From eye sore to eye candy: A look at the Downtown blight fight

In the fourth year of The Downtown Memphis Commission’s anti-blight initiative, several high-profile eyesores have been turned around, but challenges remain.

In the fourth year of the Downtown Memphis Commission’s anti-blight initiative, several high-profile eyesores have been turned around, but challenges remain.

Mayor A C Wharton made remedying blight one of his three priorities for 2015, and with nearly 100 blighted properties in Downtown alone, the DMC has been working tirelessly to serve property owners with nuisance notices, provide them options to help in fixing up the building, and taking them to court if needed.

Steve Barlow of Brewer & Barlow PLC heads up the DMC’s anti-blight program. “I just think we have a very aggressive and cohesive legal strategy, and that's allowed us as a community to get a lot done, although certainly we have a long way to go,” he said.

One of Barlow’s high points last year was resolving a problem property that in turn created a new Tennessee law and kicked off the founding of the University of Memphis Cecil B. Humphrey’s School of Law Neighborhood Preservation Clinic, one of the few blight-fighting law programs in the country.

The Executive Inn at 3222 Airways Blvd. had accrued $600,000 in taxes and penalties, and the building itself was only worth $250,000. Thanks to the new law, the City was able to dismiss the back taxes and move forward with demolition.

“If the receiver can't get ahead of the property taxes that are greater than the value already, then the receiver has no incentive to get involved. It would be a loss to anybody that stepped in,” Barlow said.

The abandoned Burger King at 115 Madison Ave. came under the DMC’s control last year by using donations from surrounding property and business owners. The building has been demolished, and the DMC has negotiated with a private developer to build a pocket park to be designed by the PARC Foundation. The park is expected to open this year with plans for music and outdoor movie screenings.

These DMC success stories are nothing new to Deni Reilley, owner of the Majestic Grille. Her restaurant at 145 S. Main is along the Demonstration Block of the Main Street Mall. Thirteen years ago, the area between Union Ave. and Gayoso Ave. was the most blighted in Downtown. With neighbors like Local Gastropub, Bluefin and Aldo’s Pizza Pies, that area is now unrecognizable except for one troublesome spot at 107 South Main.

“Anything that helps Downtown helps all the businesses. If they're able to help a landowner fix another building and another restaurant moves in, we're thrilled with that,” Reilley said. “The less blight we have, the more people are attracted to come downtown and eat and rent more office space. It's good for everybody.”

She added that as a small business owner and a board member at the DMC, she believes in the power of community initiatives. “It's remarkable the change that the little changes can make,” she added. “These tools and the authority that the Mayor has given the DMC to tackle these blight issues I think has even really galvanized these neighborhood associations even more to have more pride, do more cleanups, and really work with Memphis City Beautiful.”

Reilley admitted that she’s looking forward to seeing the DMC prevail in the second lawsuit regarding Memphis Light Gas and Water executive Allan Long’s boarded up property at 107 S. Main. Barlow’s main course of action has been using a tool called the Neighborhood Preservation Act, which allows for a civil lawsuit to be filed naming the plaintiff as someone who is harmed by the conditions of a neglected property.

Barlow called an emergency hearing on March 31 at Shelby County Environmental Court in response to Bologna & Associates finding moisture in the basement walls of surrounding properties. Barlow is still seeking a court order that would allow full entry into the building.

“The safety concerns are one thing. It makes a building dangerous and uninhabitable or unusable for its intended purpose. The good thing about the Neighborhood Preservation Act remedy is that the property owner isn't done until the property is rehabbed to code,” he said. “The owner is put on notice from the first day that you have to fix it or you will likely lose control of the process of fixing it. Both ways it will be fixed, and either way you will either lose it or pay for it.”

Other ongoing projects include remedying the property at the corner of Union Ave. and Main St., the South Main Machine Yard and the Sterick Building.

The City and the DMC are taking several steps to ensure that another giant sweep of blighted properties isn’t needed in the future.

Barlow said that the City is working on resolving a more coordinated approach to code enforcement and blight control measures. The Mayor's Innovation Team, as a part of its Neighborhood Economic and Vitality Strategy, has been working to develop a blighted property data warehouse with experts at the Data Science for Social Good fellowship housed in the University of Chicago

The comprehensive database incorporates all of the indicators of blight, including ownership information, tax information, code enforcement activity, what kind of property it is and its location. “Basically, we have a preliminary or beta version of a blight score for every property in the city. . . . A data warehouse would be very useful for enforcement to keep track of the blighted properties. It’s so much easier to respond in a coordinated fashion if everyone is looking at the same figures and same data,” Barlow said.

Key among the blight-fighting tools is a dedicated Mayor who has given the DMC the go-ahead to get aggressive with blight and a one-of-a-kind Environmental Court overseen by Judge Larry Potter.

“I'm not familiar with anybody doing more civil public nuisance cases than we are. Some larger cities have filed dozens per year in some cases, and we're filing hundreds per year and we're growing that with the [Neighborhood Preservation] law clinic,” Barlow said, mentioning one day in court where he, a law professor and the clinic’s eight students tackled 55 cases in one day.

“The strategy is to leave no stone unturned and to acknowledge that it's going to take time to deal with the more complex properties and to keep pushing,” Barlow added.

Read more articles by Madeline Faber.

Madeline Faber is an editor and award-winning reporter. Her experience as a development reporter complements High Ground's mission to write about what's next for Memphis.