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Benchmark Hotel building stirs concerns about blight

The Benchmark Hotel building in Downtown Memphis has remained vacant in an unsightly, partially demolished condition for years. On Thursday (Feb. 1), the future of the building gets a hearing in Shelby County Environmental Court.

At issue is whether the building is a public nuisance under the Tennessee Neighborhood Preservation Act.

The Downtown Memphis Commission (DMC) and other proponents of Downtown are advocating for the property to be declared a public nuisance. They argue that it is not fit and habitable for human occupancy or authorized use, and perpetuates various public health and safety concerns.

“There have been no substantial improvements made to the property in years and local businesses are concerned with its appearance and other problematic conditions,” said Danny Schaffzin, an attorney representing the DMC.

The hearing is the first step in a lawsuit filed in November 2017 by the DMC. The suit was filed after repeated failed attempts to come to an agreement on appropriate next steps with property owner, MNR Hospitality, LLC and is pursuant to the Tennessee Neighborhood Preservation Act, the City of Memphis Commercial and Multi-Family Anti-Neglect Ordinance and other local ordinances.

“The Benchmark occupies one of the most high-profile corners in Downtown Memphis,” said Jennifer Oswalt, president and CEO of the DMC. “In addition to being an eyesore, the blighted property creates significant safety concerns. Fighting blight is always a top priority at the DMC. Our goal is to create a better, healthier and more economically vibrant Downtown.”

Additional factual allegations of the lawsuit filed against Nashville-based MNR Hospitality, LLC include: failure to properly secure the property; prevalence of unsafe, hazardous and/or unsanitary conditions; and its promotion of urban blight and deterioration in downtown Memphis.

The Benchmark Hotel is included on the priority list for the Joint Mayors’ Environmental Team (E-Team), which is convened by Neighborhood Preservation, Inc.

“The current state of the [Benchmark] hotel negatively affects the perception of our entire Downtown,” said Doug Browne, president of Peabody Hotels & Resorts. “We owe our citizens, guests, and tourists a better experience as they walk through this historic neighborhood. We are delighted this action is being taken by the DMC.”

DMC and members of the Downtown community are hopeful that the Shelby County Environmental Court will issue a certificate of public nuisance to MNR Hospitality, requiring the property owner to produce a development plan and timeline for (blight) abatement.

Thursday’s public hearing is set for 1:30 p.m.

 “NPI advocates for the elimination of blighted property in Memphis using a coordinated, interagency, multi-sector approach.  This is an example of that approach at work and represents a shared commitment to fight property abandonment and mitigate its negative impact on the health of our community and its residents,” said Austin Harrison of NPI. “The Benchmark Hotel is a direct threat to the health, safety, welfare and interests of the general public and adjacent businesses.”

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