Ghost Town

A proposed retail development stalls, leaving blocks of Midtown apartments vacant for more than two years.

| November 26, 2009
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- bianca phillips

If it weren't for the gang graffiti and pavement, the boarded-up apartments hidden behind the intersection of Poplar and Cleveland would look a little like a Gold Rush-era ghost town.

Residents of more than 30 single-family homes and apartment buildings, mostly two- and three-story brick structures between Poplar, Court, Cleveland, and McNeil, were cleared out in 2007 to make way for a proposed 26-acre development promising big box retailers. There were rumors that Target might be interested in building a Midtown store at the site.

But not much has happened with the proposal by Florida-based WSG Development since October 2008, when the Memphis City Council approved the development.

At the time, the developers told the council the project would bring upscale residences, retail, office space, hotels, and restaurants to the area. Demolition of the apartments was supposed to begin this past spring, but so far no action has been taken.

Multiple calls to WSG Development's local representative and its Florida office were not returned by press time.

Mary Baker, deputy director of land use control with the city Office of Planning and Development, said WSG plans to file for extensions on proposed street and alley closures in the neighborhood.

"They do plan, if they haven't already, to file for extensions on those closures," Baker said. "Other than that, we don't have a lot of information."

In 2007, WSG spent nearly $12 million to buy 76 parcels in the area and took out a $14 million construction loan through Lehman Brothers Holdings, Inc. Lehman Brothers then declared bankruptcy in late 2008 when the economy collapsed across the country.

The area near Poplar and Cleveland was once home to a community of Vietnamese and Mexican immigrants who were forced from their homes after the developers purchased the property.

"It's hideous walking or driving through there," said Peter Gathje, who manages the Manna House, a hospitality house for the homeless, a few block away on Jefferson. "They were in such a big hurry to get everyone out, and now the buildings sit there, slowly decaying. I think it's pretty frustrating for the folks who used to live in the area. They got pushed out for no reason."

Over the past year, fire has destroyed one of the apartment buildings, and Gathje says he's noticed an increase in police patrols.

"Initially, it was common to hear about people squatting in those buildings, but I'm not hearing that much anymore. I'm sure it's because of the increased police presence," Gathje said. "Police have to spend more time in that area as a deterrent. It seems like a waste of resources."

Gathje says he'd rather WSG build low- and mixed-income housing in the area, rather than more retail stores.

"Why does the world need one more Target?" Gathje said. "That area has been residential, and I think it'd be better to keep it that way."

John Geaney, a spokesperson for Associated Catholic Charities, also located on Jefferson, has a different view.

"We understand that the [proposed] development is going to be very helpful to the neighborhood," Geaney said. "We know it's tough times, but we do look forward to the project being completed."

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