August 03, 2015

Main Street Shows Life Signs Despite Struggles

By Andrew Ashby
– Memphis Business Journal –

In its heyday, Downtown Memphis’ Main Street, like many Main Streets across America, was a bustling retail center where people drove from miles around to shop.

However, with the introduction of suburban malls and shopping centers, many Main Streets nationwide, including the one in Memphis, dried up.

After decades of neglect, however, Main Street retail is showing signs of life, although how vibrant it will become remains to be seen.

Memphis Heritage’s 2007 calendar cover features a Don Newman photograph, showing a bustling Main Street with crowded sidewalks, cars everywhere and active storefronts.

The question is: What happened?

The answer could be summed up in one word: zoning.

"In the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, we started incorporating single-use zoning, which started segregating uses to different parts of the city," says Andy Kitsinger, director of planning and development at the Center City Commission. "After that, you had to physically drive to each area to service all your needs."

When residential development spread out from the Downtown core, retail development followed, moving to the next new area of growth.

"The Downtown neighborhoods declined as people moved to those single-use neighborhoods," Kitsinger says.

In some places, the tide is turning back to multi-use developments, such as Boyle Investment Co.’s Schilling Farms, a 443-acre planned development in Collierville which has office, residential and retail in one place.

Downtown’s Main Street has also seen retail return with the acceptance of mixed-use developments. For example, in 2005 Shelton Clothiers opened at 147 S. Main on the ground floor of a building with offices above it.

Kitsinger says one reason he thinks Downtown’s retail can come back is because people want authentic experiences.

"With the growth of single-use neighborhoods, cities became more homogenized," he says. "They are all the same and there is no sense of place. One area begins to look like another."

To an outsider, Southaven’s Goodman Road is very similar to Cordova’s Germantown Road, with the same national retailers fronted by large parking lots. Downtown’s Main Street is definitely a unique retail animal, with mixed-use buildings, a trolley line and a Main Street pedestrian mall.

It’s also roughly divided into three different segments: South Main, New Main and the Pinch District, each with unique retail challenges and advantages.

The Pinch District’s section of Main Street has been relatively unchanged during Downtown’s rebirth. However, the area’s retail future could be brighter as developments move forward.

The Pinch District has the Uptown neighborhood to the north, which has 549 multifamily units in Uptown Square, Greenlaw Place and the Metropolitan.

In 2006, Henry Turley and partners launched the third phase of the 100-block Uptown project, which consists of 137 additional single family homes.

"They all need a neighborhood commercial center to do their shopping," Kitsinger says.