French Fort



photograph by Michael Finger

Why It Matters:

“The cost of urban sprawl continues to cause significant increases to our already heavy tax burden. Higher density projects like [French Fort] will require considerably less capital for infrastructure and its maintenance. There are several underutilized properties in the French Fort area that have produced little or no cash flow to the city in more than 20 years. The new roundabout at I-55/Crump Boulevard will reconnect the area back to the downtown core. This is a good time to put together a comprehensive plan that will convert these properties into valuable assets. Our proposal for a New Urban Community will enhance property values, improve quality of life, create jobs, increase tourism, and produce millions annually in revenue to the city.” — Lauren T. Crews, City South Ventures

Stakeholders:

City South Ventures and DeSoto Pointe Partners (Lauren T. Crews, managing partner of both), Metal Museum (Carissa Hussong, executive director), French Fort residents (about 150 households), Super 8 hotel, Mississippi River RV Park, Tennessee Department of Transportation, Downtown Memphis Commission

Leaders and Consultants:

Lauren T. Crews, City South Ventures and DeSoto Point Partners; Antonio R. Bologna, Bologna Consultants; Chooch Pickard, Memphis Regional Design Center; Andy Kitsinger, Downtown Memphis Commission

Area Boundaries:

I-55, E H Crump Blvd., Mississippi River, and Metal Museum Dr. 

Area History:

What is today called French Fort is one of the most historical areas in Shelby County, as a previous home to Paleo Indians, Chickasaw Chief Chisca, French colonialists, and American and Union soldiers. It’s the spot that conventional wisdom once held (since refuted) that Hernando DeSoto first gazed upon the Mississippi River. A Marine Hospital was constructed there in 1884 and then replaced with a new one in 1937 under the Works Progress Administration. The residential subdivision French Fort was established in 1960 but was disconnected from the downtown core during the interstate construction project of the mid-60s. The Metal Museum opened doors in 1979.

Current Conditions:

There have been no major improvements in the area for about 50 years, though the single-family homes in the French Fort neighborhood are in good condition. The Metal Museum is a significant tourist attraction. In use are the Mississippi River RV Park and a Super 8, but another abandoned hotel and three other buildings are blighted properties and need adaptive reuse. The Marine Hospital, nurses’ quarters, and a maintenance building are in need of extensive redevelopment but are structurally sound and historically significant. Of the area’s two public parks, one (Chickasaw Heritage/DeSoto Park) is well maintained while another (Crump Park) is not frequently used.

Ideal Situation:

According to Lauren T. Crews, a revitalized French Fort is a high-density mixed-use community making better tax dollars; would save historical buildings while making adaptive reuse of others; increases connection to the Riverwalk and the proposed Harahan Bridge project linking Memphis to West Memphis via a bike path over the Mississippi River; increases tourism; is a catalyst for further downtown development; increases tax revenue from properties that now have negative cash flows; and satisfies investors and banks, encouraging them to continue to invest in Memphis.

How to Get to the Ideal:

The I-55/Crump Interchange is currently in the design phase and is expected to begin construction in 2014. Because of the diversity of properties and owners, from hotels to apartments to nonprofits to public land, Lauren T. Crews proposes that a comprehensive plan for the area be in place before I-55 Interchange construction starts. “Otherwise,” Crews says, “with the current zoning in place the area could end up being developed by the old piecemeal method, and its full potential would be lost.”

Current Funding Situation:

The Federal Highway Administration issued a Record of Decision in January 2012 for the improvement to the I-55/Crump Interchange, allowing the Tennessee Department of Transportation to proceed with the project, which is expected to cost $33.3 million. Previous investments/property acquisitions have been made by DeSoto Pointe Partners, including the Marine Hospital and attendant buildings and the abandoned hotel property on Alston Avenue.

Funding Goal:

Still developing. It is unlikely a bank or investor will want to commit until the I-55 Interchange construction starts. However, once started, the project could begin in earnest and funding and investment secured. Funding needs for individual projects would be determined by a master plan.

Jobs Created:

Still developing. Many firms would be utilized for planning, design, architecture, landscape design, engineering, and construction work.

How You Can Help:

Watch for notices on the project and attend any meetings or charrettes that are announced.

Contact:

Lauren T. Crews at laurencrews@bellsouth.net.

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