June West, Heritage's executive director spoke to a roomful of Memphians who gathered at the organization's Madison Avenue headquarters Tuesday. They were there to discuss the future of Overton Square. West told them that her organization's recent forays into activism have taught her a valuable lesson.
"I don't want to be an obstructionist. I don't want to be in an adversarial position," she said. West said she wants developers to understand that although her group is dedicated to preservation, it's not opposed to progress.
"We want [developers] to know that we're to help them in any way we can, She said. "We don't want to show up at the last minute and tell somebody they can't do something."
Overton Square, Midtown's storied entertainment district, is currently for sale by its owners, the Colorado-based Fisher Capital Partners Ltd. In spite of West's stated goal, she, like those who came out to listen and share their ideas, wants to prevent Associated Wholesale Grocers, a potential buyer, from knocking down the buildings along the south side of Madison and building a big-box grocery store in what is now a large parking lot.
Those buildings aren't protected. If somebody wants to demolish them there's nothing that can be done to stop it except public outcry," West said.
Associated Wholesale Grocers is a large retailer-owned company that builds a variety of large, concept stores such as Price Chopper, Price Mart, Apple Market, Sun Fresh, Ca$h $aver, Alps, and Thriftway.
The crowd of about 30 people was thick with architects, as well as area residents and business owners who were interested in discovering better ways to redevelop the square that don't involve demolishing the 1920s-1930s era buildings, or bringing big box retailers, and a "Union Avenue aesthetic" to Madison and Cooper. Although the square has had problems attracting and maintaining new tenants, several area mainstays continue to thrive. Paulette's, Yosemite Sam's, Side Street Bar and Grill, Bosco's, Bayou Bar and Grill, Le Chardonnay, and Malco's Studio on the Square all do solid business. Playhouse on the Square, Memphis' only professional resident theater, is in the process of building a $10-milion performance space at the corner of Cooper and Union that will also host performances by Ballet Memphis and the Memphis Symphony Orchestra.
"This will bring an additional 40,000 to 50,000 people to the square every year," said Playhouse founder Jackie Nichols, who is also concerned with the fate of the French Quarter Inn, a once nice, now-dilapidated hotel on the northeast corner of Madison and Cooper. Nichols used to fill the hotel to capacity for a week during United Professional Theatre Auditions, a hugely successful national casting call for professional actors founded and hosted by Playhouse on the Square. Nichols stopped using the hotel a few years back, because it wasn't being kept up.
Ray Brown, an architect and Heritage board member who moderated Tuesday's discussion, approached the preservation effort from a dispassionate, realistic position. "We assume these buildings need to be saved," he said. "But should they be saved? That kind of thing can be done very well, and it can be done poorly."
Brown is planning a 4-day charette (planning session) that will bring together community members, area stakeholders, architects, designers, and policy experts, who will develop a plan to physically and financially re-imagine the square. Brown, who described the unique (for Memphis) urban space as an "extended neighborhood center," said that it had to be a plan that will work in the current environment, and that will attract money to the area.
"A year ago, somebody might have suggested building out condos as part of a mixed use development," Brown said, acknowledging how quickly conventional wisdom regarding development can change. "Now, that's probably not a good idea. Maybe we should include apartments in the plan ... I don't know."
For more information on how to get involved with Memphis Heritage's efforts to improve and preserve the character of Overton Square visit Memphisheritage.org.
-- Chris Davis