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The Citizen edges Union toward safer avenues

By Updated: November 19, 2018 2:41 PM CT

The Citizen is still being built but the $35 million development already has made the corner of Union and McLean more urban.

The four stories of future apartments and commercial space – pulled up to the edge of the sidewalks – all but hover over the intersection’s southwest corner.

Apartment dwellers will look down on, instead of out toward, Union Avenue from their balconies.

But the building will affect far more people who drive and walk along Union and McLean.  The Citizen is like a living room wall that turns a segment of Union and McLean into an outdoor room.

Discussion of such new urbanist developments typically focuses on the safety advantages for pedestrians and cyclists:  by lining the sidewalk, buildings provide protection against the vehicles passing by.

“When you have the building there, you have the protection and that feeling there’s something against me,’’ architect Jason Weeks said. He was LRK Architects’ lead designer of The Citizen.

Memphis & Shelby County Planning Director Josh Whitehead worked next door at Seessel’s No. 1—now demolished and replaced by a new Kroger -- when he was in college.

“I usually rode my bike to work and would always avoid Union Avenue until I had no other choice because, as a cyclist, I felt like I was doing the wrong thing in the wrong place,’’ Whitehead recalled in an email to The Daily Memphian.

“Union was a street for cars, not me,’’ he said. “The Citizen is, in part, changing that.’’

The comfort level that buildings next to sidewalks can provide contrasts sharply to a suburban-style street, where stores are often set far back from the road to make room for parking lots. In that scenario, a walker or cyclist is surrounded by cars on the street and the parking lot.

“Research has found that people want buildings pulled up to the front of the street,’’ Weeks said.  

When people are shown images of both kinds of site plans, they usually place the green stickers of approval on buildings next to the street and red stickers of disapproval on buildings behind parking lots, he said.

But a building’s proximity to the street “will only get you halfway to the creation of a great urban experience,’’ Whitehead said.  “The building’s architectural treatment needs to be inviting, compelling and interesting to make the pedestrian feel not only comfortable, but that he or she is in the right place.’’


“I usually rode my bike to work and would always avoid Union Avenue until I had no other choice because, as a cyclist, I felt like I was doing the wrong thing in the wrong place. Union was a street for cars, not me. The Citizen is, in part, changing that.’’
Josh Whitehead, Memphis and Shelby County Planning Director 



The Citizen’s design strives for those qualities by having: lots of glass windows at the front of the ground-floor commercial spaces; a second, or split, sidewalk closer to the building that rises a bit above the primary Union sidewalk; outside seating; new trees along the sidewalk; ground-floor canopy that creates a human scale; and lighting and signs scaled for pedestrians.

“Retail asks for that open jewelry box, where it’s continuous, storefront glazing,’’ Weeks said. “That opens and extends the front porch a bit, and their retail spaces start to bleed out into the sidewalk more.

“When you are walking in the sidewalk zone, you are in a continuation of that retail shop,’’ he said. “So when you are window shopping or walking by, you are still kind of in that retail shop zone and not in a car zone.’’

The Citizen’s 12-foot-high canopy outside the commercial spaces will create a greater comfort level by compartmentalizing the space. “So you are not up at the building edge that’s 60-feet tall,’’ Weeks said.

Bret Roler is eager to see how the ground floor of The Citizen relates to the street.

“If they do a good job with the commercial spaces there and have them open and inviting, it could create a turning point on that street,’’ said Roler, vice president of planning and development for the Downtown Memphis Commission.

Infill development by infill development, Union Avenue is slowly but steadily improving as a safer, more appealing street for pedestrians and cyclists. The new Kroger nearby was built up to the sidewalk. Chick-Fil-A on Union preserved an ornate building wall in front of its parking lot. Playhouse on the Square built a new theater to the sidewalks at Union and Cooper.

“There’s no reason to think (The Citizen) won’t convince other people’’ to build in a similar way along the avenue, Roler said.

“It goes back to the kind of place you’re trying to create… If your goal is a walkable, pedestrian-friendly environment where the sidewalks are safe, that doesn’t tend to work with parking in the front,’’ Roler said.

Union Avenue had never before been designed to accommodate pedestrians, Whitehead.

“I think it’s great that Union Avenue in Midtown is becoming pedestrian friendly, perhaps for the first time in its history,’’ he said.


“If they do a good job with the commercial spaces there and have them open and inviting, it could create a turning point on that street.’’
Bret Roller, vice president of planning and development for the Downtown Memphis Commission


For some years now, Whitehead has written a blog, called Crème de Memph, about the design and history of Memphis.

“Historically, the section of Union east of Methodist Hospital was predominated by large lot residential homes, which were slowly redeveloped to highway commercial uses throughout the 20th century.

 “So Union Avenue was never really an urban street that contained classic storefronts; those were found one block over on Madison, which had a streetcar,’’ he said.

“Union’s historic lack of pedestrians was one of the central issues during the zoning hearing for the CVS at Union and Cooper:  How can we expect retailers to build their stores for the non-existent pedestrian?  Conversely, how can we expect people to walk on a street that is auto-oriented?

“Well, buildings like the new Playhouse on the Square, Kroger and now The Citizen are slowly remaking Union into something it’s arguably never been: A great urban street,’’ Whitehead said.

The 8-year-old Unified Development Code has helped.

The Belz family, which is a partner in The Citizen, needed a variance from the Board of Adjustment in 1958 to build an office building and hotel close to Union and McLean.

“The current building was built as a matter of right under zoning rules,’’ Whitehead said.



Topics

Commercial Real Estate Apartments Urban Planning The Citizen
Tom Bailey

Tom Bailey

Tom Bailey covers business news for The Daily Memphian. A Tupelo, Mississippi, native, he graduated from Mississippi State University. He's worked in journalism for 40 years and has lived in Midtown for 36 years.


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