A view of the empty lot at the intersection of Norris and Hernando roads in the Prospect Park neighborhood where plans for a gas station and convenience store have been proposed despite community pushback. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

The Memphis City Council set Dec. 1 for a public hearing on plans to build a gas station and convenience store on residential property in Prospect Park, while some members criticized the proliferation of gas stations, especially in predominantly Black areas.

“Historically we have been forced into a lot of environmental hazards in our Black communities, and quite frankly, I don’t see a lot of gas station plans coming up in other districts,” Councilwoman Michalyn Easter-Thomas said Tuesday at the council meeting. “They only are coming up in a lot of the heavily Black ones.”

Norris Express LLC is proposing the gas station, convenience store and a church for a 7-acre lot at Norris and Hernando roads in South Memphis that once held Prospect Elementary. The project, not including the church, was first proposed in 2018, but was withdrawn after community residents voiced opposition and the Land Use Control Board recommended rejection.

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. 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.

Last week, a coalition of community groups along with elected officials held a press conference to express opposition to the development.

Related: Prospect Park residents take fight with gas station developer public

The council unanimously approved the public hearing, saying denying the request would give way for the developers to challenge the decision in court and risk having it remanded or overturned. The Land Use Control Board recommends rejection of the project.

Prospect Park resident Cassandra Dixon, 54, said she is fine with the council setting a date for a public hearing because she would rather have the proposal shut down properly than leave room for it to resurface in court. The community has already selected their speakers for the public hearing, she said.

“People have enough to deal with on a day-to-day basis. People don’t want to have to contend with a gas station on top of that.”

Josh Whitehead, zoning administrator for the Memphis and Shelby County Division of Planning and Development, said his office is receiving an “onslaught of these kinds of requests.” 

He hopes the City Council has an opportunity to change the city’s history of over-investing in environmentally hazardous businesses, he said.

“When you look at older parts of town — North Memphis, Midtown, South Memphis — it seems like every corner of every block has environmental problems because it had a gas station on it at one time,” Whitehead said. “If we do have a higher per capita level it’s just part of our DNA, but that doesn’t mean we can’t change it.”

Homes in neighborhoods in metropolitan areas that are at least 50% Black are “valued at roughly half the price as homes in neighborhoods with no black residents,” and the location of gas stations in those areas are a contributing factor, according to a 2018 Brookings Institute study. “There is also evidence that exposure to environmental pollution is greater, through, for example, proximity to a greater number of gas stations,” the study said.

The 38106 ZIP code, which includes Prospect Park, is 96% Black with a median household income of $24,007 annually, Census data shows. The median real estate price for Prospect Park (Norris and Hernando roads area) is about $50,400, according to NeighborhoodScout.com, a real estate data website.

The Norris plan now includes selling a portion of the land to Christ Communion Temple Church of God in Christ to build a church, which critics called a ploy to get residents’ approval of the project. Rev. Freddie Thomas, Christ Communion pastor, declined to answer questions last week. The church now is located at 1519 South Lauderdale, about a 5-minute drive from the Prospect Park site.

John Behnke, a representative for the developers, said he did not watch or attend Tuesday’s meeting.

“We look forward to presenting the positive aspects of our application to the City Council,” Behnke said in a statement.

Norris Express is registered to Aman Devji, president of Ran Management. The Collierville-based company owns and operates gas stations and convenience stores across Memphis, Arkansas and Mississippi, the company’s website says.

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