In anticipation of its bicentennial in 2019, Memphis, Tennessee is taking big steps to revitalize one of its oldest neighborhoods. The downtown Pinch District was part of the city’s original plan, but for much of the last 40 years it has seen very little development. In fact, since July 2015 there has been a moratorium on new building permits and additional construction to existing buildings in the area. The Pinch District Concept Study has been put together by the city’s Division of Housing and Community Development, the Memphis/Shelby County Office of Planning and Development, and the Downtown Memphis Commission, with architecture and planning being handled by the Memphis office of Looney Ricks Kiss.
With a recent unanimous approval by the Land Use Control Board (LUCB), the study is on its way to the Memphis City Council. While in front of the LUCB, a resolution was added to the study to ensure that the master plan would act as an outline for future development rather than a true set of building regulations. If the study is approved by the City Council, the moratorium will likely be lifted, much to the pleasure of current Pinch land owners.
The study covers a nine-block area and calls for a diverse set of programs integrated into a mixed-use neighborhood. The proposed neighborhood is based on four main principles: “history/character,” “connected,” “mixed-use,” and “walkable neighborhood.” Pedestrian friendly streets, intersections, and green spaces are an important part of the plan. Additional connections to the Mississippi River, which runs just west of the site, and to the rest of the downtown under the I-40 expressway are also highlighted in the study.
While the neighborhood is decidedly underdeveloped, considering its location’s history, one major recent development looms over the Pinch. The Pyramid Arena, built in 1991, sits between the neighborhood and the water. When it was built, it was imagined that the area would be transformed into an entertainment district. After multiple attempts and failed plans through the late 1990s, the push was mostly abandoned. Originally it was used as a 20,142-seat sporting venue for the University of Memphis men’s basketball, as well as the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies. Eventually, a new stadium built on the south side of the downtown left the Pyramid vacant. In 2015 the Pyramid reopened as a Bass Pro Shops megastore and hotel. It should be noted that Memphis is the second Memphis, after the ancient Egyptian city, so the pyramid sort of makes sense.
The Pinch itself was one of the first landing places for numerous immigrant populations including Irish, Italian, Russian, Greek, and Jewish communities. The name Pinch comes from the nickname of “Pinch-Gut” given to the area as a derogatory reference to the starving emaciated Irish immigrants escaping the potato famine of the mid-1800s.
While the new vision of the Pinch still has a long way to go before being realized, it would seem the area may be entering a new era in its long history.