VOL. 133 | NO. 62 | Tuesday, March 27, 2018
Potter Says 100 North Main Building Has Made Progress But Needs More
By Bill Dries
A month into his retirement, General Sessions Environmental Court Judge Larry Potter wishes he could have seen more evidence of a turn-around at the city’s tallest building.
“I wanted to resolve that case before I retired. But I think that was a little bit too much,” Potter said of the 100 North Main building on the WKNO/Channel 10 program “Behind The Headlines.”
Potter said his concerns about public safety from falling debris and debris piling up inside the 37-story skyscraper were only heightened when he did his own tour of the building.
“We had individuals that were getting in the building and climbing to the top and taking photographs… It was horrific,” he said. “My concern was that someone was going to get killed.”
Under new ownership, the building has new plywood barriers, better lighting and security guards on site.
“I do believe there has been progress … and that eventually we will see that building rehabilitated,” Potter said. “A building like that is not going to be here one day and the next week it’s going to be new, in a great state and people are moving in and its beautiful and everything is done. It’s a process and it takes a lot of time, plus it takes a lot of money.”
“Behind The Headlines,” hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, can be seen on The Daily News Video page, video.memphisdailynews.com.
Potter is the founding judge of the 35-year-old Environmental Court. The Shelby County Commission is expected to appoint an interim judge in April and the winner of a special election on the August ballot will serve the rest of Potter’s term of office through 2022.
“We’re in a much better circumstance today than we were 35 years ago,” Potter said. “Now you’ve got experts that will go out to investigate those buildings to see if those structures are safe. What they are trying to do is intercede before those buildings get in a condition.”
That isn’t always possible.
Potter remembers being criticized when he ordered the demolition of the Arcade Hotel on what is now G.E. Patterson east of Main Street in 1993.
The 39-room hotel built in 1914 had been featured prominently a few years earlier in the Jim Jarmusch film “Mystery Train.”
“That building was of such a nature that it was totally unsafe for the public. I ordered the building to be demolished,” Potter recalled. “Two days later the building collapsed. These are not easy cases to deal with.”
When the court moved out of the city court system and became a General Sessions Court division in 1991, Potter had more power to deal with property owners who would often declare they weren’t going to make any improvements.
“I loved those cases. Those cases were fun to deal with,” he remembered. “When we started this court back in 1982, we didn’t really have the jurisdiction to deal with a person like that. We could assess fines and that sometimes deterred people. But there were some people who just wouldn’t do it.”
As a city court, the maximum penalty for contempt of court was a $10 fine.
“Then the price to dance went up,” Potter said of the conversion to General Sessions Court, which gave him the ability to jail someone for 10 days.
He said jailing someone was only a last resort and even with the additional power, the process of forcing improvements on property is dangerous and moves very slowly.
Potter says while the court is more accepted now that it was in the early 1980s, he would like to see its work viewed as a part of the city’s crime issue.
“What a lot of people don’t understand is that blight and crime go hand in hand. And if you reduce the blight, then you reduce the crime,” he said. “That’s why we are trying to focus on the blight within various neighborhoods. … There are a lot of people that would say this is only in the inner city. No, it’s not.”
The court also has jurisdiction over gang nuisance orders. In the last six years, the court has barred identified gang members from congregating in certain areas for any reason.
“I view it as a quality-of-life court dealing with, more often than not, substandard homes, substandard accommodations for people,” he said. “We deal with blight. We deal with commercial buildings, residential buildings. We deal with vacant properties – basically anything and everything that’s a violation of city code, county code or state law.”
The next judge is not obligated to keep the division as an environmental court. It is the longest running specialty court locally.
“This court has a dramatic impact on the well-being of our city and our county,” Potter said.