TEAR DOWN THE BIG UGLIES
What Memphis needs is a few good implosions.
Here is a partial list of candidates, for starters.
In downtown, Baptist Hospital. The Sterick Building next to AutoZone Park. The Rhodes-Jennings building on the mall near Court Square. Half a dozen other vacant buildings on the mall or on Madison Avenue between Front Street and Danny Thomas.
In South Memphis, two empty buildings near the Stax Museum of American Music on McLemore.
In Midtown, the Sears Crosstown building on Cleveland. Crump Stadium. Tim McCarver Stadium. The empty buildings at the Mid-South Fairgrounds. And possibly the biggest eyesore of all, the boarded up Coach and Four hotel next to the University Club at the edge of Central Gardens.
Despite every incentive in the developer's playbook, nobody has done anything productive with these wrecks for years or, in several cases, decades. Tax credits and low-interest loans have been made available. So has planning assistance. And in each case there is attractive, productive property nearby. This is not blight in the former industrial district of Frayser. It is blight in the midst of prosperity, weeds in a blooming garden.
From time to time, speculators have floated bogus development plans for the Sears building, the Sterick building, and the Rhodes-Jennings building in the newspapers, hoping to make a quick buck. Reporters laboriously try to track down owners and invariably wind up with a story about a syndicate whose members could not be reached for comment or declined to comment. Committees have been formed and reports filed about the fairgrounds and the Coach and Four.
The record speaks for itself. Unlike, say, the old Tennessee Brewery on the downtown bluff, which has been cleaned out and stabilized by its owners at considerable expense, nothing has been done with the big uglies. Reporters and their readers and listeners get the runaround. The city gets nothing or next to nothing in taxes. The neighborhoods get eyesores, a frumpy image, and wasted opportunities.
You don't see as many abandoned sports facilities, skyline buildings, or giant hospitals in Nashville, St. Louis, Little Rock, or Jackson, Mississippi. To find this kind of blight, you have to look to the Rust Belt cities of the Midwest. And one of them, Detroit, is doing something about it.
Detroit has much in common with Memphis, including white flight, casinos, failing schools, and abandoned downtown buildings. Publicly financed stadiums for the Detroit Lions and Detroit Tigers are the cornerstones of inner-city revival, just as AutoZone Park and the new NBA arena are in Memphis. The catalyst for Detroit is the 2006 Super Bowl, which will be held at the Lions' new stadium. An obvious catalyst for Memphis would be the opening of the new arena in 2004.
Last week, The Detroit News listed 11 once-prominent "buildings in the bullseye" and likely to meet the wrecking ball if renovations are not made soon.
"Building preservationists are crying foul, but the thud of wrecking balls smashing some of downtown Detroit's ornamental and long-vacant skyscrapers could become a reality in the coming months if downtown leaders get their way," the News wrote.
It looks like Detroit and its new mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, are serious. Even the Book-Cadillac Hotel, a Motor City icon occasionally mentioned in the Detroit novels of Loren Estleman and Elmore Leonard, is under review for demolition. So is the 25-story Statler-Hilton Hotel, closed shortly after the 1980 Republican National Convention.
Implosions are not cheap. The News estimates the cost of leveling the Statler-Hilton at $5 million. It could easily cost a few million to take down the Sterick Building, Baptist Hospital, the massive Sears building, or Tim McCarver Stadium. But blight has its costs too. Every person who visits AutoZone Park also "visits" its neighbor, the Sterick Building. Canopies and murals camouflage smaller vacant buildings next to the park, but the Sterick Building is too big to hide. Baptist Hospital must be removed before AutoZone founder and venture capitalist Pitt Hyde can get on with his proposed medical-research park. The fairgrounds were looking seedy for years before the Redbirds left Tim McCarver and put an exclamation point on it for every visitor to Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium or Libertyland to see.
But implosions can happen if the right people want them to. The old main library, a perfectly usable building at the corner of Peabody and McLean, was knocked down, relatively speaking, about 10 minutes after the doors closed for the last time so that houses could be built before some alternative use could get traction.
There is new money available as well. The city could use the revenue from expiring tax freezes in the next four years to create a demolition fund or low-interest loan pool. Expired freezes will total over $7 million a year in new taxes by 2007.
The other thing implosion needs is better marketing. When AutoZone Park and the surrounding developments were poised for construction, preservationists made a last-ditch appeal to save an old shed by citing its distant past as a mule barn. It took some hard work by the Jernigans and the developers of Echelon At the Ballpark to overcome them by pointing out that what was to come was so much better than what once was.
Demolition parties should get as much fanfare as groundbreakings. Sponsors could buy the best seats and purchase commemorative bricks or vials of dust. The title sponsor gets to trigger the blast. T-shirts could bear the slogans "Less Is More," "Addition By Subtraction," or "I'm Pushin' Implosion."
Or we could put up with these wrecks for another 25 years.