VOL. 9 | NO. 50 | Saturday, December 10, 2016
By Patrick Lantrip
In many ways, Citizens to Preserve Overton Park v. Volpe in 1971 shaped the way Midtown Memphis looks today, so it’s only fitting that the park continues to inspire citizens to fight for what they feel is right.
And just like that famous Supreme Court case that saved the park 45 years ago, a sometimes contentious battle over its Greensward that was settled this year served as a rallying point for the residents of Midtown.
Midtown Memphis Development Corporation President Sam Goff on the patio of the former Chiwawa restaurant in Overton Square, which overlooks the Prarie Farms Dairy facility.
(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)
“Greensward was our Pearl Harbor,” Midtown Memphis Development Corp. president Sam Goff said in reference to a quote attributed to Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto that was made famous in the film “Tora! Tora! Tora!” “He said, ‘We just awakened a sleeping giant.’”
Midtowners have never been shy when it comes to voicing their opinions over the future of their neighborhood.
In the decades between the Greensward debate and the I-40 issue, many other developmental debates, protests and rallies have popped up over projects like the CVS Pharmacy, Libertyland, Chick-fil-A, the 19th Century Club building and most recently, the proposed Idlewild Street gate issue colloquially known as “Gate-gate.”
“There were a few groups prior to the Greensward, like Midtown Action Coalition, MMDC, a couple of well-organized neighborhood groups like Central Gardens and Evergreen,” Goff said. “The Greensward has brought everybody together.”
Fellow Midtowner Mark Fleischer agreed that the Greensward was the catalyst for mobilizing the community against what they perceive as unhealthy development. He pointed out the fight to save the Zippin Pippin rollercoaster in 2005 as an example of how the Midtown community has matured.
“You can see the community did not know how to mobilize properly, they were learning as they went,” Fleischer said. “And now with the Greensward, we all know how to mobilize.”
While the summertime woes of the Memphis Zoo’s parking situation have cooled off with the weather, the passions of many Midtowners have not.
With the resurgence of long-dormant areas around Overton Square, Broad Avenue and Crosstown, the demand for Midtown property is high, but with growth often comes growing pains, and those growing pains have materialized in the latest crop of post-Greensward developmental dust-ups.
The former Turner Dairy factory has been a part of the Madison Avenue landscape since the 1930s, and has witnessed the rise and fall of Overton Square before. However, the latest rebirth of Overton Square coincides with the dairy factory’s own expansion plans.
The factory, which is operated by Turner Holdings LLC – a branded partner of Prairie Farms Dairy – is looking to expand its operations in the region.
At the center of the debate is a small parcel of land adjacent to the existing property that the company purchased four years ago with the hopes of using it for parking.
But, there was a catch. The parcel, which at one time was home to a Jewish Community Center, was not zoned for parking.
In addition to the zoning issue, Turner received a seven-year payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT) incentive in June worth $1.1 million from the Memphis-Shelby County Economic Development Growth Engine to support a 17,700-square-foot addition to its refrigerated warehouse, update its existing equipment and add more processing equipment.
However, the increased activity at the dairy plant has many residents, including Goff and Fleischer, worried.
“We not are taking a position that Turner Dairy needs to go, but we are taking a position that it’s big enough as it is,” Goff said.
Additional industrial traffic in an increasingly dense part of town and noise concerns were among the top items on a list residential concerns.
Efforts to reach a compromise between Turner and the residents of Midtown have yielded mixed results.
Proposed changes to the property include beautification enhancements and a 10-foot concrete wall around the property to reduce noise pollution.
But not all residents are convinced that the compromise will be effective and question the dairy’s place in a burgeoning entertainment area of Midtown.
Recently, the dairy factory was denied a rezoning permit by the Land Use Control Board, raising the hopes of some residents that this will force the dairy to move.
However, Jim Turner of Turner Holdings said that the dairy is not going anywhere, even if they are unable to rezone the adjacent property.
“We are expanding no matter what takes place,” Turner said. “We’re going to spend about $8 million on our facility here in Midtown Memphis, add about 30 employees, produce more product and serve more customers than we have now.”
Turner said the company simply has too much invested in the Midtown property for a relocation to be feasible. At the EDGE board meeting in June, Turner estimated that a relocation “from scratch” would cost about $30 million.
“They think if we don’t get this zoning, then we will leave the area and leave town, and they think that Midtown will be a better place without us, and that’s not the case,” Turner said. “We’re actually going to stay no matter whether we get our improved zoning or not.”
Turner hopes that new fencing and landscaping improvements, in addition to the soundproof wall, will satisfy the neighborhood.
“We’ve seen Overton Square come and go several times, and now it’s doing real, real well and we need to dress ourselves up a little bit,” Turner said. “But either way it goes, we’ll have to adapt to whatever we have to because we just have too much invested here to move to somewhere else.”
The Memphis City Council is scheduled to vote on the dairy’s rezoning request on Jan. 17.
HOME SWEET HOME
Southwest of the Square a similar situation is underway.
A property that was recently acquired by a parishioner and donated to The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is also at the center of an expansion-related controversy.
York Avenue residents are protesting the acquisition of homes on the street for a possible expansion of adjacent Immaculate Conception.
(Memphis News File/Patrick Lantrip)
1722 York Ave. may only be a small, unassuming bungalow situated near the cathedral, but IC’s potential expansion plans to scrap the house for a larger soccer field and parking lot have caused residents to mobilize in an effort to save it.
Currently, Immaculate Conception does not have a field large enough to accommodate soccer matches on its campus.
“Some people will say, ‘What’s one little house,’” longtime York Avenue resident Candy Justice said. “But it’s not one little house, it’s four houses.”
According to Justice, a journalism professor at the University of Memphis, this would be the third house on York Avenue that has been demolished by the parish for the purposes of expansion.
In addition to the houses on York, the Snowden-Boyle house on Central Avenue was also acquired and demolished by Immaculate Conception, Justice said.
“Unlike 13 years ago, when there were only a handful of us, to be honest, this time nearly every house on the street has got a ‘Save York Avenue’ banner.”
Justice said that is a testament to how far community organizers have come since the last time a house on York Avenue was torn down in 2003.
But there is some history behind this particular battle.
A compromise known as the 1992 Resolution was reached between the Central Gardens Association and Immaculate Conception that granted Central Gardens its conservation district status, but also allowed the church to possibly expand its footprint to include four additional houses on York Avenue, including 1722 York.
“The Central Gardens Association, being a conservation district, we always lean on the side of preservation and conservation,” CGA vice president Kathy Ferguson said. “But in this circumstance, because of the 1992 Resolution, we cannot stand up and oppose IC’s plan.”
But just because the board cannot and will not oppose IC’s plan, Ferguson added, does not mean that neighbors cannot voice their opinion on behalf of the property at 1722 York or on behalf of IC.
Although the church declined to comment on the ongoing situation, according to a statement on their website, the parish is currently in the process of exploring all options.
“We view this gift as an opportunity to grow our campus for the benefit of the Parish for the children of the Immaculate Conception Cathedral School,” the statement read in part. “To explore all of our options and possibilities, we have engaged a team of professionals first to thoroughly inspect and evaluate the current condition of the property. Once the final assessment has been made, the team will provide the results to determine the best use of the property and outline the required process.”
The process is expected to last about two months.
In the meantime, residents said they will continue to push for a compromise with the church, which could include alternative expansion options and plans to purchase the house from IC.
Although disputes between developers and residents are bound to pop up when discussing the unique balance between residential and commercial uses in Midtown, one topic that seems to appear in every conversation is compromise.
“Given the fundamental nature of zoning requests, they can sometimes be adversarial,” Memphis and Shelby County Office of Planning and Development planning director Josh Whitehead said. “Ever since cities around the country adopted zoning codes nearly 100 years ago, they have been trying to develop processes that foster an environment in which compromises can be made.”
Whitehead said the Unified Development Code in place allows for increased dialogue between developers and residents to help strike a balance between the interests of neighborhoods and the party making the zoning request.
Some changes from the old code include mandated neighborhood meetings, expanded notification requirements, mailed notices of hearings and the utilization of social media to help make residents outside of the immediate mailing area aware of zoning requests.
One such example of a compromise struck between residents and developers was the proposed gate across Idlewild Street.
For the most part, Idlewild is a small, normally quiet street that ended up between two giant expansion projects on Union Avenue.
A compromise was reached over Idlewild Street, left, which runs between the new Kroger to the right and the planned $43 million Midtown Market.
(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)
To the west looms Kroger’s newly revamped Midtown location and to the east is the proposed $43 million Midtown Market mixed-use development at the corner of Union Avenue and McLean Boulevard.
Belz Enterprises, which is developing the property east of Idlewild, was concerned that the two giant projects would cause increased traffic on the small street.
To combat this, they proposed a gate across Idlewild that would stop incoming traffic.
While some residents believed that Belz had noble intentions, the practice of gating off public streets did not sit well with most Midtowners.
The project was in limbo, with Belz Enterprises even threatening to withdraw its plans for the project. However, a compromise reached by the Memphis City Council kept the project under development and satisfied many residents.
Instead of the gate, the city agreed to add a left turn option at the intersection of Union and McLean so that Idlewild could be redesignated as a one-way street.
“I think it was a good compromise,” Ferguson said. “What I’m hearing from the neighbors who live on Idlewild, while there is a little bit of confusion, they feel that once people recognize that the one-way signs are there, that it’s going to ease their pain quite a bit.”
And even though compromises like these may not be perfect and opposing sides may not always see eye to eye, the one thing they can all agree on is that these growing pains, while sometimes frustrating, are a good problem to have.
“Striking this compromise between conservation and progress is a delicate balance,” Goff said. “Other historic neighborhoods have gone through these growing pains as well. It’s not necessarily in general a bad problem to have. It means that we are growing, that people are interested and coming back into Midtown in droves, but the leadership in the community needs to figure out the best way to manage all of these positive problems.”