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The Commercial Appeal - Friday, September 22, 2000 Author: Tom Charlier The Commercial Appeal

Amid the din of chain saws, the Mall of Memphis is carving out a new image and a new look to go with a new name.

The 19-year-old mall that once dominated the local retail scene will become Memphis Park Galleria within 30 to 60 days, said John Benton, assistant mall manager and operations manager.

The new name refers to a park the mall plans to develop along Nonconnah Creek featuring trails and playground and picnic areas.

For a mall that has been beset by perceived crime problems and has lost business to newer retail centers, the plans represent additional components of a makeover that already includes an $18 million renovation.

After purchasing the mall about a year ago, California-based American Mall Properties LLC Inc. launched the effort to recruit shoppers and improve the center's image.

The company has added a police substation inside the mall and recently finished installing security cameras to scan inside and outside the mall.

The park, though built and operated by the mall, could become part of the Memphis system and the first piece of greenway area along the creek, Benton said. Details of the project must be worked out with regulators.

And before the 15- to 20-acre park is built, the mall will be clearing trees to enhance its visibility from Interstate 240.

The clearing, now under way, is removing trees along the creek and as far north as the state right-of-way along the interstate.

"We're getting more visibility by removing the trees, but the end result is going to be a park area for people to come and enjoy with their families," Benton said. "We didn't want to leave an eyesore."

The cutting will re-establish the visibility the 1.1 million-square-foot mall had when it opened in 1981. Then, few trees screened the facility from the interstate.

"Nonconnah Creek has grown up over the years," Benton said.

The planned widening of I-240 may require the removal of many of the remaining trees in the right-of-way.

The removal of the trees by the mall has disturbed some area residents and conservation group members.

Pat Merrill, a member of the Nonconnah Greenway Committee, which supports the establishment of trails and nature areas along the creek, said she hasn't seen the park plans yet, but the tree-cutting concerns her.

"I do like trees along the interstate, both for esthetic reasons and for noise and air pollution (control)," Merrill said.

And cutting trees along the creek, she said, will allow the sun to further heat the water and harm aquatic life.

Nonconnah Creek has a history of environmental problems.

Sullied by urban runoff and erosion from past channel alterations, it is among the streams identified by state officials as needing cleanup work.

Vegetative buffers often help minimize pollution.

Mall officials have been meeting with state and federal environmental regulators in recent weeks.

Larry Watson, chief of regulatory functions for the Corps of Engineers in Memphis, said the clearing should not cause further pollution if chain saws are used and the root systems are not disturbed.

Mall officials and representatives of neighborhood groups plan to meet today to review the park plans.