by Richard J. Alley
As many Memphians make their way each morning from home to work, traveling west down Union, Madison, or Poplar, they may not even realize they’re passing through one of the largest economic engines of the region. Passersby will notice students everywhere with white coats, hospital scrubs, and backpacks; unused trolley tracks; a city park with its controversial statue; and construction seemingly at every corner. This is the Medical District, an area defined by Poplar to the north, Vance to the south, I-240 on the east, and Danny Thomas to the west.
Located between Midtown and Downtown, the District is home to institutions such as the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, Southwest Tennessee Community College, Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, Sun Studio, and the Bioworks Foundation. The District is where 24,000 employees and students spend their days.
As upgrades to the hospital and university campuses began to swell, the need for a unifying organization became apparent. The Memphis Medical District Collaborative is the answer to that need and is supported by eight anchor institutions.
At the helm of this collaborative is Tommy Pacello, formerly of the Mayor’s Innovation Delivery Team and lately a special project manager with U3 Advisors. With the Innovatino Delivery Team, Pacello pioneered events such as MEMFix and MEMShop, relatively small buy-ins that showed what a fallow neighborhood might become.
Paul Young was appointed director of Housing and Community Development (HCD) last December by Mayor Jim Strickland. The HCD is the city’s tool for community revitalization and takes an interest in the neighborhoods that make up the Medical District. Young was previously administrator for the Memphis and Shelby County Office of Sustainability, whose Sustainable Shelby Implementation Plan oversaw building codes, land use and development, neighborhood rebirth, and transportation and traffic.
To learn more about the needs and plans for the Medical District, I sat down with Pacello and Young at High Cotton Brewery in the heart of what is known as the Edge District, the neighborhood just to the west of the Medical District. High Cotton, once home to a century-old carriage house for nearby Victorian Village, opened its public taproom in 2014. It has since been held up and admired as a success story in an otherwise desolate neighborhood looking to be revitalized by the MMDC. As the conversation progressed, the after-work crowds came in and the taproom filled with talk and laughter — an impressive example of a neighborhood in rebirth.
How did the Memphis Medical District Collaborative come about?
Tommy Pacello: The MMDC officially started in February of this year but the work started about two years ago with this whole discussion about how Downtown has been on an upward trajectory and Midtown has been waking up with Overton Square and Sears Crosstown and Broad Avenue. The neighborhood is beginning to come together, gel, and the institutions in the Medical District began to say, “We really need to be doing something about the District in a serious way.”
We’ve been talking about it for many, many years. We got a code, we got a plan, but we’ve never really put in place the infrastructure to implement it. That was the genesis. It came out of those realizations and conversations from about two years ago and it’s all very much modeled off of the anchor strategy work that was pioneered in places like Philadelphia in West Philly, and places like midtown Detroit and Cleveland.
Were you involved with the District two years ago with the Mayor’s Innovation Delivery Team?
TP: We were in on it in the sense that we had a ton of data and a ton of analysis work around planning that we just began to share with U3 Advisors, who I think of as the architects of the strategy. We shared that data with them and started some early conversations about what’s happening in the city, but not in a serious way.
Were you involved, Paul?
Paul Young: I was with the Office of Sustainability at the time. I was not deeply involved with it although I knew it was going on. I guess the bulk of my involvement was through the Rose Fellowship Program that folks in our office participated with and so, just having dialogue and conversations with them about how it aligns with sustainability and our goal to develop some innovative strategies to redevelop that district.
TP: That’s a really good point that the ULI [Urban Land Institute] Rose Fellowship was happening at the same time that U3 started to do their phase-one work where they’re scanning the district to see what was going on. If you think about it, the Rose Fellowship ideas that emerged from some of the earlier plans, and even from the U3 Advisors work, they all are very supportive of each other. None of those ideas are in conflict.
There was the Rose Fellowship in 2013 and ’14, but before that, going back a decade or more, there was an organized group calling itself the “Edge District.” Do you work with them?
TP: One thing that’s been a huge help from the Edge District is the property owners’ association getting together and the mix of business owners and residents coming together. Think about them as hyper-focused on a four- or five-block area, that’s the Edge District compared to the bigger district. They’ve become really good at community engagement entry points in the neighborhood.
A district is made up of multiple neighborhoods. For us, the Medical District is made up of the Edge neighborhood, Victorian Village neighborhood, Vance neighborhood, and multiple other neighborhoods that are within the larger District. Each of those neighborhoods having their own organizations is a really helpful thing for us.
Everyone’s ideas are complimentary, but I would say that in the community development world, we get smarter and better at this work each and every time. It’s very iterative. While the fundamentals are somewhat similar, new techniques, new interventions that can take place within a neighborhood or district, as far as community revitalization goes, all that stuff can change.
PY: As well as new opportunities. There are things like the expansion of St. Jude that weren’t necessarily on the table however long ago we started this process, but now it is and so we build from those opportunities and try to scale up what was on the books at that time.
How do you work within the parameters of an anchor tenant like UTHSC and the $250 million master plan under way for its campus?
TP: It’s important to think about our work as thinking about how do we strengthen the communities that are between and around the institutions, and not focusing as much as what’s happening on the actual campuses. I’m not stepping on toes or trying to pile on to something that the universities are already doing a good job of. Maybe it’s, “How do we take what you’re wanting to do and maybe thinking about how it meets at the seam with what the community development work can have around it?”
Something else I would maybe say about new opportunities arriving, also, as we get better at this work, we become more sensitive to ideas or concepts. For instance, if you think back to the community development world overall in early 2000s, or 2008 then 2009, the conversation that we’re having today about equity for instance, or inclusion, that wasn’t as much of the dialogue as it is today. At that time it was a lot about retaining talent.
We need to be better and smarter and work harder to be more inclusive in that work and so we learn as we go. You don’t get it all right every time and so we are constantly trying to do better and better.
St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital recently announced a plan to expand into the Pinch District and add density with residential and commercial. Why not propose the same plan for the institutions already in the Medical District?
One reason that it’s a little different is that this is a supply side and a demand side. We’re thinking about how do we leverage the assets and the balance sheets of the institutions to create additional demand. Working with the institutions to spend more money with local minority women-owned businesses, working with them on their collective hiring needs, working with them to incentivize their employees and their students to move back into the district. Those things all create demand. At the same time, we have to be willing to work from a supply side to meet that demand, whether it’s mixed-use development, residential development, other types of commercial office-type uses. So that’s a little bit different than a typical redevelopment strategy in the sense that we have those anchors there to be able to leverage demand and meet with supply.
What’s the total workforce in the Medical District?
TP: Our counts are about 16,000 employees, about 8,000 students, plus you have the [2,000] new hires that St. Jude is planning on and over the next several years you’re talking another several thousand in just natural growth of the rest of the institutions.
PY: As well as 1,200 new jobs down the street with ServiceMaster.
TP: All the pieces are starting to come together.
PY: Many of them will travel right through this area.
What about that connectivity to Downtown and Midtown? It’s a major thoroughfare for the most part and not pedestrian friendly.
TP: I think at a point in time, we’re really going to need to rethink Danny Thomas Boulevard, begin to have it be less of a highway. It serves as a highway today and it separates Downtown from the Medical District. As we do this work, again it’s not necessarily where you start, but at a point in time we’re going to need to think about how to humanize that, and get it so that people can have a more porous relationship between the Medical District and Downtown.
PY: Right, and that’s not just for the Medical District, I think that’s for South City as well. One of the challenges we’re dealing with is figuring out how to soften that connection and make it less of a highway and more of a connected neighborhood because, as you know, Foote Homes has two sides of Danny Thomas and we want to make sure that it’s seamless.
Who funds the MMDC?
TP: The MMDC is funded largely by the [Medical District] institutions themselves. They see the value in allowing them to have a different angle on the work from what they could have individually by funding something collectively. It also is funded by contributions from local philanthropy.
Nothing from the city of Memphis?
TP: Nothing from the city. However, maybe we should have a beer.
PY: There are always opportunities and we look at Tommy and his team as a partner. While we don’t have any existing investment, we will continue to have conversations about ways that we can partner to redevelop areas in the Medical District.
TP: I would add this about the city: The city has bent over backwards to be helpful in other ways. While there’s not necessarily cash investment into our work, there are things such as wanting to make an investment into the infrastructure in this neighborhood and being accessible and open in working with us and things of that nature. It’s a huge benefit to have the city’s participation in this work.
PY: Or programs like the down payment assistance program that we just announced. Tommy was one of the first people that we talked about to really see how it can have an impact in the Medical District in the areas in which they are working to grow the population in those areas, get more middle-income buyers to purchase homes in those areas.
Is that strictly residential?
PY: It’s residential, it is, but we were focused on designated zip codes instead of spreading ourselves thin and saying, ‘Here, purchase homes anywhere in Memphis,’ which would still be a benefit but we would have a much more substantial benefit if we were targeting buyers to purchase homes in specified zip codes. That’s what we’re doing and working with his team has helped us craft that strategy.
How important is residential for the revitalization of the Medical District?
TP: It’s critical. The re-densification of the core of the city is perhaps one of the most important things we can all be working on. I would add that we have a program that we’re working to launch a pilot version of that’s very similar to what Paul has launched and we’re calling it the “Live Local” program. We’ve been talking about this program for a while. This is another illustration of how we’re working together — we want to be complimentary in the programs and things that we do. Making sure that, again, we’re not piling on something that the city is working on, something that the Downtown Memphis Commission is working on. We all have to be very collaborative and talk on a regular basis about, ‘You’re doing this, we’re going to do this,’ and it’s always a complimentary vehicle for whatever the issue is we’re working on.
The residential would almost have to be built from scratch. Are you looking at developers to come in and do that?
TP: We have a supply issue. It’s a “both-and.” So for us it’s two parts: One is we have to have an additional supply in the district and I think that we believe that the demand is there. At the same time, the second part is taking the residential that is there and finding some of the vacancies that are between the cracks, whether it’s the back house behind some of the single-family homes, whether it’s properties that need some attention, just maybe fixed up a little bit before they can be turned back on. We think there is some low-hanging fruit by just being able to pick up some of the properties that haven’t been occupied in a while or need some love. Then at the same time, let’s encourage developers and others to begin to add more supply in the area.
In 1970, there were 36,000 people that lived in this district and today there’s fewer than 15,000. There is residential land here, it’s just that a lot of those properties have been torn down.
Is it as simple as going to a large-scale developer and saying, “Hey, here’s a block, see what you can do with it.”?
TP: In some cases, an example would be that the universities and the institutions and the hospitals in the district, they own about 250 acres of land. A hundred-and-ten of those acres are surface parking lots or vacant land. Those create opportunities that you can do sort of an RFP-type of process to bring a developer and usually if you go to that process, it will be larger scale projects. At the same time, you also have to be thinking small scale and thinking about how do we support small-scale development — the fourplexes, rehabbing a small building to make it a couple of apartments upstairs, some retail, renovate some homes, some infill housing, whatever it happens to be. The small-scale developers are really what add the texture to the neighborhood, and use the big-scale developers in strategic ways as well, so those are complimentary efforts.
The mixture of small- and large-scale sounds familiar. How does revitalization of the Medical District differ from Broad Avenue, Overton Square, or Crosstown?
TP: One thing that I think is a little bit different about Broad, and I think this is an important note, is that Broad Avenue really happened relatively quickly in Memphis terms. I think that it happened quickly because of the scale of the buildings — 2,000-square-foot to 6,000-square-foot buildings. An end user can fumble their way through the redevelopment of that. The pie gets bigger of potential developers to do a Broad Avenue, but in this neighborhood in particular, there are some smaller buildings but the bulk of these buildings are 8,000 to 30,000 square feet. It’s a different type of developer in this case. You’ve got to be a little bit more sophisticated to be able to tackle a 30,000-square-foot building.
If they’re not that sophisticated though, are you guys there to help them?
TP: We’re working on that on a couple of fronts. We’re working on trying to build the small developer ecosystem in the city of Memphis so that we can have small developer participation that opens it up to building wealth among folks that may not typically have access to that type of thing. But then we’re also working with the larger, established developers to have them come in and do some of the bigger projects, too.
Does this area, because of its anchors, have an advantage over places like South City or Frayser or any redevelopment going on anywhere else?
PY: All of those areas have their own inherent advantages. Sometimes it’s a people opportunity, the right people in place in those areas that can push development forward. I think that the Medical District certainly has an advantage by being anchored by such strong institutions that have a lot of employees. All of the things that Tommy is working to build upon, those are advantages for this area that other areas can’t say that they have, but it’s not to say that there aren’t other advantages that those areas have that the Medical District doesn’t have.
We are trying to stimulate the market in areas like Frayser and South City and all of these other neighborhoods that have great historic assets, have great people assets, passionate individuals that are working to change those areas. We’re trying to leverage whatever we can in those communities to propel them into a positive trajectory.
TP: There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. What Paul is saying is that maybe it’s more building off of neighborhood scale assets that are very grassroots driven. That’s how Broad Avenue began to kick off. You didn’t have an anchor on Broad Avenue to bring in the big heavy-hitter developers right away. It had to be very boot-strapped in a way and using very lo-fi techniques to get the energy and the momentum going there.
They had their own assets. In that case it was a bunch of buildings in the area that can be renovated by people that aren’t expert developers.
But, in addition to the university and the hospitals, you’d like to see those sorts of businesses here, too — the bike shop, the coffee shop?
TP: I think that’s what’s interesting. What’s interesting is to have the mix of both.
Tell us about the Pre-Development Grants the MMDC is offering.
TP: The idea with the Pre-Development Grant is that a lot of the smaller entrepreneurs have got ideas for things. Somebody really ought to do this thing with some shuttered muffler shop, and it’s just intended to give them a little bit of a reason to actually take it to the next level and create a project. Creating a project by having some architectural renderings to a small business plan, something like that.
Vacant land and property have given this area a negative perception. How do you turn that around?
PY: I would say it’s the work that Tommy is doing. He started off talking about the proposals for events, things of that nature. You have to get people to put their eyes on the space and experience it.
When you’re driving down the street you have a whole different experience than when you’re walking down the street and you’re actually touching the concrete and seeing the buildings up close. The more we can get people into this area — that goes for any community in the city — the more you can get people into those neighborhoods and experience it in a new light, the more you can change their perceptions.
To that end, will you program events like MEMFix and MEMShop such as were held when you were with the Mayor’s Innovation Delivery Team?
TP: I think they have a role. There’s been a MEMFix here that tested some infrastructure projects and now we’re working with the Downtown Memphis Commission to make the next iteration of those, making them permanent. It’s not the $500 fix, it’s the $150,000 improvement. It’s the larger-scale version of it. To quote Todd Richardson [co-director of the Crosstown Concourse redevelopment project], when he was talking about the importance of what MEMFix and some of these other things that happened in Crosstown, and all the work that they did with MemFeast, he said, “Those efforts put the neighborhood back on the mental map of Memphians.” I just love the way Todd has of framing things. I’ve always liked that quote and I think that’s a really key piece. It starts small but neighborhood revitalization is about momentum and it’s about making these steady, small investments constantly throughout, and they get gradually larger and larger and larger. But you don’t start large, you start with the small stuff.
PY: Another point that I guess we touched on, but one of the things I’ve wanted to do in this role at HCD is put a focus on our neighborhoods and some people think that is to the exclusion of working on projects that are larger like South City or Pinch or the Medical District as a whole. They don’t see it as a neighborhood; they see places like Frayser or Uptown, where you’re really in the core of a residential area, as being worked at the neighborhood level. We have to also think about this as economic development. When we are able to strengthen our economic anchors in our community, that is neighborhood redevelopment as well because those people have to work somewhere. We definitely want to have economic corridors in our neighborhoods with smaller shops and businesses, but we still need to strengthen our large economic anchors and so the more we can strengthen this, the more we strengthen our neighborhoods and communities as well.
How important is this area to the city as a whole? Why does the person living on Shady Grove in East Memphis, who goes to work in the Poplar Corridor, care that the Medical District is thriving?
PY: When you talk about the economic impact that comes out of this two- to three-mile stretch, the impact that it has on the broader community is significant and the health of our core drives this whole region. Not just East Memphis, but Southaven, Tipton County, Fayette County, Crittenden County, all of those areas are dependent on Memphis having a healthy core because as this core grows, their communities grow. I think that it’s incumbent upon all of us to work to see this happen.
TP: My take is very similar on that. The Medical District area is the economic engine for the core of the city, it’s also the linchpin between Downtown and Midtown. As Downtown has begun to see this upward trajectory, and as Midtown is beginning to come around in the same way, we have an opportunity now to take the entire core of the city and begin to see that be healthy and vibrant. That gives us ways we can play off that into North Memphis and South Memphis and other areas, so you lift up the entire city. If you have a really strong core, that gives you a much better place to start from than if it’s fractured. I think that this work is about stabilizing that core.
What is the greatest challenge?
TP: None of this work is easy. I think that one thing that is a challenge is this managing of expectations, that the second you start to work on a project, people try to say, “Well, let’s do this. Let’s do this right now. Why is this taking so long?” This work is a marathon, and we have run, I think, a decent first eighth of a mile. We’d be in trouble if we hadn’t, but at the same time we’ve got a long way to go. If you think about the way this has played out in other cities, for instance in Philadelphia, this is a 20-plus year effort and in midtown Detroit, they’ve been at it about six years, and they made a really big impact, but it’s going to keep going. I think that the biggest challenge is keeping slow and steady, let’s not make any mistakes, let’s do really good, strong, solid work, make wise decisions, and it’s going to take some time for this stuff to actually manifest in the long run so you get a complete revitalization. These deals take a long time to put together.
Is there a definition of success in such large-scale revitalization as this?
TP: Neighborhoods and cities always are changing and sort of evolving. I think we do have things that we aspire towards. Today we’ve got 3 percent of the employees and 6 percent of the students living in the district; we’d like to see a much higher percentage of those employees and students living in the district. But, again, it takes time for these deals to come together. It’s not going to happen in two or three years, it’s going to happen in five, six, seven, eight years.
PY: I would add that I think success is when the private market begins to act on its own because that’s the way I’d like to think about the work that we do in government — we are there to incentivize the private market to do what it’s supposed to do. In other areas of the city, the private market is healthy and it’s active and transactions are happening and people are coming in and rehabbing properties and doing all the things that we want to see in this area. I think that is when we see the tipping point, when this organization or my organization or any subsidies are not necessary to stimulate private activity. Then you still have to deal with gentrification and I think you figure out ways to stymie gentrification by including targets and goals for affordable housing with all of our developments and approaches. When we’re able to do that, I think we are starting to see success.
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