August 03, 2015

Winchester Park Fires at Blight

By Amos Maki
– The Commercial Appeal –

Celestine Hill has been living in the Downtown neighborhood known as Winchester Park for more than 50 years.

When she moved there to be closer to her job at the Memphis Mental Healthcare Center, it was a working-class area where neighbors looked after each other and kept well-manicured lawns.

Now, neighbors spend much of their time watching the steady parade of strangers that float in and out of the area — which is riddled with overgrown, trash-strewn lots — at all times of the day and night.

"It’s gotten worse," said Hill, who lives in a Habitat for Humanity of Greater Memphis home on Jones Avenue. "It used to be a nice, clean neighborhood.

"We didn’t have too many homeowners but it was nice because everybody lived like neighbors," she said. "Over the years the neighborhood declined."

Beginning Monday, a host of local and national architects, city planners, developers and residents of Winchester Park will begin planning what they hope is the neighborhood’s rebirth.

The Knight Program in Community Building at the University of Miami’s School of Architecture is holding a weeklong charrette — a collaborative planning process — for the area bordered by North Parkway, Interstate 240, Jefferson Avenue and Danny Thomas Boulevard. The goal is to improve the area, which planners refer to as Intown, for residents and pave the way for new, sustainable development near one of the city’s growing employment and economic development centers.

The neighborhood serves as a crucial link between St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and Le Bonheur Children’s Medical Center.

A $1 billion expansion is under way at St. Jude, and Le Bonheur is embarking on a $235 million expansion. Both organizations interact regularly, with patients and doctors zipping back and forth between the sites.

The 1.3 million-square-foot University of Tennessee-Baptist Research Park is planned for the Medical Center. The six-building research, incubator and commercial center dedicated to the biotech industry will take about 10 years to complete.

"The neighborhood has been forgotten for many years," said Carissa Hussong, executive director of the Urban Art Commission, which is sponsoring the charrette. "That’s partly a result of its location, which is also one of its assets and why so many people are really interested in the neighborhood.

"With the infusion of so many jobs because of the major investments by these medical institutions," she said, "it makes sense that we look at this community now as a residential community that’s supporting the growing needs of the surrounding medical facilities in a way that creates a sustainable neighborhood."

The charrette is one piece of a larger public-private effort to revitalize the Medical Center.

Two housing projects on the northern and southern end of the district — Lamar Terrace on Lamar and Dixie Homes on Poplar — are being transformed into mixed-income residential neighborhoods with the help of two Federal Hope VI grants.

Planners think they create a mixed-income neighborhood in Winchester Park, one that might attract highly-paid doctors and support staff.

"The best communities have a mixture of incomes and a mixture of backgrounds," said Russell E. Bloodworth Jr., executive director of Boyle Investment Co. and one of the 12 Knight Program Fellows who will conduct the charrette.

The first three days of the charrette will feature stakeholder meetings with developers, property owners, architects and others. But it is by no means an exclusive affair. Neighborhood residents will be active participants in the planning.

"People are excited," Hussong said. "They care about their community and would like to see it come back to the way it was before."

The general public will be able to chime in during a session on July 17.

Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Charles Bohl will lead the effort.

Plater-Zyberk is a founder of the Congress for New Urbanism, which advocates inner-city neighborhoods that are walkable, diverse and accessible to shops, parks and jobs. Plater-Zyberk is also dean of the University of Miami School of Architecture and will speak at 5:30 Monday at the Memphis College of Art in an event sponsored by the Memphis District Council of the Urban Land Institute.

Bohl is director of the Knight Program of Community Building at the University of Miami.

"My hope is that it will cast a strong, sustainable vision for what the area should be and a strategy to get it there," Bloodworth said.