Although it may be difficult to tell by looking at Union Avenue, Midtown residents and business owners have a long history of fighting over development.
The latest skirmish happened last week at a public meeting convened by Memphis Heritage to discuss the seemingly unavoidable demolition of buildings in Overton Square. The crowd filled the main room of Memphis Heritage's Madison Avenue headquarters to capacity November 12th, with an overflow of people spilling out into the foyer and adjoining rooms.
"Demolition is non-negotiable," Memphis Heritage executive director June West said of the buildings from the 1920s and '30s that currently front the south side of Madison at Cooper.
Associated Wholesale Grocers (AWG), the organization that wants to purchase the property from Colorado-based owners Fisher Capital Partners Ltd., has created a detailed plan for Overton Square that includes a big-box grocery store with underground parking, a street level parking lot, new construction on Madison, and landscaping along Cooper.
AWG is a retailer-owned cooperative that supplies goods to Memphis groceries as diverse as Stepherson's Superlo in East Memphis and Miss Cordelia's Grocery on Mud Island. It also builds large concept stores such as Price Chopper, Price Mart, Cash Saver, and Thriftway, generally constructing new buildings that are then handed over to a grocery management company in exchange for making AWG its supplier.
Chooch Pickard, executive director for the Memphis Regional Design Center, told the assembled group that AWG isn't in the business of renovating older properties. He suggested to the crowd that any significant change in AWG's plans could force the company to abandon the project and could result in the current ownership demolishing the buildings.
"That sounds like a threat," said Midtowner Paul Cooper. Another angry Midtowner asked Pickard if he had a business relationship with either Fisher or AWG.
Architect and Memphis Heritage board member Ray Brown received applause from the crowd when he attacked the plan as one of the worst designs he's ever seen. Some Midtown residents are concerned that the development will be too suburban for the area or will include a discount grocery store that will cause the area to decline.
Pickard said he had seen the street-level drawings and that the designs aren't suburban. He also said the images of the proposed exteriors could be shared with small groups but wouldn't be released to the public because the plans are still in development and could change.
Reportedly, the developers are interested in building an upscale grocery store at the site, but opponents have countered that no specific grocery store is attached to the project.
"I'll tell you how this will look in five years. It will look like Madison and Avalon by the Piggly Wiggly," said one angry voice from the crowd.
"Or the Kroger at Poplar and Cleveland," said another.
"I'm a bottom-line person," Cooper said. "I loves me some Overton Square. ... What's the bottom line that can be done to stop this?"
Memphis Heritage's West urged everyone in the room to write or call their Memphis City Council representative.
No representatives from Fisher Capital or AWG attended the meeting.