For the first time ever, we have a guest blogger: VWDan. Thanks, Dan! I owe ya.
Last Saturday's meeting at the Memphis College of Art — initially to cover Sooner Investment's plan to redevelop Overton Square — evolved into a chance to discuss Midtown zoning, as well as allow citizens and interested parties a chance to voice their opinion about the hotly debated, controversial plan to raze Overton Square and replace it with a grocery store and strip development.
The meeting began with Charles "Chooch" Pickard of the Memphis Regional Design Center explaining the purpose of creating a zoning overlay plan for Midtown to the 200+ audience.
A zoning overlay is a designation to a specific area that lies atop and supercedes any one individual lot's zoning. Both the medical center and the University of Memphis area have found success with creating zoning overlays to protect their neighborhoods’ character and promote consistency in development within their boundaries. The development in these areas are bound by more strict guidelines involving how the land can be used, the number of parking spaces, the materials used to construct the buildings, what uses are deemed "offensive" to the community (such as industrial space), as well as how far away the buildings are from the curb.
Mary Baker, deputy director of the Office of Planning and Development, said the medical center’s overlay dictated the way Le Bonheur’s new facility on Poplar Avenue relates to the neighborhood via its wide sidewalks and landscaping.
But most people in attendance wanted to discuss the status of Sooner’s project in Overton Square. Baker said she received a call from Sooner on January 8th to request a hold to the application. While the application is on hold, however, it has not been formally withdrawn and could still move forward in the future.
The subject of the proposed multimillion dollar project at the corner of Cooper and Madison has culminated in packed meetings (including a standing room only City Council meeting), a front page story in this week's Commercial Appeal and talk on morning radio. The plan, as described in site plans and discussions with the proposed developer Sooner Investments of Oklahoma City, involve tearing down all of Overton Square's buildings along Madison and Cooper and building a single story shopping center anchored by a freestanding grocery store built by Associated Wholesale Grocers.
The plan's most visible critic, Memphis Heritage executive director June West, has publicly spoken out against the project, calling it "bad urbanism" in recent meetings and interviews.
Until Saturday morning, West had been the public face of the opposition to the project, but her stance was echoed by restaurateur John Vergos and Councilman Shea Flinn. Both spoke out against the project and championed the concept of the zoning overlay as a way to control development and set protective guidelines for the midtown area.
Vergos said that he kept hearing that the plan for Overton Square was "at least something" and said, "At least it's something is a terrible attitude to have here in Memphis.
Flinn echoed Vergos’ sentiments, stating that the fight over Overton Square was the first but not the last time this sort of issue will arise and that now is the time to get organized and "get ahead of this current" before more buildings change hands and/or need to be rehabilitated.
Those speaking for the Overton Square project at the meeting were Jason Hood, president of the East End Neighborhood Association, and James Raspberry of Raspberry and Associates.
Hood's neighborhood lies to the east of Overton Square and had called dialogue "over limited". He cited vacant commercial space in the area such as the former French Quarter Inn at the northeast corner of Madison and Cooper, and former restaurants Melos Taverna and Chicago Pizza Factory further west on Madison.
"The condition [these buildings] are in are not doing a service to our community," Hood said and cited concerns over property value and crime in the area.
A visibly frustrated James Raspberry advocated for the temporarily shelved project. Raspberry has been involved with leasing the Overton Square space since the early 1990s and addressed the suggestion by some that he had not been trying to fill the many vacant commercial spaces along Madison to make room for the project.
“To say that we haven't tried to lease [the space] is foolish," he said.
He elaborated that the focus should be on the quality of design and not simply opposing the new project.
Local restaurateurs Jason Severs of Bari and Kelly English of Iris also commented: Severs called the development "the first real development opportunity in a long time" and English said that he didn't feel like there was a perfect plan but "the space deserves something, something great." Both cited the new Playhouse on the Square as an opportunity to substantially improve the area.
Whatever the plan, everyone will be watching what happens next with Overton Square, which will no doubt become the template for future Midtown growth.
The push for the proposed Midtown zoning overlay will begin in the next few weeks.
The meeting scheduled for next Saturday has been postponed in light of the Overton Square project's application status but look for community meetings in the coming months as the zoning overlay is developed with opportunity for residents' and interested parties' feedback.