VOL. 133 | NO. 161 | Wednesday, August 15, 2018
Historic District Compromise Tabled Over State 'Threats'
By Bill Dries
After months of discussions, compromises and amendments, the city council member sponsoring an ordinance giving the council more oversight of the local Landmarks Commission tabled the measure on third and final reading.
Council member Kemp Conrad cited a letter from officials of the Tennessee Historical Commission Friday that indicated the state would oppose some parts of the measure and that the city’s historic status with the state and state funding would be endangered because of the changes.
Conrad said the letter from state historic preservation office was “threatening.”
“This is over a technicality,” he told state historic preservation officer Jane Coleman Cottone.
“I like making deals. It’s what I do. I don’t know that there is a deal to be done,” Conrad said. “You frankly changed the rules. … You’re trying to treat Memphis differently than you treat other cities. This is the same group that would not allow us to do what we wanted to do with our Confederate statues.”
The amended version of the ordinance up for a vote Tuesday had the backing of neighborhood groups and historic districts initially concerned about the effort to give the council more oversight.
“Our office has determined that parts of this ordinance contain certain inconsistencies with state law,” Cottone said. She described them as “procedural in nature” and something the city could work through with the state following passage of the ordinance.
Conrad and other council member said the issue was allowing minor changes to be made to properties in historic districts without requiring approval by the full Landmarks Commission but instead by some kind of executive committee. Conrad said Memphis and other cities in the state have the ability to do that and those other cities haven’t been “threatened” with the loss of state funding for historic preservation.
“I don’t think this is the right thing to do to open this back up.”
The council voted unanimously Tuesday to table the ordinance that cleared the first two of three readings before Conrad delayed third and final reading in June to work on a compromise version with already existing historic districts and neighborhood groups as well as the local Landmarks Commission.
The state raised some concerns three weeks ago and Conrad said he and others worked on amendments to resolve those concerns and didn’t hear anything further from the state until the Aug. 10 letter.
It would take seven votes on the council to take the matter off the table and vote on it. The measure gives the city council the ability to evaluate and revoke historic district status for specific reasons.
And council chairman Berlin Boyd said there is a need for such oversight given the entire neighborhoods that are in some historic districts in Memphis.
“We’re the only city allows 400 plus acres to be considered historic,” he said. “No other city allows that much land mass. Just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s historic.”
Council attorney Allan Wade said the loss of an estimated $300,000 in state funds cited by state officials in the letter earlier this month is over 12 years.
“Are you kidding me?” he said. “It cost us more to administer the program than we receive.” He also accused the state of “trying to extort action from us.”
“Their authority to interfere with your legislative process is what I believe offends many of you,” Wade said. “And you should be offended.”
He also said the historic district status is being used “in many cases” to approve “historic blight.”
Council member Worth Morgan said the ordinance probably didn’t have the votes to pass although he favored it without any further amendments.
Like Conrad, he linked the state objections to the Tennessee Historical Commission’s refusal to hear the city’s request to remove Confederate monuments.
“We have had other issues with the Tennessee Historical Commission where we do not necessarily have a good faith working relationship including the Confederate monuments,” he said. “That has probably made this footing we are on a little more shaky.”
In other action Tuesday, the city council approved a resolution by Boyd and council member Reid Hedgepeth that creates an Industrial Development Board Evaluation Committee. The group is to report to the council in 90 days on ways to change the city’s economic development strategy.
That could include changes to the city-county Economic Development Growth Engine – or EDGE -- organization that functions as a city and county industrial development board. Or it could include the city creating its own industrial development board.
“We have been outpaced,” Boyd said of economic development locally. “It’s time for the administration, city council, county commission … to grab the bull by the horns.”
The resolution was approved by the council the day after county commission chairwoman Heidi Shafer proposed change in EDGE including that the council and commission as well as the EDGE board chairman appoint the EDGE board members and that both legislative bodies have the power to hire or fire the president and CEO of EDGE.
The commission delayed a vote on the resolution Monday which Shafer proposed as a joint city-county action requiring council approval.
Boyd said a city-only IDB could offer tax abatements with state legislation. That could be coupled with a memorandum of understanding with county government to also abate county property taxes as well as city property taxes. He said there are similar agreements in place between the county and suburban governments.
The council delayed a vote on accepting a report from the Beale Street Task Force recommending new security and crowd control measures in the entertainment district.
The report recommended further discussion about possibly bringing back some kind of cover charge for the district on Saturday nights after 10 p.m. during the spring and summer peak season. The council voted earlier to first cut the $10 cover charge to $5 and then voted to abolish the cover charge entirely. The district still uses checkpoints with security guards on Saturdays during peak season.
Council member Jamita Swearengen moved for the delay saying she is opposed to a return to the cover charge by the Beale Street Merchants Association.
“They are returning to some items the council said we are totally against,” she said. “Charging only on Saturday nights is a little polarizing. They even had in the report that’s the night that mostly African-Americans are down on Beale Street. They don’t charge on Fridays. They don’t charge on Sundays. I think it’s unfair.”
Swearengen is also opposed to the screening without a cover charge saying there haven’t been any stampedes in the district since dropping the cover charge. The stampedes were cited by merchants as the reason for the cover charge.
“There are some things that constituents in the city of Memphis should be able to go out and enjoy without charging for everything,” she said.
The council approved the use of $600,000 from a fund from when the cover charge was in place as well as unredeemed coupons good at Beale Street businesses given with the $10 cover charge to build barriers to cars to be used starting next spring.
Meanwhile, the council approved an economic impact plan that is part of the process of creating a tax increment financing – or TIF – district for Poplar Corridor businesses using property tax revenue generated in the district.
“If we have to incentivize Poplar then there is no hope for the rest of Memphis,” said council member Martavius Jones, who voted against the resolution along with Swearengen and council member Patrice Robinson.
The council also approved $107,918 in city capital and state transportation funding for a crosswalk on Poplar Avenue at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library.
The council approved on the first of three readings two de-annexation ordinances for Rocky Point and Southwind-Windyke as part of the consent agenda with no discussion.
In planning and development items, the council delayed for two weeks votes on a 45 child day care center at 2538 James Road and a construction landfill proposed for Shelby Oaks Road near Summer Avenue.