Thursday, June 18, 2009

Is Downtown a Potemkin Village?

Posted By on Thu, Jun 18, 2009 at 9:17 AM

The Russians supposedly called them Potemkin villages — elaborately constructed fake villages designed by Grigory Potemkin, lover of Russian empress Catherine the Great. True or not, the term has come to represent any fake construct that hides underlying poverty, decay, and abandonment.

With the bankruptcy of the Horizon high-rise condo project on the South Bluff and the foreclosure sale of One Commerce Square office building in the downtown core adding to an already long list of problem properties such as The Pyramid, do we have our own Potemkin Village?

Architect and planner Tony Bologna, who has worked in downtown Memphis since 1964, has some thoughts.

"If the Horizon comes on line as condos then we have a 60-month supply of condos," says Bologna, who compiles a periodic report on downtown condos and apartments. "If it goes apartment, then we have a 9-10 month supply of condos, which would at least give us a shot at getting rid of the inventory."

The transformation of the Horizon was stunning. A couple of months ago, every time I stopped at the convenience store on Riverside Drive across from the project for morning coffee, the parking lot, store, and job site were swarming with constructions workers in hardhats. Now the gates to the entrance of chained, and there's not a soul around.

As for the banks that financed the deal, Bologna says "You don't know what the hell is on their minds."

Bologna, who worked on HarborTown, South Bluffs, and One Memphis Place among many other projects, came to work in Memphis when downtown was still the business center in the city. The courts were downtown, the banks were downtown, and the office buildings were downtown. Even the long abandoned Sterrick Building, the mustard-colored skyscraper north of AutoZone Park, was thriving.

In 45 years, the current recession is "the worst, no question, that I have seen, but now the people that are here (downtown) want to be here. Before, they had to be here. That's a big difference."

Bottom line: "I still feel real optimistic about downtown, and I don't wear rose-colored glasses," he says. "It's bleak now but it has the right draws. I think it will come back fine, and it may not take as long as people are predicting."

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