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In North Memphis, Klondike community is getting ‘The Works’

Under the shadow of the monolithic Crosstown Concourse, work is underway inside another historic Memphis building, the old Northside High School, to convert it into a similar mixed-use facility. 

However, rather than a one-off anchor meant to gradually lift the entire Klondike neighborhood, the $72 million Northside Square project will be the centerpiece of a comprehensive revitalization plan for the long-neglected North Memphis community.

The blueprint is part of a goal to honor the legacy of a historic Black community. It features ambitions to rehab, gut, upgrade, rebuild and invest an entire neighborhood, while keeping Klondike’s current residents in the community and attracting new ones. 

“We’re not trying to do Northside and then leave the rest of Klondike abandoned around it…vacant and abandoned. We’re trying to do Klondike, with Northside as an anchor,” said Roshun Austin, president and CEO of The Works, Inc.

The nonprofit’s mission is like the overall project’s aims, to increase the availability of affordable housing, neighborhood revitalization and the delivery of services and support for marginalized communities in Memphis.

“It’s unique. A lot of times with public housing redevelopment, you knock everything down. You ideally want the people to come back, but that doesn’t happen often. They are dispersed across cities or counties. They don’t always come back, whether it’s by choice or something else. Here, we’re trying to build with the people in place,” said Austin.

With her hard hat on, Roshun Austin is ready for another day or work on the Northside Square project. (Photo: Facebook)

Klondike is bordered roughly by Interstate 240-40 on the west, Jackson Avenue on the south, Brown Avenue on the north and North Watkins on the east. Vollintine Avenue, on which the old high school is located, also cuts an east-west path through the neighborhood.

With houses going up as far back as the late 19th century, Klondike was created for African Americans. Like many Black communities, it has endured ongoing and residual effects of racist policies, disinterest, and a lack of investment. 

As a result, many of its 1,100 homes ended up vacant or abandoned and in various states of neglect. The ones in use also often are in disrepair, with most needing gut-job renovations.

There are also numerous vacant lots. Poverty, crime and a lack of services are other issues.

While banks, investors and house flippers didn’t see an opportunity, Austin and a group of nonprofits and community volunteers did.

A few years back, after the dust of the Crosstown development had settled, a land trust was formed. Using the financial instrument, they began snapping up vacant homes and lots at pennies-on-the-dollar prices.

“We own over 400 buildings and parcels in a neighborhood that has only made up of 1,100. We’re the largest landowner in Klondike today,” said Austin.

Of course, the big project underway at 1212 Vollintine Ave. is what eventually drew public attention to the master plan. At 300,000 sq. ft, it is one-third the size of the Crosstown undertaking.

“The mixed-use is similar to the way schools have been used across the country and the same thing with old warehouse buildings,” said Austin.

The renovations will include affordable housing and senior housing, recreation facilities, regulation-size gymnasium, an amphitheater, office space and incubator space for small business startups. 

The Moore Tech campus will take up the entire basement. Food vendors and other needed services also will be available.

“It’s going to be a hub, and very similar to Crosstown, with a federally qualified health clinic in a neighborhood that has very high incidents of health disparities.

“People’s annual incomes average about $15,000. So, that impacts everything downline,” said Austin.

Other businesses will be lured into business space along thoroughfares like Jackson Avenue and Vollintine Avenue. Neighborhood pop up shops by local entrepreneurs are also a part of the plan.

Like Northside Square will soon be, the erstwhile Northside High School was once the centerpiece of the Klondike neighborhood. Built in 1968, it served a community that has long been short on services for decades.

It was closed in 2016, after students and teachers staged an exodus to other schools. It was slated for closure in 2017, after repairs were estimated to run upwards of $3 million. Now, all the asbestos, mold and other hazards have been removed.

In January 2020, Klondike Smokey City CDC Executive Director, Quincey Morris received the deeds to finalize the transfer

“It was the neighborhood school. It was the rock of the community because some of the teachers lived in the community and many generations attended the school. It was family oriented,” said Quincey Morris, executive director of the Klondike/Smokey City CDC.

In addition to years of volunteering through the CDC, the longtime resident has partnered with Austin throughout the Northside/Klondike redevelopment to realize a vision that reflects the needs of the community.

As with many houses in Klondike, the school eventually was left vacant and abandoned.

Around this time, the CDC sought advice on how they could turn their neighborhood around. After receiving funding, Chicago-based Studio Gang was approached about an initial study. The architect and design firm had completed work on Tom Lee Park. A mixed-use facility was settled on.

“The Northside Development will help bring much needed services and revitalization to the community. Once we start investing in and rebuilding our neighborhood more people will want to live in Klondike,” said Morris.

Weekly meetings, often attended by a hundred or more, kept the information flowing back to eager residents. The meetings also created opportunities for input from residents.

In addition to the rehab work to existing homes, there are plans to build new ones for newcomers. Unlike many homes, however, these properties will be price-controlled to make them affordable to prospective homeowners.

“When we are invested in it, we ask for the right of first refusal. We will buy it back from you at the market standard at that time but want it back affordable. 

“So, if there is a homeowner that buys a house — one of our land trust houses, for instance — we will sell it at an affordable rate. We sell it at $150,000 (for example). We restrict the deed, though,” said Austin.

This means that owners can pass the property onto heirs, but they can’t resell it at a price that’s out of reach to most in the neighborhood. 

Rather, a formula for a 50/50 split — along with caveats, like investment in rehab and equity — with the land trust acts as a price control.

“When we resell it, we don’t sell it for the $350,000. We sell it again for $150,000, or whatever the going rate is for a family that is 80 percent below the median. 

“That’s really how a land trust should work. If you want to ensure long-term affordability, well, that family can stay in that house in perpetuity. The restriction is the affordability,” said Austin.

With as many as 450 renters in Klondike, savings will be passed onto them, as well. Caps will be placed on rent to prevent existing residents from being priced out of the community. Many of their homes already have been completely renovated. Some rents will be as low as $400.

“All of the appliances are there. There’s central heating and air, washers and dryers. Every unit we do has a washer and dryer. Now, you don’t have to go use coins … People don’t think about those kinds of things, but what are the costs of going out. It’s high. They have very fixed incomes,” said Austin.

Other upgrades include walk in showers, handles, walkways and widened doorways for Klondike’s many senior citizens. Current residents are put up in temporary housing until the work is complete on their homes.

Many vacant lots will be open to development from African-American and minority firms and contractors, too.

“People are excited. They are excited about the houses they’re living in, or what they see going up. We have way more demand than we have supply,” said Austin.

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