The University District Neighborhood Associations have been in a struggle to preserve the district’s urban identity for the past few months. Soon, however, they may celebrate a victory or be forced to swallow a bitter compromise.
Several years ago, the neighborhoods and businesses in the University of Memphis District, in collaboration with the university, envisioned the Highland Strip as a vibrant urban street--safe, pedestrian friendly, and fun to walk along.
“Bring the shops out to the front and make it a nice place to walk, so that people want to be on the street,” said David Cox, the university liaison with area neighborhoods and officer of the University Neighborhoods Development Corporation. “When you have more people on the street, it’s a more pleasant experience, but also crime goes down.”
The community plan gained the recognition of the City Council in 2009, and the University District Overlay (UDO) became the official set of standards that will guide all new construction.
Back in May, McDonald's applied to build a restaurant on the southeast corner of Southern and Highland, where the Whatever Store and Z Market are currently located. The fast food company intends to vacate its building on 657 S. Highland St., almost across the street, if permitted to build the new restaurant.
Upon the news, neighbors welcomed the new development.
“On behalf of Mr. Martin [U of M President], The University of Memphis, and the University District Development Corporation, I want to express our support and excitement for the project,” Cox wrote in a letter to the president of Century Management, McDonalds’ franchisee.
But the excitement didn’t last long. Cox, UD associations, along with many business owners and residents in the district were soon writing letters to the Land Use Control Board, objecting McDonalds’ proposed site-plan for its inconsistency with the University District Overlay.
The planned building sets away from both streets, Highland and Southern, to allow for drive-through lanes to wrap around it. Pedestrians would have to walk through cars to enter the building.
“It’s not an urban design. It fits out on Germantown Parkway. But nobody walks up and down Germantown Parkway,” Cox said.
“The drive through has to wrap around the building. There is nothing we can do about that,”sSaid Cindy Reeves, the president of SR Consulting, the company in charge of the architecture and design of McDonalds’ project. “We spent a lot of time and money on meeting with the University District leaders and changing site plans to come up with something they like, but nothing we do seems to make them happy.”
Some University District residents, however, are happy to live near a restaurant wrapped with drive- through lanes. For them, it’s better than living near a semi-boarded property, wrapped with graffiti, garbage and tall weeds.
David Schmitz owns a waterproofing business and a small apartment complex on 636 Minor St. The boarded-up sides of the building, the graffiti on the back side of it and the garbage behind it are parts of every sunset for him and his tenants.
“If a mother from out of town wants to lease an apartment for her son who goes to the university, is this a place she feels her son is safe?” Schmitz said while pointing at the property from his front yard. This is the worst blighted visual in the neighborhood. It’s a garbage and tire dump. Any development is better than this blight.”
A public hearing was held by the Land Use Control Board on Aug. 8, which resulted in the office’s approval of McDonald’s site plan.
Josh Whitehead, secretary of the LUCB and director of the Office of Planning and Development, said the office aims to balance the interests of applicants, property owners, and other stakeholders in the neighborhood while considering the overall benefits of the development to the area.
“On one hand we have zoning regulations, but on the other, we have to promote economic development,” he said.
The office initially tried to negotiate eliminating the drive-through, but the developer said such requirement would certainly force him to drop the project. His office also rejected a McDonald’s site plan that placed the building perpendicular to Highland because it was substantially inconsistent with the overlay, Whitehead said.
The office then negotiated a drive-through on the east side of the building, but the developer explained that a short drive-through will not provide enough queue for all customers. Taking the risk of having vehicles backed up into Highland Street is a bad idea anyway.
“I want Highland to be the most walkable street in the city, and I think it has that potential, but it might take longer than we would all like,” he said. “Do we hold the line and say these are the rules?”
Whitehead said “playing hardball” has driven developments away from Memphis to places like Desoto County.
“We didn’t want to push too hard because we would have lost the opportunity to get that site redeveloped and fixed,” he said. “It’s like playing chicken; how hard can you push without killing the deal.”
But University District neighborhoods and associations leaders aren’t worried about losing McDonalds’ development as much.
“That property is now on the market. It hasn’t been before,” Cox said. “It’s a very attractive piece of property. A lot of people go by there so it’s a very valuable piece, and somebody will find a use for it.”
Cox said the collaboration of efforts between property owners and the University District leadership has labored new projects that will make the Highland Strip even more attractive to new developments and will make that property even more valuable.
“We are redoing Walker Avenue from the University to Highland. Within a year, you’ll see a nice wide walkway with trees on both sides,” he said.
Parking will be behind businesses, instead of being in front, and the street will become a nice place to walk and bike.
“Businesses have already ceded some of their properties to make this happen. This project is currently underway,” he said.
Cox said the whole idea is to make it a place where people want to come and walk and interact with one another and that helps the businesses. A deviation from the design will threat the future of the entire district.
“If this exception is allowed, then whoever else wants to come into the neighborhood will want to do the same thing,” he said.
Memphis City Council initially scheduled a hearing and a vote on the McDonald’s site-plan on Tuesday, Oct. 1, but Century Management reset the date to Oct. 15.
Despite the fact there are currently no negotiations taking place between McDonald's and the UD associations, Steve Likens, executive vice president of Century Management, said a final site-plan is still in the making.
“We don’t have a final design yet. We are still tweaking and adjusting the design,” Likens said. “Ultimately, when we present our final design, it will be up to the City Council to accept it or reject it.”
A simple-majority vote can authorize McDonald’s to turn its site-plan into a reality.
The Council’s vote is practically final because an appeal to the Chancery Court can cost tens of thousands of dollars, and the court typically hears less than 10 percent of the cases appealed, Whitehead said.
A nay vote will force McDonald's to change their site-plan and apply again--if the fast food chain is still interested.