Central Gardens overhauls sidewalk repair through crowdfunding

When a local councilman proposed removing the tree-lined median down Belvedere Boulevard in an effort to reduce traffic congestion for commuters heading through Midtown, Central Gardens reacted fervently by organizing volunteers and hiring legal counsel to save the neighborhood's strip of greenery.

That was in 1966.

Prompted by threats that could have altered part of the beauty and legacy of this Mid-South neighborhood, neighborhood residents banded together over 50 years ago to form a neighborhood association that to this day combines both private and public investments to sustain the environment and character of the neighborhood.

It’s a model being pursued this year as the Central Gardens Association puts into action its 2016 strategic plan, a comprehensive effort to improve the 80-block neighborhood by upgrading decades-old sidewalks and medians and improving its local arboretum status.

Central Gardens leaned on a local nonprofit and an online crowdfunding model to source funding for sidewalk improvements. With a team of over two dozen volunteers and the help of a custom app designed by BLDG Memphis, the neighborhood determined that a whopping 85 percent of its sidewalks were in need of repair, and that over 60 percent of those sidewalks were virtually impassable and required immediate repair.

With over 500 acres of neighborhood to cover, replacing sidewalks was made even more challenging by the fact that homeowners — not the city — are responsible for initiating their own sidewalk repair. Central Gardens Association's first step was educating homeowners on sidewalk repair and maintenance. In its next step, the group reimagined the personal homeowner's financial responsibility as a collective imperative.

The neighborhood explored numerous pricing options for group purchasing discounts through the City of Memphis Department of Engineering. The City is able to make large quantity repair bids of $8 per square foot for sidewalks and $12 per square foot for driveway aprons.

However, in order to move forward on such a proposal, a Memphis City Council vote would have been required to establish a contract between the neighborhood and the Department of Engineering. The Council would also have to approve the relationship and the allocation of payments between the neighborhood and the Department of Engineering.

Instead of waiting, the neighborhood moved forward on a bid from a longtime local concrete contractor, Tyfoon Construction, who had substantial experience in sidewalk repair and who could beat the city’s rate. In addition, the neighborhood opened a fundraising effort using IOBY, a nonprofit that assists community leaders in raising funds for neighborhood projects.

The neighborhood raised over $15,000 to fund neighborhoood-wide sidewalk repairs without going through City Council. Repairs began in February 2018.

“Planning the initiative took much effort and funds to first educate our neighbors on the issue and recruit those willing to participate,” stated Central Gardens Association past president Kathy Ferguson.

Using the IOBY platform, 20 households signed on to the sidewalk repair pilot program, and now there's a waiting list of neighbors who want to follow the same plan. Ferguson said, “We recognize the importance of walkability in Midtown and we certainly do not want our neighborhood to fall behind on those efforts.”

While Central Gardens has a median household income of nearly $70,000, which is 44 percent higher than the rest of Memphis, neighborhood leaders believe that their crowdfunding model could scale to empower other Memphis residents to improve the walkability of their neighborhoods as collective purchasing secures a lower rate.

The neighborhood also tackled tree repair this year when it replaced aging trees along its medians on Belvedere Boulevard, Cleveland Street and York Avenue. With help from an arborist, volunteers identified dead, dying, and diseased trees that required removal. Plans are in place to begin seeding and replanting in the fall of this year. That effort is necessary to sustain the neighborhood's state-recognized status as a haven for trees.

In 2008, the State of Tennessee designated Central Gardens as a Level III Arboretum. The neighborhood is home to more than 90 species of trees, many of which are over 80 years old. The Central Gardens Association provides a tree replacement program for members in order to maintain the community's canopy of trees. This year, Central Gardens faces re-accreditation to maintain its Level III Arboretum status.

In addition, the neighborhood has raised enough funds to replace the area’s perimeter signage, which was placed decades ago by volunteers.

Those beautification efforts will be on display September 9 at the 42nd annual Central Gardens Home and Garden Tour. The neighborhood will donate a portion of its proceeds to the Dorothy Day House, which provides housing to families who are experiencing homelessness. The nonprofit is currently expanding its compound of residential facilities to Peabody Avenue.

“It’s easy to drive around the neighborhood and see nothing but status and privilege,” said Mark Fleischer, Central Gardens Association vice president. “But with its strong sense of community built on activism, the CGA board is comprised of the hardest working set of volunteers I’ve ever been a part of. The traditions started 50 years ago definitely still apply."

Read more articles by Julie McCullough.

Julie McCullough grew up in Millington, Tenn. She received a B.A. in Broadcast Journalism and M.A. in Teaching from the University of Memphis. She currently teaches CLUE for gifted students at Shelby County Schools. McCullough is behind architecture blog This Place in History.
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