Cassandra Dixon, 54, stands with a sign near the corners of Norris and Hernando roads on Tuesday after a press conference. Dixon was among the first residents of the neighborhood to organize the community against plans to build a gas station. Photo by Carrington Tatum for MLK50

Prospect Park residents are calling on the City Council to reject a new plan by a developer to build a gas station and convenience store on residential property in their neighborhood — just as the council rejected a similar plan two years ago.

In 2018, Norris Express LLC proposed a gas station and convenience store for a 7-acre lot at Norris and Hernando roads in South Memphis that once held Prospect Elementary. State records show that Norris Express is registered to Aman Devji, president of the Collierville-based Ran Management, which owns and operates gas stations and convenience stores across Memphis, Arkansas and Mississippi, according to the company’s website.

The community objected, and the company withdrew the application after the Memphis and Shelby County Division of Planning and Development and the Shelby County Land Use Control Board recommended that the City Council reject their request.

Update: South Memphis gas station project gets city council hearing date, residents prepare for fight

Now the company has revived the idea, but this time added a church to the plan — a move some community leaders say is a ploy to manipulate residents. 

“The community doesn’t want it and we’re asking the Memphis City Council to listen to the people and not the developers,” said State Rep. London Lamar at a press conference about the project. “We’re not against great things coming in our neighborhood. There are a million beautiful, creative things we can do with this piece of land — but a gas station ain’t one of them.”

“There are a million beautiful, creative things we can do with this piece of land — but a gas station ain’t one of them.”

State Rep. London Lamar
State representative London Lamar speaks to the press near the site of a proposed gas station at the corner of Norris and Hernando Roads on Tuesday, November 10, 2020. “There are a million beautiful, creative things we can do with this piece of land Ñ but a gas station ain’t one of them,” Lamar said. Photo by Carrington Tatum for MLK50

The proposed development is on the council’s consent agenda on Tuesday, with a hearing date requested. The LUCB again recommends rejection because car-related businesses don’t fit in residential areas and the gas station is incompatible with the Memphis 3.0 growth strategy plan, which “calls for the stabilization of this community, support for its community assets, and protection of its existing affordable housing,” the staff report says.

Lamar, who represents the area and organized the press conference at the site Tuesday, was joined by a coalition of neighborhood groups and elected officials. They condemned the plan, saying it could pose an environmental hazard and bring crime.

Hazardous to community health

A 2011 study by the American Journal of Public Health found that living near hazardous sites, including gas stations, can cause cancer and other health problems in residents. The underground gas tanks can corrode, allowing toxins to leak into the soil and groundwater, according to a study by the Sierra Club. And even small spills can present health problems for those who live nearby, according to a 2014 study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Black and low-income neighborhoods are disproportionately affected by environmental hazards, the Environmental Protection Agency reported in 2018, as the Trump administration was busy dismantling protections. The 38106 ZIP code, which includes Prospect Park, is 96% Black with an average yearly income of $24,007, Census data shows.

Memphis city councilman Edmund Ford Sr. bows his head while Rev. Rickey Dugger prays the Memphis City Council rejects the developer of a gas station’s request to rezone the land near the corner of Norris and Hernando roads from residential to commercial. Photo by Carrington Tatum for MLK50

City Councilman Edmund Ford Sr., speaking at the press conference, urged the developers to abandon their plans but reassured residents that the gas station would not be approved.

“If it comes to the council, they’re going to have problems,” Ford said. “Not only this particular area but all over the Black areas in the City of Memphis. We’re tired of them putting anything and (whatever) they want in our community.”

“We’re tired of them putting anything and (whatever) they want in our community.”

City Councilman Edmund Ford Sr.

A gas station for a church?

Devji deferred comment to John Behnke, a representative for Ran Management, who said the new plan includes taking a portion of the land for the gas station and selling the rest to Christ Communion Temple Church of God in Christ to build a church. But that is contingent on a gas station coming first.

Rev. Rickey Dugger, pastor of Norris Avenue Missionary Baptist Church who spoke at the press conference, said he is all for adding more churches to the neighborhood but doesn’t want the church used as a ploy to justify the gas station.

“I think what has happened, the builder saw another route to go, to get done what they need to get done,” Dugger said.

Rev. Freddie Thomas, pastor of Christ Communion Temple, declined to answer questions on Friday. After agreeing to an interview, he ended the conversation after the first question: “How did this project come to you?”

The church now is located at 1519 South Lauderdale, about a 5-minute drive from the Prospect Park site.

Neighborhood resident Cassandra Dixon, 54, said she believes the developers are using their greater wealth to take advantage of the community.

“This is a true David and Goliath story,” Dixon said. “We don’t have money, so we fight the best way we can.”

Residents will continue to make calls to councilmembers, she said, and plan to show up at hearings and make their opinions heard, she said.

Behnke said he has heard concerns from residents about safety and has addressed them. The plan includes adequate lighting, security cameras and training for clerks on how to keep the convenience store safe.

The coalition to fight the gas station includes The 38106 Joint Agency Collaborative, Sixty Point One Association, Alcy-Ball Community Association, Norris Road/Hernando Community group, Prospect Park Neighborhood Association and the Longview Heights Neighborhood Association/Alcy Ball Development Corporation.

Carrington Tatum is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms.

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