Thursday, May 31, 2012

Beale Street Landing's Colorful Topper

Posted By on Thu, May 31, 2012 at 3:31 PM

From concept to completion, Beale Street Landing has been wrapped in controversy. Now comes a rendering of the elevator shaft atop the grassy hill atop the restaurant and pavilion atop the banks of Tom Lee Park atop the Mississippi River.

The proposal was set to go before the Downtown Commission's design review board June 6th, but on Thursday afternoon the Riverfront Development Corporation asked for a delay.

"RDC just withdrew their signage application to DRB for this month because they didn’t have a very good depiction of what the signs would actually look like," said Paul Morris, executive director of the Downtown Memphis Commission.

He said it could be reset for July.

Meanwhile, here are a couple of renderings that may or may not make the DRB meeting in July. The one atop (ha!) this post came from the RDC. The one below is compliments of Friends For Our Riverfront.

"The rendering is a conceptual depiction of the exterior of the elevator enclosure," said Dorchelle Spence, spokeswoman for the Riverfront Development Corporation. "However, the exact colors and patterns of the multi-colored panels may vary from what is shown and appear more muted. The attached rendering is the architect of record’s presentation of what the elevator enclosure will look like."

Virginia McLean of the group Friends For Our Riverfront has a different view.

"The proposed shaft/sign is a major change from the natural beauty along the riverfront in which Memphians have long taken pride and enjoyed and actually really taken for granted," she said. "Options and alternatives to colors, materials, and lighting should be considered."

This is the other view. Do not adjust your set.

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Memphis Makes Peace with Wells Fargo on Mortgages

Posted By on Thu, May 31, 2012 at 8:44 AM

Can something good come out of the biggest real estate collapse and mortgage fiasco in Memphis history?

Mayor A C Wharton hopes so. On Wednesday, Wharton along with Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell and Wells Fargo officials held a news conference to talk about “our relationship” and the settlement of a lawsuit over people who had "unpleasant experiences" with home loans. The harmony was in stark contrast to the nasty lawsuit alleging that Wells Fargo made deceptive loans to poor people that caused a foreclosure crisis and depleted city coffers. The lawsuit became a touchstone for media reports about subprime mortgages and poverty in Memphis at a time when the city is losing residents to the suburbs and trying to improve its image.

In the agreement, described as a "term sheet" with details yet to be completed, Wells Fargo gives $7.5 million to Memphis and Shelby County to assist low-income borrowers who want to buy or fix up homes. Some of that will go to financial education ("Hands-On Banking" Wells Fargo calls it) for students as young as middle school as well as adult would-be homebuyers. A total of $4.5 million is marked for grants of up to $15,000 for renovation assistance. The homes do not have to be financed by Wells Fargo. Luttrell said "the lion's share" of the money will go to Memphis.

"This is a good and sound starting point," Wharton said. "Quite frankly, if you look at the age at which most lawsuits come to an end, this one was filed in 2010, and now its may 2012, to bring about this kind of relief, that's a baby walking in two months."

Wharton said he was mainly concerned about putting money in the hands of consumers now as opposed to what they might get six or seven years down the road.

"Lawsuits tend to go on and on," he said. "When you see an opportunity to get some money on the table, sometimes it's best to take that opportunity."

Wells Fargo was represented by Leigh Collier, regional president for the Mid-South.

"What a win-win for the citizens of Memphis and Shelby County," she said. She touted the benefits of "financial literacy" and said “we are thrilled to come to an agreement with the city and the county.”

Wells Fargo has set a goal of making $425 million in loans to local borrowers in the next five years, with $125 million of that targeted for low-income and middle-income buyers. Collier said the amount is "based on historical data we don't publish" when asked how it compares to the amount that Wells Fargo loaned in the five years preceding the housing collapse and the amount it would probably have loaned in Memphis and Shelby County over the next five years without this agreement.

The loans will be market rate, currently under 5 percent, rather than the sub-prime loans with confusing details and higher rates that got so many borrowers in trouble, Collier said.

Memphis City Councilman Harold Collins, whose Whitehaven district was the focus of a story in The New York Times in 2010 about blacks losing decades of economic gains because of foreclosures, was not impressed with the agreement.

"Typical of most settlements like that," he wrote in an email. "They place some crazy restrictions on people that might apply. You have to go to some training from a non profit? They know most people will NOT do that stuff and thereby Wells Fargo will not have to forgo the money. Question: Did Wells Fargo impose these kinds of challenges on these people BEFORE they approved their loans? What about doing these BEFORE they were foreclosed?"

One question is whether anyone will want to buy a blighted house in a declining neighborhood under any terms. Wharton said that with the assistance of community development corporations, he thinks there will be a market.

"Some of these neighborhoods are remarkably stable, and with the idea that I am not gong to be the only one trying to renovate a house, that is what's going to bring them in," he said.

City Attorney Herman Morris, who grew up in the Binghampton neighborhood in Memphis, said the deal will help stabilize neighborhoods by promoting ownership over renting.

"I think folks would rather live in homes that they own if they can," he said.

Webb Brewer, the former head of Memphis Legal Services now working as a private attorney with the city and county on the housing issue, said "We were in for a long haul had we continued on with the litigation. It would have been a long, grueling, expensive fight for everyone. You don't know what you would get down the road."

Brewer said the important parts are the $7.5 million in "hard money" and the commitment to make $125 million in standard loans in low and moderate-income areas once targeted for sub-prime loans.

He agreed that the issue of fraudulent loans remains unresolved.

"Education does not address cases where pretty sophisticated borrowers were deceived. I am an attorney who practices in that area and sometimes I wold look at a loan and say, 'hey, what does that mean?' Education doesn't fix that, but a lot of that lending has gone by the wayside anyway with the change in the market."

If nothing else, the settlement lets Memphis move on with a best-foot-forward campaign that was going to be difficult enough without the worst-foot-forward campaign in the lawsuit against Wells Fargo.

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Friday, May 25, 2012

On Miracle Schools: An Alternative View

Posted By on Fri, May 25, 2012 at 11:26 AM

We know how to send 100 percent or nearly 100 percent of high school graduates to college.

For starters, put them in private schools, charter schools, or public magnet schools with requirements to get in and stay in. That's how MUS and Nashville's top two public high schools do it. Small classes and a team of carefully selected motivated teachers and staff help. A savvy college guidance counselor or two helps a lot. Parent involvement is essential. A new building and corporate support help, but it can be done in an old building. A unique cultural or historical tie-in is a good building block, too.

I take NOTHING away from the work done by the students, staff and parents at any successful school. They have to execute and put in the time. I am glad such schools exist. But many of their positives cannot be replicated on a system wide scale or even on a smaller scale as easily as some would have us believe. It is naive and simplistic to suggest otherwise. The problem that no one in big urban school systems from Washington D.C. to Memphis to Los Angeles has an answer to is how to educate the masses.

We know how to educate a minority of the students in MCS with involved parents and stable homes whether they are at White Station or Central or John P. Freeman or Grahamwood or Snowden or Kingsbury or a charter school. It's the tens of thousands of others that are the problem.

Obviously, schools and individuals can learn from best practices and innovations. Morale matters. But the idea that a record of 100 percent of graduates going to college could be transposed to every city high school, or any Memphis public high school under the current structure, is naive. It implies that there is a "solution" that others are too dense or self serving or timid or influenced by unions to emulate it.

Some say "Why isn't this the role model for Memphis? Why not learn from something that clearly works?"

That is insulting to the teachers and administrators in the real world of non-selective schools.

The "solution" in the Nashville magnet school model applies a strict academic admissions test to everyone. Memphis, for various reasons, chose optional schools within schools except for John P. Freeman elementary. We can have this debate if the community is up for it.

The idea that teachers happily work longer hours without consequences is questionable at best. Last week I talked to one of my children's former high school science teachers, a veteran of MCS. He had six classes a day this year, up from five, with 180 students. He just shook his head when I asked how it went in lab. Imagine, he said, how much more difficult it is for his colleagues in English who have to read 150 or so compositions.

I am intimately aware of idealistic young teachers who have been driven to depression, guilt, and despair by the "no excuses" demands placed on them and the impossible difficulty of working under a microscope — make that many microscopes — in something that may well be broken beyond repair. The burnout rate is high. Some would tell them they just are not trying hard enough, or just don't have the vision.

And some would tell the members of the media who have covered education on a regular basis for years (and the current crisis for the last two years) but failed to see the light that they are naysayers or have no vision.

Maybe they're right. I think I will parachute into FedEx Forum and, without having to deal with the prickly personalities on the coaching staff and the team, prescribe that the Grizz simply "learn from" the Spurs. Then I will "fix" the Tiger football program by suggesting that it imitate Alabama's. What's so hard about this?

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Monday, May 21, 2012

What is the Impact of Free Concerts?

Posted By on Mon, May 21, 2012 at 10:43 AM

Last weekend was a good one for concerts in Memphis, with Wilco at Mud Island Amphitheater and The Wandering at the Levitt Shell in Overton Park, both on Saturday night.

I have never seen so many people at Levitt Shell since the free concerts began. The hillside was packed by 7:30, and cars were parked (and towed) on Kenilworth, Overton Park, and other nearby streets. A Shell board member I ran into estimated the crowd at 2,500-3,000.

Two of my Flyer colleagues went to the Wilco concert and gave it great reviews, but said the amphitheater was about half full. Tickets were $42 plus handling charges.

The barbecue contest was also going on at Tom Lee Park Saturday night. All in all, a lot of people coming out downtown and in Midtown. And Sunday afternoon the zoo had such a big crowd that there were ten rows of cars parked on the grass outside the parking lot.

Back to the concerts, I wonder what performers, promoters, and fans think about the twin offerings of high-quality and somewhat similar music at the same time at the two venues. Most people bring food and drink to the Shell, where Ghost River was on sale for $3. At Mud Island beer was $5 and bringing in food and beverages was prohibited.

What impact is "free" having on the concert scene?

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Thursday, May 17, 2012

Not on "always free" Facebook? Priceless

Posted By on Thu, May 17, 2012 at 1:38 PM

One sucker to another, you should not buy stock in Facebook after the breathlessly awaited initial public offering of stock, or IPO.

Do not invest in IPOs. The insiders have already scored big and probably cashed out. If you must, buy a few shares, get the certificate, frame it, and put it on a wall or give it to your children or grandchildren as a memento of the doomed days in which we live.

I got on Facebook for the usual and only partially true reasons that fogies always give: to get photos of my children and, as a professional media person, to see how it works. If you're gonna write about it you gotta know something about it first hand. Having experienced it now, if I were younger I would probably be all over it because it looks like fun. But when I kept getting a list of "suggested friends" that included at least two dead people, I got the message.

If you think monetizing newspaper articles is a slippery slope — and I do — then monetizing the personal information users share on Facebook is a greasy slope indeed. And make no mistake, monetizing is what Facebook must do as a public company.

From the Wall Street Journal Thursday comes news of a Facebook service called Highlight that makes users pay to have their posts show up. This despite Facebook's long-standing pledge on its home page, that the site is "free and always will be."

The Journal quotes a user in New Zealand saying she wasn't sold on paying to make sure her 250 friends see her updates: "I just don't know if anything I would be saying would be important enough to make me want to pay NZ$2 for it," she said.

Actually, I can think of some people I would pay to NOT get their updates or comments, if you get my drift, but that is another story.

This week, General Motors announced that it is not going to spend its ad budget on Facebook. As someone once said, what's good for General Motors is good for the country. And you.

Chisca Hotel, King of Blight: Can It Be Fixed?

Posted By on Thu, May 17, 2012 at 12:11 PM

The two big uglies I see most often are Sears Crosstown and the Chisca Hotel. I live near Sears and work near the Chisca, which is just southwest of FedEx Forum so you can't miss it if you go to events there.

The Chisca is one of those buildings that has an air of inevitability around it because it has been on the downtown landscape for so long. Owned by the Church of God In Christ (COGIC), it was built in 1910 or 1911. It was expanded to include an Admiral Benbow Inn and a parking garage. The Chisca has gotten a bit of attention recently due to an Elvis-era connection via Fifties disc jockey Dewey Phillips and Tony Award winner "Memphis," the 2009 musical. It separates Beale Street and FedEx Forum from South Main, The Orpheum, and the National Civil Rights Museum. The reddish brick building has painted plywood in the windows.

One of the would-be redevelopers is Terry Lynch. His group's proposal estimates the cost of renovation at $19.8 million. The group is in the early stages of seeking City Council approval for $2 million in capital improvement funds. Here are excerpts from a recent conversation I had with Lynch.

Why save it?
The alternative is tearing it down and having a vacant lot. One of the big benefits of FedEx Forum was supposed to be economic development around the arena. But it's still mostly vacant lots and blight that really breaks up the fabric of South Main and the Central Business District.

Is it an old hotel that will always seem like an old hotel?
The original rooms were wide with a lot of windows — this was before air-conditioning — and nine-foot ceilings. So we're thinking of taking a couple of hotel rooms and making them into a small apartment, with a goal of 149 apartments, with plenty of natural light.

Is there enough demand for housing there?
Our studies show strong demand. The occupancy rate for downtown apartments is above 90 percent. Barboro Flats has been well received. We think a good price point for this would be $750 to $800.

Could it be fully or partly redeveloped and wind up like the empty Horizon on the South Bluff?
The Horizon was a condo building. There is always a risk somebody won't come. But we think there would be good demand. I don't think you will find any unsuccessful apartments downtown.

Why undertake this now when it’s been vacant for so long?
It's a challenging property. In one of the best real estate cycles in years it was passed over. It takes local, civic-minded people to get involved. Either it happens now or it is going to be demolished in the next year or two. It has been in Environmental Court for a couple years and the court will get impatient about it.

Does the proposed $2 million in city funds make that much difference?
Yes it does. Ten percent might not seem like a lot, but it is in this project. It would offset unusual costs of development such as environmental remediation, structural issues, and selective interior demolitions like an old ballroom in there. If you took on a warehouse, you would not have all of that.

Could COGIC benefit financially?
We have a confidentiality agreement so I can't say much. It would put it behind them. From what we can tell, there are no liens or environmental fines on it.

What would be the development fee?
Typically three to four percent.

Is the Memphis music and nostalgia connection that relevant?
I think so. We're thinking of taking the old studio on the mezzanine level and rebuilding it on the ground level so people could come and see it.

What's next?
The council appropriation, then the Downtown Memphis Commission for a PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes), then the Downtown Parking Authority for approval. We feel fairly comfortable about all of them.

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Thursday, May 10, 2012

Give Mitt a Break on Gays and the Sixties

Posted By on Thu, May 10, 2012 at 8:22 PM

About 30 hours. That's how long it took from the time President Obama was "outed" on his views on gay marriage until the CBS Evening News was all over Mitt Romney for saying he couldn't remember jumping a prep school classmate who turned out to be gay and cutting his unusually long hair.

Give Romney a break and get over it people. There should be a statute of limitations on stuff we did in our youth, or else no one with any qualifications beyond a beating pulse will run for public office, much less the presidency.

As the Washington Post reported Thursday, as a student at Cranbrook prep school in Michigan in the 1960s, Romney, the son of then-governor of Michigan George Romney, and some of his classmates bullied a classmate. While the classmate was being held down, Romney cut off some of his hair. Although Romney says he did not know it at the time, the classmate was gay. He died eight years ago.

But the "story" came out in the wake of Obama's coming-out statement on gay marriage. And Romney was asked about it Thursday on news programs. He said he didn't remember it, but if it did happen, he said, it was adolescent hijinks.

Romney was in a trap. Of course he remembers. That's why there are high school reunions, memoirs, and novels for crying out loud. But if Romney had said so, he would have been grilled about the particulars and called a bully, gay-basher and homophobe, which he is being called anyway. On the CBS Evening News Thursday night, anchorman Scott Pelley solemnly reported that Romney was in the news not for what he did nearly 50 years ago but for what he said today.

What Romney did was cruel. But it was not that unusual, and it certainly should not be the basis for voting for or against him for president. As someone once said, the whole truth about any of us would shock all the rest of us.

As a member of Romney's generation, this is what flashed through my mind when I watched and read the stories about Romney and Cranbrook: Holden Caulfield, Fanny Hill, Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson, Grove Press, Lolita, tits, ass, assmen, hot girls, ice queens, queen bees, cliques, dicks, fart jokes, bad girls, bras, bra straps, the finger, pubes, gross-out, mooning, drop trow, smear the queer, homos, fags, jocks, face men, second base, third base, all the way, panties, depantsings, supremes, wedgies, atomic wedgies, swirlies, wusses, sissies, racists, dirty limericks, bull daggers, get a haircut you fairy, he looks like a girl, she looks like a guy, jerks, jerk-offs, abortions, beat downs, she went away, preggers, rubbers, doing it, the pill, did you miss your period?

The high school in Michigan that I attended achieved a sort of national notoriety by becoming the model for the movie American Pie (and three sequels), which either set a new standard for gross outs or simply documented, more or less, what actually went on. A couple of months ago I was in Florida and ran into a fellow graduate some years younger than me who was vacationing with his teenage children. We got to talking about American Pie. His son, probably around 14, looked up with a bored expression and said Part Two was a lot better than the original.

So an immature Mitt Romney once did a cruel thing. And Mitt Romney, the son of a governor and a face man if there ever was one, went off on a Mormon missionary trip, married his sweetheart, and raised a bunch of kids who seem normal and decent enough and are as good looking as their parents, made a lot of money, and was governor of Massachusetts. Give him a break.

Do Dogs Just Want to Run Free?

Posted By on Thu, May 10, 2012 at 11:55 AM

My view is evolving. My view of dog parks, that is. I've been watching as the "Dog Bark" — that is not a typo — takes shape at Overton Park.

On the one hand, I think it's a great idea and overdue in my book, having been spooked by big dogs while walking a small dog and having stepped in dog poop in the Overton Park playing field and greensward more than a time or two. The Dog Bark will have separate fenced areas for large and small dogs. Workmen were out Thursday morning laying down the surface, and this looks like the Hyatt Regency of dog parks. The grand opening is set for June 2nd.

On the other hand, I wonder if dogs and their owners are like motorcycle riders who don't wear helmets and beach lovers who don't wear sunscreen. They want to ride or run free and let their inner rebel out. The dog owners in my neighborhood have a little community that meets at an unfenced park in Midtown. The dogs — mostly big ones — seem to like it that way. The dog park behind the Board of Education on Avery looks kind of stark, and most people have to drive to get there. Shelby Farms, of course, is the field of canine dreams because of its size.

The dog owners I see in Overton Park like letting them off leash in the Old Forest and on the playing field next to Rainbow Lake, which is an irresistible attraction to some mutts. But if the owners don't scoop, they're tempting a war with those who want to use the playing field for Ultimate or playing catch or simply walking from the Memphis College of Art to Rainbow Lake.

A leash ordinance and strict enforcement would not be in the spirit of Overton Park. This is the park whose friends successfully defied an interstate highway. Polite encouragement might work, but I predict there will be some dogs that will continue to run free outside the confines of the Dog Bark. Maybe they can evolve.

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Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Where's White Station High School in "Best" Rankings?

Posted By on Wed, May 9, 2012 at 1:29 PM

College prep public high schools in communities with universities do the best job of preparing students for college.

Not too surprising to see this finding in the latest U.S. News ranking of the "best public high schools" in Tennessee. And it is not all that surprising that perennial "best" Memphis high school, White Station, is not in the Top Ten. The reason is that White Station is an optional school with a de facto college-prep school within a school. For the top academic students, including 22 National Merit Semifinalists in 2011, there are Advanced Placement and Honors courses that are not taken by the majority of students.

No Memphis school made the Top Ten. Two Shelby County high schools — Houston and Collierville — did make the list.

The top two schools in the state, according to this particular ranking, are academic magnet schools in Nashville. Each one has about 1,000 students. The rest of the Top Ten are in Knoxville, Johnson City or near Nashville — all communities with close college connections. The only schools that do not seem to fit the mold are in Kingsport, where 40 percent of seniors were deemed "not proficient" in math, and Oak Ridge, where 50 percent were not proficient in math.

I cross referenced the Top Ten with their average composite ACT scores on the Tennessee Report Card. The ACT, of course, is the standard college entrance exam in Tennessee. As I expected, the scores were in the 23-27 range, well above the Tennessee average of 19. The University of Tennessee-Knoxville, by the way, boasts that its 2011 freshman class had an average ACT of 26.7. Houston, Collierville, and White Station each had a score of 23 and a fraction.

The way to achieve a high overall score is not so much to have, say, 22 students who make a 33-36 as it is to not factor in students who make a score in the teens. That's the "secret" of success to academic magnet schools. The only all-optional school by academics in Memphis is John P. Freeman.

Here is a description of the admissions policy for top-ranked Hume Fogg Academic Magnet school in Nashville as posted on its website: "The 848 students attending Hume-Fogg were selected county-wide from students with total reading and mathematics stanine scores each averaging 7 or above and an academic grade point average of at least 85 (B) with no failing grades. Sixty-six percent of students who apply as eighth graders are admitted to the school. Hume-Fogg students come from diverse cultural, economic, and ethnic backgrounds. Students represent 39 of 45 zip code areas in the Metropolitan area. Hume-Fogg has 44 faculty members; of these, 39 hold an advanced degree."

And here is the admissions policy for the "second best" school, Martin Luther King Academic Magnet School: "Students normally enter MLK at grades 7 and 9, but there are occasional exceptions. They must meet academic eligibility requirements before being selected by lottery. Total reading and total mathematics stanine scores must average 7 or above, and their academic grade-point average must be at least 85 (B) with no failing grades. The MLK student is representative of the top 10-15 percent of students in the Metropolitan-Nashville Public Schools."

The criteria that U.S. News and World Report used are weighted toward college readiness as measured by the percentage of students who took and passed Advanced Placement exams. There is no all-optional college prep high school in Memphis. Houston and Collierville have a higher percentage of graduates who go to college than White Station.

But that does not mean White Station doesn't offer rigorous college prep courses to a minority of its students, as evidenced by its having the most National Merit Semifinalists of any public or private high school in Shelby County. In the minds of those students and their parents, at least, White Station is one of the best high schools in Tennessee, period.

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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Memphis-based Longleaf Funds Angle in Chesapeake Energy Story

Posted By on Wed, May 2, 2012 at 3:47 PM

Staley Cates
  • Staley Cates
There's a Memphis angle in a major business story that's getting a lot of attention in the national and international media but not so much in Memphis.

The Memphis-based Longleaf Partners Fund is the biggest shareholder in Oklahoma-based Chesapeake Energy, and managers Staley Cates and Mason Hawkins are quoted in stories this week about Chesapeake CEO Aubrey McClendon.

At the annual Longleaf shareholders meeting Tuesday at Theater Memphis, Cates joked that the firm "had 364,000 questions about Chesapeake, and all but three of them were hostile.”

At issue is McClendon, who agreed this week to relinquish some of his power following reports by Reuters and others about his personal financial dealings.

“We will participate in the process of finding a new non-executive chairman,” Cates said at the shareholder meeting, which was upbeat because Longleaf's Partners Fund is up 12 percent this year.

Cates and Hawkins emphasized their belief that the market often underrates good companies.

“Chesapeake's natural gas assets are arguably the best in the world," Cates said. "But having the best assets in the world don't mean a whole lot to Mr. Market right now. But long term its position is compelling.”

Additional comments from Cates at the shareholder meeting:

“The bottom line is, there are positives and negatives of partnering with mclendeon, as with anybody, and in our opinion the positives strongly outweigh the negatives, and the negatives have been very actively addressed.”

“While all of this would seem to be an indictment of Aubrey McClendon, don't lose sight of the long term value holding and staggeringly good results in monetization of that land which he has achieved.”

On Wednesday, the stock price of Chesapeake fell another 14 percent. As reported by Reuters, in a regulatory filing Longleaf said it will change the nature of its 13 percent holding in the company.

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