My name is Kenny Latta and I am a graduate student in Applied Anthropology at the University of Memphis. For this year, my HCD Fellowship placement is with the University Neighborhoods Development Corporation (UNDC).
In many ways, the UNDC embodies the changing relationship between the University of Memphis and the neighborhoods that surround it. In the past, the ever-expanding University has been a disruptive force for the neighborhoods near its main campus – redeveloping whole blocks of homes and small businesses to make room for new campus buildings, student residences, and parking lots. Unsurprisingly, this has had tremendous effects on the quality of life for residents of nearby neighborhoods, and, as a result, nearby neighborhood associations and civic groups have frequently taken an antagonistic stance towards new University developments.
Caption: The University District: Red Acres, Joffre, East Buntyn, Messick-Buntyn, Normal Station, University North, and Sherwood Forrest
In recent years, however, the University and neighborhood residents and businesses have made great strides towards fostering a collaborative relationship to guide economic and community development near the University’s campus to benefit neighborhood residents, businesses, and the University alike. In working to control development by the University in ways which take into account the interests of residents and local businesses, mobilize University resources to support neighborhood initiatives, and increase communication and collaboration between the University and its neighbors, the UNDC and other community development groups (such has HARC – the Highland Area Renewal Corporation) have begun to transform the University District in new and exciting ways.
Beginning in 2003, the UNDC and the University of Memphis led the way on a new planning process for the district. Through collaborating with neighborhood groups and local business associations, they produced the University Neighborhood Master Plan in 2006 and, through the efforts of students in the University’s Department of City and Regional Planning, the University District Comprehensive Plan in 2008. These plans have served as roadmaps for development in the district over the last seven years.
Integral to both plans is the gradual transformation of parts of the district into a “university village” – a high-density, urban retail and residential area which provides for the needs of students, university faculty and staff, neighborhood residents, and businesses. In order to realize this vision, the plans called for new design standards for future development in the area that require higher density developments that are welcoming to pedestrians and cyclists from the University and nearby neighborhoods. In response, the UNDC, the University of Memphis, and representatives of nearby neighborhood associations and businesses developed the University District Overlay (UDO) to serve as the guide for all future development in specified parts of the district. The City Council approved the Overlay in 2009. In 2012, the Overlay was included in the city-wide Unified Development Code.
The Overlay has resulted in several major developments in the district that have adopted the “university village” character envisioned by the UNDC. Examples include the Stratum on Highland, an apartment and retail building at the corner of Highland and Mynders (which houses the district’s newest coffee shop and restaurant, Café Eclectic), a series of new townhouses on Patterson, and a new student apartment complex on Southern (currently under construction). Several other major developments, representing tens of millions of dollars of future investment in the district, are also underway.
Caption: The Stratum on Highland. A residential building with ground floor retail.
Caption: Rendering of the planned Highland Row development.
However, one developer is trying to circumvent the requirements of the Overlay and threatens to disrupt the progress being made in the district. The McDonald’s restaurant on Highland, just to the south of Southern, is looking to move to a more prominent location. They have placed the southeastern corner of Highland and Southern – the site of the Southern Meat Market, Whatever’s, and the Super Submarine Sandwich Shop (lovingly known as Chinese Sub Shop) – under contingent contract and are in the process of seeking City Council approval for a planned development on that corner. If approved, McDonald’s would be able to disregard many of the requirements of the Overlay and build a restaurant to their own specifications, which as currently planned include a large parking lot and a double drive-thru with pick-up windows facing Highland. It is, in the words of one resident, “a suburban design the applicant [McDonald’s] wants to drop into the middle of an urban area.”
For the past several months, the University of Memphis, the UNDC, and representatives of the seven neighborhoods in the University District have tried to work with McDonald’s to create a design which meets the requirements of the Overlay as well as McDonald’s business needs. The Commercial Appeal reported on the negotiations in this August 12 article, and published this letter the following day. Unfortunately, McDonald’s, the UNDC, neighborhood residents, and the University have been unable to reach an agreement and the date of the City Council meeting to consider McDonald’s proposal is fast approaching.
Part of my role as HCD Fellow with the UNDC is to help organize students, neighborhood residents and businesses to express their concerns about the proposed development before and during the upcoming City Council meeting. It is clear that this McDonald’s, should it proceed as planned, would set a dangerous precedent for other developers to follow and would seriously undermine the ability of progressive planning tools like the University District Overlay to direct development and affect positive change in Memphis communities. Many of the University District stakeholders see this, and they see the McDonald’s proposal as a threat to their vision for the future of this community.
Thankfully, the University and its neighbors have spent the past decade working together for the good of the entire community and, through this work, have built a strong collaborative relationship. The University of Memphis has mobilized its many resources to support the UNDC and other neighborhood groups in opposition to the McDonald’s proposal and in support of the Overlay, and I am hopeful that the City Council will see the extent of this shared concern and respond accordingly.
My HCD fellowship with the UNDC has already taught me a great deal in a very short amount of time, and I’m truly looking forward to working in these neighborhoods and with these people – residents, students, faculty, staff, and business owners – for the next 9 months.
The City Council meets on Tuesday, October 1 at 3:30pm to consider the McDonald’s proposal (PD 13-320). If you are interested in learning more or getting involved, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit udistrictmemphis.com.