When a Florida-based developer dropped its application for a controversial development on Thursday, it proved the power of collaborative advocacy, according to Greater Whitehaven Economic Redevelopment Corp. executive director Michael Harris.
Whitehaven residents’ letters and petitions had grabbed the attention of State Rep. London Lamar and multiple Memphis City Council members, including Patrice Robinson and JB Smiley, Jr., which was key in securing the “great day for Whitehaven,” as Harris called it.
“That’s what happens when we organize and come together,” Harris said.
One Stop Housing planned to convert the motel at 3265 Elvis Presley Blvd. into apartments for working-class residents, such as warehouse workers or nurses — just like it had at 2949 Airways Blvd. and 1360 Springbrook Ave. Harris and other Whitehaven leaders worried the apartments, just north of Graceland, could increase crime, hurt property values and make it harder to draw other private investment to the area.
One Stop CEO Mark Vengroff told MLK50: Justice Through Journalism he decided to pull the application because so many Memphians — including the elected officials — seemed to be against the project, making the development “an uphill battle.”
Along with pulling its zoning application, One Stop canceled its contract to purchase the Red Roof Inn. However, Vengroff is still hopeful he can bring the development back at a later date or continue to work on similar developments in Whitehaven or both.
“I thought it was best to hit the reset button (and) have dialogue without pressure on either side,” Vengroff said.
Vengroff hasn’t talked about the project with Harris, Robinson, Smiley or others who oppose it. He’s hoping that will change next week when he’ll be in Memphis. In these conversations, the One Stop CEO said he is hoping he’ll be able to dispel misunderstandings about the project. For instance, many who signed the petition opposing it said One Stop would lease apartments on a month-to-month basis. Vengroff said the complex would use traditional annual leases.
“These (would) be really nice apartments for folks who work in the area … just offered at a lower price point,” Vengroff said. “Buying distressed hotels, we’re able to save a lot of money … which gets passed down to lower rents.”
After these meetings, Vengroff said he hopes he’ll be able to move forward with some version of the original project with the “blessing” of local leaders. If they still oppose the project afterward, Vengroff said he’ll “move on.”
“We don’t want to do something that’s against what they’re trying to accomplish,” Vengroff said.
Harris said Vengroff should have reached out to him earlier in the process but that he’ll gladly meet with him. He’s not opposed to the company developing elsewhere in Whitehaven but can’t see himself ever supporting its conversion of the Red Roof Inn into apartments.
The specific location of the development is what has always bothered Harris the most since it is a three-minute drive north of Graceland, half a block south of the Memphis Visitor Center and prominent on a corridor he is working hard to revitalize.
As he attempts to convince more tourists and business travelers to stay in the area, Harris said he would prefer the property to remain a hotel. If it has to become apartments, he would much prefer higher-end units that would help the neighborhood attract young professionals.
“I see a greater future with this 95% African American community working together, supporting our businesses, … thriving and being a model,” Harris told MLK50 last month. “Something like this tells me you’re not willing to dream with me.”
Jacob Steimer is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at Jacob.Steimer@mlk50.com
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