When a South Memphis community stood up to a gas station developer, they didn’t know they were helping shape the future of development for all of Memphis and Shelby County.
Prospect Park, a predominantly Black neighborhood, fought a gas station project planned for the corner of Norris and Hernando Roads near their homes in 2018 and again in 2020. Both fights ended when the developer withdrew his plans, but the last battle may have closed the door.
In the year since lawmakers have tightened zoning and application rules regarding the businesses. The developers are paying new attention to the wishes of communities, and the neighborhood that once considered itself an underdog feels vindicated.
“It was an enormous victory over such a huge giant, and Norris and Hernando’s footprint is etched in the (zoning code),” said Cassandra Dixon, a community resident.
The Memphis City Council is set to vote Tuesday on zoning changes, including restrictions on new gas stations. The plan comes after the council placed a 245-day moratorium in March on new gas stations and used tire shops and asked the Memphis and Shelby County Division of Planning and Development for zoning solutions to what they see as nuisance-prone businesses.
The moratorium resolution cited numbers showing that Memphis had six gas stations per 10,000 people, which is above the national average of four per 10,000 people. The council’s resolution also said such businesses are disproportionately concentrated in low-income, Black neighborhoods.
Neighborhoods including Prospect Park.
Prospect Park is in a South Memphis census tract that’s 75% Black, with a median household income of $27,663. A rectangular field puts acres of open green between I-240 and the lawns of Prospect Park houses. It once held Prospect Elementary until Shelby County Schools closed it, scheduled it for demolition in 2016 and put the parcel up for sale.
Norris Express LLC bought the land from SCS and in 2018 sought city approval for a gas station that would add to the holdings of Aman Devji, president of Ran Management, which owns and operates stores across the Mid-South.
However, the community objected to the proposal in meetings and the Memphis and Shelby County Land Use Control Board recommended that the council reject it, so Devji pulled the application.
For two years, the project was gone from the minds of residents, until Devji reintroduced the plan in 2020, this time with promises to build a clinic on the land and donate the rest to a church — if he could also build his gas station.
Unpersuaded, Prospect Park mounted a second, more public, round of opposition. Faced this time with pressure from the community and City Hall, last November Devji pulled the project again.
“It’s good news, but I want to make sure it’s grand news and that they can’t come back,” Dixon said after the withdrawal.
She worried Devji would simply return in two years, as he did before.
“When he saw he was losing, he just withdrew before the city council could actually put the nail in the coffin,” Dixon said. “And the way the policy was written, he could do that.”
In an email to Josh Whitehead, zoning administrator for DPD, Dixon said she explained that each withdrawal created hardship for the community.
“I told Josh Whitehead, this is unfair to us because we’re at his mercy. You get all of your people together, you get there, and he just withdraws … You just drag the neighborhood through it.”
Whitehead and other planning leaders agreed. It was Dixon’s skepticism that prompted the rule, which the council and Shelby County Board of Commissioners approved in February as part of a joint ordinance.
The council was spurred to action on gas stations by several examples across the city, not just Prospect Park’s clash.
However, the Norris and Hernando rule, “That came out of our fight,” Dixon said.
Before the rule, if a land use application was denied, the developer had to wait 18 months before they could resubmit the plan, said John Zeanah, director of DPD.
“But there was a little bit of a loophole there,” Zeanah said. “(In) the case of Norris and Hernando, the applicant withdrew their application before they went to City Council, meaning they had no clock.”
The new rule extends the waiting period from 18 months to five years and that timer begins once the Land Use Control Board votes on the item, Zeanah said, regardless of whether it’s withdrawn or advances to the council.
“The idea here is, it takes a lot for neighborhoods to organize, to be able to block something undesirable in their neighborhood. If they’re feeling in a constant state of flux with the issue unresolved, that’s unfair to the neighborhood,” Zeanah said.
Dixon is relieved and considers the rule change and rezonings steps in the right direction.
“I think that is showing that you truly do care,” she said. “Had those measures been in place, we probably wouldn’t have had to deal with what we dealt with.”
A community asset?
Devji had insisted his Prospect Park store would be better designed and managed with care that is leaps beyond the many rundown stores that can be found across Memphis. His plan included retail space, a clinic and the donation of several acres of unused land to Christ Communion Temple Church of God in Christ, a few minutes drive from the land.
However, having abandoned the project, he said he’s donated the entire parcel to the church.
Many in the community, including Dixon, weren’t persuaded by the promise of a church and clinic because their construction still depended on accepting a gas station. The additions weren’t good-faith resources — it was manipulation, they said.
Dixon accused Devji and his team of other bad-faith tactics including a misleading petition that sought support for a church and clinic, but buried any mention of a gas station.
Community members rallied to bring attention to the tactics and called on city and state leaders for help. Some opponents called the project an example of environmental racism looking to strongarm a hazard into a community with little power to stop it.
John Behnke, who represented Devji at council meetings, said he learned from the Prospect Park experience.
“The lesson learned would be to talk to the neighborhood, the community, in advance of applying,” Behnke said. “If one were to go out and talk to folks in advance, you can do it in a more relaxed manner … I think it would be perceived as more courteous and respectful of the neighbors, although it might not yield a different result…”
However, the request to abandon the gas station simply because the community doesn’t want it is “unreasonable.” he said. Additionally, Behnke still refutes any assertions that he and Devji wanted to take advantage of low-income, Black residents.
Prospect Park’s councilman, Edmund Ford Sr., said the community sent a message to developers. “No matter how much money you have, you have to think about the neighborhood and the things that they want.”
“You’ve got to become a good neighbor if you want to put something there, and (the developers) didn’t want to become that. … It was only about themselves, that’s the problem. … Especially in Black areas, they think they can do whatever, whenever.”
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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