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VOL. 129 | NO. 123 | Wednesday, June 25, 2014

New Nonprofit Charts Role in Blight Fight

By Bill Dries

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The bulldozer went straight for the leasing office of the former Spanish Oaks apartments on Cazassa Road near Memphis International Airport.

Meanwhile another bulldozer across the two-lane road was deep into demolishing a set of buildings in the old Winchester Park apartments.

George Cates, the retired founder of MAA, is leading Neighborhood Preservation Inc., a new nonprofit that is working with the city and county to return blighted properties to development and the local tax rolls.

(Daily News/Bill Dries)

“What a beautiful day,” Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell said Monday, June 23, from a podium in the street that no one had to bother to block off to traffic.

Weeds and other brush hid not only most of the lower-floor apartment units stripped of their windows – and, in many cases, walls, copper wiring and tubing – but the parking lots as well.

“This has been a long time coming,” said Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. “It’s worth the wait.”

He and Luttrell credited businessman George Cates, the retired founder of real estate investment trust MAA, for creating the nonprofit Neighborhood Preservation Inc. as a step in the complicated, time-consuming procedure of getting such complexes to the point of demolition.

The Shelby County Land Bank took possession of the Spanish Oaks complex from the Shelby County Trustee, who took the property for delinquent taxes in 2011. The Land Bank donated the property to the nonprofit NPI, which will hold the property as a prospective owner pays the demolition cost. That owner will have to bid on the property along with other prospective buyers with the best offer getting the property.

“We don’t take title to anything except for a short period of time,” Cates said as he looked at the apartment ruins on both sides. “Let me assure you we want to own it only briefly. Our objective is to help return these properties to the tax rolls.”

Attorney Steve Barlow of the nonprofit estimated that, if fully occupied, each of the apartment complexes demolished Monday would generate $100,000 annually in property tax revenue for the city and county.

“Isn’t this a beauty?” Cates said sarcastically as he gestured at the Winchester Park ruins. “The laws protected the wrong people on these properties. For years and years the county’s hands were tied. The city’s hands were tied. That is changing very, very rapidly.”

Cates said the nonprofit hopes to work with the city on the old Artisan Hotel property on the southwest corner of Union Avenue and McLean Boulevard, which he described as “that pox of a property.”

The Spanish Oaks apartment complex at 3539 Cazassa was built in 1974 and quitclaimed to NPI in February from MFC Funding LLC.

The apartments were called “The Way Apartments” in property records from 1979 when the complex appears to have been sold for the first time. It bordered Greenland Heights Methodist Church and the Windsor Apartment complex, one of the first apartment complexes in the area.

What was Winchester Park apartments until Monday’s demolition was built in 1967, according to property records that show Duncan Williams Investment Co. as the earliest owner of the complex formerly known as Southbrook Apartments.

The most recent property information from the assessor’s office this week showed it is owned by Shachar 2001 LTD of Rehovot, Israel, which bought the property for $10,000 in 2012 from Nessko Tn LLC, along with the old McCorkle Apartments.

The Winchester Park apartments, however, had been in General Sessions Criminal Environmental Court for code violations, which resulted in a court order allowing the demolition.

NPI helped to raise the money for the demolition of Winchester Park, estimated at $600,000.

The organization is also lobbying for changes in laws and procedures governing such properties.

Barlow attributed the problem to “antiquated laws and market forces.”

Meanwhile, the city of Memphis has had to make changes in its demolition strategy since it can no longer use capital funding for such purposes. The Memphis City Council recently approved $4 million in demolition funding that allows the city to resume such work as a vital part of Wharton’s anti-blight strategy.

Wharton vowed Monday that the nearby Executive Inn property is next on the city’s list for demolition in the area.

PROPERTY SALES 28 290 16,197
MORTGAGES 33 165 10,087
BUILDING PERMITS 184 608 38,544
BANKRUPTCIES 33 125 7,597