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VOL. 8 | NO. 15 | Saturday, April 4, 2015

Taking Action

Anti-blight law providing relief to nearby homes, businesses

By Amos Maki

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The windows on the old Executive Inn on Airways Boulevard where Brooks Road dead ends had been busted out for several years, leaving the curtains in its long-empty rooms fluttering in the wind.

But in January, demolition crews began ripping away at the blighted property at 3222 Airways, providing relief to residents and business owners whose own property values suffered because of the neglected property in that corner of Whitehaven.

In late March, the city of Memphis and the Downtown Memphis Commission filed a second lawsuit in General Sessions Environmental Court against the owner of this dilapidated building at 107 S. Main St.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

The destruction of the hotel became possible after the city filed a lawsuit under the state’s Neighborhood Preservation Act, an increasingly used tool in the city’s growing anti-blight arsenal.

“It was an old, blown-out-windows hotel forever, and now it’s virtually gone,” said Steve Barlow, an attorney with Brewer & Barlow PLC who has represented the city in many anti-blight cases. “All over Memphis, in every council district, the city is taking these actions.”

Since deploying the legal anti-neglect weapon in 2010, the city has filed 839 lawsuits against the owners of blighted properties. Of those cases, 521 have been closed and 318 remain active.

“We have one of the most aggressive civil litigation programs I’m aware of,” said Barlow.

Following the housing bust and recession, a sea of vacant and foreclosed homes washed across every corner of the city. A 2010 study by the Center for Community Building and Neighborhood Action at the University of Memphis found that nearly a quarter of the city's properties violated the housing code for environmental, cosmetic and structural conditions.

The Tennessee Neighborhood Preservation Act allows civil cases to be brought against the owners of blighted property. Governments and their affiliates, businesses, organizations like community development corporations and residents can sue to compel owners to rehabilitate blighted properties. Owners of nearby property can sue for the value lost to their homes.

In late March, the city of Memphis and the Downtown Memphis Commission filed a second lawsuit in General Sessions Environmental Court against the owner of the dilapidated building at 107 S. Main St., saying the decaying building is danger of jeopardizing businesses and residents in adjacent structures.

“I’m in favor of using every tool available, and maybe creating new ones, to fight blight Downtown and throughout the city,” said Downtown Memphis Commission president Paul Morris. “It is one of our biggest problems, harming neighborhoods and the tax base.”

The city claims the long-vacant building should be declared a public nuisance and that the owner, Long Development LLC, should be forced to make repairs. If the owner can’t make the needed repairs, the city says, the court should appoint a receiver either fix or demolish property, which is allowed under the state’s preservation act.

Judge Larry E. Potter of the Memphis and Shelby County Environmental Court presides over the city's nuisance lawsuits filed against property owners

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

The building is located on the Main Street Mall’s Demonstration Block, which runs from Peabody Place to Union Avenue. The Demonstration Block was created by the former Center City Commission, now the Downtown Memphis Commission, to highlight what were at the time mostly vacant buildings and showcase the untapped potential of the area.

Successful enterprises, such as Aldo’s Pizza Pies, Local Gastropub and The Majestic Grille are some of the building’s nearby neighbors who helped turn a desolate, blighted stretch of Main Street into an urban success story.

Developer Billy Orgel, part of the team that redeveloped the two properties on either side of the neglected property at 107 S. Main, said it’s unfair that Long Development, which has owned the property since 1998, is allowed to harm neighbors who have poured millions into bringing that stretch of Main Street back to life.

“It’s almost like living in a neighborhood and the house next to you is boarded up and overgrown and nobody wants that,” said Orgel. “When somebody next door doesn’t take care of their property, it affects your property.

“This isn’t just about Downtown. You don’t need to be a bad neighbor to your neighbors. I don’t care where it is. That shouldn’t happen, and we as a city shouldn’t allow it to happen. I appreciate the diligence of the city in going after slum and blight.”

PROPERTY SALES 105 193 8,028
MORTGAGES 120 239 9,024
BUILDING PERMITS 192 445 17,512
BANKRUPTCIES 27 69 5,228