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High Fences: How industrial facilities evolve in changing neighborhoods

A mural proposal for the Sugar Services facility will render it less of an eyesore in the South End.

Sugar Services, an active industrial site, faces a dense residential community.

The Turner Dairy is locked in a zoning battle with the city over a planned expansion.

As Memphis modernizes and densifies, leaders are coming up with innovative ways to grow with longstanding industrial tenants or coerce new development. 
What do you do when decades-old rail lines and smoke stacks perpetuate in attractive condo-laden areas?
 
Local developers, architects and engineers are solving that dilemma with creative land use and design techniques to help longstanding industrial facilities be more aesthetically in line with surrounding residences and businesses.
 
Grandfathered-in industrial facilities in the South End, the Pinch District and Overton Square areas are under greater scrutiny as the surrounding neighborhoods evolve and increase in property value.
 
Frank Ricks, founding principal with architecture firm LRK believes industrial facilities and surrounding residential and commercial uses can coexist, but it depends on the industry and its byproducts.
 
He points out that building homes close to an industrial site and its jobs is an idea as old as the city itself. Pre-automobile, factories were planned with homes nearby so workers could easily walk to work.
 
“Now we’re trying to figure out how to put that idea back in place so that people will have reduced drive times,” said Ricks. “The trend now is to densify cities instead of moving outward.”
 
That isn’t necessarily the case for the Turner Dairy Plant at 2400 Madison Ave, which is right in the middle of an entertainment-driven area.
 
In Midtown, the 6.6-acre Turner Dairy industrial site has grown from a small neighborhood dairy and distribution system is was more than 80 years ago into a large regional operation with a growing number of refrigerated trucks.
 
Founded in 1916, the dairy today employs roughly 150 people, which is about the same level of workforce it had 40 years ago. However, the company bottles exponentially more product thanks to automation.
 
Most of those employees live outside of the Midtown area, which has seen heavy increases in home prices and rental rates over the past few years.

The longstanding Turner Dairy detracts from property values and redevelopment opportunities, some adjacent property owners say.
 
Turner estimates that the dairy bottles approximately 400,000 gallons of milk and fruit juice products per week. Such a large amount of production means more trucks coming in and out of the facility’s lot.
 
Its current and anticipated growth has drawn resentment from surrounding property owners. The site’s expansion is currently locked in a zoning battle.
 
“Memphis in 1932 was a completely different time period,” said Gordon Alexander, founder of the Midtown Action Coalition and Midtown resident who lives just two blocks from the dairy.
 
“The neighborhood has changed, and the dairy has changed. It’s really unnerving over there with the loud noise and the huge trucks coming in and out. Right now this is not right spot for that particular company. They’ve outgrown the spot,” he said.
 
This past summer the dairy secured a tax incentive package from the Memphis-Shelby County Economic Development Growth Engine to support an $8 million, 17,700-square-foot expansion to its refrigerated warehouse.
 
Turner received a seven-year abatement in personal and property taxes worth $1.1 million, and the dairy company hopes to update its existing equipment and add more processing equipment, including a corrugated packaging line. It recently purchased a three-acre lot to house more trucks for the facility.
 
That piece of land, because it was not grandfathered in to the dairy’s original footprint, faces a very different set of regulations than the dairy did when it was founded over 80 years ago.
 
The three-acre expansion was voted down by the Land Use Control Board in November. Despite the Office of Planning and Development’s concerns, the dairy has continued with its expansion.
"The neighborhood has changed, and the dairy has changed. It’s really unnerving over there with the loud noise and the huge trucks coming in and out."
The neighborhood has changed, and the dairy has changed. It’s really unnerving over there with the loud noise and the huge trucks coming in and out. Right now this is not right spot for that particular company. They’ve outgrown the spot,” he said.
 
A Jan. 17 Memphis City Council meeting will issue the final word on whether Turner Dairy receives the necessary zoning easement to continue with its expansion. If it isn’t permitted to park trucks in the northern lot, it will convert an employee parking lot for truck use.
 
“The basic feeling is that this is not an industrial site, it’s turned into one, and I think a lot of people would like to see the dairy move and the property be put to another use like mixed commercial/residential that would connect with Overton Square,” said Gordon Alexander. “Also, it would eliminate all of the concerns from the neighbors about noise and lights.”
 
A relocation would cost the dairy as much as $30 million, according to dairy general manager and former owner Jim Turner.
 
“It’s economically very difficult because we have so much invested in our manufacturing operation here in Memphis, so at this time we are not considering such a move,” said Turner.
 
“We did not have any problems that we were aware of until we filed for a zoning variance to park trucks on a portion of our property that we own,” said Turner. “We were not receiving complaints or having trouble with our neighbors prior to this zoning request.”
 
In order to better blend in with the surrounding neighborhood, the dairy is currently replacing its fence and adding new landscaping to the front of the property on Madison Avenue.
 
Loeb Properties, which owns and develops in nearby Overton Square, would like to acquire the dairy and convert it to a mixed-use development. Other property owners have been eyeing the highly-desirable 6-acre plot which is in the middle of a highly-trafficked area.
 
“I think that would be a wonderful idea if they or someone else could buy that property and develop it into something more suitable for the neighborhood,” said Alexander.
 
While home values have risen in Midtown over the past few years, Alexander believes that the industrial site is an adverse factor when figuring the value of the surrounding neighborhood and homes.
 
“If someone were to put a mixed-use development where the dairy is now, you might have commercial facing Madison Avenue with residential preferably on the back side of the property, so those people living on Jefferson would be staring across at new houses apartments instead of 19-wheelers,” he said.

Landscaping and fencing will shield the Sugar Services facility from surrounding residences.
Family-owned Sugar Services, which produces and delivers sugar products, such as dust for Frosted Flakes, opened in the South End of Downtown in 1969 when the area was filled with warehouses and rail yards.
 
In recent years, the South End has sprouted up with condos and apartments and more than $500 million in private and public redevelopment activity is under way or newly completed in the area.
 
With more homes in the planning process for the area, the company is making design choices to help its operations better blend with the surrounding neighborhood.
 
The Sugar Services facility was built before there were any residential units in the neighborhood. Today, there are mostly homes surrounding it including $1 million-plus homes near the river.
 
“Sugar Services has always been a great neighbor to the residents,” said development consultant Anthony Bologna, a retired architect who has worked for nearly three decades with the Henry Turley Companies to redevelop the area around the facility with residential growth.
 
“As a matter of fact, they just finished doing a lot of work around the property, including landscaping, street improvements and fencing,” he added.
 
This year Sugar Services demolished one of its original buildings, an out-of-date and unused structure, and will construct a 13,000-square-foot building this year to be used for storage and processing.
 
“We’re trying to dress things up and blend in with the neighborhood to make it look better for the nearby residents,” said Dave Moore, Sugar Services vice president of operations.
“In the core of any city, small or large, there are usually opportunities to reinvent industrial sites."

Later this year a paint scheme will be added to the new protective fence built in advance of the upcoming construction, and a mural with a 3D geometric design will be painted on the company’s building at the northwest corner of the site to help the facility be less of an eyesore.
 
“We spent $60,000 on the front fence, irrigation and landscaping just on Tennessee Street, and we have to finish work on GE Patterson,” said Moore. “Hopefully this spring we will do the painting on the building.”
 
Further development of the area will include relocating the trolley stop near the train station on GE Patterson to be closer to Sugar Services. Moving the trolley stop will make way for the redevelopment of the Central Station train station, which will include a hotel, cinema and housing units.
 
“All of the time we’ve been developing the South Bluffs, we’ve always met with the company to tell them about the next phase and make sure it did not interfere with their operation,” said Bologna, who explained the decorative wall running through the South End was initially built to shield the residents from the abundance of active industry in the area, but it serves little purpose now.
 
In recent years, Sugar Services has switched to using more trucks instead of rail to bring in and transport materials. The increased truck traffic has met opposition from some local residents.
 
“They’re in such an awkward position. They really can’t move,” said Bologna, who explained that the company would need to have a new facility concurrently up-and-running to move into immediately upon vacating its current facility since they produce just-in-time product.

“So it makes it impossible to actually move them. They’ve realized that and just decided to be good neighbors.”
 
Downtown in the Pinch District, plans are in the pipeline to decorate an old Memphis Light Gas and Water electrical substation at Front and Jackson, which sits above ground and feeds downtown’s underground power network, as well as several darkened underpass areas. LRK has come up with some ideas to bring these areas to life.

With major redevelopment planned for the Pinch District, the existing power station needs a design overhaul.
 
“In the core of any city, small or large, there are usually opportunities to reinvent industrial sites,” said Ricks. “For the MLGW substation, we’re advocating to install some controllable LED lights. Then all of sudden it becomes another icon for the gateway into the city on I-40.”
 
The substation is very noticeable to traffic coming into the city, so the station could be lit up for different events or holidays.
 
For the areas under five interstate overpasses that connect the Pinch District to downtown, including one next to the convention center, creative lighting and art will improve the quality of those spaces.
 
“The Pinch plan is to activate Main Street and make that overpass as people-friendly as we can by enhancing the light more and putting in some public art,” said Ricks, who explained that LRK has advocated for having different art for each overpass, including kid-friendly designs leading to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
 
“The goal is to make the psychological barrier created by the interstate disappear to make it a gateway instead of a barrier.”
 
He expects to see the changes begin to happen very soon thanks to the recent announcement of $37 million from the State of Tennessee to improve public infrastructure in the Pinch District.
 

Read more articles by Michael Waddell.

Michael Waddell is a native Memphian who returned to Memphis several years ago after working for nearly a decade in San Diego and St. Petersburg, Fla., as a writer, editor and graphic designer. His work over the past few years has been featured in The Memphis Daily News, Memphis Bioworks Magazine, Memphis Crossroads, the New York Daily News and the New York Post. Contact Michael.
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