Memphis’ massive $210 million South City renewal is beginning

Michael Key, 8, left, Kanard Miller, 6, center, and Donovan Coleman Jr., 11, play basketball on the fence that surrounds Foote Homes.
Michael Key, 8, left, Kanard Miller, 6, center, and Donovan Coleman Jr., 11, play basketball on the fence that surrounds Foote Homes. The South City project aims to redevelop Memphis' last major public housing development and transform the area into a complete community with mixed-income housing and amenities that complement a revitalized Downtown core. Foote Homes is about 60 days away from being vacated so the more than $200 million project can begin. (Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal)

Glimpses of an emerging neighborhood shone through as a bus-load of architects, engineers and planners crisscrossed the southern frontier of Downtown.

June 29, 2016 — Michael Key, 8, left, Kanard Miller, 6, center, and Donovan Coleman Jr., 11, play basketball on the fence that surrounds Foote Homes. The South City project aims to redevelop Memphis' last major public housing development and transform the area into a complete community with mixed-income housing and amenities that complement a revitalized Downtown core. Foote Homes is about 60 days away from being vacated so the more than $200 million project can begin. (Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal)

Blocks of tidy, well-tended new homes and apartments stood out in a larger sea of older homes, apartments and businesses, many in need of rejuvenation, large tracts of vacant land and shuttered school buildings.

Welcome to South City.

As the Urban Land Institute-chartered bus recently headed north on Lauderdale Street toward Vance Avenue, tour guide Archie Willis III pointed out Foote Homes on the left and Cleaborn Pointe on the right.

Foote Homes, the last of five aging Memphis Housing Authority developments that once bookended Downtown, is in its final days. The boxy brick buildings with windowless expanses will be demolished soon to make way for about 600 modern apartments and amenities such as a fitness trail.

Cleaborn Pointe is a vision of the future, the most recent public housing complex to be razed to make way for low-rise buildings with a single-family feel, set on nicely landscaped grounds.
Foote Homes is the focal point of South City and the reason the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) awarded MHA and Memphis a Choice Neighborhoods Initiative grant last year.

South City will cost $210 million, financed primarily by the $30 million HUD grant, more than $30 million in city funding, nearly $83 million in federal tax credits and about $25 million in loans. The rest will come in grants and other participation by more than a dozen public and private agencies.

The project budget includes $167 million for housing, about $25 million for neighborhood improvements and $18 million for social support programs.

"Our approach and our thinking is broader than just public housing," said Rosalyn Willis, a vice president with the St. Louis firm McCormack Baron Salazar and the firm's project manager for South City

Plans to shore up the neighborhood include a grocery store, early childhood center, fitness trail, housing units where residents can also run businesses, small business loans, street and building beautification and improvements to parks and public safety.

Rosalyn Willis, 66, is the sister of A.W. "Archie" Willis III, 58, president of Memphis-based Community Capital, McCormack Baron Salazar's local partner in South City. She joined the St.

Louis community development firm 11 years ago after her brother introduced her.

The Willises are children of the late A.W. Willis Jr., a pioneering black businessman, developer and civil rights advocate. One or both of the siblings have been active in Memphis Housing Authority's major public housing redevelopments of recent years: Uptown Square, the Metropolitan, Legends Park, Cleaborn Pointe, University Place and College Park.

South City is important to Downtown as well as the downtrodden neighborhood it's designed to uplift, developers say.

More than $5 billion has been spent on Downtown revitalization over the past 17 years, and $2 billion more in new construction is announced or underway in the Medical District, which touches the South City boundary lines.

"If you talk to a lot of folks in the development community, they will tell you that the continuation of development outside the core of Downtown, both on the north and on the south, was pretty much limited because of the distressed state of public housing (before Uptown)," Archie Willis said.

Without addressing public housing issues, "you really wouldn't have the momentum, you wouldn't have the marketability to create the kind of neighborhood and the kind of sense of place that we hope to create with this project," he said.

Archie Willis is a partner with Downtown developer Henry Turley Jr. in a redevelopment of Central Station to add movie theater, hotel and new apartments. Turley is a major developer in the center city. Henry Turley Co. and Belz Enterprises did Harbor Town and South Bluffs starting in the 1980s and led the Uptown redevelopment that transformed public housing on Downtown's north end starting around 2000.

South City is separated by railroad tracks from Downtown's South End development, where Turley and others have added nearly 700 new apartments since 2013.

"You would rather see what I call inclusive development," Turley said. "With South City on one end and Uptown on the other, we in Memphis have a real opportunity to approach development differently and not just do it for the rich."

South City is HUD's first Choice Neighborhoods program in Memphis after a series of Hope VI grants helped replace or upgrade inner city public housing that dated to the 1930s and 1940s: LeMoyne Gardens, Lamar Terrace, Lauderdale Courts, Hurt Village, Dixie Homes and Cleaborn Homes.

Not including South City, public funding to date has totaled $277 million. Private loans, bonds, foundation grants and low income housing tax credits have provided another $177 million to help build 2,447 housing units inside the Parkways, where large sections of old Memphis have been left to decay following the suburban migration.

The Willises grew up on Mississippi Boulevard south of Crump, just outside the South City area.

"This is a neighborhood we grew up in and still have ties to, and we really want to see what we can do to make it a much more vibrant and attractive place for all people to live," Archie Willis said.

He said South City and MHA's previous efforts differ in key ways. The city of Memphis was co-applicant on South City, while previous grants were to MHA. The city Division of Housing and Community Development is in charge of a $24.8 million neighborhood improvement piece of South City. There's also $18.5 million in "people investment" led by Urban Strategies.

He said it's also significant that the Tennessee Housing Development Agency has committed to give South City priority for a share of the state's low-income housing tax credits on a year-to-year basis. The tax credits account for about $81 million of project equity.

Investors such as banks and insurance companies use tax credits to reduce income tax liability. "That is equity that goes into the cost of the project. That's what allows you to do the quality of housing that folks are doing, and keep the rents affordable," Archie Willis said.

Paul Young, city housing division director, echoed the Willises' thoughts on the big picture.

"We want that neighborhood to be vibrant with residents and opportunities," Young said. "We want to see a grocery store and a lot of small businesses. We want to see it connected to Downtown and South Memphis and everywhere in between. We want it to be just a hub of activity."

South City will complete a two-step program originally envisioned as a project called Triangle Noir and Heritage Trail by Young's predecessor, Robert Lipscomb. Lipscomb was also MHA director before he was ousted last year. The previous project names refer to the area's prominence in African-American culture.

The clock is ticking on South City because HUD requires the grant to be spent by 2021.

Since this spring, Foote Homes residents have been receiving vouchers for other housing.

Construction of the first of six phases of housing, each more than 100 units, is scheduled to start late this year after 420-unit Foote Homes is vacated. The timeline calls for the first new units to be ready by the end of 2018.

Cleaborn Pointe and Legends Park (Dixie Homes) projects have already given South City a head start on new housing. New apartments on Georgia Avenue were associated with Cleaborn

Homes' overhaul. McKinley Park, a subdivision of owner-occupied new homes at McKinley and Georgia, was built in conjunction with Legends Park.

The plan calls for development of 112 homes outside the footprint of Foote Homes, but the sites haven't been nailed down yet. Many of the proposals remain conceptual, particularly in the realm of neighborhood improvements.

"Clearly there's a need for a grocery. It's a food desert," Archie Willis said. "We're thinking about it. It will come later on. Obviously no one's going to put a grocery there with no housing in place."

"It's very ambitious, and I can tell you, a lot of people have already said, 'You'll never get a grocery store because we can't get one Downtown, we can't get one in Uptown.' But we're certainly going to try," he said.

Young said the city has until the fall to submit to HUD a neighborhood plan covering such details as the grocery and early childhood center.

"The goal is to develop an early childhood center, a place where residents from the community and people who live and work in Downtown can use as a day care center, a high quality early childhood center," Young said. "We want to find an operator to work with us, and we do the development piece."

Developers hope South City will attract more racial and economic diversity than is typical in Memphis. Market-rate units with no income restrictions are expected to comprise just over 20 percent of the 712 units and will show up in each phase except a senior (55 and older) housing development.

"We still have racial segregation to some extent, but a lot of it is economically driven," Archie Willis said. "But this gives anyone an opportunity to move into the development based on their desire to live in a nice community, near Downtown, close to all the amenities of being Downtown."

Census records show 69 percent of households in one of Foote Homes' census tracts have annual incomes less than $10,000. Project organizers say 65 percent of South City residents are in poverty and 3 percent of residents own their own homes.

Foote Homes residents who were waiting last week to find housing elsewhere said they weren't likely to return once improvements are completed.

"I feel like it's still going to be the same place, just different people," said Sharon Poindexter, 42, a 12-year resident. "It's been a long time coming. I want to be able to raise my children and see them reach age 18."

Gail Morgan, 56, a seven-year resident, said she might want to come back, "if it's really nice and everything," but probably not. "It's just bad vibes."

Wayne Risher
Commercial Appeal

Latasha Harwell sits with her son, Zechariah Mathes, 11, outside of her unit in Foote Homes.June 29, 2016 — Latasha Harwell sits with her son, Zechariah Mathes, 11, outside of her unit in Foote Homes. Harwell has lived with her family in Foote Homes for the past seven years. "Let's say I get my voucher today, I'd like to be out by Sunday," Harwell said. The South City project aims to take out Memphis's last major public housing development and transform the area into a complete community with mixed-income housing and amenities that complement a revitalized Downtown core. Foote Homes is about 60 days away from being vacated so the more than $200 million project can begin. (Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal)
 

Derrick Jenkins leans back while getting his hair cut by his friend and neighbor, Kevin Mason, not pictured, inside of the kitchen of his unit in Foote Homes.May 27, 2016 — Derrick Jenkins leans back while getting his hair cut by his friend and neighbor, Kevin Mason, not pictured, inside of the kitchen of his unit in Foote Homes. The South City project aims to take out Memphis's last major public housing development and transform the area into a complete community with mixed-income housing and amenities that complement a revitalized Downtown core. Foote Homes is about 60 days away from being vacated so the more than $200 million project can begin. (Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal)
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By Wayne Risher of The Commercial Appeal