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Gordon Alexander

Gordon Alexander is the leader of the Midtown Action Coalition, a group dedicated to historic preservation and promoting smart urban growth.

Are city planners listening to the neighborhoods?

By Published: May 01, 2019 6:22 PM CT

Recently I attended a hearing on a development planned for Jefferson Avenue in Midtown, one of many visits I have made down to City Hall over the last nine years.

Afterward, I stopped at a popular Asian buffet for lunch and took a fortune cookie out of the glass container on the counter. The slip inside read, “You and a group of well-informed, like-minded people will present a carefully worded case to a City of Memphis governing body, and they will reject your argument because they are not really listening.”

<strong>Gordon Alexander</strong>

Gordon Alexander

Well, I made up that last part, but lately that's how it feels.

I lead the Midtown Action Coalition, a group of activists who have been involved in promoting many worthwhile improvements to our city, beginning with the saving of Overton Square in 2010. MAC has advocated for the preservation of The Nineteenth Century Club, The Tennessee Brewery, the Wm. C. Ellis & Sons Ironworks and Machine Shop, the Chisca Hotel and the transformation of the old Sears building into Crosstown Concourse, as well as many other initiatives.

Community activism isn't new to Memphis. “Grit and grind” might be the mantra of the NBA team here but it could be said this spirit originated with the “little old ladies in tennis shoes” who stopped the extension of Interstate 40 through the heart of Overton Park. That same grit and determination was on display when a group formed to “Save Our Shell” and protected the Overton Park Shell from being demolished and turned into a parking lot. Their perseverance and dedication should be an inspiration for us all.

The rebirth of Overton Square has been the catalyst for the current development boom in Midtown, but it comes at a price. Rising real-estate values, unfortunately, have brought us an unwelcome businessman – the vulture. That's strong language, but no other word better describes their methods. They circle neighborhoods, looking for decaying houses at bargain-basement prices; when they pinpoint their prey, they swoop in, gobble up the property and leave behind a mess that is hard to look at. Some of their projects are referred to as “tall skinnies,” in which two or more dwellings are built on a single-family lot, but none resemble the existing architecture in the neighborhood.

Over the last few years, I have been contacted by concerned residents in different parts of the city who asked for help in fighting a development they deemed detrimental to their community. I have watched neighborhood after neighborhood plead their cases before the Board of Adjustment, Land Use Control Board, Landmarks Commission and City Council. Sadly, despite passionate speeches and petitions signed by dozens of neighbors, many questionable applications sail through with little or no objection.

Is anyone out there listening?

In our democratic society, we are advised that silence is consent, and we are cautioned not to complain about the status quo unless we become engaged, speak our minds and get involved in the political process.

We do, we have, and we will continue to do so.

So what happened to the concept of our duly-elected public servants implementing the will of the people?

One misconception about the work we do needs to be put to rest, once and for all. I hear it all the time: “But you can't tell someone what to do with their own property.”

Well, you really can, and it happens all the time.

All American cities are different, but they manage growth in similar ways. It's why the City of Memphis has a building on Mullins Station Road that houses Code Enforcement and a department inside City Hall called the Office of Planning and Development.

There are also ordinances, all approved by the Memphis City Council, called the Unified Development Code and the Midtown Overlay. The Overlay adds an additional layer of protection for Midtown, which is filled with thousands of historic buildings. In fact, Memphis has the sixth highest number of historic properties in the country, with more than 11,500 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. All these codes were implemented to assure that citywide development matches what already exists in the neighborhood, a seamless transition from building to building, street to street.

In searching for a blueprint on how to transition from old to new in Midtown, look no further than the homes that lie in the abandoned I-40 corridor, east and west of Overton Park. Of the 16 that have recently gone up near the corner of Sam Cooper and East Parkway, five were built by the construction company of Memphis City Council member Reid Hedgepeth on vacant Tennessee Department of Transportation land, and they have all been sold. I have been a frequent critic during Hedgepeth's tenure on the council, but I attended the Land Use Control Board hearing when his application was on the agenda and spoke in support of his project. Job well done.

The questions persist. Why have a UDC or a Midtown Overlay if their guidelines are not followed? If residents oppose a project that they will have to live with for the rest of their natural lives, shouldn't their opinions carry weight? If increased property taxes are the only criteria upon which new applications are approved, why should we waste our time and energy going down to City Hall?

 Are the powers that be listening to their constituents?

 They need to.

The Daily Memphian welcomes a diverse range of views and invites readers to submit guest columns by contacting Peggy Burch, community engagement editor, at pburch@dailymemphian.com.

Topics

Land Use Control Board Memphis City Council Overton Square Midtown Overlay Midtown Action Coalition

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