I heard someone say that nearly everyone in the neighborhood had, at one time or another, some dream for that building.
On March 13, 2019 at the southwest corner of Summer Avenue and National Street, a building that has stood since 1920 was erased from existence in preparation for what (was) expected to be a gas station.
In our fast-moving, ever-changing society, the demolition of old buildings are generally met with collective apathy, seen as collateral damage in the ongoing march towards progress. This is especially true when those buildings are empty and in need of repair. And this building at Summer and National that was most recently used as a tattoo parlor did not hold any particular cultural significance.
So why did my soul hurt when I saw back hoes knocking down the walls of this tired old building?
When its bricks were first laid and the building was opened for business, a trolley ran past the front door, turning from Broad Avenue onto National Street. This was a new growth area just outside of Memphis, and Summer Avenue would emerge as a pedestrian and automobile-friendly neighborhood center, with a movie theater, department stores, and smaller shops all thriving. The compact and mixed-use nature meant you didn’t have to travel far to get what you needed each day, and there were dignified transportation options regardless of your income or physical ability. Shopkeepers took pride in their buildings, which were attractive and built with high quality materials. Sidewalks were animated with friends and neighbors, and car traffic was low and slow.
These characteristics – that are uniquely possible in urban areas – have led to the renaissance of cities around the country, including in our own state. An increasing number of people are drawn to the idea of walkable dining, entertainment, and shopping destinations located nearby in architecturally interesting districts. Areas like Overton Square, Cooper-Young, and South Main are perfect local examples. In fact, revitalization of older city neighborhoods by becoming more suburban or auto-centric is as rare as a Bluff City blizzard. The diversity, density, and availability of multiple transportation options in older urban neighborhoods are among its greatest competitive advantages.
So when I saw the mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented, beautiful brick building being torn down for (as conceived) a gas station, I knew my neighborhood’s community development efforts would be set back, possibly decades. (We had attempted to reach out to the owner about doing a pre-vitalization event or some art integration, but we didn’t get any traction.)
Make no mistake. This is not a victory in the battle against blight. Although the previous building was vacant and boarded, the architecture and potential for reuse was more valuable to our community than a gas station (or another fast-food restaurant with a drive-thru). This is also not a win for city coffers. The sales taxes and property taxes on this parcel will increase, but ultimately the benefit is pennywise, pound foolish. A gas station would have had virtually no potential to anchor future investment in the way the redevelopment of the previous building could. This is also not an example of the free market meeting the needs of the community – there are more than a dozen gas stations already within a mile, but no banks and only one full-service grocery store (ironically, 3375 Summer used to house a bank and a grocery store).
“Hope for turnaround depends on individual property owners making decisions that are not only beneficial for themselves, but also beneficial to the long-term health of the community.“
Perhaps the saddest part of this story is, the property is being redeveloped exactly how our previous land use controls directed. Memphis 3.0 has the potential to change that. And as our experience with 3.0 tells us, Memphians crave smarter, more responsible development that takes advantage of our city’s most important assets.
Unfortunately, antiquated zoning laws often work at cross-purposes to these goals, and damage long-term efforts to revitalize our city’s many underperforming and under-resourced urban neighborhoods. Hope for turnaround depends on individual property owners making decisions that are not only beneficial for themselves, but also beneficial to the long-term health of the community.
Sadder still, this property was owned by Shelby County as recently as 2013. The Trustee’s office, seeing no other objective regarding tax-delinquent properties than to sell them as fast as possible, likely knew nothing more about 3375 Summer – or its potential to turn a distressed neighborhood around – beyond a line on a spreadsheet.*
Most Memphians I talk to are optimistic about the future of our city. No doubt there are many positive advances to be excited about. But I do not accept that the city we have today is the best that it can be, and I will not rest on any laurels. We can and need to do better. Memphians now have a clear vision in Memphis 3.0 for what we want our city to become. Zoning and tax sales are easy targets in the case of 3375 Summer, but the responsibility of bettering our city should apply to all of us. Let us rally all of our city and county departments, businesses, non-profits, and citizens to aspire higher, to turn singular objectives into triple bottom line actions with Memphis 3.0 as our guiding metric.
The loss of 3375 Summer Avenue won’t break us, and it has the potential to teach us lessons about being stronger. Let us care to learn how working together can make Memphis’ third century the best yet. <>
Dane Forlines is the Director of Special Projects for the Heights CDC and lives in Highland Heights.
An earlier version of this editorial appeared in the print version of StoryBoard Memphis in the May Bicentennial Issue. The version you see here has been updated to reflect the current status of 3375 Summer Ave.
*StoryBoard followed up on this demolition, and a gas station on this corner would have required a Special Use Permit, allowable only by City Council approval. Furthermore, as of this writing, the owner is also placing a restriction that the land not be used for a gas station. This means that future lessees cannot build a gas station by-right. Currently, the land is up for commercial lease. Historically, land or ground leases at commercial intersections such as these attract national retail tenants such as McDonald’s, Chick-fil-a and Starbucks, which are typically built with drive-thru’s.
Unfortunately, what could have been a creative mixed-use property, that retained Memphis’ unique sense of place, may very well turn into yet another generic drive-thru chain that can be found anywhere and that does not promote walkability in an area that could use it.