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VOL. 131 | NO. 92 | Monday, May 9, 2016

Raleigh Mall Demolition Signals Change After Delays

By Bill Dries

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The crowd of several hundred people on the south end of the Raleigh Springs Mall Saturday, May 7, was larger than the crowd inside the mall to shop.

They came to watch the beginning of the end.

Memphis City Council member Bill Morrison begins demolition on the Raleigh Springs Mall property, starting with an old Sears auto center. It's the first step toward the site’s conversion to a “town center” concept anchored by a new library and police station.

(Daily News/Bill Dries)

The 1970s-era mall is open but it has struggled for many years, losing its two-screen movie theater and its Sears and J.C. Penney anchors.

The group that gathered by the boarded-up Sears auto center came to watch the start of its demolition, with the Memphis City Council member who grew up in the area at the controls of the excavator.

Bill Morrison was joined by two other sons of Raleigh whose childhoods included the glory days of the mall – Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland and former city council member Tom Marshall, whose architecture firm is working with the city on the design of the new $23.7 million town center to come.

“All of the mall will eventually come down,” Marshall said. “The plan has not waivered from that whatsoever. The mall comes down in its entirety. We’re just getting a head start so we can do prep work for future facilities.”

The tentative schedule is to formally break ground on the project in September.

The city's plans hit a hitch in court last year when the owners of the mall itself, Raleigh Mall RPS LLC, contested the city’s attempt to take their property through eminent domain proceedings.

Circuit Court Judge James Russell ruled in August that the city didn’t provide adequate public notice. The city is doing new public notices to be followed by another public hearing on the project by the Memphis Housing Authority and another council vote on the project. The council previously approved it.

Morrison, in his third and final term on the council, began pushing for the project seven years ago as the administration of Mayor Willie Herenton began eyeing the area for a move of the city’s computer technology functions. The site being considered wasn’t the mall, but the former supermarket site on the northwest corner of Yale Road and Austin Peay Highway.

That didn’t pan out. Herenton’s successor, A C Wharton, began looking at the supermarket site as the place for a new police precinct to replace the Old Allen Station, the city’s oldest police precinct building still in use that opened in the mid-1970s as the North Precinct.

Morrison thought the mall site was a better location that could remake the mall using government facilities, including a new library and the police station as anchors to leverage private retail investments.

Any project like the mall that is essentially a recasting or rethinking of a space comes with surprises, from asbestos to what was left underground long ago. In this case, the surprise is that the mall site remains 10 separate parcels of land.

The city owns or has control of eight of the 10. The other two parcels, which are the mall structure itself, are owned by the out of state LLC that is the object of Morrison’s ire.

“I want to be clear. My message is not only about Raleigh but about our city,” he said. “To the landlords who are out of town, the vacant landlords, the landlords that think they are going to come to our town and make it a slum, your days are over. …We’re going to get you out of our neighborhoods. We’re going to get your out of our communities. This is our home.”

With that, Morrison climbed into the cab of an excavator and began bringing down the old auto center’s overhang with the business end of the heavy machinery.

The crowd began chanting “Bring It Down.”

The police precincts – for the Raleigh-Frayser area and the traffic office for the entire city – will be built where the auto center is being demolished.

Marshall said in the project’s longer-than-expected timeline, the precise plans have changed with the two police buildings being neighbors.

“This plan now includes facets that weren’t originally contemplated,” he said. “Within those common spaces there are tremendous efficiencies gained.”

A lake, at 11 acres, is larger than it was in the first set of plans. And the library will include a coffee shop and a balcony patio that overlooks the lake.

The library will also include a tech center similar to the Benjamin Hooks Central Library’s Cloud901 area, built specifically for teenagers 13-18 with state-of-the-art technology. It’s a technology lab that encourages innovation, collaboration and critical thinking.

The Saturday demolition ceremony was also a public declaration by Strickland that he supports the town center for the mall site.

The mall owners were early critics of Mayor A C Wharton’s plans for their property, saying the city didn’t tell them of the plans and that publicity about the city plans was making it difficult for them to sign tenants for the mall.

Raleigh Springs Mall was one of three town centers proposed during Wharton’s administration.

Like the mall property, all three plans rely on local government facilities as anchors.

The Soulsville Town Center went into foreclosure last year and was bought by Tom Shadyac, a filmmaker-turned-University of Memphis professor who wants to convert it into a community-center concept called One Family Memphis.

The Southbrook Mall town center was to be part of a larger plan Wharton’s administration said it would develop for Whitehaven. The nonprofit that owns the mall wanted city funding for roof and HVAC repairs and at one point opposed the larger town center plan.

Wharton left office at the end of 2015 with no further movement on the Southbrook idea.

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