A Sense of Place

How June West and Memphis Heritage Give Historic Preservation a Voice

By Eric Smith

June West of Memphis Heritage says a local developer is working on a plan that would save a large number of the existing properties at Overton Square. West campaigned against a proposed 53,000-square-foot "high-end" grocery grocery store and suburban-style redevelopment that would have demolished the Midtown property.  Photos: Lance Murphey

June West was born with a proverbial thick skin. She said her parents blessed her with an uncanny ability to take criticism in stride, an important trait for anyone who faces the verbal abuse that West routinely absorbs as executive director of the nonprofit Memphis Heritage Inc.

West doesn’t shy away from the confrontations at public meetings. Nor does she avoid reader comments – no matter how vitriolic and mean-spirited they might be – that are tacked onto articles about Memphis Heritage’s latest efforts.

Instead, West, who cringes at the word “battle” but can’t help but using it whenever she describes her organization’s latest crusade, thrives on the controversy she helps stir. In fact, any kind of disparaging remark is more fuel for her fire.

“It makes me want to work harder to have people understand,” she said. “But some people you’re never going to convince, because that’s what they do. They’re naysayers. They want to find the negative. They see the glass half empty. I see it half full. I’m a diehard optimist.”

West is optimistic these days. Thanks to her efforts, as well as those of Memphis Heritage’s board of directors and numerous supporters, the organization within the last two years has been victorious in some high-profile preservation “battles.”

A freestanding wall from Cumberland Presbyterian Church. An outdoor seating area for the restaurant now sits behind the wall of the church.

West pushed to preserve the façade of Cumberland Presbyterian Church’s administration building, now the centerpiece of perhaps the most unique Chick-fil-A restaurant in the world. She also led the crusade that kept Overton Square from being redeveloped into what the organization deemed a suburban-style grocery store unfit for the historic Midtown entertainment district.

And, in the last few weeks, West spearheaded a campaign opposing CVS Corp.’s plans to raze the Union Avenue United Methodist Church and build a pharmacy, another development that Memphis Heritage and others say is a mismatch.

Rather than gloat over these triumphs – especially the CVS deal, which might happen with Memphis City Council approval – West would rather emphasize one of Memphis Heritage’s slogans, “You don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone,” as the reason community members rallied around these causes. Officially, Memphis Heritage’s mission is to “educate and coordinate individuals and groups to save, improve, reuse and maintain architecturally and historically significant buildings, streets, neighborhoods, parks, and cultural artifacts of Shelby County, Tennessee.”

Memphis Heritage, since its founding in 1975, has worked to distance the city from its bulldozing ways, but the organization also believes in promoting smart development, something West said is overlooked when lines are drawn in the sand and preservationists and developers square off.

West, a former developer of senior assisted-living facilities, understands the need for progress, even in so-called battlegrounds like Midtown.

“I, as much as the other guy, want to see development. I want the right kind of development, and we need to do things that make things the right kind of development,” said West, Memphis Heritage’s only fulltime employee. “If we were just trying to save everything because it was old, I wouldn’t be a member of Memphis Heritage.”

‘Not anti-development’

A freestanding wall from Cumberland Presbyterian Church. An outdoor seating area for the restaurant now sits behind the wall of the church.

West’s passion and conviction shine through whenever she discusses recent successes or future preservation targets, like the Chisca Hotel. It’s those attributes that have made her the right person for this post since she was hired in 2002, said Joey Hagan, principal at Architecture Inc. and a member of Memphis Heritage’s board of directors.

“What makes Memphis Heritage so successful, quite frankly, is June West,” Hagan said. “She is not, despite what people might say, anti-development. She is anti-wrong-development, as are all of the board members.”

Hagan echoed West’s comments that the organization isn’t trying to keep projects from moving forward merely for the sake of halting progress. Instead, Memphis Heritage wants to ensure that developers don’t tear something down only to build a big-box eyesore with no concern for the look and feel of surrounding structures.

“We want it to be done right,” Hagan said. “We don’t want to destroy the urban fabric in the process.”

But the questions levied against West in particular and Memphis Heritage in general revolve around apparent attempts to stop anything and everything from being built in Midtown, even if a new development would bring in tax dollars and even if a property’s historical value seems dubious.

“Protecting structures which are truly significant to the history of a city certainly has benefit, but often human nature takes over and the voice of protecting those truly significant properties grows louder and begins to include properties which are simply obsolete and are not critical to the historical nature of a community,” said Scott Barton, senior vice president for retail services at CB Richard Ellis Memphis. “A property such as Union Avenue United Methodist Church likely falls into this category.”

June West of Memphis Heritage, Inc., is campaigning to save Union Avenue Methodist Church, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, from becoming a CVS pharmacy.

At some point, many people fear, the CVS’ of the world – not to mention grocery stores and other retail offerings – will stop looking at Midtown because the logistics of getting a project approved will become too difficult, however positive the demographics might look on paper.

“As someone in the real estate business, I worry that developers will shy away from needed redevelopment projects in areas like Midtown out of fear of opposition they consider to be uncompromising,” Barton said. “Urban infill development is costly. There is a tipping point of opposition which tends to force developers to do the simpler developments in the suburbs, continuing our sprawl and still depriving urban dwellers of the services they would like to see nearby.”

This roadblock could be bolstered by the “Midtown Overlay,” a short-term, nonbinding set of development guidelines being established as part of the Unified Development Code that recommends parking in the rear or to the side. It’s the kind of urban design that Memphis Heritage supports, but one that retailers are leery of because it often doesn't match their tried development plans.

But the overlay’s purpose is to keep Midtown from looking like the suburbs. West and Memphis Heritage – and even most commercial developers – would agree on that.

“I could certainly see how they don’t want to see the buildings on Union turn into Germantown Parkway,” said Danny Buring, partner at The Shopping Center Group of Memphis. “Bottom line there has to be something in between. Chick-fil-A is the perfect example of something in between.”

Buring, however, warned that Memphis Heritage’s ability to sway groups like the Land Use Control Board to reconsider or even shelve projects is disconcerting.

“It seems they have a lot of power for something that is not part of the city,” he said.

Zoning matters

A Nexus for Debating Properties’ True Value

The recent debates about preservation and development are nothing new for Midtown, which has had different faces as different generations have lived there. As the generations have overlapped, familiar places with new names or new uses are still referred to by old names.
The Piggly Wiggly supermarket on Madison has been there long enough to be “The Pig,” but you still find the occasional Midtowner who will refer to it as the old Fred Montesi’s.
On a raised lot on the eastern side of the property is a cemetery where one of the families that originally settled Memphis is buried.
Developers and preservationists have tangled before on Union Avenue. In the 1970s, the old Napoleon Hill mansion was demolished for a fast food place after lots of debate. It also was one of the early controversies that gave Memphis Heritage Inc. some momentum in its early days.
On the other hand, a ballroom that had been an annex of the Nineteenth Century Club was demolished without much debate at all in the 1980s to make way for a Taco Bell.
The club itself was recently ordered by Environmental Court Judge Larry Potter to begin making expensive and long delayed repairs to the historic structure at 1433 Union.
The French Quarter Inn was built after the old Solomon Alfred’s was demolished in the 1980s. The hotel sits off the street with parking on front on the Madison Avenue side. But there is a brick wall by the sidewalk. A hotel in the square has also been a long time goal for the district.
Playhouse on the Square opened its new theater on the northeast corner of Union and Cooper earlier this year. The theater company then turned the old Playhouse across Cooper into the new Circuit Theater and continues to run TheatreWorks nearby. The three facilities amount to a Midtown theater district in a two block area across Union Avenue from the church.
“I tore down a building myself,” Playhouse founder Jackie Nichols said earlier this year as he prepared to open the $12.5 million theater on the northeast corner of Union and Cooper.
“I think there also needs to be a concerted effort to create an urban look in the square area because that’s what we’re all about,” he said as the Overton Square controversy was coming to an end. ‘We’ve chosen to build this building, which is a contemporary modern building because we are a contemporary theater – we’ve chosen to build it in an urban fashion.”
– Bill Dries

But as City Council member Shea Flinn is quick to point out, it’s not “just Memphis Heritage or June West” that is fighting against unsightly big-box redevelopment in Midtown.

“It’s the community as a whole that is saying we live in Midtown for a reason. We have expectations,” Flinn said. “It’s somewhat offensive when you’ll talk to certain companies and they’ll say, ‘We’re coming into Memphis. You can’t put these restrictions on us. Who do you think you are, Germantown?’”

That became clear in the early stages of the CVS application, when company executives asked Flinn if the Midtown overlay was “aimed” at them.

“Their big complaint was that Ike’s – their competitor – would be able to do one thing and they wanted to be able to have apples to apples with the parking,” he said.

Ike’s, across Cooper from the proposed CVS store, has a parking lot in front and is set back from the street, much like the CVS plan but incongruous with the overlay. Flinn, who pushed for the development of the overlay as a response to the Overton Square controversy and not the CVS application, said it can be “where art and commerce intersect” with developers knowing what the standards are.

“I think the Midtown overlay helps with that,” he said. “It makes it where it’s not meeting on Chick-fil-A, Overton Square – everything’s a new battle. … It makes it easier for the community and it makes it easier on the developer.”

The City Council could get the case sometime in September if CVS pursues the matter. If it does, the council is certain to revisit a favorite zoning case of pro-development council members. The story involves CVS rival Walgreens, which several years ago wanted to build a new store at Summer and East Parkway.

The council turned it down, citing the chain’s habit of building new stores across the street or close to existing Walgreens. Veteran council members from the time, now three in number on the 13-member body, lament that nothing has been built on the corner since then. But some of the newer council members who took office in 2008 have looked at the dilemma differently.

“We can say what our community looks like. … There will be a next guy,” Flinn said. “If the community doesn’t want it there, then you’ve got to ask how successful it would be. No one is saying CVS can’t develop here. … It’s not the either-or situation. There’s still room for compromise.”

Finding compromise

Compromise is one of West’s favorite words, although her detractors might dispute her understanding of it. Where they see a missed opportunity for a new Midtown grocery store, she points to Chick-fil-A, where architects from both the restaurant and Memphis Heritage worked together.

“No one should dig their heels in and not be willing to compromise,” West said. “If you’re in that situation, you’ll never win. Both parties have to see the light of that way.”

West acknowledges that Memphis Heritage needs to better fight the perception that only they want to save everything old, not caring if it sits empty and blighted. They also need to more actively seek redevelopers for the projects they stymied in the first place, such as Overton Square and now potentially Union Avenue UMC. West said she is working with groups to take over those projects, although commercial developers are doubtful of how reliable and viable those might be.

“While we’re doing the preservation support and advocacy, we’re also working behind the scenes to find a solution,” West said. “People just think we’re trying to be obstructionists, but there’s a method to it. Not that there’s always success, but obviously Chick-fil-A came up with that design after we talked to them.”

Another sticking point for Memphis Heritage – one that comes up often in those online reader comments – is property rights. West said she understands the criticism about staking a claim in preserving a property when it doesn’t own it.

She hopes that will soon change. Memphis Heritage is renewing its efforts to cultivate the New Century Fund, an ambitious program it launched before the recession hit and is now touting once anew. The goal is to raise $3 million and become a funding agency for preservation in Memphis. It would provide matching funds for organizations – churches, for example – that need money to make repairs and preserve their historic properties. Memphis Heritage has raised $60,000 to date.

The fundraising campaign, like all of the organization’s efforts, goes toward Memphis Heritage’s – and West's – mission to be a voice for the historic properties that can’t speak for themselves.

“Yes, we have a bias. There’s no getting around that,” West said. “But we do try to be as objective as possible and never misrepresent anything. I think that will carry us a long way. It’s for what we consider the greater good.”

Daily News senior reporter Bill Dries contributed to this report.