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VOL. 125 | NO. 217 | Monday, November 8, 2010

Real Estate Recycling

Hickory Hill's big boxes gain new life as businesses move out

By Bill Dries

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David Harrison, left, and Craig Scott of Springfield Sign & Neon install signage on the Incredible Pizza Co. in part of the old Macy's store at Hickory Ridge Mall after a storm damaged and shut down the mall.


Photos: Lance Murphey

If sustainability is defined as reuse of land and/or structures for new purposes, Hickory Hill may be the capital of the concept in Memphis.

Consider New Direction Christian Church, which found a home in a vacant big box store and now plans to transform a vacant and blighted apartment complex into a charter middle and high school with a performing arts center. The bulldozers began demolishing the Marina Cove apartments complex last month.

New Direction’s home is directly across Winchester Road from the Hickory Ridge Mall, a once-teeming retail center heavily damaged in a 2008 storm. The mall was later bought and restored by another place of worship, World Overcomers Outreach Ministries Church, whose sanctuary is the former Central Church at Winchester and Kirby Parkway.

The notion of recycling buildings is a popular one in today’s difficult economy, and Hickory Hill has dozens of success stories where churches or other entities adapted vacant big-box stores for new uses. But for the beleaguered community to sustain a serious comeback, it will require a return of private investment to uproot the reality of the last 15 to 20 years when businesses moved away to greener pastures.

Danny Buring, partner in the Memphis office of The Shopping Center Group LLC, counts 6 million to 7 million square feet of retail space in the area today with an estimated 1 million square feet as vacant.

“Hickory Hill is not any better or any worse than any of the other areas,” he said. “It’s just that there is so much retail square footage out there. They’ve got the largest pawn shop I’ve ever seen in a vacant Target. For the alternative user, it’s great because you can buy a vacant box or property for a lot cheaper than you could ever build something.”

Buring sold New Direction its sanctuary, an old Service Merchandise store, a few years after the Rev. Stacy Spencer formed the church in 2001. Spencer and the congregation call New Direction’s 22-acre campus “The Power Center.” It includes a restaurant and the Power Center Academy, the charter middle school founded by the church three years ago.

Jay Jackson of Specialty Abatement is part of a crew removing asbestos from Marina Cove apartments.

New Direction also has its own community investment group called Power Center Community Development Corp. That group has teamed with planners Askew Hargraves Harcourt & Associates Inc. (A2H) to rejuvenate the 23-acre Marina Cove apartment complex.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s – Hickory Hill’s boom years – Marina Cove was a hip place to live. For more than a decade, though, its absentee out-of-town owner performed only the legal minimum upkeep required by the city as it emptied out and ultimately was condemned.

Power Center CDC bought the complex from Atlanta-based Water Gardens LLC with a $700,000 grant from the city of Memphis out of the city’s federally supplied demolition fund. It was a decisive step that was followed weeks later by the church and CDC going public with their plans for Power Center Academy Towne Center at the site.

“Right now we are writing the vision, making sure we come up with a great master plan so that when we go to the different donors and foundations, they see that we’ve put every thought into it and we’ve been strategic in our planning,” Spencer said.

The centerpiece and first phase of the development is a new home for New Direction’s three-year-old charter middle school. The new school building would also see the charter school expand to include a high school. If the school gets built, Spencer and Derwin Sisnett, CDC’s executive director, hope it will be a catalyst for private investment in the other phases, including a performing arts center, a recreation area, about 50 homes and a commercial strip along Winchester.

“The town center kind of mushroomed out of the academy,” Spencer said. “We never really said we’re going to start an academy so we can build a town center. But after building a successful school, we said let’s extend that reach and now build a stronger community with the school being an anchor.”

Sisnett said the charter school will rely on traditional donors.

“It’s a hot topic right now,” he said. “Some would say the charter school movement is the new civil rights movement. So you have a lot of attention dedicated to charter schools. With the success of Power Center Academy … we’ve always had a waiting list. I think that will help us bring some of the financiers to the table.”

Among those in the audience for the unveiling of the general plan was Archie Willis of Community Capital, most recently involved in the Legends Park housing development whose first phase opened last month on the site of what was the Dixie Homes public housing project.

The Statue of Liberation through Christ stands outside Hickory Hill’s World Overcomers Outreach Ministries Church, which renovated and reopened Hickory Ridge Mall.

But unlike Legends Park, Hickory Hill’s aspiring remake so far has been done with very little demolition. The Marina Cove apartments long awaited demolition last month was delayed after asbestos was found in some units. The importance of the demolition as a symbol remained as Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. got behind the wheel of a bulldozer to bring down the first piece of the first building.

After years of change including annexation and what many call white flight, the community now seems on the verge of settling into a kind of stability that developers look for in a market.

Buring has watched the area’s recovery from three “devastating” trends that followed the area’s boom years – a period many Memphians recall fondly and contrast sharply with the area’s current economic struggles.

“Everything in Memphis moves east,” he said. “So it was moving east irrespective. The new highway (Tenn. 385) just pushed that eastern migration even faster. Then the area was annexed into the city so all the people that wanted to only pay county taxes and wanted their kids in county schools, they either moved east or possibly moved south into North Mississippi.”

Before the push east began moving past Hickory Hill, there was lots of public money in the way of incentives for retailers to add stores. It was a huge growth period, and Hickory Hill grew even though its mall and businesses weren’t near a highway interchange like the nearby (and now defunct) Mall of Memphis in Parkway Village.

The new reality of Hickory Hill arose when Sisnett was paired with Logan Meeks of A2H in a Memphis Leadership Academy class. Sisnett began asking the planner a lot of questions about sustainability, mixed uses, grants and development – and how they could work in Hickory Hill.

“I’ve had an opportunity to see some of the development habits that have taken place here,” said Meeks who has lived in Memphis for 14 years, enough time to watch the arc of Hickory Hill. “I know there are some challenges that exist because of the way Hickory Hill was developed in the ’70s and ’80s.”

Buring said the opening of Tenn. 385 (also known as Bill Morris Parkway or, to many, Nonconnah Parkway) helped change the character of an area where retail boomed even as residential development was waning. More than anything, it benefited certain communities more than others.

“If you lived in Olive Branch and worked anywhere Downtown, if you were coming southeast you would think about getting off at Mendenhall or Poplar to get to Olive Branch,” he said. “Nonconnah Parkway cut your commute by half or a third. Inadvertently, 385 helped that east side of Desoto County explode even faster.”

Retail followed Tenn. 385’s extension with shopping centers sprouting at each of its interchanges. Cross Creek Center opened at Riverdale and Winchester roads in 1996. The Avenue Carriage Crossing opened at Houston Levee Road in Collierville in 2005. Numerous retail centers opened at Hacks Cross and Winchester, close to Tenn. 385 and the FedEx world headquarters.

Decades ago, other developers looked at Hickory Hill – namely the stretch of Winchester between Mendenhall and Riverdale – and saw the same potential that developers today see farther east. Bringing developers back to Hickory Hill, whether it’s for new development or, most likely, the reuse of existing buildings will require better planning, said Memphis City Council chairman Harold Collins, whose district includes Hickory Hill.

“They’re going to need an overlay,” Collins whispered to those around him as the Power Center plan was unveiled.

An overlay is set of guidelines for development in a general area. The Elvis Presley Boulevard area of Whitehaven has one. So does the University of Memphis area. But the Midtown overlay is probably the best known because of the recent controversies like proposals to develop the south side of Overton Square as a supermarket and build a CVS pharmacy where Union Avenue United Methodist Church stands. The CVS pharmacy has been approved. The Overton Square supermarket was withdrawn by the developer.

Others in the crowd at the New Direction event shared Collins’ concern. They believe a commercial strip along the Winchester frontage would do well, but some wanted to know if the tenants would include check-cashing or payday-loan businesses, the type of commerce community leaders want to keep out of a potentially reinvigorated Hickory Hill.

Sisnett quickly assured them none would be allowed in the development, and Collins’ point is that an overlay would prevent them from setting up nearby.

The fact that this type of discussion prevails is indicative of a community fighting for a new image. It also points to the reality that the Power Center Academy, scheduled to open in the fall of 2012, could be a pass-or-fail test for the larger Hickory Hill comeback.

PROPERTY SALES 0 133 1,342
MORTGAGES 0 131 1,047