The University of Memphis professor spearheading the opposition of demolishing the city’s last remaining public housing project in the Vance Avenue neighborhood says that while the Heritage Trail Community Redevelopment Plan appears to be on “indefinite hold,” it is not dead, and Downtowners should beware.
“This year it’s Vance Avenue who’s gotten screwed – not quite yet,” Ken Reardon said at the Tuesday, Feb. 12, South Main Association meeting. “Next year it could be South Main or Downtown. I think that is unconscionable.”
Reardon, director of the U of M graduate program in city and regional planning, and a group that would become known as the Vance Avenue Collaborative were contracted by the city in 2009 to explore federal funding to reimage Foote Homes and the Vance Avenue neighborhood.
It was a result of President Barack Obama’s new Choice Neighborhood program – a continuation of Hope VI where federal money was used to demolish public housing projects and replace them with mixed-use, mixed-income development.
For six months, Reardon and the Vance Avenue Collaborative of 22 community-based organizations gauged public sentiment and advanced a plan that would preserve Foote Homes as a public housing development.
“When you ask residents under any variety of circumstances – two out of three unambiguously told us they not only did not want the housing project to come down, but they wanted it improved,” Reardon said. “They thought … that the social networks they had in that complex would be unlikely to be matched in these new locations where they’d be isolated from the services they need.”
But after reporting the findings to Robert Lipscomb, executive director of Memphis Housing Authority, Reardon said the U of M’s contract was terminated. The planning process and website with 20,000 pages of documentation were also shut down.
In response, Reardon and his team completed the Vance Avenue Transformation Plan last fall pro bono – a 140-page plan to invest $50 million in improvements to public safety, education, health care, housing, locally-generated businesses, and the neighborhood’s culture.
All the while, Reardon said Lipscomb was evaluating a 10-year old economic development plan called Triangle Noir, also known as the Black Triangle. Former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton and Lipscomb picked the name for the project as a way of highlighting the concentration of sites in the area related to the history of African-Americans in the city.
Reardon said the models used in the original plan included the French Quarter in New Orleans, 18th & Vine Jazz District in Kansas City, Mo., and 125th Street in Harlem, New York – all areas with scarce residential populations that have been “completely gentrified for a tourist consumption district.”
The plan was written and designed a decade ago by Jimmie Tucker of Self-Tucker Architects, who owns the Universal Life Insurance Building at the corner of Danny Thomas Boulevard and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue.
“If I’m shaping the policy for an area, generally, I’m not supposed to then be part of the development team because I might unconsciously or consciously shape my proposals to benefit my bottom line,” Reardon said. “And he’s a major property owner in the area affected.”
Reardon added that the history of the term Triangle Noir has two meanings.
“It was the extermination project of the Germans for non-Jews who were a pain in the ass,” he said. “If you were an artist, a labor leader, an educator, a Catholic or a Lithuanian who had ideas about cultural identity and they thought you were going to be a problem for the Third Reich, instead of getting the yellow star of David and off to the royal treatment on Auschwitz or Buchenwald, you got the Black Triangle and you got the same treatment.
“The second definition of Triangle Noir has to do with a French whorehouse and a full-service experience that has to do with a particularly erogenous zone of women.”
Lipscomb and Herenton’s successor, A C Wharton Jr., changed the name to Heritage Trail after some Memphis City Council members said they didn’t like the name. Reardon said Lipscomb “dusted off” the old Triangle Noir plan, “updated it and put it on steroids.”
Developed by the MHA and the city’s Division of Housing and Community Development (which Lipscomb also heads), the 227-page plan received some pushback because it asked the Community Redevelopment Agency to consider declaring Downtown Memphis to be a slum, blighted and growing menace.
The next step would have been implementing a Tax Increment Financing district throughout the entire area – that overlaps with tax incentives used by the Center City Revenue Finance Corp. – to collect the taxes from the area and use most of the money on the redevelopment of Cleaborn and Foote homes.
It was projected that the TIF would have redirected $102.7 million of city and county property taxes to the agency over the next 20 years.
“The neighborhood has never received a presentation of this plan,” Reardon said. “It has never been presented to any subcommittee of City Council until after the fact. He went directly to the taxing authority, the CRA, and tried to score with one shot $102 million to fund this thing.”
The CRA has not made a decision on TIF financing and the Wharton administration has since said it is looking for other ways of financing the plan. Shelby County also decided to take a position against the Heritage Trail plan, making the MHA’s passage of it less likely in the near future.
Reardon concluded by prefacing that his efforts were about “what kind of a community we’re going to have and who’s going to get a chance to decide.”
“Otherwise, it’s going to be tough to get the best and the brightest of our own community to stay and to attract others to join us in the Memphis revitalization effort, which Downtown really lit the match on before the real estate bubble bottomed out.”