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VOL. 127 | NO. 91 | Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Clearing Blockage

Ordinance looks to rid city of street, sidewalk impediments

By Bill Dries

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The block of Madison Avenue between Main and Second streets hasn’t been easy for quite a while.

Pedestrians walk around a makeshift wall that was built after a building collapsed on Madison Avenue between Main and Second streets. The blockage caused Madison to be closed in one direction.  

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

It’s where the Main Street Trolley makes the turn to its Madison Avenue leg. It’s also where the trolleys sit idle for long periods of time seemingly unaware that they coexist with auto traffic. Residents of the Exchange Building who don’t have paid parking routinely park there instead, sometimes despite numerous tickets.

So when the roof of the building at 118 Madison collapsed more than a year ago after a hard rain, a bad situation got worse. No parking. No car traffic. No trolleys going east and west. The barriers still block the north sidewalk and part of the street.

The blockage is the inspiration for a city ordinance now working its way through three readings before the Memphis City Council. Earlier this month on first reading, the council approved the proposal by council member Lee Harris.

The third and final vote should be in June with any amendments coming next week.

“It’s really ridiculous. At the beginning of this process with 118 Madison they just shut down the whole street,” Harris said. “Mind you, it’s not shut down the whole street and we’re doing work to fix the situation. They have no work going on. They just decided to tell their insurance company and lawyer up and delay, delay, delay.”

The city has a process for condemnation and demolition of the building.

The city last month won permission in Shelby County Environmental Court to demolish the circa 1918 row building and bill the cost in a lien on the property whose ownership is disputed.

Records at the Shelby County Assessor’s office show the building is owned by Robert E. and Phyllis Blake of BBB Investments whose address is 2 N. Second St., just around the corner.

In his ordinance, Harris picks up where the process now ends and would impose a fine of $200 a day for every day after 14 days that sidewalks and/or streets are blocked in such a case.

Harris, a professor at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, is still consulting with Environmental Court Judge Larry Potter on the legal fine print. He has already talked with Paul Morris, president of the Downtown Memphis Commission. Morris backs the ordinance, which does not apply to buildings where construction work is under way.

“The concept is that if you are going to steal from the public the sidewalk and the right of passage with an ugly chain-link fence … then you should have to compensate the public,” Morris said. “Right now, unfortunately, there’s not enough motivation to fix up blight. If you own a blighted property, your motivation is to keep it as blighted as possible. That keeps your property value down so you pay less taxes. And we punish you if you increase the value of your property because we charge you more in taxes. It’s sort of backwards in a way.”

Morris and Harris believe the ordinance could also apply to the Hickman building, further east at 240 Madison.

“This ordinance is not at all targeted toward construction projects. It’s not about that. If they’re doing construction, we want to work with them,” Morris said. “What we want to discourage is examples like the Hickman building.”

Morris would also like to see it applied to The Chisca Hotel building at South Main and Linden Avenue. But Harris is more tentative because the Church of God In Christ owns the building.

“I don’t know if this does anything for those cases,” Harris said. “I don’t think the city can get a lien against the churches.”

Harris believes the effect of the ordinance could be to force property owners with no interest in doing any rehabilitation to sell their properties when faced with the prospect of daily fines.

Morris has said recently that the next year could be crucial for the redevelopment or demolition of the hotel with a group of local investors having a contract option on the building.

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