The controversy over a proposed Overton Square development is not just about saving vacant buildings; it's about saving the soul of the square.
Last week, Tom Lowe of Fisher Capital delayed by 60 days the company's demolition request for the buildings it owns on the south side of Madison at Cooper. After that time, Lowe hopes to move forward with either warehousing the buildings or demolishing them for a new development that includes an Associated Wholesale Grocers (AWG) leased supermarket.
"The bottom line is we have one tenant, and it's AWG. Nothing happens without AWG — they create the traffic into the area from the outside," Lowe said. "We are to the point that we could not make redevelopment of those buildings work."
Groups such as Memphis Heritage and Save Overton Square would like to see the buildings on the south side of Madison reused or, if that's not possible, a redevelopment plan in keeping with Midtown's unique character.
"I'm not going to say that Memphis Heritage would oppose the development if they were the right types of buildings, but we just haven't seen it," said June West, director of Memphis Heritage.
While the developers have shown site drawings to various small groups, they didn't file an official plan with the city's office of planning and development (OPD) before asking for the demolition permit. Adding to the concern is the fact that Sooner, the company contracted to develop the property, generally builds suburban-type developments.
"We're not anti-development. We want new money to come into the area," said Save Overton Square's Gordon Alexander. "We don't want to demolish those buildings before we decide what to put there."
Chooch Pickard, executive director with the Memphis Regional Design Center, is one of the few people in town who have a copy of the redevelopment plans.
"They have really good character," he said of the buildings that would front Madison. "People have been looking at Sooner's old developments and assuming that's what's going there. We're continuing to work with them to make sure the buildings are in character with the neighborhood.
"The liner buildings face the street in a very pedestrian-friendly way; they just have another building behind it. It's not the same as Germantown Parkway where you have a big-box retailer and a McDonald's in the front of it," Pickard said.
But there are reasons to be wary.
At a meeting last week with community members and Memphis City Council member Shea Flinn at City Hall, Lowe was a disembodied voice via speaker phone who didn't know about the new multi-million dollar Playhouse on the Square complex, located a stone's throw from where the grocery store would be built.
If something is going to bring people from out of the area into Overton Square, it's going to be the theater, not another grocery store, no matter how upscale.
And then there is a question of how upscale the supermarket will be. AWG supplies local grocery stores such as Miss Cordelia's and Save-A-Lot. But it seems they also own the site of another grocery store in Midtown.
According to the Shelby County Assessor's website, the Piggly Wiggly property at 1620 Madison is owned by Sixteen Twenty Six Madison LLC. The company's address is given as 5000 Kansas Ave., Kansas City, Kansas.
AWG's headquarters also are located at 5000 Kansas Ave., Kansas City, Kansas. Calls to AWG were not returned by press time.
Locally, James Raspberry has been involved in leasing Overton Square property for more than 15 years.
"The reality is that we've had an incredibly difficult time trying to find anyone to lease those buildings," he said. "It hasn't made economic sense to go in and try to renovate for the lease rates the area can generate."
But if real estate is all about location, location, location, will new buildings make a difference? That question leads some to think that Sooner plans to build the grocery store first and then forgo the other new buildings altogether.
Pickard thinks this is unlikely, because the project is all in one phase: "OPD is not going to just approve a grocery store. There's no reason to believe the liner buildings are not going to be built," he said.
For the square to maintain its character — something that should be considered an asset — those buildings are a must. But more importantly, there's an opportunity here.
Current zoning codes mandate suburban set-backs from the street, but the new unified development code includes provisions for urban, mixed-use projects.
If Overton Square isn't the place for a walkable, mixed-use development, I don't know where in Memphis that would be.
Memphis Heritage, OPD, and the Memphis Regional Design Center will host several community meetings in January, and Lowe has promised to attend.
"This is not just about Overton Square," said Bill Murray with Save Overton Square. "If we let this happen, it will happen all over town, and Midtown will look like anywhere else.