‘Major Developer’ to Save Blighted Marina Cove

By Bill Dries

For years the owners of Marina Cove apartments at 5505 Winchester Road in Hickory Hill have defied city attempts to force a demolition or at least a cleanup of the property.

Water Gardens LLC, of Smyrna, Ga., has even prevailed over the ultimate local weapon in such disputes – a declaration from Environmental Court that the property is a nuisance under state law. The declaration came last year with a settlement in which the owners agreed to clean up the property.

This week the city of Memphis came to terms with the owners in a settlement that involves $700,000 in city funds to allow a community development corporation to claim the land. The city will then level the site.

The deal has a June 30 expiration date and city leaders were anxious to meet the deadline.

The money will go toward back taxes – estimated at $200,000 – and other fees and liens the owners have racked up over the years.

City Council chairman Harold Collins told The Daily News he isn’t happy with the arrangement.

“Oh no, not at all,” he said. “But because I don’t want to jeopardize the transaction I’m going to reserve the rest of my comments.”

But Collins, who represents the district that includes Marina Cove, added the city might still go after Water Gardens, which bought the 394-unit complex out of bankruptcy in the summer of 2004.

“The city of Memphis is not finished with the ownership group,” he said. “We are going to do our part to make that property what it’s supposed to be. Within the next ten days. We are not finished. Stay tuned.”

Collins and Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr.’s administration are already considering state legislation that would change the rules for out-of-town owners of neglected properties.

After Tuesday’s committee session in which the new game plan was outlined, Collins, council member Myron Lowery and others talked excitedly about such a pursuit in the hallway outside the council committee room. Lowery questioned why the city couldn’t just confiscate the property.

“Tennessee law allows them (Water Gardens) to get behind on their taxes three consecutive years,” Collins explained. “What they will do is go in and pay one year of taxes, which then starts the ball all over again. … It hinders us. The city of Memphis has thousands of properties owned by people who don’t even live in our community who do the very same thing.”

The City Council approved a transfer of $700,000 from money set aside for demolition to the city’s division of Housing and Community Development (HCD), which is giving it to Power Center Community Development Corp. as a grant.

HCD will put the $700,000 back in the line item for demolition out of federal money it gets in early July.

“While this may not have been one of those instances where we have a history of doing it before, today is a new day,” Collins told fellow council members. “We have to do things differently to make sure we have success in our community.”

Power Center CDC, a nonprofit founded by New Direction Christian Church pastor Stacy Spencer, is working with an unidentified “major developer” on commercial and retail uses in a master plan expected to debut in September or October.

Collins would only say the developer is locally based with a proven track record.

Many of the vacant apartment units were long ago stripped of copper tubing and wiring when the price for the scrap metal was high.

The Marina Cove canals, once considered a unique feature of the complex when it opened in the 1970s, are now a health concern because of the standing water. And the property has become a dumping ground, especially for tires.

City Community Enhancement Director Ernest Dobbins said his division didn’t want to demolish the site without a development plan following close behind.

“All we’re going to have is a dump site and another place to clean up,” he said. “But we’ve finally got a major developer to come out there.”

The CDC’s executive director Derwin Sisnett said there are also plans to move the Power Center’s charter school to the site as it expands from a middle school to include a high school.

“Instead of having an auditorium inside the school, we’re looking to give back to the community and erect an auditorium as a performing arts center,” Sisnett told the council this week.