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Infill Frenzy: New Developments in Cooper-Young

Some worry recent projects could ‘destroy’ the city’s character.



The city's urban core is a lava-hot market, but as some developers rush to cash in, some long-time Memphians worry that some of their projects are "destroying the characteristics of what Memphis is."

Infill development projects, those built where something else once stood, are not new to the core, said Josh Whitehead, director of the Memphis and Shelby County Office of Planning and Development, but this recent trend is something new.

"The renewed interest in the core over the past few years, however, has been the most sustained and intense since the founding of the city," Whitehead said.

But some new developments concern many who chose urban living and Memphis' unique neighborhoods long before they became trendy, like Patrick Durkin, who chose Cooper-Young nine years ago.

He came home one Friday to find a demolition crew razing the home next door to his. No note. No nothing. He later found that JBJ Properties Inc. planned to build four, "tall skinny" homes on the corner lot.

Patrick Durkin (left) and Olivia Wall and their “tall skinny” neighbors - TOBY SELLS
  • Toby Sells
  • Patrick Durkin (left) and Olivia Wall and their “tall skinny” neighbors

The homes are modern, two-story (tall) structures, narrow enough to fit four of them side-by-side on a traditional Midtown lot (skinny). In short, they look nothing like Cooper-Young homes.

"This is ultimately destroying our neighborhood and destroying the characteristics of what Memphis is," Durkin said. "People come to Cooper-Young because it's fun and friendly. If I saw this [motions to the tall skinnies], I'd think, well, it might as well be Nashville."

But a new set of laws may make it harder for developers to build whatever they want in Cooper-Young. The Land Use Control Board and the Memphis Landmarks Commission both approved rules creating the Cooper Young Historic Landmark District.

The designation would regulate demolition, new construction, and residential add-ons in the neighborhood. It only now needs approval from the Memphis City Council, which is slated to vote on the matter in the coming weeks.

Developers are also looking for council approval for another controversial project in Cooper-Young. City Cottages wants to build 10, small, pre-fabricated houses on a now-vacant lot at Tanglewood and Elzey.

The homes are between 576 and 726 square feet, built in Osceola, Arkansas, by Little Custom Homes. City planners said the homes are "similar in concept to modular housing," homes fabricated somewhere else and assembled on site.

Midtowners on the Preserve Cooper-Young Facebook page, which Durkin and his girlfriend, Olivia Wall, established about nine months ago, say the tiny homes don't fit the neighborhood, are "inappropriate," and won't even provide construction jobs here.

While the type of project may seem new, the council already approved a similar project for the same lot back in 2009. City Cottages says that precedent helps their cause and further precedent could help them bring the tiny homes to a spot close to the Highland Strip.

Precedent like that worries Brantley Ellzey, a Midtowner, artist, and one-time, full-time architect.

"The bottom line is that all of the power is with the developers now," Elzey said. "If you're a citizen and you're against [any new development], you're somehow seen as automatically against development and against progress when, in reality, you're for all those things, you're for them being done a better way." "Infill Frenzy" is an ongoing series looking at developements that will shape our neighborhoods.

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