August 04, 2015

Building a Village: The Growing Trend of Mixed-Use Developments

By:  Jane A. Donahoe
High Ground

Frank Ricks describes mixed-use development quite simply.           

“When people see it and feel it, they like it,” said the founding principal of architecture firm Looney Ricks Kiss.

Ricks should know. He has been at the forefront of Memphis’ urban planning community for decades, and his fingerprints are on many of the city’s mixed-use examples.

While Memphis may have more than its fair share of suburban sprawl, attitudes are changing and perceptions are shifting. And more mixed-use projects–both vertical and horizontal–are popping up across the metro area.

Earl Williams, COO and CFO with Loeb Properties, said the definition one uses for mixed use in Memphis is different than for larger, denser cities. That definition is changing, too, as people think more about mixed use in a horizontal sense.

Loeb’s Overton Square isn’t a traditional mixed-use project, which incorporates a variety of uses–residential, commercial, cultural and more–stacked vertically on top of each other within the same structure. But it’s a good example of what may be more realistic for Memphis in the mixed-use realm, and it provides a good cross-section of uses: retail, restaurants, small offices, theaters, grocery and more. It also counts the Memphis Zoo, Overton Park, single-family housing and other attractions among its neighbors.

Williams said Overton Square and other pockets of success have given developers confidence that these types of projects can work in Memphis.

“People like what’s being done, they’re excited about it and they’ll support it,” Williams said.

Ricks shares that confidence, and said it’s essential to Memphis’ trajectory.

“When people say, ‘You can’t do that mixed-used thing in Memphis,’ it makes me nuts,” Ricks said, “because you can and you have to. It’s part of the answer. It’s not just something we’d like to have. We have to get back to that because that’s the essence of a good neighborhood.”

Downtown is rife with examples of mixed-use development, most notably Harbor Town, which has been a shining example of New Urbanism. Henry Turley first began transforming the sandbar, now home to more than 3,000 people, 25 years ago.

Turley wanted to create a neighborhood more reminiscent of his childhood than of the product available. “When we started,” he told High Ground News recently, “there were just two forms of development: urban and suburban. Tall buildings or white picket fences. I knew that in order to make this work, we would have to abandon those forms and make something new.”

Turley and Jack Belz of Belz Enterprises have been pioneers, according to Ricks and Williams. And they paved the way for more similar projects Downtown, albeit most on a smaller scale.

That kind of thinking has continued to spread east. Midtown is set to unveil a new model of its own with the redevelopment of the former Sears Crosstown building on Cleveland Ave.

The 1.5 million-square-foot structure, long abandoned and left for dead, is the talk of the town. A variety of Memphis institutions are coming together to transform the gigantic building into a 10-story “vertical urban village,” which will integrate residential, commercial, retail, health and wellness, arts and culture and education. When complete, it could serve as Memphis’ best and biggest example of a traditional mixed-use project. The resurgence of the Broad Avenue Arts District is another example of positive momentum for mixed use. Although not a vertical example, there is an abundance of activity in the corridor formerly home to little more than abandoned warehouses and Broadway Pizza.

Others are teed up for some mixed-use mojo: Highland Row near the University of Memphis, and the Edge District and the Memphis Medical Center.

Brookhaven Circle, located in East Memphis in the shadow of Clark Tower and White Station Tower, is another area that could see more integration in the future. Tommy Pacello, mission advancement chair with Urban Land Institute Memphis, said the circle, along with the pieces around it, has the potential to be better connected for pedestrians.

“That’s an area that could really become a walkable mixed-use neighborhood or center,” Pacello said. “There are so many office workers, and a lot of them aren’t venturing out to the restaurants around them because it’s really daunting to walk.”

While most of Memphis’ mixed-use projects have happened in the city’s core, especially Downtown, the suburbs have examples, too.

The biggest and perhaps most notable mixed-use suburban development is Boyle Investment Co.’s Schilling Farms.The 443-acre project sits on Collierville’s western edge, providing a variety of uses and amenities: corporate offices, retail, single-family neighborhoods, townhomes, condos, multifamily buildings and retirement communities share Schilling Farms with the YMCA, a church, a day care and a school. Rusty Bloodworth, executive vice president with Boyle, said that, 15 years into development, Schilling is about 60 percent complete and counts about 2,000 occupied households as well as more than a dozen business operations. Over the course on the next 15 years, Boyle will continue to develop Schilling Farms, including the 3,000 feet of prized Poplar Avenue frontage.

Bloodworth said the Poplar frontage will see a commercial district with more vertical mixed-use buildings.

More imminently, Boyle is set to begin construction on a 50,000-square-foot office and retail building at the corner of Schilling Boulevard and Winchester Road, as well as 125 more residential units in The Carrington,  a five-acre neighborhood complete with apartments, townhomes and lofts. Boyle also is looking for an operator for a corner coffee and grocery store within Carrington.

While Boyle has been on the cutting edge, other eager developers could replicate the success of urban mixed-use projects in the city’s surrounding areas.

“You could pick up a Harbor Town and apply that to a greenfield development,” Pacello said. “With some modifications, it works. We’ve seen that all over the country.”

As people travel and see these types of developments across Memphis and the rest of the U.S., they come home and want it for themselves, said Les Binkley, Boyle vice president. “We’ll continue to see more of these whether they’re in the central city, Downtown core, Midtown or out in the suburbs. I think people appreciate the environment regardless of where they are in the city.”

Either Millennials may be driving the demand for some of the shift in developmental strategy, but most contend that mixed-use projects are attractive to a broad cross-section of people.

“People want to live in walkable neighborhoods, from aging baby boomers to millennials,” Pacello said. “They want to know their neighborhoods.”

Aging in place can be much easier in a community like Schilling Farms, for instance. It provides nearly every residential product type a person could want over the course of a lifetime.

Williams said millennials are more focused on an urban setting because a lot of them grew up in the suburbs. “I also think there are a lot of people that are my age, empty nesters, and that concept is sitting well with them too,” he said.

Activating a neighborhood, its centers, its people and the social lives of those people will make Memphis a better city, Ricks said. “I think we have to have it to be the city we can be and want to be.”

Ricks points out that mixed use also isn’t just for “the rich and famous.” And it’s not a fad, either. From a historical perspective, single-use development is an outlier, and mixed-use building is a return to “how cities used to be built,” he said.

Vibrancy is key to development, Bloodworth added, and mixed use helps cultivate a deeper sense of community. And while more opportunities for mixed use exist, sometimes those projects can be daunting.

“It’s not particularly easy work,” Bloodworth said. “It’s a lot easier doing a single-use development on a free-standing site. And maybe it’s less risky, and maybe that’s why most people default to it.”

Since Memphis and Shelby County passed the Unified Development Code in 2010, more mixed-use projects are sprouting up. But transportation remains a key impediment to the wholesale embrace of the concept.

A good modal mix is necessary to get people out of the car: walking, biking, riding a bus, taking a taxi or using rideshare services like Uber and Lyft.  A mixed-use neighborhood may not meet all of a resident’s needs in the immediate vicinity, but it can eliminate the constant reliance on automobile transportation.

Downtown and Midtown naturally have been easier to transform because of their age: those districts weren’t designed just for cars.

“The further east you go, those areas were never designed for someone to walk from one place to the next, even though there’s a sidewalk there,” Ricks said.

He points to the Ride the Roo service, which connects Overton Square to Cooper-Young, as a good transportation experiment. He also said Memphis Area Transit Authority’s new general manager, Ron Garrison, is interested in finding a better way to link transportation to neighborhood-building strategies.

No one is idealistic enough to think that all of the sprawled development of the past 60 years can be fixed overnight. Downtown and Midtown also have seen more mixed-use revitalization because the older, existing product is easier to fix.

“It’s hard to reinvent six miles of big box strip centers lined up along a seven-lane corridor on Winchester,” Ricks said.
But nothing is impossible.

Pacello said there are a lot of national groups analyzing how some of the more spread-out districts can be repaired from a walkability standpoint. Dead mall sites, big box commercial corridors and aging fast food restaurants can be rectified.In the meantime, focus will remain on the Memphis’ mixed-use successes, of which there are plenty and more to come.”I think we’re all excited about the opportunities in Memphis that exist,” Williams said. “I think good things have happened and will continue to happen in Memphis.”