Mr. Robert’s Neighborhood

A blockbuster plan for downtown and its author, Robert Lipscomb.

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A downtown resident with some experience in local politics once told me "A C is the second mayor to work for Robert."

"A C", of course, is Memphis mayor A C Wharton. "Robert" is Robert Lipscomb, the director of the division of Housing and Community Development and executive director of the Memphis Housing Authority. The other mayor is Willie Herenton, who made Lipscomb a division director 20 years ago, fell out with him for a while, then rehired him and gave him some new duties.

Longevity, ambition, and know-how make Lipscomb the man to see. Downtown is Mr. Robert's neighborhood, from the Bass Pro pyramid to the housing projects south of FedExForum. The Heritage Trail redevelopment plan is a proposed 20-year plan for downtown including the Beale Street Entertainment District, the South Main District, the downtown core, and the Foote Homes and Cleaborn Homes housing projects.

The master plan would have a master developer. This does not sit well with some downtowners of the let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom school.

"Downtown Memphis is known for its diversity, and if they do this then I can see development coming to a crawl," says Terry Woodard, a past president of the Downtown Neighborhood Association and, with her husband Phil, owner of a company that has been developing in downtown since 1996. The Woodard's home, with its glass walls, high roof like a ship's prow, and contemporary architecture, is something of a landmark on the South Bluff.

The Woodards and other downtowners plan to meet Thursday with the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), a city-county board that is the funding gateway for Heritage Trail. By the magic of tax-increment financing (TIF), the CRA could capture sales and property taxes downtown as well as federal funds.

The catch is that in order to do that, downtown would be declared a slum, blighted, and a growing menace. The best of downtown, of course, is no such thing as evidenced by some favorable recent publicity in National Geographic Traveler, but in the wacky world of federal funding, sometimes it pays to look poor. Think "a wink and a nod," as Judge Hardy Mays recently described another gambit in the schools case.

"It makes no sense," said Woodard, a founding member of the South Main Association and the Art Trolley Tour. "It is only to get money from the federal government."

This power struggle won't go away anytime soon. Everyone who does downtown development has some kind of deal going — usually a PILOT, or payment in lieu of taxes for a certain number of years, or some smaller version of the incentives package given to Bass Pro. Beale Street and FedExForum generate millions of dollars a year in sales taxes. A TIF is a way to capture the cash for a specific area as opposed to general city and county uses.

The Downtown Memphis Commission is not taking sides but is serving as a conduit for gripes and information. A memo it sent out in November gives the main one:

"It is projected that 98.7 percent of this future, incremental TIF revenue will be generated by private properties primarily in the downtown core outside the Focus Area of the planned improvements. The Cleaborn and Foote Homes redevelopments are expected to generate 1.3 percent of the TIF revenue over 20 years.

"To pay now for the Cleaborn and Foote Homes redevelopments, the CRA would borrow money against the future projected downtown TIF revenue by issuing revenue bonds."

Woodard says she's not to trying to pit the haves against the have-nots of Foote and Cleaborn Homes.

"I believe that they deserve better housing and I also believe they need to remain in the area so that they can continue to be connected to the people and programs that can help them," she said in a letter to CRA board members.

Whether the remaining buildings are demolished and the residents relocated, as other public housing residents have been, is an open question. A group called the Vance Avenue Collaborative, with support from planners at the University of Memphis, is pressing that issue with the Memphis City Council.

The underlying issue is Lipscomb and his growing empire, which extends to the Fairgrounds and another TIF encompassing Overton Square and much of Midtown. One would-be developer sees him as a combination of Godzilla and Robert Moses, the master builder of New York City in the mid-20th century.

Adds another source who has watched Lipscomb operate inside City Hall: "Generally, when Robert has swung for something big he's gotten it."

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