Memphis, Tennessee: How to Stop the Developers

Black and white photo of large bridge over river

Southern Exposure

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 3 No. 4, "Facing South." Find more from that issue here.

In 1976, the urban South finds itself strangely hidden by towering banks, hotels and convention centers. At a time when most Americans are recognizing that Bigger is not always Better, southern promoters continue to crisscross the region, hawking their promises of uniqueness through development and design. "Put your city on the map," they proclaim, "with the largest indoor mall in the world, the longest escalator, the biggest stadium. ..." The real-life headaches of ghettos, traffic-jams, pollution and crime are simply dismissed as "Yankee" problems.

In fact, too much of the urban development is merely an imitation of the Northeast. The traditional assets of the South—our sense of place, smaller population centers, more open space—are sacrificed for the glittering symbols of "progress." More importantly, the strength of our cities—our people—are ignored. Where is the community input in the developer's schemes? What happens to the dispossessed after their homes have become "urban renewed"? Who benefits from the new megastructures to "save" the downtowns?

These questions and more are now being asked by Southerners as they were a few years ago by anxious Northerners. In the following series of articles, three authors examine developments in three typical southern cities with an eye toward their impact on local people. In each case, they find a significant gap between the needs of the citizens and the ambitions of the developers, from Memphis' planned community at Shelby Farms, to Pikeville, Kentucky's attempt to move mountains, to Norfolk Gardens in downtown Norfolk, Virginia. How that gap is resolved ranges from the victory of organized citizens against the planners to the manipulation of public resources for private gain. In the last analysis, it seems, who wins and who loses from urban development is determined by who controls the planning process.


Memphis, Tennessee, owes its existence to a land grab in 1818 by Andrew Jackson and two friends, General James Winchester and Judge John Overton. To clear the western lands for development, Jackson and his commissioners bought the Chickasaw Indians' claim to 6,489,000 acres for about five cents an acre. A year later, Memphis was laid out on the Mississippi bluffs according to Overton's plan for a model city, and Jackson made enough money selling real estate to finance his presidential aspirations.

About 150 years later another land deal was underway in Memphis. The city and county decided to sell a 5,000 acre parcel of public land for development of a city-within-a-city. The developers this time were James Rouse, builder of the well-known "planned community" of Columbia, Md.; Boyle Investments, the largest real estate company in Memphis; and the First Tennessee National Corporation, holding company for Memphis' biggest bank.

But this time the developers were stopped. After five years of debates, studies and political games, the citizens of Memphis were finally heard. The sale was called off. It was one of their rare victories since Overton first plotted his vision for Memphis, and it demanded a very strange alliance. Environmentalists who wanted the land for parks teamed with local realtors who were left out of the Rouse-Boyle plan. It was hardly an ideological battle. And it essentially ignored the black and low-income residents who felt the city had more pressing needs than more parks. But the battle of Shelby Farms is a story of importance to all urban regions. A coalition of local people challenged the developers . . . and won.


Mid-America's Big New City

Memphis has grown steadily since the Chickasaw Indians were first pushed aside. At first it was a rough flat-boat stop filled with saloons, gambling houses and red-light districts, with a fraction the acclaim of river neighbors St. Louis, Natchez and New Orleans. Then cotton found Memphis, and the city became a major Mississippi River port. Even the Civil War did not particularly damage Memphis. Growth barely slowed. New industries were established, and the population increased almost 200 percent between 1860 and 1870.

Then three successive yellow fever epidemics in 1873, 1875 and 1878 decimated the city. Thousands fled or died in the streets. The city's reputation sank. During the first two decades of the twentieth century, Memphis became known as the murder capital of the nation. In 1909, Edward Hull Crump organized the Shelby County Political Organization which gradually substituted patronage for crime and provincial bossism for the free-wheeling chaos of river town life. By the time he died in 1954, Crump had firmly established the serene environment which businessmen relished.

Today, Memphis is thriving under a younger, more cosmopolitan leadership. Population had doubled since World War II. In addition to being the nation's largest cotton market, Memphis is now the second biggest center for soybeans and third in meat processing. It hosts the international headquarters of companies ranging from Cook industries (the grain marketers) to Holiday Inn to the makers of St. Joseph Aspirin and Coppertone.

Real estate developers and construction firms are again all smiles. Recently aggressive private and public planning has called for hundreds of millions of dollars to be invested in a radical reshaping of the city. Among the projects and their costs are:

Downtown Redevelopment ($40 million in public funds and $105 million in private investment), will take until almost 1990;

Volunteer Bicentennial Park ($13 million in public funds beyond the $10 million allotted under the downtown redevelopment plan), to be developed on Mud Island at the city's riverfront;

Garbage-Burning Plant ($72 million), developed by Memphis Light Gas & Water Company, to provide electricity, steam and chilled water for downtown and medical center customers;

Beale Street Blue Light District ($40 million or more, depending on whether housing and hotels are constructed), shopping and night-life center commemorating the birthplace of the blues;

Community Development ($76 million in HUD money), rehabilitation of nine communities;

Stadium Expansion ($18 million), adding 20,000 additional seats in anticipation of an NFL franchise settling in Memphis. (The original stadium, with 55,000 seats, was built for $3.7 million in 1965);

Airport Expansion ($73 million), just completed, doubles the terminal and freight capacity of the original airport, built in 1960 for $15 million;

Convention Center ($26 million), completed, but without hotels nearby, it is doing poorly;

I-40 Expressway Completion ($120-200 million), tunneling through Overton Park for three miles.


Planning A City Within A City

No one should have been surprised when the developers began drooling at the abandoned acreage of the Shelby County Penal Farm. The Farm had first been built in 1928 when the Shelby County Commission used a million dollar bond issue to purchase 1,600 acres of farmland 12 miles east of downtown Memphis. In subsequent years, the Penal Farm grew to 5,000 acres and became a model agricultural/ rehabilitation institution for the South, as well as a source of endless satisfaction to E. H. Crump and his Organization. Occasionally the Farm even made a profit from its corn, cotton, chickens and nationally-famous dairy cows.

But by 1955, in the face of postwar agricultural realities, the University of Tennessee School of Agriculture recommended reducing the Penal Farm to 1,000 acres under cultivation and releasing the rest for public development. Eleven years later, the Planning Commission reaffirmed that the prison's increasingly large deficit could be eliminated by turning some of the land into revenue-producing publicly owned attractions. Neither plan was followed.

Instead, on August 5, 1970, the County Commission declared 3,200 acres of the Penal Farm as "surplus” and authorized a $60,000 study of its potential development. The study, prepared by Harland Bartholomew & Associates, recommended that the "highest and best uses" of the land would be a planned residential and commercial community for 25,000 to 100,000 people, depending on the growth needs of the Greater Memphis area. The land was valued at $25.4 million, but rather than simply sell it, the study suggested other options for the county, ranging from leasing the land, to joint ownership in the new project with private firms, to developing subsidized public housing for 25,000 people at a total cost of $370 million. (Regardless of what happened to other acreage, the prison would be reduced to a normal three acre compound.)

Immediate controversy arose when the county proposed a Shelby Farms Development Board to consider the options in detail. The president of American Cities Corporation, a Rouse subsidiary, insisted that the Farms should be developed by private interests, not public agencies; the newspapers and local "good government" organizations like Future Memphis, Inc. wanted more citizen representation on the Development Board. Compromises were finally made, and in September 1971, as its first official action, the Board hired American Cities Corp. to prepare a $50,000 study on the planned community and deliver it within 190 days.

The American Cities report, released in May 1972, valued the land at $10 million (a $15.4 million drop from Harland Bartholomew's 1970 estimate), and placed the initial cost to the county at $10 million for providing streets, utility systems, underground telephone and electric wires, schools, recreational facilities and so on —plus a planning and administration cost of a million dollars for the first five years. Though the cost would be high, the return would be magnificent: American Cities said a gas station's acre of land in Columbia, Md. sold for $550,000.

The model community would include 1,310 acres for residential development, 435 for industry, 157 for retail stores and office buildings, 275 for public utilities, 200 for a community college and 500 for roads and utilities; 960 acres would be reserved for the Wolf River floodplain and 1,163 acres for open space. It all looked very nice.

Then came the kicker. On October 12, 1972, the Shelby Farms Development Board requested American Cities to implement its own recommendations.

Oddly enough, there were no cries of conflict of interests. The Chamber of Commerce approved American Cities' proposal. Future Memphis, Inc. supported it with the qualification that more land be kept for parks.

Quietly, several local realtors began assessing their chances as developers for the project. Chief among them was Boyle Investment, perhaps the only firm large enough to contend with Rouse Corporation. But as old friends, Bayard Boyle and James Rouse quickly saw the advantages of joining forces. Together with the financial backing of the First National Bank, they went to the County Court with the dream combination: national reputation, local clout and lots of money. On March 13, 1973, the Court—which has jurisdiction over the sale of county property—voted almost unanimously to approve the American Cities plan as presented by the Rouse-Boyle-First National team. 

Other developers huddled at the Memphis Home Builders Association and agreed they were getting screwed.


Zoo Story

Then an astonishing thing happened. On May 8, the Park Commission proposed that the Memphis Zoo move from its 30 acre site in Overton Park to the wide-open spaces of the Penal Farm. The proposal received huge headlines. Everyone was excited. At last a genuine alternative to Shelby Farms had appeared. People scratched their heads and wondered why the idea never occurred to the experts before.

Privately, the politicians and project developers were furious. Memphis had already suffered 12 years of fighting over the I-40 expressway through Overton Park. It seemed as if nature lovers were at it again, derailing Progress, once more frustrating Memphis' ambition to live up to its slogan as "Mid-America's Big New City."

The first organization to support the Park Commission was the Zoo Action Patrol (ZAP),headed by Donna Fisher, a Vanderbilt law student. In mid-May, she wrote all the county officials that "a better zoo would benefit the entire Memphis community, rich and poor alike, whereas the model city would benefit only the lucky few who lived there."

As the Park Commission presented its case to the County Court, State Representative Ed Williams announced he would pre-file a bill with the Tennessee General Assembly for keeping the Penal Farm as a park and zoo—provided Overton Park's zoo land be released for the long-awaited expressway. County politicians began backtracking on their commitment to the original development plan and the once-solid majority of County Court squires crumbled.

Then, on June 2, 1973, County Commissioner Lee Hyden, the leading official proponent of the planned community, made the mistake of admitting that the county didn't know how many acres they were selling, how much it was worth or how much they should get for it. Hyden explained that parcels of the original 5,000 acres had long since been nibbled away for the State Technical Institute, the sheriff's substation. Interstate 40, a proposed community college and various private concerns. There might be 4,000 or 4,500 acres left; no one knew for sure. So there was no easy way to get an exact value on the property. Instead of soliciting bids from competing developers for property described in a detailed prospectus, Hyden explained that the county would simply sign a binding agreement to sell the land to Rouse-Boyle. A price would be set by an independent appraiser after the agreement had been approved!

News of the proposed agreement triggered a new wave of opposition. The Home Builders Association asked why no bids were requested for the property, and formed a study committee to investigate the whole issue. Citizens groups attacked the composition and sloppy work of the Development Board until one of its members agreed to hold a public hearing. The chief assessor said the county should receive at least $29 million (roughly $6,000-7,000 per acre) rather than Hyden's estimate of $10-to-20 million. His boss, the chief appraiser, immediately overruled him, claiming that $4,000 or $5,000 an acre would be enough. The Memphis Press-Scimitar chimed in, noting that nearby Farmington Community had sold for $26,500 an acre and Kirby Woods Mall went for up to $92,460 an acre. Meanwhile Abe Plough, Memphis' foremost philanthropist, announced he would finance a study to move the zoo to natural surroundings on the Penal Farm. His plan received mixed reactions, but at least revived the original Park Commission proposal on the eve of the public hearing.


The Little People Meet Big Money

The hearing at the County Commission on June 14, 1973, was the first official opportunity for citizens to speak up. Proponents of the development included Future Memphis, Inc. and the Memphis Society of Professional Engineers. Those speaking against the plan tended to be individuals speaking only for themselves or for low-clout organizations like ZAP. After the meeting, the opponents gathered and agreed to organize the Penal Farm for Public Use Committee, an odd-coupling of environment-minded idealists and tough-minded real estate and business interests threatened by the effects of Rouse-Boyle's 10,000 new housing units to the Memphis market. It seemed a happy match of Little People (to provide the citizen support) and Big Money (of the sort rarely available to public interest groups). From the former came an energetic letter-writing campaign and a collection of 7,000 petition signatures in the first month. The latter raised $16,500 in the first two months for bumper stickers, leaflets, radio spots and full-page newspaper ads. But one week after the public hearing, the County Commission voted 2-to-1 to accept the contract with Rouse-Boyle. It was now up to the County Court.

During the summer of 1973, clubs, community organizations and government bodies were barraged by speeches, debates and open forums. No one was spared: the Rotary Club, Sierra Club, Chamber of Commerce, Community Relations Commission, League of Women Voters……Both pro and con claimed their side represented intelligent planning, Mother Nature and Memphis' best interests.

One County Court squire proposed a dozen town meetings to reach the public, but on July 26 the first one proved so unruly that the County Court declared it would also be the last. The meeting had been planned to kick-off Rouse-Boyle's "education campaign" with slides, charts and graphs, but a series of strong speeches by opponents dominated the event. Several student members of the Penal Farm for Public Use (PFFPU) Committee dumped cardboard boxes full of petitions against the sale at the squires' feet and leafleted the audience with pleas to "Stop The Penal Farm Land Grab," emphasizing how the contract "deviates from standard business practice and common sense in 12 ways":

1) No price named,

2) No down payment,

3) No development plan,

4) No competitive bids,

5) No advance zoning,

6) No exact boundaries required on parcels to be developed,

7) No charge for the developer's three-year option, that can be drawn out to seven years,

8) No provision for taxes or interest during the option period,

9) No inclusion of city as party to the contract, even though it presumably 'requires' the city to rezone and provide utilities,

10) No ceiling on possible cost to taxpayers of the 2,100 acre park that must be built at taxpayer's expense to developer's plan, which is not yet known,

11) No assurance that developer's proposed smaller park will benefit anyone besides the immediate residents, and

12) No preliminary public hearing in the early stages when these curious provisions were first proposed.

The PFFPU Committee held its own meetings to organize opposition, but it failed to gain a large membership. As often happens with ad hoc groups,, the gassy speech-makers dropped out quickly, and the working class whites who attended dropped out when they saw the activist eggheads running the show. As a matter of fact, by the end of the summer, nearly everyone dropped out, except for a cabal of eight people.

John Vergos, the chairman, spoke at service clubs and on talk shows, held down the Committee office during the day and in general ran most the citizen show-window side of the things while finishing his law degree at Memphis State. The real muscle of the Committee were the businessmen who raised money, buttonholed the Court squires, lobbied other county officials and coordinated the newspaper ad campaign that flooded the County Court with clipped-out forms against the sale.

The group made especially good use of the media's requirement to air a quota of public-affairs programs. A first-rate documentary, "Shelby County Had A Farm," was written and produced by Ken Rees for WMCTV on a $15,000 budget, and aired on August 31 with an excellent viewer response. As the credits rolled, the concluding verse of the title song predicted the controversy's outcome:

Shelby County had a farm,


And on this farm they have some plans

Which way will they go?

With a townhouse here

And a fish pond there

Here a lark, there a park,

Over there an aardvark.

Weeds grow here, weeds grow there

Indecision everywhere.

Shelby County had a farm.

On September 9, the County Court voted to delay its vote so there could be yet another study.

Everyone groaned. Morale on both sides sagged.

Spirits at the PFFPU Committee dropped even further when their Citizens Day at the Penal Farm fizzled. Since the land had distinctly sinister associations with criminals working in the fields under minimum security, few people had ever driven through the Farms or seen its well-kept grounds and whitewashed buildings. The Committee gained permission from the County Commission, and set up a driving tour, a cross-country course, two hiking trails, refreshment stand and a horse show, and got plenty of free publicity. But on Saturday, October 27, with all events going as promised, no more than 200 people showed up.

What bothered the Little People on the Committee even more was the suspicion (fostered by their opponents) that the Big Money members were using them to spoil the sale so they could move in and develop the property themselves. Repeated efforts to get a hands-off declaration failed, eroding both internal solidarity and public credibility.


Death of the Model City

Suddenly, the PFFPU Committee got the break it needed. By unanimous agreement a new chairman, Lucius Burch, took over the leadership of the fight. Burch had become something of a hero for his opposition to the Crump Machine in the late 1940s and was well known as Memphis' leading mugwump. As a shrewd lawyer of social standing and veteran of a dozen major crusades, Burch knew how to enlist the support of the people with power. In October he began writing several letters a day to the "opinion formers" and doing radio spots, toning down the rhetoric (deleting phrases like "land grab" and "ruthless developers") and winning back alienated friends. Under his influence the Committee's thesis switched from negative to positive. Attendance at meetings climbed back to several dozen, and Burch extracted assurances from all involved that no member would later try to develop the land.

In late November, the reorganized, positive-directed PFFPU Committee released a position paper calling for the creation of a public authority to oversee the Penal Farm's future development as a public resource. The report included specific suggestions for the land's use, from Opryland-style attractions to high-brow riding and sailing. Months of publicity and pressure began to pay off as the endorsements for the authority and/or park concept began piling up from the Park Commission, the Planning Commission, various civic groups, the township of Collierville, the Junior Chamber of Commerce, the City Beautification Commission and so on.

The Rouse-Boyles forces counterattacked with their own media blitz and high level endorsements. But the momentum was clearly shifting to the PFFPU Committee. By January, 1974, a poll of registered voters found that 68 percent wanted to keep the Penal Farm land for public use; 10 percent favored sale; and 21 percent were undecided. Racially, 72 percent of the whites compared with 62 percent of the non-whites wanted public use. A big selling campaign to black Memphians had apparently failed to bring results, and the four black squires kept a rather skeptical frame of mind. As one woman said, "You would have middle-class whites and middle-class blacks there, both forgetting all about the needs of the common man."

The common man aside, Burch and his group were scoring significant points among the traditional political bodies that determine policy. The undecided Court squires began leaning away from the Rouse-Boyle plan, but they repeatedly used the inability to finance alternative public development to avoid making a choice. Then philanthropist Abe Plough stepped forward, announcing he would pay a million dollars to the county to "remove some of the financial objections that exist toward the public development of the property." The time for decision had come.

On January 29, a week after Plough's announcement and a week before the scheduled vote of the County Court, the uncommitted squires leaked the fact that they would oppose the sale. The grandiose planned community would finally be rejected. On hearing the news, the Rouse-Boyle team immediately withdrew their proposal so no negative vote would be on the record. The next day, Commissioner Ramsey wrote to thank James Rouse: "We respect your decision to withdraw because ... it was not in your best interests or in the interests of a 'divided Memphis community' to continue.”

The headlines were huge. The cost for the winners totaled a mere $21,015. The cost to the losers was considerably more. Indeed, with the disastrous downturn in the economy, Rouse and Boyle were no doubt immensely relieved to at least postpone the development. In a slight rewriting of history, Forbes magazine on October 1, 1974, said that the financial precariousness of the Rouse Co. (stock down from $30 per share to $2.75) dictated Jim Rouse's decision to withdraw:

He has had to wipe out plans for two other "new towns" —one at Shelby Farms, Tenn., near Memphis, the other at Wye Island, Md. —and had to write off $4.2 million already spent on them. Says Rouse sadly: "These projects take more than a decade to get started, and there is just too much uncertainty as to their ultimate viability. Privately developed new towns are dead in this country for the foreseeable future.

It is fitting that the epitaph for Shelby Farms model community be spoken by James Rouse himself. At least in this case, economic self-interest and environmental concerns were unmistakably identical—against the speculators.


What Kind of Public Use?

In February 1974, Commissioner Hyden advocated a one-year moratorium on development. He lamented the death of the Rouse-Boyle plan, but said he was willing to "bury the hatchet and follow the bearded knight” (Lucius Burch). The time seemed right to revive Abe Plough's offer of $50,000 for a feasibility study for a zoological park, provided the city and county would each put up $50,000. After some prodding, the government bodies appropriated the money and created a new Shelby Farms Planning Board (SFPB).

By February 1975, the SFPB had solicited and received 20 proposals for public development of the land, narrowed them to six finalists, and then voted between the detailed plans of the best two: Garrett Eckbo, an environmental designer from San Francisco; and Hart, Krivatsky & Stubee, the New York firm which planned the 27,000 acre Disney World.

In his opening statement to the press, the winner, Garrett Eckbo, compared the Shelby Farms project to the creation of Central Park a century ago, and announced he would hold several workshops to generate ideas from the public. His openness to citizen input was a welcome relief to many, while the comparison to a New York-style venture flattered the "Next Big City" advocates. Memphis was charmed.

The first workshop resembled a fundamentalist revival. One person from each discussion table stood up and gave-glory about what lay in that paradise out yonder. Wildlife area! Botanical garden! Camping facilities! Model farm! Hiking trails! Baseball stadium! Boating! The greatest zoo in the country! Only a few asked how they would pay for it.

Two days later, Eckbo expressed disappointment that there were only five blacks in the 150 who turned up for the workshop. He proposed three more first-phase neighborhood meetings to involve other segments of the community. The first, held in South Memphis at LeMoyne College, the intellectual center of the black community, generated criticism that the proposed park would mainly serve the white residents of East Memphis, and raised doubts about the spending priorities involved. The second, at Baron-Hirsch Synagogue in the heart of Memphis' most successfully integrated neighborhoods, reached the consensus that the park would neglect the hard-core housing needs of the city, and urged that public housing be an integral part of the plan. The third, at the Whitehaven Community Center, not far from the Mississippi line in several senses, endorsed the ideas of the first meeting.

In apparent response to the questions raised about the priorities of government spending —and to the difficulty in specifying exactly where funding for the ambitious development would come from-Eckbo's final report to the SFPB recommended: 

It will be important to avoid any sense of competition for city/ county funds with other pressing programs by (a) stretching out the development in time, and (b) emphasizing total community service and accessibility.

Eckbo ran into another snag —this time with competing planners —when he proposed rerouting existing thoroughfares and abandoning plans for new ones which would further dissect the park. The city/county traffic engineers loudly objected that Eckbo had overstepped his authority, but he continued to resist their gridiron road plan designed for suburban commuters passing through Shelby Farms. "The opportunity presented by 4500 acres of such special landscape for the future of the Memphis metropolitan area is so magnificent," says Eckbo, "that only petty and grasping minds would try to block it or fragment it."

Professional planners on the SFPB have also criticized Eckbo's preliminary drafts as "too vague" and "incapable of being implemented." But Burch and the majority have offered continuing support and warmly received his final plans in October 1975. The 148 page report contains maps, charts and an unusually straight-forward description of three tiers of options to create a "pastoral park and include income-producing facilities adequate to meet operating costs while retaining pastoral qualities." Specifics given more detail in a technical appendix range from an expanded equestrian center to a World Agriculture Center.

The plan was exceedingly beautiful to those already convinced, but a few began wondering if it was another case of "too large, too late," the particular pitfall of towns that aspire to be Mid- America's Big New City. The $10 million minimum seemed just as impossible as the $103 million twenty year plan. A hundred new neighborhood parks within walking distance of everyone, instead of this Bois de Boulogne, seemed more appropriate.

The believers could already see the beautiful vision taking shape, an urban park unparalleled in this century; the skeptics could see a park fringed by parking lots, as cars arrived by the thousands. The realists recognized that the fight was—and is—not yet over. At this writing, the County Court has postponed final decision on the plan. Even after the go-ahead is given, the long-term, phased construction might allow the public to lose interest in the park, giving later planners an opportunity to add new roads, more flashy attractions —or perhaps even a version of Rouse's "model community." The victory of Shelby Farms, like others involving a public movement against private interests, will require constant attention to be preserved, and perhaps additional, more polarized confrontations.