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The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly: Midtown's Building Boom



The new "Memphis sound" is the chug of diesel engines, the high whine of power tools, and the relentless thwack of air-hammers. 

Memphis is growing, like it or not. And, make no mistake, some do like the building boom, while others hate the change. Call it growing pains. Most of that growth is happening in the city's core — Downtown and Midtown. Developers say they're simply following the people — the market — as they seek urban living experiences. 

Memphis is not growing outward; Memphis is filling in. In fact, city leaders recently de-annexed some outlying parts of the city and cut off new sewer taps to unincorporated areas of Shelby County, meaning no new construction is likely in those areas.

The Midtown Action Coalition in a meeting at Howard Hall - JUSTIN FOX BURKS
  • Justin Fox Burks
  • The Midtown Action Coalition in a meeting at Howard Hall

Developers are turning old buildings into something new. Think Crosstown Concourse, Central Station, or the myriad cotton warehouses Downtown converted into apartments. Developers are also doing "teardowns" and building something new on the site. For example, older homes in Cooper-Young are being razed and the lots are being filled with two or more "tall skinny" houses.

This is called infill development. And. It. Is. Hot. How hot? Historically hot.

"The renewed interest in the core over the past few years has been the most sustained and intense since the founding of the city," says Josh Whitehead, planning director and administrator of the Memphis and Shelby County Office of Planning and Development (OPD). "I believe a renewed appreciation for urban living is driving these projects, much like is found in many other cities around the country."

Is This Really "It"?

What's happening in Memphis is a version of the same story that's played out in cities such as Austin and Nashville. The city got "cool" (possibly due to its low housing costs and music cred), attracted cool people, and got all the cool-people accoutrements — lofts, bike-share and bike lanes, coffee shops, craft breweries, and, most recently, those Bird scooters.

When developers see markets get hot, they jump in and ride the wave. 

But Austin and Nashville have something Memphis does not — lots of new people; around 100 people move to both cities every day. And those figures are down slightly from where they were in 2016 and 2017.

From 2010-2016, 8,729 people moved to Memphis, or about four people per day, according to census data. In that same time, 36,854 people moved out of the Memphis area. 

The U.S. Census Bureau has not yet released its most-current, city-level data sets, so current figures on Memphis' population shifts aren't available. But, looking at what we have, the city's population is stagnant at best. So are we really an "It" city?

Something certainly feels different. Consider another "It" metric: Home prices in Memphis rose 14 percent from May 2017 to May 2018, according to Chandler Reports. The average home price here in May 2017 was $169,540 and rose to $192,883 12 months later. Why? Because finding houses is getting harder.  

"Low housing inventory in Memphis and Shelby County is pushing home sales prices to record highs," reads the report. 

In May, 1,779 houses were sold for a total of $343 million. That's up 14 percent from $300 million in May 2017, according to Chandler Reports.

Developers must be reading the tea leaves, right? They wouldn't take out loans, hire architects, and go through the city hall permitting process if they didn't think their project — probably with some spiffy, millennial-attracting name — would be profitable. Thousands of people now want to live close to the urban core.

"People who are graduating from colleges and schools, they don't want to own houses," says Brenda Solomito-Basar, owner at Solomito Land Planning. "If they are empty nesters before children, or are empty nesters after children, you've got people who want low-maintenance. You have people who want to downsize."

Ed Apple, of City Cottages, the company that's planning to build small, single-family homes in Cooper-Young, says there's a lot of demand for apartments but many of the city's current apartment buildings are less than ideal. "I wouldn't want to live in them," he says.

"With new, comes excitement," Apple says. "Memphis is an affordable city. My children both want to come back here, and I'm excited about that. I'm starting to see my friends' children come back. There are just more opportunities than I've seen in the past." 

But as developers scout sites for new infill projects, they're hunting in old neighborhoods, areas where often not much has changed for a long time and residents like it that way.

Invasion of the Tall Skinnies

Patrick Durkin arrived at his Cooper-Young home on Bruce Street one Friday evening to find a crew demolishing the house next door. He'd had no warning. No nothing. After some digging, he learned that Memphis-based JBJ Properties Inc. planned to build four, "tall skinny" homes on the lot. 

Tall-skinny houses are modern, two-story structures, narrow enough to fit two or four side-by-side on traditional Midtown lots.

The new tall houses often loom over the single-level bungalows nearby. In Durkins' case, the homes' upstairs balconies meant an end to any privacy he'd had in his backyard. One house is now built so close to his, Durkin could reach out his window and ask for a bottle of Grey Poupon.

"This is ultimately destroying our neighborhood and destroying the characteristics of what Memphis is," Durkin says. "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."

Nearby, on Carr, Rodney Nash agrees, as he looks up at another tall-skinny looming above the street, a JBJ Properties sign planted in front of it. One day, he says, "they just came and leveled everything with a bulldozer and a backhoe."

"There are hundreds, if not thousands, of people who are bothered by this development," Nash says. "It's coming from just a few people who are basically trying to make a lot of money off of the hard work that we've been doing in Midtown for years. They're coming in, once the property values have gone up, and [to them] it's worth it to do this [motions at the new building]."

No one from JBJ Properties responded to interview requests for this story. The company owns 77 properties across Shelby County, according to the county Assessor of Property website — including 10 properties on Bruce, where Durkin lives. JBJ Construction, which shares the same address as JBJ Properties, pulled 13 building permits for new homes in April, making it the top builder in the area that month, according to Chandler Reports. The average price for those 13 homes was $175,769.

Gordon Alexander, longtime Midtown activist and president of the Midtown Action Coalition, says tall, modern homes on streets with traditional homes makes you think, "what in the hell is that doing here?"

He says Cooper-Young's reproduction antique street lights and many front porches give it a "Southern, homey feel." Gordon calls the tall-skinnies, "atrocious, hideous-looking buildings."

"If you don't live in Midtown, I guess it's hard for people from outside to understand," Alexander says. "They don't understand. They say this [motions to the tall-skinny] is progress. To us, this is not progress."

Michael Fahy, president of Prime Development Group, which has represented JBJ Properties in several public hearings on projects, says, with "this new surge of growth, comes growing pains."

"Change to a neighborhood with new homes can be confrontational," Fahy says. "And each new development brings site-specific conditions that make each project unique. With new homes, comes a new benefit to neighbors with increased property values, updated or new homes, and new families."

So, who wants to live in new homes in old neighborhoods? Plenty of people, apparently. Paul Morris, past president of the Downtown Memphis Commission, spelled it out plainly in a short speech showing his support for a new development in Central Gardens to the Land Use Control Board (LUCB).

"I believe there are more people that want to live in our core city and yet some people don't choose to live in historic homes," Morris said. "They want new construction. I think having that option available in Midtown is really important, because we can attract new citizens to our city."

Whose Voice Gets Heard?

When Lisa Toro looks out the window of her City & State coffee shop on Broad, she can see the future — and she dreads it. Across Broad, where an old warehouse sits low, under street grade, a massive, modern-looking apartment complex is slated to be built. 

3D Realty, a conglomerate of Loeb Properties and M&M Enterprises, has planned a $51 million project for the north side of Broad that will raze the warehouse and put in its place several four-story buildings that will house 414 apartments.

Toro, who also co-owns The Liquor Store restaurant with her husband, Luis, says she welcomes all the new people as possible customers, but she fears a massive change is coming to the street that she and other independent business owners built with risk, sweat, and hard-earned money. The massive change feels completely out of her hands, she says. 

"Fifty percent of Broad Avenue is about to change," Toro says, "and not making that a community-based effort is a huge disservice to the businesses that have been here for years." 

Independent business owners worked hard for many years to make Broad what it has become, she says. She thinks developers want to cash in on the organic, eclectic energy they created, and that they could destroy it in the bargain. 

Bob Loeb, president of Loeb Properties, told The Daily News in May that he and partner James Maclin chose Broad "because the neighborhood is diverse and eclectic." He told the paper he'd owned the warehouse since 1993 and they were waiting for the south side of the street to pop.

"The neighborhood is often viewed as a barrier to development, but yet the neighborhood is why those developers want to come in," says Pat Brown, co-owner of T Clifton Art Gallery on Broad. "That's what makes Memphis unique and why tourists want to come. If it's not, why not just be Nashville or Atlanta?"

Toro and Brown say they were in talks with 3D Realty for months about everything from traffic and safety to greenspace. The developers listened, they said, but didn't really heed any of their suggestions.    

Maclin, principle owner of M&M Enterprises, says "conversations with neighborhood partners are absolutely ongoing" but provided no other comment on neighborhood concerns. Maclin adds, "We look forward to continuing our commitment to be good neighbors in the area through 3D Realty's [Historic Broad Avenue Arts Alliance] membership — [Loeb Properties owner Bob Loeb] and I are already members — as well as our active community participation."

If the project is built (and there's little doubt that it will be), Toro says property values on Broad Avenue may rise, raising rents on those independent businesses, and even driving them away. 

Brown wonders if there's not a better way to give communities a voice when developers come knocking. That's especially true, she says, when developments get millions of dollars worth of PILOT tax breaks (as the apartment complex did — $12.6 million, to be precise) from public sources.   

"An Easy Decision"

Neighbors can sometimes influence the decisions of developers. On Madison Avenue, Fahy's Prime Development Group and others plan to build 230 new apartments in four buildings on the vacant lot next to the P&H Cafe. 

Bar owners Matthew Edwards and Robert Fortner worried the development would have gated off the one-way alley that runs behind the P&H and limited access to their business. Last month, the developers heeded their concerns and agreed to build a private alley off Court Street to retain the access. 

In Cooper-Young, neighbors complained about the density Apple's City Cottage project could bring. Originally, the company planned to build 10 roughly 1,000-square-foot rental houses on an empty lot at the corner of Elzey and Tanglewood. 

Apple says he could have fit 18 homes on the lot, and he says he might have gotten it approved, "if we'd gone and fought it." But, after listening to neighbors and looking at the site, he settled on eight homes, and says they "look really good there.

"At the end of the day it was an easy decision," Apple says. "It was what was right for the property and what was right for the neighborhood."

However, when dealing with infill projects, Apple urges neighbors and activists not to "poke the bear." Some showed up to public meetings about his project with ulterior motives, he says; others were "spreading misinformation and half-baked truths ... and trying to stir the pot.

"I love when people from the community say, 'I've got a problem with this and here's why,'" Apple says, "as long as it's well thought-out and not just a personal smear. You get a lot more with honey than with vinegar."

Solomito, who has guided dozens of projects through the public process, says developments can be improved and modified by the community, if residents are willing to negotiate.

"Lots of people think they shouldn't have to negotiate," she says. "Well, you know, A) Never move next door to vacant land; and B) Nothing ever stays the same. Property changes hands, and the best you can do is think of [new development] as an opportunity." 

Stopping Development

Listen to residents and neighborhood activists long enough and they'll eventually say something like, "I can guarantee if they'd tried to build something like this in [a developer's or local lawmaker's] neighborhood, they wouldn't get away with it." Consider the case of Ivy Grove in upscale Central Gardens: 

Ivy Grove was a project in which Germantown's Kircher-Uhlhorn Development wanted to tear down a 106-year-old home and build nine new houses on the old home's two-acre lot. 

Neighbors said Ivy Grove would increase density, congest traffic, sap the neighborhood's historic qualities, and lower property values. It didn't help that the developers were from Germantown and planned to list the homes for between $650,000-$750,000.

"The developers behind this project could care less about Central Gardens or Midtown," Central Gardens resident Jan Willis wrote to city planning officials. "It's utter greed. It's not growth, it's pure profit for the developers." 

The neighborhood resistance was enough to cause Kircher-Uhlhorn to halt the project for a month. The company came back to the Land Use Control Board (LUCB) in March with a new plan that included saving the existing home and building two fewer houses. But the changes didn't win the Ivy Grove project many more fans.

"Central Gardens is a neighborhood with a huge tax base because of its historical relevance," said Barbara Sysak at that March LUCB meeting. "If we destroy this, bit by bit, the neighborhood will eventually lose its unique character."

It was hard to know if anyone on the LUCB was actually listening and considering what neighbors were saying. Then, Margaret Pritchard spoke. She'd said she'd heard "the wonderful comments" from the "passionate people who live in Central Gardens." Pritchard sits on the LUCB and chairs one of its committees. The day of the Ivy Grove vote, she said of the Central Garden residents in the chamber, "I'm their neighbor. I live on Harbert." 

Pritchard worried Ivy Grove would cause parking issues and said that she didn't "like the precedent" it set for the neighborhood, and wondered about the "violations to the guidelines." But, mostly, Pritchard said, drainage was the reason to reject the project. Heavy rains made the intersection of Barksdale and McLean impassible. Pritchard said she'd once seen a picture of a car floating there in The Commercial Appeal.

Pritchard and nine other LUCB board members voted against Ivy Grove. The board rejected a project, even though the developer changed it, based on community feedback, and even though the city planning staff approved it. That doesn't happen often at Memphis City Hall. 

At the vote's final tally, a burst of applause and "woos" rose up against the banging gavel of the LUCB board chairman Jon McCreery, who was one of only two members to vote for Ivy Grove. 

Will It Last?

Three years ago, countless articles touted the trend of "Americans Returning to Cities" the "urban renaissance." But recently, new stories, like this one from Fortune, are emerging: "Why Millennials Are About to Leave Cities in Droves." 

New Census data for the first seven years of this decade predicts a population shift back to the suburbs, especially as older millennials make more money and get ready to have children, according to analysis from the Brookings Institute.

"If these shifts continue, they could call into question the sharp clustering of the nation's population — in large metropolitan areas and their cities — that characterized the first half of the 2010s," wrote Brookings' senior fellow William H. Frey. 

So, what's next for Memphis?

In terms of crystal balls, Solomito's is probably clearer than most in Memphis. Here's her prediction about the next wave of big-time development:

"East Memphis is done. Downtown is getting done. Guess what? It's the middle part of the sandwich [in Midtown]. I think it's coming there."

Buckle up.

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