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Saving Their Street

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One recent evening, the residents of Grahamwood have an impromptu neighborhood meeting. As the setting sun winks through North Graham's dense forest canopy, about 20 people stand in front of Carolyn and Benjamin Head's home, chatting away in the brisk fall air.

And when Benjamin Head approaches the group and greets his wife, one of his neighbors, Kristi Duckworth, says, "What? No kiss?"

After the couple laugh, Duckworth goes on: "I was talking about for me."

The group shares an easy camaraderie. "This has definitely brought us together," says Duckworth. "It's like going to a funeral. You hate to be there under these circumstances, but it's the one time you get to see everybody."

The residents of North Graham are in something akin to a custody battle over their street. Right next to the Heads' home, on a lot that currently has one house on it, a developer has proposed building 11 zero-lot-line homes. A similar in-fill is proposed for a lot roughly a block north. One of the proposals comes before the City Council this week, and if the development passes, residents fear what will happen to Grahamwood.

Kathy Breckenridge has lived in the area for 27 years and says it hasn't changed much since she moved in. The street is pretty and the houses -- when on the market -- sell quickly.

"I'm not opposed to development," she says. "That's not my problem. When I first saw the sign, I thought, that's great. Someone's going to do something here. But the plan is to build 22 houses where once there were only two. ... That's what bothers me."

The residents describe the neighborhood alternately as having an East/Midtown feel, estate-sized lots, and real ambience and character. Some say it reminds them of an urban forest.

Charlotte Fineberg-Buchner says one out-of-state visitor to her home originally mistook her yard for a park. "We might not have the most impressive architecture, but we have the most impressive forest canopy," she says.

And many of the residents are concerned about the trees that will be lost.

The Heads' home sits next to one of the proposed developments. The family has lived in the area for five years, and they consider the neighborhood something of a secret. Carolyn Head says that she knew she wanted the house as soon as she walked into the backyard. And if that was the deciding factor, the front yard -- big enough for games of family football -- was an added bonus. But if the proposed development is built, the houses will be 15 feet from the Heads' property line.

"Every time I walk outside, I see the trees," says Carolyn Head. "I have taken them for granted all these years."

Tabatha Ford and Adam McClain are newcomers to Graham. Once downtowners, the couple bought a house in the neighborhood last spring and renovated it from the floor up. The couple plans to get married in their backyard next April.

"It is unique to find a street like this in the middle of the city," says McClain. "We didn't want to live in Cordova; we don't want Cordova to come to us. We moved here for the character of the homes, the lot sizes, the trees. People won't move here for zero-lot-lines. If they wanted that, they could live downtown."

I don't know what will happen to Graham. At press time, no decision had been made. And you can chalk this up to memory and/or perception, but in every residents-versus-developer conflict I've witnessed, I can't think of one where I thought the neighborhood "won."

"We really feel this is a citywide issue," says Graham resident Robin Marsh. "It's not just our neighborhood. It's happening all over the city, all along Poplar."

In-fills can revitalize a neighborhood. And it's no surprise -- especially with a city budget deficit of almost $26 million -- that leaders might be anxious to add to the property-tax coffers. But sometimes, when neighbors vehemently oppose a development and it passes anyway, I have to wonder what the city's priorities are. And what will be the long-term effects of in-fill developments on Memphis?

"This is his job," Duckworth says of the developer. "He knows the game. If he wins, he stands to make a lot of money. But if we lose, we lose a lot more than money."

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