Getting Religion 

In the wake of a decision to raze a historic church and build a CVS pharmacy, proponents say the Midtown Overlay is more important than ever.

Members of Memphis Heritage, Save Overton Square, and other Midtown neighborhood groups had something of a revival meeting last week.

After the City Council voted decisively to approve a new CVS pharmacy at the current site of Union Avenue United Methodist Church, opponents of the decision met to reflect, figure out where they'd gone wrong, and what could still be done to save the historic church.

"We knew it was going to be close," said Memphis Heritage head June West of the vote, "but 10 to two is a slam dunk."

Under the approved planned-use development, the church on the site will be demolished. In its place, CVS will build a pharmacy, albeit one with more windows, wider sidewalks, and more brick that the company initially planned. Despite the concessions, however, the pharmacy will still have a suburban-style set-back; CVS argued that, because of the topography of the site, it would be too difficult to pull the building up to the street.

Some of the leverage for the changes came from the proposed Midtown District Overlay, expected to go before the council for final reading Tuesday, September 28th. But the CVS site decision might also predict problems with its approval.

The Midtown District Overlay was drafted after a controversial suburban-style development was proposed for Overton Square. Based on similar overlays in the university and medical districts, the Midtown guidelines would mean more dense, pedestrian-friendly development.

Councilman Shea Flinn urged people at the meeting to come out in support of the Midtown Overlay.

"The [planned-use development] is just how Memphis has done development," Flinn said. "The difference between the overlay being something good and helpful and it being a nice piece of paper is political will."

And even that might not be enough.

On the day of the vote for CVS, the council chambers were filled both with those for and against the project. But West lamented the fact they hadn't gotten a chance to ask people in attendance where they lived.

"People from the opposing side were bused in by the Methodist Church. They were not representative of Midtown," West said.

"The only people who spoke for the project had a monetary interest in it," said Save Overton Square founder and neighborhood resident Gordon Alexander. "Everyone else was there because of what they believed in."

The City Council seemed swayed by CVS' concessions to the site, as well as the 25 jobs the drug store would bring. There was also some inclination that if the project did not go forward, the property would sit vacant.

People at last week's meeting — including a few members of Union Avenue United Methodist Church — noted that another church had offered a little more than a million dollars for the property prior to CVS' offer. That church planned to rent space to several arts organizations and create an arts center across from the new Playhouse on the Square.

However, the Methodist Church is expected to get about $2.3 million from CVS for the property.

"If it comes down to money, CVS or Walgreens has the money," Alexander said. "We're not going to be able to save anything."

This is partly why the Midtown District Overlay was proposed, so that even when those companies do open locations they conform to a certain Midtown look.

"A lot of people believe that if something historic is torn down, at least it should be replaced with something representative of the neighborhood," West said. "I don't think we got that with this."

Attorney Webb Brewer told the group they had a few possible options, including a boycott of the store and a lawsuit based on CVS' agreement with the National Trust for Historic Preservation not to demolish any building on the National Register of Historic Places. They could also file suit based on the City Council decision.

"Any action by the council in land use is appealable to the state court system. The question is whether they acted in a manner that was arbitrary and capricious," Brewer said. "The office of planning and development consistently opposed the project. The land use control board opposed it."

Architect Keith Kays noted that the placement of the building — and how CVS said it couldn't be moved to the street — went to the direct heart of whether that was a good site for the pharmacy. But ultimately, he urged the group to move on.

"What have we learned from this?" he asked. "The Midtown Overlay is really crucial at this point, and that's something we can impact."

To read more about this and other topics, visit Mary Cashiola's In the Bluff blog at


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