Memphis' Heritage 

June West heads the fight to keep suburban sprawl in Midtown at bay.

With encouragement from Memphis Heritage members, the Land Use Control Board last month rejected a plan for Overton Square.

Justin Fox Burks

With encouragement from Memphis Heritage members, the Land Use Control Board last month rejected a plan for Overton Square.

In 1996, June West had to visit Chattanooga for a government hearing on a proposed senior living facility her company was building.

"They said, 'Is the client here?' I raised my hand," says West, now the executive director of Memphis Heritage. "Then they asked, 'Any opposition?' Every hand in the room went up."

The proposal was soundly defeated, and "I was run out of town on a rail," West says.

These days, West is not only on the other side of such issues, she's leading the charge. In the last two years, Memphis Heritage has been influential in stopping a proposed grocery store and retail development in Overton Square, altering the plans for a Midtown Chick-fil-A to include the facade of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church administration building on Union Avenue, and, most recently, opposing a proposed CVS pharmacy at the corner of Union and Cooper.

"If you're an out-of-towner, you owe it to the community to learn that community and not make assumptions," she says of her experience in Chattanooga. "Even if they hire a local person, they're hiring that person to get the project through."

Memphis Heritage, a nonprofit with roughly 400 members, strives to save, improve, and readapt architecturally and historically significant buildings, streets, and neighborhoods in Shelby County. The group was founded in 1975, and West has been its director for eight years.

The CVS plan included demolishing the Union Avenue United Methodist Church, a site that was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987, and building a 14,000-square-foot pharmacy.

With encouragement from Memphis Heritage via e-mails and Facebook posts, about 200 people attended last month's Land Use Control Board meeting, where the proposal was rejected 6-1. Staff at the office of planning and development took issue with the placement of the CVS building, calling it "typical suburban retail development." Citizens and nearby residents in attendance felt the pharmacy wouldn't fit the character of the neighborhood.

CVS plans to appeal the ruling on August 24th at a full City Council meeting.

Memphis Heritage's highest-profile initiative, however, was probably its work with Chick-fil-A in 2008. The company initially planned to tear down the Cumberland Presbyterian building but eventually was convinced, mostly through the efforts of Memphis Heritage, to preserve a piece of the facade in the design.

"We do not believe in saving every building just because it's old," West says. "We do not believe in saving old buildings just to have them stand empty."

Though West says that only about "10 percent of the population likes what we do," she maintains that historic buildings create a sense of place.

"We expect people to understand: Once they're gone, they're gone," she says.

Born in Memphis, West was raised on a crop farm in Proctor, Arkansas. But with a father from Arkansas and a mother from Memphis, she went to school at Lausanne.

"I went home to the farm every night," she says. "I got the best of both worlds."

She began college at then-Memphis State, but left after two years to help a friend who was on the jumper horse circuit, traveling around the country and exercising the animals.

After a stint managing and running a horse farm, she went to the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, where she studied sculpture and art history.

"I went into art more out of rebellion than talent," she says.

After she graduated, she went to work for the state of Tennessee as a social worker, carrying her state-issued red notebook around the Lamar Terrace area for about three years.

In 1978, when St. Peter Manor was opening, she applied to be the activities director even though she had no experience in the field. She got the job, however, beginning a two-decades-long career in senior services.

At St. Peter, she worked her way up to assistant manager and then went to run one of the city's senior centers. She then helped open the first assisted living program in Memphis, as well as run the country's first "day care" built especially for patients with Alzheimer's.

"When I took over, we only allowed people who had Alzheimer's," she says, "but we broadened our perspective to include people with all forms of dementia."

It wasn't such a stretch that she became a member of Memphis Heritage.

"I loved old things," she says. "Obviously, I loved old people. It just kind of fit."

She was consulting for the Delta Area Agency on Aging when she approached the board of Memphis Heritage. The director had been gone for about a year, and the organization was foundering financially.

"With the salary that you're talking about, you're going to get someone straight out of college or you need to consider a part-time position," West says she told them.

She wrote a proposal for the job, and the rest, as they say, especially in preservation, is history.

"She's basically taken the organization from living hand-to-mouth to providing advocacy and education," says Carl Raff, vice president of the Memphis Heritage board. "It's definitely a different organization than it was eight to 10 years ago."

One of the most visible changes was the organization's move into Howard Hall on Madison, a historic mansion in Midtown donated by Hal Howard.

But that's not the only change. In addition to its biannual Architectural Auction fund-raiser, Memphis Heritage began its "Adapt A Door" event last year. Teams or individuals pick from the organization's stockpile of historic doors and turn them into desks, lamps, tables, or pieces of art. The finished works are then auctioned off. (This year's auction is August 21st.)

Raff met West when they were both working in senior care. She was in the adult day-care business, and he was developing assisted living facilities.

"She knew how to deal with seniors. It takes a special individual to work with seniors," he says.

He also thinks West knows how to deal with lawyers and developers.

"I've seen people in preservation who are completely anti-development, but she's more rational. She's not an obstructionist," Raff says, "and she's not trying to save everything."

Generally, West and Memphis Heritage become involved with a proposal to tear down a building because someone from the community seeks them out. Members of the Union Avenue United Methodist Church, for instance, approached West in 2009 to tell her about the possibility that the church would be sold and demolished.

West notes several reasons for readapting buildings: It saves energy both in demolition and reconstruction; older buildings were generally built to last; and they create a sense of place.

"I think we're in such a fast-paced world that people don't realize how much the space we're in influences how we feel," she says.

In the case of Chick-fil-A, Memphis Heritage asked if the company could move its plans slightly east and let someone else reuse the administration building or refit it as a restaurant.

West convinced company representatives to let her and her team into the building.

"We said, we'll look at the square footage costs and compare. If it's out of whack, we'll say godspeed. We're not idiots," West says. "I've been a developer. I know your bottom line has to work."

When they realized it wouldn't work, they looked for a compromise.

"I said to Chick-fil-A: Please don't walk away from this project. Not only will the church be mad at me, all the Midtowners who don't get their Chick-fil-A will be mad at me, too," West says. "We're not going to go in and say, 'This building is great' if it's not. That would ruin our reputation."

Gordon Alexander first met West at a meeting last year about a plan for Overton Square that included a grocery store and a redevelopment at the southwest corner of Cooper and Madison. At the time, there was concern that the design wouldn't fit the character of Midtown and that the grocery would be a discount store that could quickly blight the area.

"A lot of people wanted to do something about it, but no one was stepping up except for June and Memphis Heritage," Alexander says. "I thought this is the umbrella we can all get under."

Alexander started a Save Overton Square page on Facebook, eventually garnering more than 5,300 fans, to galvanize support beyond Memphis Heritage.

A nearby resident, Alexander says the neighborhood wants businesses in Overton Square; they just want to see development done the right way.

"I think the main misconception is: There's an old building. Let's go save it. That's not the point," he says. "We're trying to preserve the integrity of Midtown. If we turn it into a Germantown Parkway, I think we've lost something of great value. That's why we do what we do."

There are those who contend that not redeveloping a site — leaving the existing buildings vacant and boarded up — contributes to blight more than new development.

Developer James Rasberry also met West through Memphis Heritage's interest in the Overton Square proposal. Rasberry's company is the leasing agent for much of the square, and he thinks the decision to scrap the grocery store and redevelopment bodes poorly for Midtown.

"By fighting that, what has been touted as a success — saving an inferior building — probably demolished the last chance of getting new construction in Midtown," he says. "We will not have a big investor come along anytime soon. People may laud that fact, but there won't be many people in line to renovate those buildings."

Rasberry says he's a supporter of Memphis Heritage but notes that development comes down to a simple equation: profit.

"No one is going to build to lose money," he says. "I suggest that Memphis Heritage get into the game. It's easy to sit on the sidelines and tell people how badly they play."

He thinks the nonprofit should raise money for redevelopment, a move that could influence the profit equation toward preservation.

"If they're not going to buy buildings, they should have money to help support developers who want to adapt buildings," he says.

One result of the Overton Square controversy was the proposed Midtown Zoning Overlay, which would dictate design and development standards for areas of Midtown not already protected by historic status. The overlay, which goes before the City Council this month, places a premium on urban design and walkability and might make a difference in future projects.

CVS' plan for the United Methodist site was rejected, in part, by the Land Use Control Board because the plan did not meet the proposed guidelines.

"As for the church, personally, do I want another drug store? I'm ambivalent," Rasberry says. "But someone who owns the property has the right to do what they want to do with it. It might not make me happy, but if it meets zoning standards, we can't ask them to give up their rights."

And though Memphis Heritage doesn't offer grants for adaptive reuse — yet — West does look for solutions, either alternative buyers or alternative locations.

Because CVS' purchase of the church is contingent on getting its plans approved, West hoped the company would walk away from that particular deal after the Land Use hearing.

"I don't mind them coming, but this is not the right site," she says.

She says she knows of other interested buyers for the site, though she won't say who. She fears, however, that the CVS discussion will come down to new construction versus blight.

About 10 years ago, Walgreens wanted to put a store at the corner of Summer and East Parkway, but community members fought the development, and the project soured. The site, across from an Exxon station, is currently home to a run-down apartment complex.

"This group will use that and say, see — they walked away from that corner and look at it now. And they are absolutely right," West says. "But in this case, there is a proposed buyer. We're not being obstructionist. We feel like there is a good plan for that building if CVS goes away."

There's at least one thing that West and Rasberry agree upon: In the future, West hopes to put her money where her mission is.

Memphis Heritage, which did some redevelopment before West's tenure, isn't interested in redeveloping properties itself but does hope to create redevelopment grants as part of a $3 million New Century Fund endowment campaign.

For instance, the money could help situations such as that of the Nineteenth Century Club on Union, currently under an environmental court order to repair million of dollars in code violations.

"We're a facilitator group, not a purchasing group," West says. "It's not just for us; it's for the community at large."

As part of the endowment campaign, Memphis Heritage is selling naming rights in Howard Hall.

West also hopes to create a historic building trade program at one of the local colleges to teach stained glass, plastering, metal, trim work, and other skills necessary to restore historic buildings.

In the meantime, there's plenty to do. The situation with CVS is ongoing, and the University of Tennessee Health Science Center is interested in buying the 100-year-old Scottish Rite building on Union to erect a training clinic.

Raff says that people who like development at any cost are never going to be supporters of West, but that doesn't mean she's not influential: "Every developer in town, before they decide to do something, asks: What is June going to say?"

It's a smart question.

"No other group is seen as the voice of historic places for the city," West says. "If we don't work to keep the fabric of Memphis, we will lose the soul of Memphis. And that's what makes Memphis different."

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