Just one more demolition threatens the entire district – and the investments of developers eligible for tax credits waiting to improve or stabilize their properties.
This is an updated editorial originally by Margot Payne and StoryBoard’s Urban Design Review Board, published in print for the April 2019 edition. It has been updated based on the recent interest in developing a modern, 25-30-story tower at the corner of North Main and Overton Avenue.
We were happy with the skepticism.
With the unveiling of a proposal to build a glass tower in the heart of the Pinch-North Main Historic District, a number of city decision-makers including members of the Memphis City Council and the Housing and Community Development Division, were immediately skeptical.
Right: proposed multi-use tower for the Pinch District. (The Tower Group)
The current tower proposal arrives on the heals of the momentum and interest generated last year when a prominent New York investor staked a claim to a number of district properties. The current proposal could also arrive with the possible removal of a historic, though unassuming, Pinch-North Main city-owned property at 369 North Main, which could threaten the National Register status of the entire district.
Last year we said that “the Pinch District is set to receive some much needed investment. The nine-block area just east of the Pyramid and bounded by North Front, A.W. Willis, Third, and I-40, has been slow to capture its share of the recent growth and activity seen by its downtown neighbors further south.”
By early 2019 New York developer Tom Intrator had purchased three historic Pinch properties: the 1911 former Farrell-Calhoun Paint Company warehouse at 400 N. Front, the 1950s former Charlie Sciara Produce Co. warehouse at 396 N. Main, and an 1885 two-story brick commercial structure at 429 N. Main.
There are many advantages to developing in the Pinch, from its proximity to the river and the Cook Convention Center, to its easy access to Mud Island and Harbor Town. The neighborhood was recently fortified by Bass Pro Shops in the revamped Pyramid to the west, and the expansion of St. Jude’s campus to the east.
Another advantage that is far less stable than these geographical features, however, is its listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Pinch-North Main Commercial District has been listed on the National Register since 1979. The original nomination included 41 contributing buildings or sites, which was corrected to 43 in 1990. Since the Pyramid was constructed in 1991, a lack of regulation and a rush to capitalize on parking needs lead to an onslaught of demolition throughout the neighborhood. Only 19 of those buildings still stand today.
Since the Pyramid was constructed in 1991, a lack of regulation and a rush to capitalize on parking needs lead to an onslaught of demolition throughout the neighborhood.
The story of the Pinch, represented today by its 19 remaining witnesses, is integral to the story of Memphis as a whole. It was the site of Spanish Fort San Fernando in the 18th century, and American Fort Adams soon after. In the early 19th century, the founding fathers of Memphis, Overton, Winchester and Jackson, planned their new city from legendary Bell Tavern, and early steamboat passengers found respite at Paddy Meagher’s Ordinary.
By the mid-19th century, the neighborhood was home to large numbers of Irish, Jewish, Italian, Russian, and Greek immigrants. It gained the name “Pinch-Gut” after the thin waists of its impoverished residents, but many entrepreneurial new Americans thrived in Memphis’ first commercial district; first the Irish, and then the Jewish community after the yellow fever epidemics.
The building types found in the Pinch reflected the lifestyles of the immigrant population, with families living above first floor businesses like groceries, bakeries, drug stores, hardware stores, tailoring shops, boarding houses, and saloons. The Pinch’s nomination to the National Register, the official list of the Nation’s historic places worthy of preservation, is based largely on its significant concentration of turn-of-the-century commercial-residential buildings.
National Register sites need not only be historically significant, they must retain their historic integrity. With the loss of nearly half of its contributing buildings, it’s been argued that the Pinch has also lost the significance for which it was listed and no longer retains its integrity as a historic neighborhood.
After a routine review of the district in late 2014, the staff of the Tennessee Historical Commission recommended the removal of the Pinch District from the National Register due to its loss of historic fabric and integrity.
Then-Senator and current Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris, backed by Memphis Heritage Executive Director June West, lobbied hard on behalf of his Pinch District constituents to prevent its removal. Before the decision could come before the State Review Board in January of 2015, the Tennessee Historical Commission deferred the discussion indefinitely.
After this scare, and in order to support St. Jude’s plans to expand west, Memphis City Council placed a moratorium on granting building permits in the Pinch until a full growth study of the area could be done. They enlisted LRK to complete a concept study and create guidelines for smart growth in the area. The 2016 Pinch District Concept Study supports a vibrant and pedestrian friendly mixed-use urban district based on the neighborhood’s historic character and proximity to city amenities.
While Intrator has not revealed any detailed plans for the properties, he has signaled that he will use the 2016 Pinch District Concept Study as a guide. Since a foundational principle of the study is to “build on the unique history and texture of the Pinch District while maintaining a sense of place,” we hope this communicates the importance of maintaining the 19 remaining structures on the National Register listing.
If the Pinch District loses its National Register listing, it loses the 20% tax credit investment incentive that applies to property owners rehabilitating their contributing buildings within the District.
While being listed on the National Register doesn’t protect property from demolition or neglect (unless federal funds are used), or dictate what an owner can or cannot do to their property, the designation does allow property owners to leverage Federal Historic Tax Credits to renovate their buildings.
Because of its placement on the Register, all owners of contributing buildings within the Pinch District could gain an income tax credit of 20% of what they spend rehabilitating their property. If State Historic Tax Credits come to Tennessee via the Main Street Historic Tourism and Revitalization Act currently making its way through the legislature, these property owners could gain an additional 20-25% of their investment in tax credits.
If the Pinch loses its National Register listing, it loses these investment incentives too.
It’s happened before
South Memphis’ Vance-Pontotoc Historic District was listed on the National Register in 1980 in an effort to preserve what was left of the historic community decimated by urban renewal and the departure of local industry. The listing was spearheaded by the City of Memphis Division of Housing and Community Development in an effort to use historic tax credits to encourage development. A suspicious house fire derailed the project, and the district continued to be plagued by demolition. By 1987, just seven years after it was listed, only 36 of the 92 originally listed buildings were left standing, and the district was removed from the National Register.
We Cannot Lose One More
What happened with Vance-Pontotoc could see a devastating repeat if the Pinch loses just one more piece of its historic fabric. Just one demolition threatens the entire district – and the investments of developers eligible for tax credits waiting to improve or stabilize their properties – removing tax credit incentives, and more importantly, any tangible pieces of the important Memphis story that is the Pinch.
We all want a vibrant, denser, and more walkable Memphis. The Pinch District represents an exciting opportunity for us to have it all, and for developers to combine and celebrate the old and the new by building fresh modern infill next to some of Memphis’ most historic architectural gems.
Perhaps the best reminder of the Pinch District’s singularity and fragility can be found in its original National Register Nomination Form, as submitted 40 years ago in 1979:
“The major importance of Pinch lies in the collection of modest commercial buildings that illustrates the type of business community that flourished there in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It is also a last link to an ethnic vitality that has since disappeared. The Pinch-North Main Commercial District preserves the ambiance of a kind of urban neighborhood that no longer exists in Memphis.”
We understand that new, shiny glass towers are like eye candy, and can be striking additions to the skyline. But at street level they don’t always contribute to the vitality of a diverse neighborhood. In the Pinch and districts like it, we hope that new developments aim to contribute to the promise of these historic, commercial, walkable districts. And while we always look forward to exciting new investment opportunities, we hope that the City of Memphis and any new investors will capitalize on, not squander, this uncommon and irreplaceable ambiance.
Margot Payne has an MA in Preservation Studies from the Tulane School of Architecture and eight years of experience in the field of historic preservation. She has prepared successful Historic Resource Surveys, NR nominations, and Design Guidelines for historic properties and districts in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Margot has been a contributing writer and editor of StoryBoard Memphis since early 2019.
StoryBoard publisher Mark Fleischer contributed to this update. StoryBoard’s Urban Design Review Board is comprised of local professionals in historic architecture and urban design.