Most Community Development Corporations (CDCs) try to revitalize their chosen neighborhood, even if it's just rehabbing one house at a time. South Main and its surrounding area are in the midst of a housing boom, but a new plan says it could benefit from a CDC, too.
Only this one would be charged with creating affordable housing for "low-income artists."
"For an arts district to be sustainable, artist housing has to be an integral part of the community," says Lorie Chapman, an urban planner with the Center City Commission and the facilitator of the South Main strategic plan presented last week.
Chapman began the project last September while working on her master's in city and regional planning at the University of Memphis. She needed a final project and, having already studied arts districts in Indianapolis, Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver on a travel fellowship, she had a solid background on what creates a viable arts district.
"I would say this pulls everything together," she says. "People had looked at the neighborhood in terms of redevelopment and rezoning before, but no one had looked at it as an arts district. Arts were the stimulus for the revitalization, but none of the previous plans looked at arts in depth."
The community was also interested in things that may sound like any other redevelopment area: sidewalk improvements, attracting more retail and restaurants, and public transportation. "The question was: How do we create a thriving neighborhood that is also an arts district?" says Chapman.
"In South Main, so much of what has happened has come from the private, for-profit sector. It's developers coming in and transforming properties. Some things need to happen with additional investment from the public sector."
The plan suggests adding more public art at railroad underpasses and trolley stations, creating a street garden program, in which the community would maintain gardens in public spaces and lining the streets, and licensing artists to sell their work in designated areas of South Main.
"There was a lot of interest in the area known as the 'dead zone' between Linden and Huling. There are a lot of vacant storefronts," says Chapman. The plan proposes displaying works of art from South Main galleries in the empty storefronts, or, if that is felt to be too much of a liability, displaying art posters instead.
In fact, many of the ideas center around making the area look like an arts district, in an art-imitates-life kind of way. Or life imitates arts district.
"I think if you stand at Beale or Linden, you can see a lot of revitalization going on, but you can't really see what kind of revitalization it is," says Arnold Thompson, owner of the Universal Art gallery at Central Station and president of the Memphis Downtown Artists and Dealers Association. "You have to get in front of an individual storefront to see the character of the neighborhood."
Thompson opened his gallery in 2002 but originally worked in the area during the '90s. He says the early residents thought the revitalization would be further along by this point.
"The veneer appears to be very successful. The residential is obviously very successful. But the retail and arts-district side is still very much a struggling experiment."
An arts district needs artists to survive. Chapman's research identifies roughly 20 artists who live in the district, but many of them moved to South Main years ago and she says she doesn't see a thriving young-artist base in the area.
Consider the case of the residential boom around the South End. Condos are being sold in the area with price tags ranging from $130,000 to quadruple that.
Consider a 1,300-square-foot, one-bedroom, one-bath condo right off the trolley line on South Main. The asking price is $240,000, with $300-a-month in homeowner fees.
"It is important for it to be sustainable to accommodate younger artists. If the established artists leave, who is going to pick up the baton?" asks Chapman. "For the true artists who dedicate all their time to the art, South Main is not affordable."
Which is why, in addition to the CDC, the plan suggests creating a limited-equity artist cooperative, retaining a nonprofit to develop artist housing, and looking at building dormitories for art students.
"There are more traditional revitalization models that you can apply other places," says Chapman, "but I think an arts district is a special place."