Crosstown wants to be a walker’s haven like Overton Square and Cooper-Young, and just got the zoning to help make the change happen.
Prompted by property owners in and around Crosstown, the City Council recently changed the zoning along 2,800 feet of Cleveland/North Watkins, between Larkin on the south (just behind the Kroger at Poplar and Cleveland) and North Parkway to the north.
In the language of professional planners, the zoning switched from commercial and industrial to urban frontage and transitional frontage.
Interpretation: Crosstown aspires to become like Overton Square and Cooper-Young, where sidewalks are lined with stores, restaurants, offices and other businesses instead of parking lots and curb cuts.
The change agent for the district sandwiched between Midtown and the Medical District is the $200 million redevelopment of the long-vacant Sears Crosstown building. Renamed the Crosstown Concourse, the 1.1 million-square-foot building is scheduled to open in 2017.
The nonprofit developer projects 3,000 people daily will go in and out of the “vertical urban village” for its health clinics, art galleries and studios, charter school and graduate program in education, 270 apartments, offices and retail.
Crosstown Concourse is already raising demand for nearby property and attracting new investment and businesses along a street that had been in decline for decades.
Among the new enterprises is Mardi Gras Memphis. The restaurant and bar opened two months ago at 496 N. Watkins primarily because Crosstown Concourse stands across the street, said Debora Boatner, co-owner.
“It was a significant factor in us opening here,” she said of the redevelopment.
The restaurant is leasing its space, but other new businesses will likely renovate or do in-fill construction. Except in a couple of “transitional” zoning spots, newcomers now will have to build to the sidewalk.
Crosstown Concourse wants to ensure that its new tenants “feel a sense of place and connectedness, not only within the Concourse building itself, but throughout the whole Cleveland/Watkins corridor,” Todd Richardson, co-leader of the Concourse development, states in a letter to the City Council. (Cleveland turns into North Watkins a few blocks south of North Parkway).
“The success of Overton Square and Cooper Young clearly illustrate how the frontage we’re proposing can put Crosstown in a position to grow and develop in a sustainable, inclusive, pedestrian-friendly way that adds value to local businesses and property owners,” Richardson states.
” … How do we want future Memphians to experience Crosstown? Will they leave their offices at Crosstown Concourse and stroll through a safe, tree-lined street to meet friends at a restaurant patio? The choice belongs to us.”
Not all Crosstown property owners are supporters of designing for walkers instead of cars, which most diners and shoppers continue to use by far. Harry Skefos owns commercial buildings at the northwest corner of Cleveland and Overton Park, and also across from 408 to 430 N. Cleveland.
The fronts of his buildings offer head-in parking space for one car.
Under the urban frontage zoning, Skefos said, “if my buildings were to burn completely down, I would have to build back to the street. There would be no way for cars to pull in and park they way they do now.”
Faced with his opposition to the new zoning, a compromise was reached in which Skefos’s property is zoned “transitional.” The transitional zoning allows for some parking in front of the building.
Now, 95 to 98 percent of customers arrive by car to businesses in Memphis, said Josh Whitehead, planning director for Memphis and Shelby County. But, “all 26 city councilmen and county commissioners and the two mayors, I think we can all agree on transitioning to a more pedestrian environment,” he said. “That’s the one nonpartisan thing we all want to see in the city.”
The challenge is the chicken-or-egg question. Which comes first: Changes to street corridors to attract more walkers, or more walkers who would create demand for pedestrian-friendly designs?
“How can we expect (a business) to build right up on the street if there are no pedestrians?” Whitehead said. “Well, how can we expect there to be any pedestrians if there is nowhere to walk to and they have to walk through these seas of asphalt when they get off the bus or walk down the sidewalk?
“Admittedly, we are in a transition period,” Whitehead said.
Urging that transition are residents in neighborhoods surrounding Crosstown.
“The impending opening of the Crosstown Concourse holds enormous promise for Evergreen,” states Wain Rubenstein. He wrote to local officials on behalf of the board of The Evergreen Historic District Association, whose district is just east of Crosstown.
“But it also poses a potential threat: There is likely to be a lot of interest in developing this area, and right now there are very few safeguards against highway-style construction, ranging from drive-thru lanes to box stores with big parking lots in front,” the letter states.
“This type of development would reduce our property values and erode our quality of life. The application of an “Urban” street frontage will promote safety and walkability. It will also encourage building patterns that reflect the historic character of Midtown — an approach that has proven successful in the revitalization of Overton Square and Cooper Young,” Rubenstein states.
Writing on behalf of the Klondike/Smokey City neighborhood north of Crosstown, Quincey Morris also urged the City Council to approve the rezoning. The change, said the president of that neighborhood’s community development corporation, “will improve the long-term economic prosperity of the Crosstown area by opening it up to foot traffic and discouraging unwanted suburban-style development.”