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VOL. 129 | NO. 35 | Thursday, February 20, 2014

Three Town Center Concepts Take Shape

By Bill Dries

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The city of Memphis would move government offices into two shopping malls and the Soulsville Town Center under tentative “conceptual” plans Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. took Tuesday, Feb. 18, to the Memphis City Council.

The city would move government offices into two shopping malls and the Soulsville Town Center under tentative plans.

(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

The trio of “town centers” also includes a council decision to come on whether to renovate Southbrook Mall in Whitehaven at an estimated $7.6 million or demolish it and rebuild for an estimated $13.7 million.

And at its March 4 meeting, the council will vote on going ahead with another $7.6 million in funding to begin construction of a Memphis Police Department traffic precinct on the footprint of the Raleigh Springs Mall.

All three projects hinge on moving government offices or facilities into the properties as a catalyst for private development. But the back stories of the three developments are different.

Soulsville was built before the recent plan for government offices. It was also built before the onset of the recession, which cost the center an early anchor tenant of a supermarket.

Southbrook Mall, which opened in the 1970s, has evolved into a larger makeover than the $1.5 million in city funding for roof and heating and air conditioning repairs council member Janis Fullilove proposed last year.

It ran afoul of the ban on using such capital funds for what city attorneys came to consider a “private use.” Wharton’s administration returned this week with a very general but broader plan. Wharton wants to link the plan to streetscape improvements along Elvis Presley Boulevard as well as the developing Aerotropolis plan for a number of land uses and types of development with Memphis International Airport at the core of all of the development.

The Raleigh Springs Mall makeover is the most detailed of the three town center projects with a plan that details moving not only the police traffic precinct to the mall site but the Old Allen Station police precinct – the oldest active precinct building in the city – as well as a new Raleigh branch public library.

For the last three fiscal years, the city has had funding to build a new traffic precinct and initially Wharton had decided to build it on another corner at Austin Peay Highway and Yale Road where the city bought a supermarket building during the tenure of former Mayor Willie Herenton.

Herenton’s plan was to put the city’s information technology services in a new building on the site. But a scrambling of the city’s finances in 2005 sidelined that and similar plans.

Council member Bill Morrison was instrumental in the mall plan.

“When we come to the table, let’s make sure we come to the table whole.”

–Wanda Halbert
City Council member

“Why would you build a $8 million traffic precinct across the street when there’s a huge blighted area sitting right there where we might get more bang for our buck?” Morrison asked again Tuesday. “All it allows us to do is go forward with spending the $7.6 million that has been approved three different years. We have sat here patiently waiting for this.”

Wharton and city Housing and Community Development Director Robert Lipscomb began haltingly in presenting the three projects, interrupted several times by council members who wanted to know where the ideas came from.

“When we come to the table, let’s make sure we come to the table whole,” council member Wanda Halbert said after questioning why some on the council were involved in some of the plans but other council members weren’t involved in projects in their districts.

Halbert has advocated extending any Whitehaven plans north across Brooks Road, where Elvis Presley Boulevard becomes Bellevue, which is in her district.

Wharton emphasized the plans so far are tentative and general for the three town centers.

“On other projects, council members said quit bringing that stuff in here once it’s already done,” he said. “Maybe we’ve gone too far back and we’re bringing concepts in now. It is a concept that we would like to get double use out of public dollars.”

The discussion was sidetracked by the still prominent communication gap between the council and administration, especially on large-scale redevelopment projects. The gap became more pronounced as the administration was forced to balance such projects with the still forming proposal it will make for remedying the city’s unfunded pension liability.

“The council may say we don’t like that,” Wharton said of the three town center projects. “We’ll go back and come back with something else. We were chastised, and properly so, about bringing projects in here signed, sealed and delivered and asking for a rubber stamp.”

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