Developers of a proposed gas station on residential property in South Memphis abandoned the plan this week after failing to sway residents, despite the efforts of two former elected officials – both of whom have a history of unethical conduct – paid to drum up neighborhood support.
Prospect Park resident Cassandra Dixon, who’d organized the opposition, was glad the plan was withdrawn, but still was upset about the tactics used to try to gain residents’ approval.
“It’s good news, but I want to make sure it’s grand news and that they can’t come back,” Dixon said Thursday.
The gas station project and the resistance to it raised concerns about environmental racism and led some Memphis City Council members to question why such developments seem to be concentrated in Black and lower-income neighborhoods – charges that rankled the developers, who insisted their motivation was making money and helping the community.
Dixon complained that canvassers, at the direction of former Shelby County Commission member Michael Hooks Sr., who was convicted of bribery in 2005, went door-to-door in the neighborhood seeking signatures on a misleading petition.
The petition played up plans to put a church and a health clinic on the 7-acre lot at Norris and Hernando roads and downplayed the convenience store and gas station, which residents of this predominantly Black neighborhood worried would pose environmental risks and increase crime.
The proposal was the second attempt in two years to build the gas station, but the initial version didn’t include the clinic or the church. The plan withdrawn from the city Wednesday, also does not specify a clinic and the only reference to a church is in the plan’s outline, but no specific church is named.
The developers have said they will sell part of the land for $1 to Christ Communion Temple Church of God in Christ, which is now located at 1519 South Lauderdale, about a five-minute drive from the Prospect Park site. The church’s pastor, Freddie Thomas, confirmed the partnership.
The company wanted to include a future clinic as a part of the project, said Aman Devji, president of Ran Management, which is part of Norris Express LLC, the company that sought the zoning exception. However, Devji acknowledged that he did not have a commitment from a health provider to run the clinic and could not afford to run it independently.
“I was trying to do good for the neighbors,” Devji said. “They (became) hostile.”
Even though several Memphis City Council members, including Edmund Ford Sr. who represents the area, opposed the development, the City Council on Tuesday set a Dec. 1 public hearing for the project.
Ford warned developers at Tuesday’s council meeting that they should withdraw the application or he would “embarrass” them, alleging – without providing specifics – that the developers harassed residents.
“I’ve given him (Devji) chance after chance to pull it,” Ford said. “There’s some things that he has done. Now if he wants to bring it, then I will let the whole public know what he’s doing.
“I’m giving him this last chance because there’s a lot of money involved in this particular deal here and he really don’t want me to tell the story.”
Ford did not respond to phone messages left for him at the council office or his business on Wednesday and Thursday.
John Behnke, a realtor and representative for the project, said he recommended Wednesday Devji withdraw the application because of Ford’s warning and his urging of other council members to vote against it. Another factor was a press conference held Nov. 10 by a coalition of community groups and some elected officials where they voiced opposition to the project.
“It’s been escalating for weeks,” said Behnke, who also said he did not know what tactics Ford was alluding to. “I didn’t see that it made sense for us to put ourselves through all this if it was going to be just a total blowout at the vote.”
Devji said the company decided to hire Hooks to try to break through some of the neighborhood resistance and explain the development’s benefits. “So I met with (Hooks), he seems like a good guy. I thought he was going to go to the neighbors but the neighbors were not welcoming either.”
Hooks was paid about $3,000 for his work, Devji said.
Hooks said he works with Behnke often and that Devji hired him at Behnke’s recommendation.
“I was hired for expertise knowing real estate and how government works and government officials think,” Hooks said in an interview Thursday.
Hooks, also a former county assessor, was one of several public officials convicted in the FBI’s 2005 corruption sting, Tennessee Waltz. He was sentenced to 26 months in prison after pleading guilty to accepting $24,200 in bribes from FBI agents posing as a fake recycling company.
Hooks said he hired Bretran Thompson, a former state legislator and disbarred lawyer, to canvas the neighborhood for petition signatures. Thompson was disbarred in 1996 for multiple thefts of client funds, and arrested in 2019 for felony theft and impersonation of a licensed professional.
Thompson’s canvassing led to a run-in with Dixon that resulted in the police being called to the neighborhood, Hooks said. Attempts to reach Thompson were unsuccessful.
Hooks said he received letters from at least 80 people in the community who are in favor of the gas station, and he doesn’t see how Devji’s projects harm Black neighborhoods because there are gas stations in every community.
Dixon is not alone in her concern about the possible negative impact of a gas station on a neighborhood. 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.
Concerns about environmental racism
Black and low-income neighborhoods are disproportionately affected by environmental hazards, the Environmental Protection Agency reported in 2018. The 38106 ZIP code, which includes Prospect Park, is 96% Black with an annual median household income of $24,007, Census data shows.
Some council members complained Tuesday that there has been a proliferation of gas station applications for 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,” said council member Michalyn Easter-Thomas, who is Black. “They only are coming up in a lot of the heavily Black ones.”
Behnke, who is white, said race has nothing to do with the project.
“I’m speaking specifically to these claims that somehow we’re targeting the Black community,” Behnke said. “The only color involved with us was green. The objective is to make money; it’s still America last I heard.”
Devji, who was born in Pakistan and moved to the United States 24 years ago, said he only wanted to help the community and do business.
Devji professed his allegiance to and admiration for the Black community in a story in The Commercial Appeal in June. On May, 31, a week after a white police officer killed George Floyd, a Minneapolis Black man, Memphis protesters against police brutality rushed Devji’s Downtown gas station, taking items and causing minor damage. His store, at Poplar and N. Lauderdale, sits just steps from the Shelby County jail, which is often a stop during Downtown demonstrations.
A few days later, Devji unlocked his convenience store to allow marchers protesting police killings of Black people to get free snacks and drinks. And then he and his children joined the march.
He wasn’t bothered by the damage to his store, he told The Commercial Appeal. “I don’t feel bad, because every single time, peace is not easy,” he said. I understand that some people feel like they have to loot the places. I don’t blame them, because that’s how they have their frustration and they can be heard. There’s no other way they can be heard.”
“I wouldn’t be here if they (black people) did not sacrifice in the past,” Devji told The Commercial Appeal. “Because of them, I’m here. I’m here for the last 25 years and I’ve seen all the time brutality, all of this…
“We all should live in peace, but unfortunately, we don’t.”
That sentiment still stands, Devji said Thursday. “I would have brought so many things in the neighborhood that they would have appreciated me. They appreciate me because I build very nice stores with a lot of landscaping, exceptionally clean stores, very well lit stores, I don’t cut corners when I build gas stations.”
Dixon said, however, that Devji’s actions in Prospect Park contradict his words.
“You’re marching and you’re saying Black lives matter, but in every Black neighborhood, you got a gas station and a convenience store,” Dixon said at the coalition press conference last week. “Our Black community matters; our Black lives matter, so put your money where your mouth is.”
Devji still plans to donate a portion of the land to Christ Communion Temple but said he will move on from the Norris and Hernando roads project. “If I don’t do it here, I’ll do it somewhere else.”
The neighborhood fought well, Behnke said. “I think Cassandra Dixon and company mounted a great opposition. She just did a better job than we did, so I have no hard feelings at all.”
Dixon said repelling the developers took the efforts of the entire community, not just hers. Told of Behnke’s kind words, she did not return the compliment.
“Man, please. I’m not flattered by his comment,” Dixon said. “We just see him for who he is – a very shrewd businessman. He’s just going from one neighborhood to another.”
Carrington J. Tatum is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms.
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