Broad Avenue's New Face

Pat Brown

A decade ago, filmmaker Ira Sachs was filming his Sundance-winning film, “Forty Shades of Blue,” set in Memphis, Tenn. Sachs wanted a desolate street for the film’s heroine to take a final walk; he chose Broad Avenue (Figure 1).

In 2010, the residents and business owners of Broad Avenue decided desolation was not in their best interest. In conjunction with Livable Memphis and other community partners, they staged a two-day experiment in tactical urbanism—A New Face for an Old Broad (New Face). (See Figure 2.)

The success of the initiative is undeniable. In just over three years, the initial investment to stage the event ($25,000, plus tremendous volunteer support) has triggered $20 million in property renovations and 27 new businesses. In addition, the Broad Avenue corridor has strengthened the livability and vibrancy of the Binghampton community where it is located. The momentum from that weekend in November 2010 has been truly exceptional.

The Catalyst—Tactical Urbanism

“Tactical urbanism” can be defined as incremental, small-scale improvements meant to inspire more substantial investments.

In a 2012 article in the Memphis Business Journal, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton, Jr., said, “Too often, cities only look to big-budget projects to revitalize a neighborhood. There are simply not enough of those projects to go around. We want to encourage small, low-risk, community-driven improvement...that can add up to larger, long-term change.”

When the New Face event was reported in the St. Louis Fed’s publication, Bridges (Winter 2010-2011 issue), the term “tactical urbanism” was not mainstream. On Broad Avenue, the event was viewed as theater—providing demonstrations of what could be. For this production, the street was the stage, temporary businesses moving into vacant buildings were the actors and the 13,000 Memphians who attended were the audience.

With the blessing of the city’s engineering department, Broad Avenue was narrowed by adding dedicated bike lanes using house paint. Buildings that had been vacant for more than a decade were activated with permission of the property owners. Volunteers spent two weekends cleaning up the buildings, the local union donated electrical work and vendors joined in. The local media helped promote the event.

Today, tactical urbanism has become a very popular urban revitalization tactic. In Memphis, it has become an annual event. Livable Memphis, in conjunction with the Mayor’s Innovation Delivery Team (MIDT), has staged four additional events, which are now branded “MEMfix” and continue to reflect how neighborhoods can leverage small investments to jump-start revitalization. For each of the subsequent events, the street that becomes the stage has been redesigned to support the needs of pedestrians and bike riders in addition to automobile traffic. Vacant buildings are activated for the day and crowds continue to come in support.

Broad Avenue Today

New Face brought temporary improvements to three critical needs—street infrastructure, building activation and visitors/traffic. In the time since the initial event, local business owners—plus a few very valuable community partners—have continued to concentrate efforts to achieve permanent improvements.

Street Infrastructure—It took three years to develop the engineering plans and funding to make Broad Avenue’s bike lanes permanent. Construction on the Hampline, a combined on- and off-street bikeway, began this year and will be completed by mid-2015. The unique design is considered state-of-the-art—a two-way cycle track on a two-way street, but physically separated from automobile traffic. Cost to design and build the Hampline is projected to top $4 million, the majority of which came from federal grants and local foundations. However, the final $75,000 was raised from the public via a crowdfunding campaign. View a video of the progress on the Hampline here.

Excitement regarding the Hampline (Figure 3) has triggered 10 public art installations. From murals to sculptures, the street has become an outdoor gallery featuring works by local, national and international artists. (See Figure 4.)

Activation of Buildings—The Broad Avenue vacancy rate today is less than 10 percent, compared with more than 50 percent at the time of New Face. Two key partnerships have led to the activation of the vacant buildings.

Broad Avenue’s buildings and storefronts are all independently owned. Traditional issues such as underfunded property owners have hindered the renovation that would attract sustainable businesses to the area. Initiatives developed by the MIDT and Community LIFT provided the boost to activate the storefronts.

In April 2013, MIDT launched MEMshop on Broad, recruiting six new retail businesses to the street and providing funding for capital improvements to the buildings. (See Figure 5.) Previously, attracting viable retail to the street had been a struggle. This initiative recognizes the difficulties inherent in launching a small retail business, as well as the cost barriers to capital improvements for independent property owners. Four of the six businesses launched in 2013 have converted to long-term leases. One entrepreneur used the process to decide not to operate due to the structured hours required for success. The sixth retailer has restructured its business model and merged with one of the other MEMshop establishments. View a video about MEMshop here.

To complement these efforts, Community LIFT invested in Broad Avenue by approving its first business-development loan to Wiseacre Brewery, Memphis’ first taproom for craft beer. This investment and the subsequent opening of the brewery were more “tipping points,” introducing additional visitors to the area.

Traffic/Programming—To increase visitors to Broad Avenue, area businesses organize a biannual Art Walk in the spring and fall. Drawing an average of 3,000 visitors to the street, this event generates sales for the businesses during the event, with an even greater benefit from return business. In addition, the Art Walks generate a social media push, further promoting the area as a place to shop, eat and create.

In 2013, ArtPlace America awarded a $350,000 grant to the commercial district to transform part of a 225,000-square-foot warehouse on the north side of Broad Avenue. The 1945 warehouse loading dock (still active on weekdays) and its surrounding outdoor space have been creatively adapted into the Water Tower Pavilion, a place for the community, by the community. An adaptive, dual-use initiative, the Pavilion is considered to be the first example in the United States of the partnering of an industrial, active warehouse with art performance space.

In keeping with Broad Avenue’s spirit, the focus of the Pavilion is to:

  • support the growth of community-based performing groups by providing access to a professional-quality stage and opportunity to gain performance expertise, and
  • celebrate community and art with events that encourage participation.

In May 2014, the first event at the Pavilion—Dance on Broad—was launched (see video). For eight weekends, dance was celebrated via performances and community dance classes. (See Figure 6.) The festival exceeded expectations for attendance and drew a diverse crowd in terms of ethnicity, age and socioeconomic status. Attendees gave the event rave reviews:

  • “The community vibe of happiness and harmony is so great.” (Afrohouse attendee)
  • “Race, age, gender, whatever…it doesn’t matter. Everybody is having fun.” (Swing attendee)
  • “Best gathering of people from college students to grandmas to babies.” (Bollywood Attendee)

For the remainder of the year, the Pavilion is hosting events every Saturday, focusing on performances from community groups. A plan for sustainability of the Pavilion is in active development.

FIGURE 1

Figure 1

2535 Broad Avenue prior to New Face. Photo by Pat Brown.

FIGURE 2

Figure 2

2535 Broad Avenue during New Face. Also see Figure 5. Photo by David Nester.

FIGURE 3

Figure 3

Photo simulation of the Hampline along Broad Avenue. Image courtesy of Fuss & O’Neill, Inc.

FIGURE 4

Figure 4

Mural by French graphic artist Guillaume Alby. Created in 2011 to honor Broad Avenue’s grassroots spirit. Funded by Loeb Properties. Photo by Pat Brown.

FIGURE 5

Figure 5

2535 Broad Avenue on the eve of opening via the MEMshop initiative. Also see Figures 1 and 2. Photo by Michael Equis.

FIGURE 6

Figure 6

Line dancing during Dance on Broad at the Water Tower Pavilion, May 2014. Photo by Pat Brown.

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