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VOL. 132 | NO. 100 | Friday, May 19, 2017

'War' on Blight

Second anti-blight summit marks progress, more challenges

By Bill Dries

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Attorney Steve Barlow has been working on blight issues for 20 years, which is to say he’s been working for two decades almost exclusively on the maze of rules, regulations and procedures that make blight possible and sustainable.

This 1950s-era apartment building across the street from Wednesday’s blight summit at Clayborn Temple is an example of the kinds of properties the coordinated effort is aimed at changing. (Daily News/Bill Dries)

“This is not the kind of problem you solve with money,” Barlow, the president of Neighborhood Preservation Inc. since 2010, told 200 people gathered Wednesday, May 17, at Clayborn Temple. “This is the kind of problem you solve with experts.”

The historic church, which is more than 100 years old, is considered a triumph in the local campaign against blight. NPI is the owner of record as the developers continue to look for public uses in addition to Clayborn being the home of The Downtown Church.

Barlow made a distinction between that work and NPI’s immediate goal to “remove all legal and systemic barriers to removing blighted properties” by 2020.

“I’m not saying we will fix it by then,” he added, referring to the goal of removing actual blight.

One of the more immediate goals is city passage of the International Property Maintenance Code, a model code that sets minimum maintenance requirements for existing buildings that might otherwise by grandfathered into code changes. Barlow said the move to the code will likely go to the Memphis City Council for discussion later this year.

Also on the horizon is work to map vacant apartment complexes in Memphis and develop prevention strategies specifically for complexes that could go that way.

Archie Willis, president of Community Capital LLC and a leader of NPI, touted “a new generation” of anti-blight activists who are untangling the complex thicket of regulations and requirements as well as a strategic code enforcement effort that is more coordinated.

“In far too many corners of the city, there are buildings that remain the greatest threat to places, health, prosperity and peace of mind,” he said, referring to both vacant and occupied structures. “Make no mistake, the fight against blight is a war.”

Around 200 code enforcement inspectors, developers, property owners, community development corporation leaders and elected leaders gathered Wednesday, May 17, for the city’s second annual Blight Elimination Summit at Clayborn Temple. (Daily News/Bill Dries)

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland told the group that blight is linked to stemming a long-running decline in the city’s population, if annexation is taken out of the equation.

“We try to build a broad-based prosperity that prevents blight from forming in the first place,” he said of his administration’s goals.

“We try to fight blight in ways that are obvious and in ways that are not so obvious,” Strickland told the group. “The obvious are you work with property owners and the court system to remedy conditions that leave blight. … The not-so-obvious things that we do are we try to build a way internally to measure the state of our neighborhoods more frequently. We try to build our internal tools to make progress and be more transparent and try to find efficiencies in our processes and be more productive in our blight-fighting efforts.”

After the luncheon, Strickland said the city is considering acquiring land that includes a 1950s-era apartment building next to Clayborn Temple.

The two-story apartment building owned by Boshwit Brothers’ real estate arm adjoins the open lot where the city intends to build I Am A Man Plaza to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1968 sanitation workers strike and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis.

“In general, the city would like to acquire all of the property adjacent to the temple for the MLK 50 event and plus just to make it a nice surrounding area,” Strickland said.

City Councilman Martavius Jones, whose office is on the other side of Clayborn Temple, urged the city earlier this month to pursue some kind of action against the owners, saying he doesn’t want visitors to the city to see the eyesore.

Developers of Clayborn Temple have also complained to the city about the condition of the building.

PROPERTY SALES 38 38 20,670
MORTGAGES 45 45 23,790
BUILDING PERMITS 187 187 42,781
BANKRUPTCIES 57 57 13,237