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A Walkable Walker?

University area looks at creating a "Main Street."

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If things go as planned, the University District's Walker Avenue might become a very fitting name.

The University Neighborhoods Development Corporation, in conjunction with the Urban Land Institute, is hosting several events June 17th-20th exploring the national Main Street program.

The program, which grew out of historic preservation, is an approach to revitalizing older, traditional business districts. It involves a four-pronged approach, including capitalizing on assets such as historic buildings and pedestrian-friendly streets.

Though there are other Main Street programs in areas of rural Tennessee, Steve Barlow, executive director of the University Neighborhoods Development Corporation, hopes the area around Walker and Highland will become the first urban Main Street program in the state.

"Walker is a place that could look and feel like Main Street America," Barlow says. "It's a place that has wide sidewalks, angled parking. All the things you think of on a traditional Main would work immediately on Walker."

Not only is Walker a connector between the University of Memphis campus and the larger community, many successful businesses, such as R.P. Tracks, are located there.

"We're trying to make the University District a restaurant and shopping destination in addition to a place for education," Barlow says.

Architecture firm Looney Ricks Kiss did a preliminary design of Walker with several infrastructure improvements, such as connecting sidewalks. The design doesn't change any of the existing buildings but reworks parking and the street. The changes are estimated to cost about $500,000.

"We don't have any kind of plan ready to be implemented tomorrow, but it's a good idea for a makeover that is relatively inexpensive and would change the character of the neighborhood in a positive way," Barlow says.

The University Neighborhoods Development Corporation backed into the Main Street program. They recently completed a comprehensive plan, and a special zoning overlay for the University District is expected to pass its final reading before the Memphis City Council in the coming months.

While thinking about how the area should look in the future, planners began considering how the area's "Main Street" looks now, what it should look like, and what would it take to get there.

Barlow expects representatives from Cooper Young, Orange Mound, and Frayser, as well as local politicians, to attend the Main Street planning events.

"If we're going to target some neighborhood for revitalization, how do you allocate resources in order to promote that neighborhood?" Barlow asks. "There's a strategic way to use money for economic development."

In the University District, the timing is right for revitalization.

In addition to the district overlay, which will ask for better landscaping and that new buildings be built closer to the street, the Highland Row project is slated for Highland at Watauga. Under the University of Memphis' master plan for its campus, the area directly across the street from Highland Row will become the "front door" to the school.

"That's sort of the physical manifestation of where the community meets the university," Barlow says. "It's very feasible to make it walkable. It will make it easy to cross Highland and come back to Walker. You'll start to have a loop."

The group wants to concentrate on a highly visible area that already has strong businesses. But it also knows that the Highland Row project is expected to break ground in about six months and that it should be part of a larger effort.

"We need to be aggressively moving forward so when that project gets moving, we make sure we have other things going on," Barlow says. "We can't just have documents. We need dirt moving and things planted, so there's a sense that things are changing in the neighborhood. It inspires more growth."

Anyone interested in learning more about the Main Street programs at this week's events should contact Steve Barlow at steve@memphisundc.com.

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