The Highland Strip could get streetscape improvements, public art, and more after a Memphis City Council committee voted Tuesday, recommending approval to amend the economic plan for the University District.
The Highland Strip tax increment financing (TIF), a part of the Economic Impact Plan for the University District was first approved in 2016 so that a portion of taxes collected in the district could be used to fund public improvements on Highland between Poplar and Park. The TIF was originally approved to create a “more walkable and desirable campus” in order to spur development around the campus, as well as attract and retain students and faculty.
Now that the funds have been secured and the plans are ready to be implemented, Ted Townsend, the University of Memphis’ chief economic development and government relations officer, said the language of the original TIF needs to be broadened to cover the scope of the proposed changes.
The language was amended to include bike lanes and racks, public art, landscaping, pet waste stations, interactive water activities, and street furniture.
If the amendment to the TIF is approved by the full city council and the Shelby County Commission later this month, Townsend said construction will begin immediately in August.
The project’s first three areas of focus are traffic calming configurations, security, and better lighting. Townsend said the crosswalk at Highland and Walker will be the first to see improvements. The lines will be re-striped and enhanced with public art, so that the crosswalk is both “artistic and functional.”
Additionally, security cameras and better lighting structures are set to be installed.
Making improvements to the Highland Strip is a “high priority” for the university, Townsend said. The goal is to create a safe and “vibrant community” for some 5,000 students living on campus and in close proximity to it.
“We are positioning the U of M to be the premiere urban research university in the region,” Townsend said. “We feel that having these improvements to the district will allow for thar growth to occur.”
Townsend said one of the goals in the university’s strategic plan is to attain R1 status in the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. This means the U of M would be classified as a university with the “highest research activity.” Of the country’s 115 universities with R1 status, the University of Tennessee is the only in the state. Currently, the U of M is classified as R2.
In order to reach R1 status, a university must award at least 20 doctoral degrees in Carnegie-identified STEM (science, math, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines each year. By 2022, Townsend said the university hopes to begin awarding 60 degrees annually.
Townsend said this will help secure more funding for the university, and the improvements to the surrounding area are "critical" to achieving this goal.
“We feel that in order to attract students and faculty we need a community that is attractive for working and living,” he said.