Raleigh Springs Mall Owners Question City’s Plans

By Bill Dries

The owners of the Raleigh Springs Mall had been talking with Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr.’s administration until late last year about the city’s desire to see a revitalized mall possibly with city government offices.

Plans by Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. to turn Raleigh Springs Mall into a town center are drawing criticism from the owners of the mall.


But the talks had gone cold by February when Wharton took a plan to the Memphis City Council to turn Raleigh Springs, Southbrook Mall and the Towne Center at Soulsville into “town centers” that would each feature city government offices.

The Memphis City Council approved an urban renewal plan consistent with the town center approach for Raleigh Springs Mall in March, which sets in motion a planning process and a public hearing.

Attorney Michael Aschenbrener of Chicago, representing Raleigh Mall LLC, the Delaware limited liability company that bought the mall in May 2013, came to Memphis last week to make the case that any future plan should – but does not now – include the owners, who have already put $1.5 million into a new roof.

“The plan is working, but to really be successful we need the city to work with us. We share the city’s desire to revitalize this land, this mall,” he said. “And until recently we believed we were having productive discussion with the city regarding its future. That stopped.”

When asked why the talks stopped, Aschenbrener replied, “You’ll have to ask the city.”

He also questioned the financial viability of the city’s basic concept that government offices and functions would be a catalyst for private development. Aschenbrener estimated the city is talking about an overhaul costing $66 million, with $30 million of that being public money.

“The city has failed to identify any developer or investor committed to the project. This is alarming,” he said. “The city wants to spend over $30 million in the mere hope that private investment will follow, while ignoring the fact that this mall already has owners investing millions of dollars to revitalize.”

That’s not to say Raleigh Mall LLC is ruling out mixing a police precinct, traffic precinct and library branch with retail, as Wharton has proposed.

“We’re open to all possibilities, including this public-private partnership, but retail stores are here and they are working,” Aschenbrener said. “Yes, there are a lot of vacant stores, but we are working to address that.”

He pointed to three new tenants – two boutique clothing stores and a fitness center – who recently signed leases. But he said the city plans are not helping.

“There’s confusion out there as to the future of the mall. The city is talking about tearing it down while we’re talking with prospective tenants about moving in,” he said.

However, he also didn’t rule out some partial demolition.

“We wouldn’t spend millions of dollars on renovating the roof on the existing facility if we didn’t think the existing facility was worthwhile,” Aschenbrener said. “At the same time, times change, progress marches on, and we don’t want to hold that back. We want to be part of that march.”

Wharton’s administration had already been discussing shifting city offices to the mall site instead of the old supermarket site on the northwest corner of Austin Peay Highway and Yale Road. The mall is on the southeast corner of the same intersection.

Then Wharton’s response to the enduring controversy over city funding for Southbrook Mall in Whitehaven was the trio of town centers, including Raleigh Springs Mall.

Owners of Southbrook sought $1.5 million in city funding for roof and heating and air conditioning repairs.

But the city attorney’s office said city funding could not be used for that because it would be public money going toward a private use. The funding would have come from the set of local, state and federal funding for streetscape improvement along Elvis Presley Boulevard between Brooks Road and Shelby Drive.

Not only would using the money for Southbrook Mall be improper, according to the administration, it could endanger the larger amount of funding for the streetscape improvements.

Southbrook’s owners are opposed to the town center plan.

However, city Housing and Community Development Director Robert Lipscomb argued his $6.5 million plan to start the conversion to a town center with government offices is necessary if the mall, which has had its problems with tenants and sustaining retail trade, is to be successful.

“We just think it’s important to tie it all together,” Lipscomb told the City Council in April.

Council member Harold Collins withdrew the resolution for the $1.5 million in funding for the mall to meet with the administration for more details on how it would work.