First innovation district taking shape in Memphis

With direction from the Urban Land Institute, Memphis is endeavoring to create an innovation district amidst the city’s medical campuses. As envisioned, the result of the redevelopment will be an urban environment that fosters innovation, collaboration, and entrepreneurship.
The past few years has seen a flurry of construction work throughout the Memphis Medical District, with new projects completed or underway by UTHSC, Methodist University Hospital, The Regional Medical Center, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the Memphis VA Hospital, the Medical Education Research Institute, Memphis Bioworks Foundation and Southwest Tennessee Community College.

The next wave of redevelopment activity in the area is likely to take place immediately west of the Memphis Medical Center complex (leading to Redbirds Stadium at Monroe Avenue and Fourth Avenue and encompassing the Edge neighborhood and Victorian Village).

“The Memphis Medical Center today is a very successful district as a medical center, but from an urban vibrancy perspective it’s a little sterile,” says Reid Dulberger, Memphis and Shelby County’s chief economic development officer and president of EDGE, the area’s economic development growth engine. “Ultimately we want to be able to bring in additional residential and much more retail, with street lights and restaurants, to build up the vibrancy of the area.”

A Wealth of Knowledge
More than 40,000 people work within the Memphis Medical Center's 14,000 acres and another 10,000 students attend the universities within the area. Dulberger hopes to capitalize on the intellectual assets of Memphis to leverage greater economic impact in the community. He envisions an urban neighborhood that would include the research and medical facilities within the medical center, space for start-up companies like incubators and follow-up space, housing options, retail, and other commercial activities to liven the streetscape.

“The design concept as its been pursued globally really holds that, while you want to encourage the formal connections between institutions and the formal collaborations between researchers, entrepreneurs and business people, it’s also the spontaneous collisions or spontaneous interactions that `might occur as people bump into each other at the coffee shop or the grocery store or with neighbors who happen to live in the same building that also adds to the vibrancy and the impact of the innovation district,” Dulberger says.

Memphis is one of four cities selected for the Urban Land Institute’s 2013-2014 Rose Center for Public Leadership fellowships, along with Honolulu, Indianapolis and Portland, Ore. Dulberger is one of four local fellows chosen to lead the project, along with Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton; Maura Sullivan, Memphis deputy chief administrative officer; and Josh Whitehead, planning director for Memphis and Shelby County.

The group selected the creation of an innovation district at the Medical Center as Memphis’ land use challenge, building off a recommendation from a team from the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C.

Then in January the ULI brought a team to Memphis for a week to assess the situation and offer suggestions. Planners looked at innovation districts in cities like Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Detroit and Barcelona for ideas and inspiration, while keeping a sense of what makes Memphis so special.

“We don’t want to change the feel of the Edge neighborhood. It has a wonderful, eclectic collection of residential, commercial, and light industrial buildings,” Dulberger says. “We anticipate reusing existing structures. There are a number (of buildings) in the Edge neighborhood that could be used more intensely. The neighborhood affords us the opportunity to pursue a broad range of technologies, which was one of the recommendations from ULI.”

Smaller outdoor projects, such as the renovation of a vacant lot into a Wiffle ball field or creating a space for a bocce court, are expected to spark social connections in the community. “That’s the kind of thing that enlivens the street front. Small things can be done to make an area more appealing. Not everything needs to be new construction or a multi-million dollar project,” Dulberger says. “And as we build up the area’s vibrancy, it will attract more activity.”  

Other ULI recommendations for the medical district include increasing branding and awareness, modest improvements in streetscape infrastructure, landscaping and signage.

Talent Breeding Talent
Dulberger also hopes to see some additional space planned for young start-up firms and those emerging from the incubator at Memphis Bioworks Foundation. “Anything that can increase the density, make us more attractive to talent, and bring more amenities into this area is a benefit to the stakeholders and to the mission that we have,” says Dr. Steven J. Bares, president and executive director of Memphis Bioworks Foundation.

“Over the last few years we’ve built an ecosystem with a pipeline of capabilities, talent, growth and new energy, and we’ve begun to see companies emerging and looking for space,” says Bares, who points out that there are many vacant buildings between the medical district and downtown. “Part of the value of the innovation district is that we are creating the companies that can go there. We need to create a process for them to relocate there, so instead of being blighted buildings that everyone drives past they will be part of vibrancy and the density of the region,” says Bares.

Beth Flanagan, director of the Memphis Medical Center, believes more entrepreneurs, faculty members and students would love to be able to walk to and from their jobs and/or classes. “There are apartment developers who are looking in this area to do some new projects,” she says. “Victorian Village has a seven-home project coming up in which the developer had to get a zoning variance in order to densify the lot.”

She also feels there is pent-up demand for more retail.

“The number one request we get from everyone in the medical center is for more lunch restaurants,” says Flanagan, who cites the success of the locally owned Trolley Stop eatery at Madison Avenue and Orleans. “It is packed every day. You can’t even walk through the place.”

Over the next few months, the innovation district will move from the planning process to the implementation process, when Dulberger hopes to be able to incentivize and assist property owners in the proposed district.

Read more articles by Michael Waddell.

Michael Waddell is a native Memphian who returned to Memphis several years ago after working for nearly a decade in San Diego and St. Petersburg, Fla., as a writer, editor and graphic designer. His work over the past few years has been featured in The Memphis Daily News, Memphis Bioworks Magazine, Memphis Crossroads, the New York Daily News and the New York Post. Contact Michael.