Moses Freeman sits on his front porch some nights, looking out across 10th Street at nearly deserted streets in the M.L. King neighborhood.
Sometimes he dreams of people jogging along the roads and children playing on the sidewalks, he said. Other times, his envisions trips to a neighborhood grocery store and thriving nightlife coming back to the area once known as the “Big Nine.”
“We’re just dreaming about grocery stores and cultural events until we get people in,” Mr. Freeman said. “Once you get people, everything else follows.”
That’s the hope behind a land-use management plan being put together by the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency’s Design and Planning Studio. They agree with Mr. Freeman and want to provide a road map to get more people into the community to live, work and play, said Karen Hundt, director of the studio.
ON THE WEB
Check out more about Memphis’s Beale Street at www.bealestreet.com
BY THE NUMBERS
30: Number of clubs, eateries and shops on Beale Street in Memphis
13: Eateries on Beale Street
11: Amount of Beale Street live entertainment venues
5: Beale Street specialty shops
3: Live entertainment venues on M.L. King Boulevard
3: Eateries on M.L. King
Source: Beale Street Business Merchants Association, M.L. King Business Merchants Association
The study started near the end of last year and is nearing completion, she said. Its findings hopefully will be presented to the Regional Planning Agency in October, officials said. If approved by the planning commission, the Chattanooga City Council will then vote whether to adopt the study’s recommendations.
Twenty-four studies have been conducted on the M.L. King Neighborhood since the early 1980s, Ms. Hundt said, but most were done by UTC professors and focused on specific issues within the neighborhood, such as Mayor Ron Littlefield’s proposed homeless complex or revitalization of the residential area. The study done by the Design and Planning Studio is the first that looks at all issues of the neighborhood, from economic development, housing and social services to its relationship with UTC and the downtown area, she said.
“It’s the first really comprehensive plan,” Ms. Hundt said.
Councilman Leamon Pierce, who represents the neighborhood and owns Liberty Bonding Co. on M.L. King Boulevard, said he was pleased with preliminary results of the study.
“It’s something we should have done months, or even years ago,” he said.
The biggest contention is how a proposed homeless complex is handled within the study, Mr. Pierce said. Members of the M.L. King Neighborhood have said they would oppose anything that allowed more social services in the area.
“I don’t think the community would buy into that project and I don’t think any community across the city would buy into that project,” Mr. Pierce said.
Councilwoman Sally Robinson agreed. Residents are still leery of the homeless complex, which has been proposed on 11th Street at the old Farmers’ Market, she said.
“They don’t want a concentration of social services,” she said. “We have to keep them involved.”
But overall, the Design and Planning Studio study shows a good mixed-use variety between living and playing, she said.
Walter Parks, a resident of Park Avenue in the neighborhood, said the plan could live or die based upon the proposal of the homeless complex. He said the neighborhood, once known for crime, now has been cleaned up and residents worry that a homeless complex could bring it back.
“If we had a land-use plan everyone could agree to, it would be good,” he said. “But everyone won’t agree.”
CHATTANOOGA’S BEALE STREET
Planners began studying the M.L. King area late last year, talking with community groups, business leaders and students at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, which runs along the boulevard. The study found most people favored having a local grocery store, more housing and more entertainment and nightlife options, Ms. Hundt said.
Many also said they would like the business district to become “something like a Beale Street of Chattanooga,” she said.
Beale Street in Memphis is one of the top tourist attractions in Tennessee, bringing in more than 4 million visitors a year, according to Onzie Horne, executive director of Beale Street Merchants. People come to Beale Street because of its history and clubs that gave rise to the “Memphis blues” sound, according to Bealestreet.com.
Many communities and cities have tried imitating Beale Street and many have failed, Mr. Horne said, because they were creating an “artificial” historical and cultural importance.
“They come here for its historical and cultural significance,” he said. “I think that’s significant.”
Like Beale Street, the M.L. King neighborhood also wants to latch onto its black history and create a neighborhood that would set it apart from others, she said. Such elements could include blues or jazz clubs, barbecue restaurants and events being held at the Chattanooga African American History Museum.
During the early 1900s, a stretch of M.L. King Boulevard was — called “Big Nine” because at the time it was known as Ninth Street — thrived nightly with entertainment from acts such as Nat “King” Cole and Duke Ellington, according to historical records. Crooner Bessie Smith was born and raised in the neighborhood.
Currently, entertainment venues on the boulevard include J.J.’s Bohemia and Lamar’s and the new restaurant Wooden Nickel, officials said.
Geni Brown, co-owner of J.J.’s Bohemia at 231 M.L. King Blvd., said she was wary of the plan to bring more businesses into the area. She wouldn’t like the competition, she acknowledged, and worries that some building owners might try to get rich from the enterprise.
“It would hike all the prices up,” she said. “It’ll become cannibalistic.”
Kelly Smith, co-owner of coffee shop Caffeine, located at 233 M.L. King Blvd., was skeptical of the “Beale Street” idea.
“I do wonder how much of a draw it could be,” she said.
With so much business and nightlife going on, crime might also go up, said Theodore McGhee, who moved to M.L. King Boulevard five years ago. At that time, there were drug pushers making deals on the streets, he said, but now people can walk the sidewalks in peace.
“It was real bad,” he said. “Now it’s just peaceful.”
Chattanooga Police Department spokeswoman Lt. Kim Noorbergen did not return phone calls.
REVITALIZATION IN PROGRESS
In the late 1990s, the Lyndhurst Foundation partnered with Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprises to start revitalizing the residential area of M.L. King Neighborhood, said Sarah Morgan, program officer for Lyndhurst. The organizations acquired properties and courted developers, she said, and single-family homes sprang up and, for the first time in years, people moved in.
The M.L. King Community Development Corp. took charge of bringing the business district back to life, she said. Business development stumbled somewhat as money poured into the residential area in the early 2000s, making it became the primary focus, said Elijah Cameron, board member of M.L. King CDC.
There’s hope that the newly finished 28th District Development Corp. building will jump-start the business side of things by offering housing and business space. But so far, that hasn’t happened.
Forestine Haynes, executive director of the 28th District Development Corp., said the nonprofit corporation poured $2.5 million into the building, which has eight condos and could house up to five business offices.
“So far, we haven’t been able to cement interest,” she said.
However, houses in the neighborhood continue selling well, said Donna Williams, owner of Live Urban Marketing on M.L. King Boulevard. Prices have almost doubled on some homes in the past five years, she said. Condos and homes in the area can sell for $200,000 to $300,000, records show.
A large partner with the neighborhood is UTC, which has faculty and staff that live in the area. The Design and Planning Studio study showed that more than half the neighborhood’s population was students, with UTC Place Apartments between M.L. King Boulevard and McCallie Avenue housing more than 3,000 students.
Chuck Cantrell, assistant vice chancellor of university relations at UTC, said he can see students latching onto the revitalization plan. Many already have given feedback for the study, he said.
“Their issues are our issues,” Mr. Cantrell said. “Our students have a great interest in commercial development on M.L. King Boulevard. They want to see grocery stores, restaurants, Laundromats. They want a place to call home.”