VOL. 129 | NO. 157 | Wednesday, August 13, 2014
Pinch District Could Lose Historic Designation
By Amos Maki
The Pinch District, one of the city’s oldest commercial districts, could lose its designation on the National Register of Historic Places, a move that would jeopardize existing buildings but possibly make some new development easier.
The buildings along Main Street in the Pinch District are some of the few remaining where the neighborhood now is filled with parking lots.
(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)
The staff of the Tennessee Historical Commission has recommended that the Pinch District, on the north end of Downtown near The Pyramid, should no longer remain on the National Register due to the large number of historic properties that have been lost in the area since it first landed on the national list.
“We have looked at the Pinch District for years and on our last visit we determined there had been a loss of historic buildings and historic fabric,” said Claudette Stager, deputy state historic preservation officer. “There are more new buildings and vacant lots than historic buildings.”
The state commission will vote on the matter Sep. 17, and, if it concurs with the staff’s opinion, the body will send its recommendation to the National Register.
Stager said the move was part of a standard review of historic districts and properties in the area and in no way tied to the redevelopment of The Pyramid into a Bass Pro Shops attraction.
“We never thought of that,” said Stager, referring to The Pyramid redevelopment effort.
The possible loss of the designation came as no surprise to Downtown officials or city planners who say many historic properties were lost when The Pyramid was developed.
“The Pinch largely lost its historic character when we built The Pyramid and didn’t put any restrictions on parking lots,” said Downtown Memphis Commission president Paul Morris, referring to the sea of surface parking lots adjacent to the arena.
The city didn’t want to make that mistake again when FedExForum was built and placed restrictions on the number of surface parking lots that could be developed, which Morris said helped preserve the look and feel of the nearby South Main Historic Arts District.
Nancy Jane Baker, landmarks manager with the city-county Office of Planning and Development, said the National Register doesn’t provide many protections for historic buildings other than requiring a stricter review process, one that seeks to minimize large-scale changes such as demolition, when federal funds are used.
“The National Register really doesn’t provide protection against demolition because if you are the property owner you can do whatever you want with your property, including tear it down,” Baker said.
“The National Register requires any federally funded or licensed project be reviewed and that the project should not adversely affect a listed property or district, so they will lose that protection,” Baker said. “If they come in to use federal funds for redevelopment and they don’t have to go through that review, it will make it easier to demolish historic properties in that area.”
The Pinch District is not a locally designated historic district – a zoning designation that can offer more protections for historic buildings and seeks to preserve the look and feel of certain districts and neighborhoods. The locally designated historic districts have their own guidelines that require property owners to provide stronger justifications for why properties need to be demolished.
“(The National Register) is a prestige listing because it basically tells you abut the history of the area rather than capturing the sense of place, which is what a local district does,” Baker said. “(The local designation) doesn’t prohibit demolition, it just expects a good explanation of why a building needs to be demolished.”
Baker said that if any more historic buildings are lost, the vanishing but still-visible character of the Pinch District – which was first established by Irish immigrants before becoming a predominantly Jewish area – could become nothing more than a memory.
“That was pretty much the core of our first commercial district,” Baker said. “There’s enough left that the feeling of the small commercial area that started Downtown is still there. If we lose many more, we’re not going to be able to tell the story at all.”