VOL. 131 | NO. 91 | Friday, May 6, 2016
French Fort Motel Compromise Hard-Fought
By Bill Dries
The developer of the old Marine Hospital south of E.H. Crump Avenue at the Memphis-Arkansas Bridge across the Mississippi River and the leader of the French Fort neighborhood association never actually talked to each other Wednesday, May 4.
Developer Lauren Crews, right, and French Fort homeowner Sara Lewis, left, after Mayor Jim Strickland led a compromise to demolish a long-vacant hotel in the area.
(Daily News/Bill Dries)
But developer Lauren Crews and former Shelby County Schools board member Sara Lewis did manage to reach an agreement in which Crews will demolish the boarded up, five-story motel on the northern side of the French Fort subdivision that Lewis and fellow homeowners have complained about for years.
Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland got Lewis and Crews in the same room at City Hall shortly after he took office in January to work out an agreement that didn’t necessarily resolve lingering hard feelings between the two.
The compromise comes in a consent order approved in Shelby County General Sessions Environmental Court in which Crews’ DeSoto Pointe Partners agrees to demolish the motel by Sept. 1.
“I had no idea what I was coming to your office for,” Lewis told Strickland Wednesday at a press conference on the parking lot of the motel at 271 W. Alston that has been vacant for 20 years.
Lewis thanked Strickland, city council members and her neighbors for the outcome.
“Everybody knows I can go off the deep end,” she said. “I don’t deny going off the deep end if that’s where I have to go. The good thing is, we are a strong community.”
Crews thanked Strickland for mediating the controversy and the road to an agreement.
“First of all, I’m not running for office and I didn’t study drama or theater,” Crews began. “The mayor stepped up. I hope that’s a lesson learned, too. Maybe if we use a little more diplomacy on the front end, then maybe we have a better ability to get things done.”
Neither Lewis nor Crews mentioned the other during the Wednesday press conference.
The motel is one of the first landmarks those crossing the river see as they enter Memphis.
“The mayor knows I was trying to do the right thing,” Crews said later. “It may have backfired on me.”
Crews said he bought the motel property to head off an out-of-state buyer who might have had no interest in what was good for the residential area just across a two-lane road from the motel.
“I’ve never been a proud owner of this building,” he said. “I purchased the building to begin with in order to protect the neighborhood. I’m also a stakeholder in the community and I want to protect my property values as well.”
It’s part of a larger development Crews is pursuing that includes the old Marine Hospital.
The motel is a strategic parcel of land, given pending plans by the state for an Interstate 55 roundabout. The state is redrawing a construction plan that would have closed the bridge for two years.
Crews considers the roundabout, which would open up access to the area, essential to his development plans.
“I still would like to go forward with a comprehensive plan for the area,” Crews said. “Everybody in the administration knows that what I plan for this area is a no-brainer. I’m investing millions of dollars, so at some point I need to think of numero uno and less maybe about the city and community, and maybe that’s gotten me in trouble to begin with.”
Lewis and other homeowners are wary of the increased access the roundabout would bring, although they approve of changes that won’t take any of the existing homes.
“We are a gateway neighborhood,” she said. “We have an almost suburban-like countenance here because it’s small and very compact.”
Reporter Madeline Faber contributed to this story.