Does this landscape look familiar? There are places like this all over the country. Half forgotten neighborhoods populated by vacant parking lots and semi abandoned buildings can be found everywhere. The tide of history has left them behind. People don’t want to live here. Folks with resources can afford to be elsewhere. The more property values drop the harder it is to justify spending the money that’s required to bring these properties up to a modern standard. The lower the property values the less tax revenue is generated so the less interest the city has in maintaining the public realm. Historic buildings are often difficult – or impossible – to retrofit given current building codes, requirements for handicap accessibility, fire safety, off street parking, on site storm water management, and so on. Decades of long slow decline carry an enormous amount of inertia.
Ironically the remaining businesses in places like this are among the most productive in the city in terms of generating durable employment, retail sales, tax receipts, and an anachronistic kind of social capital anchored around locally rooted mom and pop family enterprises. Pound for pound the crappy auto repair shops and light manufacturing businesses pull more economic weight than the shiniest silver bullet projects dreamed up by the economic development wizards with all their subsidies and creative finance. But that’s not how the larger culture perceives things.
I’ve noticed a trend all around the country where these half dead neighborhoods are being paddle shocked back to life by local institutions with an interest in revitalization. In this case in Memphis, Tennessee it’s a consortium of hospitals that created a $30 million pool of seed money to redevelop the area. Experts are flown in, international models are emulated, and home grown talent is tapped to transform the urban landscape.
There’s now a standard grab bag of minimally invasive techniques for making a lackluster neighborhood more appealing. Paint, street furniture, wayfinding signage, potted plants, and branding along with new programming help to define and activate designated areas. In this case the overly wide streets were narrowed, a public pedestrian plaza was cultivated, and a canopy of overhead plastic streamers created an iconic crown. These measures are sometimes dismissed as hipster stunts, but the cosmetic treatments are a reflection of a larger underlying dynamic.
Vacant land needs to be infilled with productive activity in order to raise property values. The baby step in this case is a collection of shipping containers that incubate small businesses at a low enough price point that if a business fails the would-be entrepreneur can walk away bruised, but not devastated. If the business succeeds it can mature into a more permanent space in a nearby building. Mobile vendors like food trucks and flea market stalls can augment the container shops on select days to help further activate the space.
To be clear, it would be exceptionally difficult for an individual to install such things without the protective cover of a larger institution. The administrative friction of building codes, health and safety regulations, permits, fear of liability, and general bureaucratic resistance would normally doom these efforts. To the extent that these projects succeed it’s in large part due to a more powerful entity which shields the nascent activities like a baby kangaroo in its mother’s pouch. Of course mom has her own agenda. She’ll tolerate some things, but not others. You gotta dance with the one who brung ya.
Memphis is a multi state regional hub for certain things – medical care and education among them. The collection of hospitals, universities, and research institutions that dominate this part of the city have made a commitment to lift up the area and make it more appealing as a place to live rather than just drive through on the way to someplace else. That’s a worthy goal. But as a band of large institutional investors its collective agenda is specific to its own needs and vision.
A century ago Memphis was a superbly walkable, transit served, mixed use, highly productive urban core complete with remarkable public parks and civic institutions. It had its problems to be sure. There never was a perfect historical anything – anywhere. But in general Memphis worked. The majority of that urban fabric was intentionally dismantled over the last seventy odd years as society devoted all its energy to building out suburbia on the periphery. The dominant culture still pushes outward in that direction, but there’s enough of a niche market for good quality urbanism that the right policies can recreate some of what was lost. Is the process riddled with insiders and special deals? Sure. You can go down a geeky rabbit hole of “political adventures and highjinks” about Memphis and Shelby County at Polar Donkey. Is it possible to get things done any other way given the endemic cultural and political dynamics of the city? Meh.
Here’s the raw material the redevelopment folks are working with. If you love the picturesque green open spaces of suburbia this is a crappy unsatisfying version. If you love a thriving traditional Main Street full of hustle and bustle this is a poor substitute. The bones are mediocre. The flesh is saggy. And all the usual mainstream institutions are currently dedicated to removing as many of the charming old buildings as possible so they can be replaced by parking lots and disposable chain stores. Nothing less than a big momma kangaroo can turn the tide by inserting itself into the regulatory process and providing some wiggle room for a different model. Money talks. That’s the good, the bad, and the ugly.
What’s coming? My friends at the Incremental Development Alliance are working hard to make it possible for lots of small scale, mom and pop, bespoke, infill buildings to populate the vacant parcels in the neighborhood. In my experience what goes up instead are large scale buildings built by the usual production builders funded by standard institutional investors – REITs and pension funds that can put up $20 million chunks in search of an extractable yield. Is that bad? Shrug. It’s what’s possible. Is it good for the neighborhood and the city? Overall, yes. But it depends on who you are and whether or not you’re in the pouch.