The 28-acre area known as Washington Bottoms once held the promise of new retail development — with a Midtown Target — but now the long-vacant apartment buildings south of Poplar and east of Cleveland have become the target of a neighborhood group.
Last week, residents who live near the crumbling, abandoned apartments met to form a new neighborhood association aimed at convincing Lehman Brothers Holdings Company, the current property owner, to clean up the area.
"We're not interested in development at this point," said neighborhood activist Candice Hawkinson, who lives on nearby Stonewall. "We want the area leveled. People could do a community garden or it could be grassy knoll. I don't care. I just want the buildings demolished."
The Evergreen District One Neighborhood Association will soon open to new members who live in the area bordered by Madison Avenue, Watkins Street, Poplar Avenue, and Avalon Street. Though the district falls under the purview of the existing Evergreen Historic District Association, that group isn't focused on the Washington Bottoms area.
"This district needs activism," Hawkinson said. "The purpose of forming our own association is because no one else is paying attention to us."
In 2007, Florida-based WSG Development cleared more than 30 apartment buildings and a few single-family homes in Washington Bottoms to make way for a $180 million multi-use project that would have included retail, residential, and office space. At the time, rumors circulated that a Target store might be built there.
The Memphis City Council approved the development in October 2008, but shortly after, WSG defaulted on its $14 million loan from Lehman Brothers. Also in 2008, Lehman filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The property went on the auction block in April of this year, and Lehman purchased it back.
Shortly after the purchase, Lehman demolished a few homes and installed a chain-link fence around the perimeter of the area, which Hawkinson said is continually breached by vagrants.
In September, there were three arsons in less than two weeks. Hawkinson and her neighbors fear that the arsons could release harmful asbestos into the air. She said there is still asbestos lying on the ground at the site of the last fire.
Neighbors also worry that the vacant properties are host to drug dealing, rodents, and other public health hazards.
"We live here, and we do not understand how a company that has already invested [millions] cannot be bothered to take care of its business," Hawkinson said. "They are aware of the hazards and dangers the property encompasses. Why did Lehman Brothers buy the property if they're not willing to take care of it?"