A view of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Uptown as seen through a chain-link fence.
St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and ALSAC are seeking a zoning variance for a 1,600-space, seven-story parking garage on a green space that was set aside to become a park in the neighborhood’s master plan, which the entities helped develop. Photo by Lucy Garrett for MLK50

St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is growing quickly, and its neighbors to the north are increasingly frustrated with their lack of input on that growth.

As part of a $1.9 billion expansion of its campus, the hospital recently unveiled plans for a 1,600-space parking garage at the northwest corner of A.W. Willis Avenue and Fourth Street — its first building north of the avenue. 

“We want to continue to treat more and more children and fuel discoveries for here in Memphis and for around the world. We need this garage in order to complete this expansion,” said Sara Hall, chief legal officer and general counsel for St. Jude’s sister entity and fundraising arm, ALSAC.

Neighbors MLK50: Justice Through Journalism spoke with unanimously expressed support for St. Jude’s mission but also worry about the garage itself and what it will lead to in the future. 

“Do they do good work? Yes,” said Dave Allred, 59. “(But) they have lots of property to build on without encroaching on our neighborhood.”

Community members fear the garage will bring traffic and pollution, harm their property values and set a precedent for more industrial-sized buildings on their doorstep. 

“Once a structure like a garage makes that impact at the beginning of a community, it’s going to change the makeup of the community forever,” said Valerie Peavy, founder of the recently closed cafe, The Office@Uptown. 

Peavy and other neighbors say they’re particularly frustrated because the project contradicts past statements and actions by St. Jude and ALSAC. In 2018, the hospital helped create the Uptown Community Plan, which projected the garage site as a new park, and multiple meeting attendees said the hospital had previously stated it wouldn’t cross north of A.W. Willis. 

Roughly 25 people showed up to a meeting hosted by ALSAC on Tuesday evening, and they voiced seemingly unanimous opposition to the parking garage. Mostly Black, the crowd represented a community that is 80% Black and has an average income of about $29,000, according to the most recent data for the immediate census tract.

Uptown Community Garden (left) currently sits on the back part of the site where St. Jude is proposing its new parking garage. Photo by Lucy Garrett for MLK50. Before their community meetings, St. Jude and ALSAC submitted these preliminary renderings of the garage to the Memphis and Shelby County Office of Planning and Development. Rendering courtesy of the Memphis and Shelby County Office of Planning and Development.

During the meeting, Hall presented new renderings of the garage, which showed a white exterior instead of a pink one, 3,000 square feet of retail space at the garage’s base and a park just west of the garage — all changes meant to address concerns neighbors had previously expressed. She also told residents about ways the hospital has helped the neighborhood in the past — including supporting Uptown’s tax-increment financing district — and repeatedly voiced the hospital’s heart for Uptown.

“Our hope for the garage is that it activates this side of A.W. Willis, that employees … will see it as a place to live,” Hall said. “I can assure you that we want the Uptown community to thrive.”

Lee Johnson, a resident of Uptown, speaks at a community meeting.
Lee Johnson, a member of the neighborhood for the past 13 years, disagrees with St. Jude representative Sara Hall about the impact and involvement that St. Jude has with the Uptown community. Memphis, Tenn., Tues Nov 9, 2021. Photo by Lucy Garrett for MLK50

Still, her presentation wasn’t well-received. 

“If you want to be a really good neighbor, isn’t there somewhere else you could build that?” asked Lee Johnson, who has lived in the neighborhood for 13 years. 

Hall said the hospital has been working with the City of Memphis to build a parking garage on land southeast of the intersection of A.W. Willis and Danny Thomas Boulevard, which the city has used for parking and refueling vehicles. However, she said the city has been slow to remove the underground fueling tanks and the hospital has realized it will need two new garages anyway — at that original site and the new one north of A.W. Willis — to accommodate the thousands of jobs it is adding. While the hospital owns numerous properties east, west and north of its campus, Hall said no others met the hospital’s needs for this project.

Perhaps the most interesting exchange of the evening was between Hall and Jim Boyd, who recently retired as executive director of Memphis’ largest grant-making entity, The Pyramid Peak Foundation.

 Former BRIDGES and Pyramid Peak Foundation leader Jim Boyd called the garage’s location “a tragic mistake.” Photo by Lucy Garrett for MLK50
ALSAC Chief Legal Officer and General Counsel Sara Hall makes the hospital’s case for the garage. Photo by Lucy Garrett for MLK50

For 16 years, Boyd was president of the nonprofit that the hospital wants to build the garage next to, BRIDGES USA. He told Hall that Richard C. Shadyac Sr., the late co-founder of the hospital, told him 20 years ago that St. Jude wouldn’t expand north of the thoroughfare. Boyd then called the garage “an enormous distortion (of the neighborhood).” 

“I just have to say there’s a great deal of disappointment on my part with regard to St. Jude and the way you have treated the neighborhood,” Boyd said. “I just think it’s a tragic mistake, and you ought to listen to the neighborhood and find a different place to put that building.”

ALSAC and St. Jude are seeking a zoning variance for the project, as the land is currently zoned for mixed-use or high-density residential development and not parking. To achieve this, the project will be reviewed by the Memphis & Shelby County Board of Adjustment and would ultimately need approval by the Memphis City Council.

The Community Redevelopment Agency recently wrote a letter to Memphis & Shelby County Zoning Administrator Josh Whitehead in October that asks him to respect “the wishes of the community” when considering the parking garage.

Mary Wainwright — a 62-year-old member of the CRA’s advisory board — said what really worries her is not whether this one parking garage will be built — it’s what St. Jude will do next.

ALSAC owns about 6 acres of undeveloped land lining the north side of A.W. Willis, not counting the parking garage site, according to the Shelby County Assessor of Property website. Wainwright thinks the entity will continue erecting tall fences and taller buildings, expanding its campus with little regard for neighbors.

“Once they get a little bit, they’re going to come back for more,” she said.

Jacob Steimer is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at Jacob.Steimer@mlk50.com

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