Malik Rupani stood before a small group at First Baptist Church – Broad in Binghampton late last week and passionately pitched his proposal for a gas station and plaza in the neighborhood.
Although associates of the developer outnumbered Binghampton residents among the 25 or so who attended, Rupani pledged to put the community before profits, making it a refrain that he says is his philosophy:
“My ideology is not (a matter of) what have I achieved in life. It’s what I have helped others achieve,” he said.
Rupani’s appeal didn’t move the Rev. Donald Sanders II, pastor of Rock Of Calvary Christian Church in Binghampton. After arguing the project’s merits with Rupani and other proponents, Sanders left with the same question he entered with:
“Is this what Binghampton needs?”
This question is top of mind for some Binghampton residents, business owners and the Memphis City Council, which expressed concern earlier this year that gas stations and used tire shops were overrunning Memphis’ low-income, Black communities — bringing crime, blight and pollution.
They first clamped down on the businesses in March with a 245-day moratorium blocking new constructions while city planners evaluated zoning changes to further restrict what some council members see as nuisance-prone businesses.
Still, with a rezoning plan before the council and the moratorium active, Rupani is seeking an exception for his project, which is located in predominantly Black Binghampton. When the request goes before the council next month, it will test the body’s standards for gas stations and whether developers can build amicable relationships with Black communities.
Rupani wants to build a gas station with other amenities at 2977 Broad Ave., on a vacant lot where Tillman crosses Broad and Sam Cooper. It would be across the street from a Valero gas station and within a mile of at least two other stations.
The development would be within a short walk of a Christ Community Health Services building, an ax-throwing venue, a concrete supplier and a few homes. Across Sam Cooper sits a dance school, coffee shop, and the shell of a Save-A-Lot grocery store that closed last year.
The project’s design is more elaborate than a typical gas station and includes modern architecture, outdoor seating, a bike repair station and extra retail space, according to the permit application.
When the application came before the council at an Oct. 5 meeting, members hinted at their disapproval, based on the moratorium and letters of opposition from constituents. Rather than reject the plan, the council delayed the vote for a month, offering developers a last chance to get the community on their side.
When the moratorium began, the Memphis and Shelby County Division of Planning and Development had received 19 permit applications for new gas station projects over three years, the resolution says.
Memphis has more gas stations for its population than the national average, with six stations per 10,000 people compared to the national average of four, the resolution says. Also, 60% of Memphis’ gas stations are located in predominantly Black neighborhoods.
Two census tracts and a railroad divide Binghampton racially and economically. Most white residents and new business developments are located on its west end, while the larger area to the east is predominantly Black and residential. The community’s boundaries are generally considered Summer Avenue to the north, Poplar Avenue to the south, North Holmes Street to the east, and East Parkway North to the west.
Tract 27 on the west end has a population of nearly 1,775, with 37% of them white, right at 36% Black and 15% Hispanic, according to 2020 census data. Tract 28 has a population of just under 3,400, with around 77% of them Black, 12% white and 6% Hispanic, the data shows. Income information by race was not available.
There are also environmental issues associated with gas stations. As underground storage tanks age, they can corrode and leak toxins into soil and water, studies show. Small amounts of fuel are also spilled as drivers fill up their cars. Even these small spills can cause health problems for nearby residents over time, according to a 2014 study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
To address issues with the location of the businesses, planning officials identified in a staff report several areas to downzone to keep gas stations farther away from residential areas and restrict their growth. Last week, the council delayed the final vote on the zoning amendment.
Concerns and pledges
The Binghampton community doesn’t appear to have reached a consensus on the project. Some residents and leaders oppose the gas station as an unnecessary nuisance, while others see it as a good development. Both the developer and opposing residents have petitions.
At the discussion’s core is whether the development will benefit Binghampton, particularly its struggling households.
Last week before the community meeting, Rev. Shun Abram, pastor of Binghampton Community Church, said he wasn’t familiar enough with details of the project to take a firm position.
But even though progress is being made to push business in a community-focused direction, when he thinks broadly about the development of the west side of Binghampton, the benefits haven’t always reached the neighborhood’s under-resourced core population, said Abram, who is Black.
Some businesses in Binghampton are exclusively interested in their profits with little regard for residents, he said. “Whatever the greatest return on their investment is, that’s what they’re going to do. They’re looking at numbers on a page. We see mothers, fathers and children.”
Rupani, who moved from Pakistan to the United States 25 years ago, said he feels the pain of economically distressed neighborhoods.
Rupani lived in deep poverty, he said, missed meals and struggled to survive before finding his footing in the United States. That’s why he wants Binghampton to trust his commitment to the community and believes his pledges help address their needs, he said.
One promise is to donate 1% of the store’s net profits to Binghampton nonprofits. His jobs promise includes hiring subcontractors from Binghampton where they’re available and filling the store’s 10 to 12 jobs from the community too. The pay will start at what he feels is a fair $14 an hour, he said.
“I don’t believe in (paying) the minimum wage. I’m not going to pay anyone $7.25. You can’t survive with that,” Rupani said.
Binghampton entrepreneurs will have first dibs on filling the retail space, he said. With that commitment, Rupani promised to mentor or support Black entrepreneurs however necessary, including helping them acquire financing.
Residents, nearby businesses and the Binghampton Development Corporation have sent letters of opposition to the council. In addition to already having gas stations nearby, their concerns include traffic, crime and environmental hazards.
However, Rupani and John Behnke, a representative for the project, said their plans include measures to make the concerns negligible.
The business would only capture the existing traffic from Sam Cooper Boulevard, not add to it, Behnke said in an interview.
Rupani promised at the meeting that there would be 36 cameras and a “SkyCop” surveillance system to deter crime. As for environmental concerns, the latest fuel storage technology with state and local regulations makes leaks unlikely, Behnke said.
A Black-owned dance studio, Collage Dance Collective, would be just across Sam Cooper from the proposed new plaza. The studio’s executive director, Marcellus Harper, doesn’t hate the plaza idea, but he isn’t excited about it.
Harper may be more open to the idea if the project replaced one of the run-down existing stations and reinvested its revenue into Binghampton, he said. Excessive gas stations run counter to the community-centered development he and others have tried to foster for the area.
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“When I think of neighborhoods that are culturally vibrant, they don’t have lots of gas stations,” Harper said. “When I think of communities that are depressed and underserved, they tend to have lots of gas stations.”
Rupani promised architecture matching if not exceeding Collage’s building as only one example of the care going into the project. His carefully planned and managed location could force the other nearby gas stations to do better, he said.
“We will set the standard. Others will have to match it or go above,” Rupani said.
Joni Laney, a 20-year Binghampton resident who is white, isn’t convinced of the gas stations’ value to the community and said there are development options for the vacant land that are more forward-thinking. She didn’t attend the meeting because she was given short notice, she said.
“We’re looking at a burning planet and you want to put up a gas station in a city where there are already more gas stations than there needs to be,” Laney said. “It’s not a decision for the future, it’s not a decision for children, it’s purely economic.”
A workable plan?
Businesses that serve the community before profits are a shared wish of people on both sides of the issue, though they disagree on whether a gas station can serve Binghampton.
“We talked about how this developer needs to find ways to contribute back to the community … and the developers have been willing to have those open discussions,” said the Rev. Keith Norman, pastor of First Baptist Church – Broad, who supports the project.
He doesn’t dismiss opponents’ concerns, but believes the project plan is workable and is one of the better proposals he’s seen.
“We know for some time that lot has been open and it has had other proposed developments ranging from a veterinarian clinic to possibly even some type of fast food operation. We had nothing against those two proposals,” said Norman, who is Black. “However, we feel that this one is more suitable for the community in that it brings the gas station plus a proposed development for shops … and space that could bring the community together.”
Stopping gentrification is difficult, Norman contends, but communities can work with developers to foster business that better fits the community’s needs and doesn’t push anyone out, he said.
Norman believes that balance can be struck through community and developer conversation, including the one held at his church.
Sanders, who is Black, also wants the conversation to move toward businesses that are inclusive and fill the needs of Binghampton’s core population.
“Does Binghampton really need high-end stores they can’t buy (anything) in?” Sanders asked.
The council could decide the gas station proposal and the downzoning measure as early as Nov. 2, and ultimately, take a stand regarding Sanders’ first question.
Is this gas station what Binghampton needs?
Carrington J. Tatum is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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