Memphis needs more historic renovations in underserved neighborhoods, panelists say

The urban renewal of Memphis, including breathing new life into old buildings instead of simply tearing them down, was the theme of a luncheon event on October 30 at the University of Memphis Holiday Inn ballroom, hosted by New Memphis and the First Tennessee Foundation.

Panelists included Archie Willis, president of Community Capital; Montgomery Martin, founder and CEO of Montgomery Martin Contractors; McLean Wilson, co-founder of Crosstown Concourse; and Eric Robertson, president of Community L.I.F.T. Dr. Noel Trent of the National Civil Right Museum moderated.

Topics of discussion included redevelopment projects across the city like Crosstown Concourse, Downtown’s Central Station and the renewal of the Medical District and The Edge. The disas well as the need for more work in Memphis’ poorest underserved communities.

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“Memphis has a wonderful history of having saved so many buildings,” said Martin, who cited the success of work done at the Pyramid, the Chisca Hotel, the Tennessee Brewery and Crosstown.

“These old buildings are beautiful. They were constructed in a way that is almost unaffordable now, both structurally and with the amenities. Often times, they look horrible [before redevelopment]. They’ve been abandoned, and we’ve let blight get out of control.”

Having a historic built environment helps to attract people to a particular place.

“One of the things that is said about Memphis is that we have a lot of soul, and I believe buildings carry that as well,” said Wilson. “When we looked at Crosstown and even Central Station, it’s this moment in time when we have the ability to participate in what is the future of something that existed well before we did.”

Challenges of adaptive reuse projects include cost and encountering unknown factors.

“From a big picture standpoint, our biggest challenge is how we spread development across all neighborhoods or at least some African-American neighborhoods,” said Robertson. “Right now, a lot of the work that’s happening is not primarily happening in communities of color.”

He pointed out that other cities have used land trusts to develop properties and then maintain affordable rents, which helps keep people in place instead of displacing them to other parts of the city and creates a sense of belonging. 

“The other challenge…particularly in communities of color is the fact that most of these neighborhoods are economically depressed,” said Willis. “When you try to attract capital into areas that have historically not been invested in or there’s a level of disinvestment, it becomes extremely difficult.”

Willis touted current revival of the South City area where he hopes to see a major transformation Downtown. Upcoming potential projects will include the financing and redevelopment of three empty school buildings at Vance Middle School, Georgia Avenue Elementary and MLK Transitional School.

Other depressed areas where the developers hope to see significant future activity include Frayser and Klondike Smokey City.

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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.