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Mark Fleischer

Mark Fleischer is editor and publisher of the free monthly print journal StoryBoard Memphis. He serves on the Midtown Development Corp. board of directors and lives in Midtown.

In the Memphis 3.0 plan, building 'up' means more investment

By Published: May 06, 2019 5:09 PM CT

For some, the “Build Up, Not Out” mantra of the yet-to-be-adopted Memphis 3.0 comprehensive plan has conjured images of bulldozers and ugly condos sprouting up in historic neighborhoods on one hand and displacing impoverished citizens to make room for millennial money on others.

Social media rants and other means of misinformation have not helped to bring conversations back to one of the core initiatives of the 3.0 Plan: to reverse the negative effects of city sprawl and encourage right-size investment in our core city.

“Up” in this context means much more than the current talks and fears about high-density. Up also means reversing historical disinvestment trends and encouraging more investment in communities that are in desperate need of it.

Discussion of suburban sprawl in U.S. cities from the 1950s through the end of the last century is often framed around white flight, when white Americans fled the inner cities in their automobiles along new highways for the greener lawns of the suburbs, establishing the American middle class.

This nostalgia-filled golden age of the middle class had a darker side that we are still grappling with. In its dust it left behind those who could not – due to income, class or racial restrictions – make the same moves to a better life.

<strong>Mark Fleischer</strong>

Mark Fleischer

Across the U.S. and here in Memphis, we know today that this trend almost exclusively affected our African-American population.

The result was a gradual disinvestment in these communities. With white flight, industrial, commercial and especially residential investment followed. This city’s infrastructure investment went to the Poplar Corridor, to places like Poplar Plaza, Eastgate, Clark Tower and Ridgeway. With it went the bus lines – MATA services became taxed along with the infrastructure.

In short, where the white population fled, the money followed.

The construction of Interstate 240 in a loop from just east of Downtown, to the north and to the south, and then east to the Ridgeway area, further cut off investment, infrastructure support and public transportation from the core city. A cursory look at a map and the path of the interstate reveals that where the highways went, neglect followed. Add to this the devastation of the Beale and Vance Avenue areas in the 1970s, and we see entire neighborhoods cut off from essential services.

Today we realize that these trends must be reversed. Research and mounds of data back this up. 

Memphis has relied on the market, private investment and various incentives to bring investment back into the core city. Starting with Downtown in the ‘70s, picking up steam in the ‘90s, and with a full throttle in this decade, Memphis has finally begun to reverse the trends.

As Mayor Jim Strickland says, “Memphis has momentum.” It is a great time to be in Memphis as years of starts and stops have finally given way to over $3 billion in investment and development starting this year, with massive projects like One Beale, Union Row and a rebooted Convention Center area.

Midtown and the Medical District are developing. South City is seeing renewed growth and investment in affordable housing. Whitehaven and Frayser are in early or mid-comeback, Binghampton and Broad Avenue are hot and the University District is booming. Uptown and Speedway Terrace, with their close proximity to St. Jude and Le Bonheur hospitals, are seeing renewed interest and new local investment strategies.

But the areas around the I-240 loop – from Chelsea and New Chicago down to the South Memphis areas of Lauderdale and Mississippi Boulevard, from the Parkway Village areas and up to parts of Raleigh – are still suffering from years of disinvestment. (And let’s not forget about the Lamar corridor.)

Both trends – the positive momentum and neglect – rely on private investments combined with our various tax incentives.

In other words, investment follows the market. Development dollars follow the areas that show growth potential. And those historically disinvested neighborhoods? They are high-risk, low-marketability. The development team behind the billion-dollar Union Row are not about to make the same investment in, let’s say, the area bounded by Mississippi Boulevard and Georgia Avenue.

What happens with a reliance on the market to revive neighborhoods? We get more of the same. We will see more of the haves in neighborhoods. But we will also see more of the have-nots.  

A big part of the Memphis 3.0 comprehensive plan is designed to stop more-of-the-same. And it comes at a critical juncture in this “Memphis has momentum” moment in our city’s history.

3.0 is designed as a guide to encourage right-size investment not just in our market-attractive areas, but in those disinvested areas as well. A glance at the plan’s future Land Use map and its strategy around encouraging investment around neighborhood anchors across the city should be interpreted as opportunity, not displacement.

To his and his team’s credit, Mayor Strickland has already embraced this concept. In January he announced the Memphis Community Catalyst Fund, which will be a dedicated, renewing source of funds that will be used to make infrastructure improvements – think sidewalks, lighting, pedestrian crossings (not bulldozers and displacement) – to the community anchors identified by 3.0. Areas targeted include Elvis Presley Boulevard, Tillman Cove, the Historic Melrose High School, Raleigh and South City, south of Clayborn Temple. 

Other anchor areas of the 3.0 Land Use map – like those around Overton Square, Cooper-Young, Poplar Plaza – are further identified as areas that, simply put, need to be sustained.

“Up” means up with investment. The 3.0 plan is a guide to future growth and investment. In addition, 3.0 is packaged with a transit plan that further illustrates its intent to increase mobility and accessibility to those areas that are desperate for it.

Without a plan, city planners – and we citizens – will only continue with the struggles we see now, fighting proposed developments that are market-savvy but ill-suited for a neighborhood, while wishing and hoping for developers that truly understand Memphis. Worse, without a plan we will have more of the old and same, with more money going to those neighborhoods that already have it, and less going to the neighborhoods that need it.

Our Memphis City Council votes to adopt 3.0 this month; a “no” vote sends the message to both healthy and disinvested communities that past trends are satisfactory – they are not. A “yes” vote is in everyone’s best interests.

The Daily Memphian welcomes a diverse range of views and invites readers to submit guest columns by contacting Peggy Burch, community engagement editor, at pburch@dailymemphian.com.

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Memphis 3.0

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