Uptown & The Pinch

A pinch of transformation: Institutions work together to reimagine the historic Pinch District

For the Downtown Memphis neighborhood known as the Pinch — an area too long neglected and passed over by residents — new business, new investment, and a new future is coming.

Stakeholders are already laying the groundwork for what will be a comprehensive transformation. Around once a month, a meeting takes place with participants who include representatives of the City of Memphis, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and private developers, among others. In the meeting, experts discuss and plan to create necessary changes in the 9-block core of The Pinch District — the northern Downtown neighborhood that has languished as redevelopment has blossomed around it, leaving a smattering of tenants to wonder when and how their neighborhood can join this wave of progress.

That meeting of principals and stakeholders indicates positive change and activity in the Pinch, the rough borders of which are Market Street on the South, the Wolf River to the west, A.W. Willis Avenue to the north and Danny Thomas Boulevard on the east.

St. Jude’s multibillion-dollar expansion is underway now, which encompasses its Downtown campus and extends out into the Pinch neighborhood immediately outside the hospital’s boundaries. Hospital executives are now taking concrete steps toward making the surrounding neighborhood more attractive and inviting to visitors and employees.

A rendering of the Pinch District's potential redevelopment. (LRK)

St. Jude’s massive expansion includes spending money on everything from new hires to construction projects and investments in equipment. As part of the effort, the hospital has already razed two buildings in the Pinch that will serve as future new patient housing for the hospital west of its existing campus.

Part of the hold-up on the redevelopment of the Pinch, explained Mary Clare Borys, the City of Memphis Housing and Community Development’s project manager for The Pinch, has to do with working needing to be done on upgrading utilities in the area. The state of Tennessee approved $12 million that will complement $25 million from the city to improve the Pinch district infrastructure.

“It’s a very important point to say not only are the utilities old, but … those utilities were designed to handle one to two-story buildings,” she said, explaining that there’s really nothing in the Pinch over three stories. “You look at what’s left in the Pinch, it’s not a high-density area. And certainly not with modern types [of construction], you know, every apartment has dishwasher and washer and dryer and stuff like that.

Related: "Uptown & The Pinch: How Memphis’ oldest subdivision became its newest boom town"

You have taller buildings with modern density and the modern loads that we put on utilities, there’s no way it could be developed to a modern standard with the utilities the way they are now.”

As the city, state and St. Jude step up to help with the utility and infrastructure improvements, they pave the way for the development of one of Memphis' oldest areas. 

“St. Jude is the catalyst,” for transforming the Pinch and helping write its next chapter, according to Downtown Memphis Commission president Jennifer Oswalt.

“We’re also talking to a few different people now about exterior improvement grants and PILOTs,” Oswalt said, making reference to incentives in the DMC’s portfolio of benefits it can extend to developers to encourage new projects.

An empty building for sale at the corner of North Main and Overton Avenue. (Brandon Dahlberg)

“There’s interest [in the Pinch]. Some people are still accumulating land. Some people are trying to figure out when they’ll be ready. We also have some interest from out-of-town developers.”

Although great change is on the horizon, the transformation of the Pinch is in some of its earliest stages of development. The Pinch, which bears the distinction of being the city’s first multicultural neighborhood, as well as Memphis’ first commercial district, exists today as a no-man’s land development zone, partially due to being crippled by a development moratorium.

By way of explaining where we are and how there’s still so much to come, Borys points out there aren’t currently many properties in active use in the Pinch. The neighborhood is effectively a blank slate, with “a whole lot of waiting and seeing going on.”

“Right now the Pinch is kind of a hole in the fabric of Downtown,” she said. “It prevents all the connection between all the great things that are happening in Uptown and the connection to the rest of Downtown. It’s kind of like the last frontier in this part of the city. So we’re going to go west, young man, or in this case north and fix it.”

A rendering of the Pinch District's potential redevelopment. (LRK)

The fact that developer interest is present and there’s a focus on the quality of the project's neighborhood falls in line with a growing trend in Memphis.

Increasingly, big stakeholders in an area are talking to each other and formalizing concrete action plans with other nearby stakeholders, so that it’s not just one of them improving their own space while the other separately improves theirs.

They each tackle critical concerns including the improvement of public spaces and shared infrastructure, which improves the neighborhood as a whole. Institutions from Crosstown to the Medical District are not only leading development but are coordinating with other institutions to work on beautification, lighting, signage, safety on their own properties and between them — which increases the overall value of an area. 

The $73 million Wonder Bread development in the Edge District is a similar example of this kind of institution-led development. Development Services Group plans to transform the former bakery site and create a new connection between Downtown and the Medical District.

St. Jude has aquired numerous lots in the Pinch District for future development. (Brandon Dahlberg)

The neighborhood, meanwhile, is also a linchpin of sorts for the city’s multi-part Gateway Project—the name for a collection of projects tied to the city celebrating its 200th birthday in 2019. 

The multimillion-dollar renovation of the Memphis Cook Convention Center is another sign heralding big things for the Pinch. Construction kicked off in the first quarter of this year, and the plan is for it to be done by the end of 2019. Others are spelled out in a Pinch development plan prepared by the design and architecture firm LRK. 

The LRK plan reimagines what’s currently an expanse of mostly surface parking lots between a few buildings and suggests what new buildings might be styled to look like.

Along North Third, the LRK plan suggests office space, as well as new retail along Overton Avenue Main Street.

JT Malasri, of Malasri Engineering, in a Pinch District parking lot near the pyramid. (Brandon Dahlberg)

“The Pinch plan LRK did, it really has set the vision of what the area could be,” said JT Malasri, owner of Malasri Engineering and project coordinator for the Pinch. “It’s our job to help make that happen. Part of their plan, they showed lighting in the substation to try to make it more attractive. It’s something that we’ll talk about to try to make happen.”

About that substation at the corner of Front and Jackson Avenue the LRK report mentions, it forms a kind of gateway into the district. The report suggests using modern LED lighting, as well as colors and effects that could be adjusted seasonally or for special events, as a way to showcase a distinctive neighborhood character.

Momentum is definitely gathering to take what’s currently a blank slate in the Pinch and give it a taste of the commercial and residential development that have exploded elsewhere Downtown. To keep that going will take coordination from partners that include different stakeholders, with the city chief among them, which Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland promises won’t be a problem.

A blighted building sits in front of the pyramid near the corner of North Main and Overton Avenue. (Brandon Dahlberg)

"The plans for redevelopment in the Pinch District and the expansion of St. Jude is proof that our city has momentum,” he said. “My administration will continue to support innovative projects that create good jobs as Memphis moves into its third century and we grow our city up, not out.”

It’s a vision of a new day coming to the Pinch that people already there, on the ground, believe in. People like the husband and wife team of Hayes and Amy McPherson, have plans to open Comeback Coffee at 358 North Main by next year.

It will be one of the first new businesses in recent memory to open its doors in the Pinch. Hayes told High Ground News that he and his wife fell in love with the district years ago. They saw its potential and didn’t just wait with hope for things to change. They wanted to be part of unlocking the district's potential.

“We’re 23, both born and raised here in Memphis,” he said. “This is literally who we are, Memphis.

“We were Downtown about four years ago and cutting through the Pinch. We saw the building we’re now in and just loved the architecture of the building and also the neighborhood. People had kind of said there’s not much here, but there was something for that clicked. We’re hoping that private interests come through and do what we’re doing — saving what you can, making it vibrant again.”

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Read more articles by Andy Meek.