive growth plan since 1981. Planning began in October 2016, and the city released the draft for public comment in December 2018. It moves to the Land Use Control Board on February 14.

The plan divides the city into 14 districts and focuses on each one’s anchor institutions — places where the community gathers, places of great economic or cultural significance and places with the potential to spark growth in the surrounding areas. Anchor areas are categorized as nurture, accelerate or sustain depending on needs and current level of investment and activity.

“Whitehaven Plaza is a good example of what an accelerate anchor in a community like Whitehaven looks like,” said Zeanah.

“Obviously there’s some market activity already ... but then you’ve also got a good chunk of the site that has been vacated and cleared so there’s good opportunities for more density and there’s opportunities to maybe mix in some housing on the site, support some of the surrounding commercial.”

The planning team and partners — including Optico, Self + Tucker Architects, Alta Planning + Design and GWERC — spent three months working with residents in Whitehaven and used what they learned to inform the public workshop for the plaza.

“The people want their voice heard,” said Moore. “ Whatever you’re going to do, make sure it’s the voice of the people of this community. It’ll be the best thing to do because if not, they’re going to get it wherever they want to get it.”

Colorful renderings show the potential for what is currently excess parking and an undeveloped portion of the Whitehaven Plaza. Residents wanted greenery and water features as part of the redesigned space. (Cole Bradley)

From Words to Action

During the plaza workshop, numerous community members expressed frustration over past promises that went unfulfilled — a movie theater that never materialized, the Elvis Presley Boulevard redesign they say has been stalled for years.

Ashley Cash, administrator with the Office of Comprehensive Planning, spoke briefly at the workshop on January 26 and said some things are beyond the city’s control, like the Tennessee Department of Transportation's improvements on Elvis Presley Boulevard, but the work at Whitehaven Plaza is something they can help bring to fruition.

“This is one of the city’s solutions as to the response that we’ve heard in Whitehaven that everything that happens seems to be for the benefit of the tourists and/or for the benefit of the northern end and people coming off the expressway,” said Cash.

“Which is great and fine and I think the city needs that, but there’s also a very stable neighborhood, a good group of people who’ve been working to see change in the area for a long time.”

Cash also added that the city’s next step would be to figure out which specific funding sources are available to support the plaza improvements.

the Plaza

“Out of [the planning] process, the one thing that rose to the top was that everybody, everybody who attended the meetings at least, agreed that Whitehaven Plaza was the place in Whitehaven that was going to turn it around and making it economically viable again,” said Batke.

Property owner Finard Properties was heavily involved in the three-day design workshop and earlier planning and said they’re excited to see investment and open to new uses and designs, as long as it's resident-driven. 

“We believe there’s a lot of opportunity, and we believe the citizens of Whitehaven are incredibly loyal to their community if given the opportunity to support business and development,” said Richard Smith, Finard’s director of property management.

It’s the type of existing private investment that makes the area an ideal anchor for acceleration, said Zeanah. 

A New Center

For the design charrette, the planning team built a large map of the Whitehaven Plaza with gray 3-D printed blocks representing existing buildings and asked residents to create their ideal space with paper, markers, sticky notes and red 3-D printed blocks representing new construction.

In three days, the 3-D printed model went from dull and sparsely populated to vibrant, colorful and densely pack with dozens of amenities.

Residents and other stakeholders hear the results of the three-day design charrette to reimagine Whitehaven Plaza. In the foreground, the model of Whitehaven Plaza shows existing structures in gray alongside new buildings, greenspaces and amenities stakeholders asked to see. (Cole Bradley)

On January 26 the partners presented a final concept for the new Whitehaven Plaza. It included street and crosswalk improvements along Raines Road and Elvis Presley Boulevard and completely reimaged the plaza itself as a mixed-use, walkable village with a look and feel similar to Highland Row and the Collierville Town Center but still unique to Whitehaven.

The proposed plaza has a shaded promenade, water features, a community center, mixed-income housing and space for food trucks and public events. There’s also potential for up to 75,000 square feet of new indoor and outdoor retail space.

According to the 3.0 research and residents, the number one thing Whitehaven residents want to see are name brand, sit-down restaurants. They also want name brand stores, a coffee shop, green space, higher-end housing, a big entertainment anchor like a movie theater and beautification in surrounding areas with infill development, trees, medians and traffic calming.

Which parts of this vision come to fruition and when remains to be seen and the Whitehaven residents who attended the public design meetings seemed only cautiously optimistic. McKnight has more confidence.

“I think the 3.0 is very different because there’s teeth to this,” he said. “There are people who are publicly putting their names and their faces to this. I’m putting my name and reputation to this. I believe that we can turn the corner here, and I think that the powers that be -- Mayor Strickland and Mayor Harris -- are behind this.” 

“If we make a huge impact in that Whitehaven Plaza, it could continue circling out into the entire Whitehaven community,” he continued. “If we get a hotel there, a restaurant there, then once it does well will be other things that come and we’ll continue that [cycle].”
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

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.