Memphis rising: Can this Mid-South city of 670,000 become the next Austin?

One local design firm is trying to make it happen.

August 15, 2018 |
The Sears distribution center

The gargantuan Sears distribution center served the Mid-South from 1927 until 1993. A coalition of community groups devoted to the arts, education, health, and affordable housing rescued the 1.3 million-sf facility and turned it into what they call a “vertical urban village.”

For years following the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968, Memphis, the site of the horrific event, witnessed high crime, population loss, and the decline of its downtown.

Now, Memphians are feeling a fresh wind blowing off the Mississippi, invigorating them with the possibility of a much brighter future.

The trio of redevelopments presented here—Crosstown Concourse, Tennessee Brewery, and The Chisca on Main—is indicative of the 250 projects, valued at $13 billion (according to Cushman & Wakefield), that have reenergized Memphis in the last four years.

Local employers are stepping up. ServiceMaster is moving its headquarters and building a new 20,000-sf technology center downtown. FedEx has pledged $1 billion to modernize its Memphis SuperHub. Methodist University Hospital has a $275 million tower under construction. St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital recently announced plans for a $412 research center, part of its $1 billion downtown expansion.

Two years ago, Memphians overwhelmingly elected Democrat Jim Strickland, a self-described “take action” guy, as mayor. Strickland pledged to end Memphis’s practice of growth through annexation. Instead, he wants to “build up, not build out,” by “doubling down” on the city’s downtown core. He also wants to attract more young people to Memphis by creating incentives to construct more market-rate apartments. The mayor’s ultimate goal: to turn Memphis into an “It City” like Nashville or Denver.

 

See Also: Flyin' high: Humphreys & Partners Architects keeps soaring to new heights

 

Frank Ricks, FAIA, Co-founder and Principal of Looney Ricks Kiss (the designer or associate designer of the projects discussed here), supports Strickland’s vision, but thinks Memphis should fashion itself after a different It City—Austin, Texas, the fastest-growing big city in the U.S. In Ricks’s view, Memphis could be the Mid-South’s SXSE to Austin’s SXSW.

Memphis already has some key ingredients to accomplish this: a firmly established music scene—Beale Street, Graceland, STAX Museum of American Soul (a Looney Ricks Kiss project); a slew of hip new joints like Loflin Yards and Railgarten; craft brewers Wiseacre, High Cotton, Memphis Made, and Ghost River; whiskey-maker Old Dominic Distillery; the University of Memphis and colleges of every type; the NBA Memphis Grizzlies, a minor-league baseball team and AutoZone Park, and USL professional soccer on the way IN 2019; a robust medical establishment, led by St. Jude’s, Baptist Memorial, and Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare; and a raft of big-name employers like FedEx, ServiceMaster, AutoZone, and International Paper.

As the city anticipates its bicentennial in 2019, the question remains: Can Memphis become America’s next It City?

Ricks and his team aren’t waiting for an answer. They’re busy saving yet another relic, the long-abandoned Hickman Medical Arts Building, which they’re turning into 41 apartments and offices. “The Commonwealth,” as it will be known, opens this fall.

Onward and upward!

 

Four lightwells bring the outside into the residential sections of Crosstown Concourse. Four lightwells bring the outside into the residential sections of Crosstown Concourse. Apartments are spread out on the top four floors throughout the horizontal structure to give residents the best view. McGinn Photography.

 

CROSSTOWN CONCOURSE: THE ‘VERTICAL URBAN VILLAGE’

Constructed in phases starting in 1927, the Sears distribution center and store in Memphis supplied the Mid-South with everything from Craftsman crosscut saws to donkeys—think Amazon before Jeff Bezos was even born. At 1.3 million sf, the 10-story Art Deco structure rivaled Manhattan’s Chrysler Building in size.

Sears closed the facility in 1993. In 2007, a local philanthropist bought it for $3 million with the intent—ultimately unsuccessful—to relocate a local college to the building. Then, in 2010, with the recession in full swing, two of the least likely developers one could imagine approached the owner about using the building for their startup arts organization, Crosstown Arts.

Todd Richardson, PhD, Associate Professor of art history at the University of Memphis, and video artist Chris Miner had never built anything, but somehow they convinced the owner to fund a six-month feasibility study. They toured several older buildings that had been converted into arts centers, like MASS MoCA in Massachusetts. They held more than 200 community meetings over a three-year period. From this emerged a vision of developing a “vertical urban village” for the arts, education, and health, along with a residential component.

The breakthrough came in 2011 when Richardson met Scott Morris, a family physician, minister, and founder of Church Health, which provides virtually free healthcare services to Memphis’s poor. “Dr. Morris asked me what our vision was, and when I told him about the vertical urban village, his eyes lit up,” recalled Richardson. “He said, ‘I’ve got 14 locations scattered all over Memphis. I need 150,000 square feet to consolidate everything—have you got it?’ And I said, Yeah, no problem.”

Six founding partners—Crosstown Arts, Church Health, St. Jude’s, ALSAC (St. Jude’s charitable foundation), Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, and Memphis Teacher Residency (the local version of Teach for America)—united under the banner “Better Together.” McLean T. Wilson, Principal at local hospitality developer Kemmons Wilson, Inc., came in to co-lead the project with Richardson. “We had 30 assumptions that we went in with, and one by one, we were able to accomplish all of them,” said Richardson.

Crosstown Concourse opened a year ago. The construction statistics are staggering: 22,500 tons of concrete, 5,500 tons of rebar excavated; 365 miles of tuck pointing completed; 7 miles of new HVAC piping, 5 miles of ductwork, 32 miles of sprinkler piping installed; 1,200 tons of steel, 3,200 new windows. More than 400 workers were on the job on any given day; 138 designers worked on it. The $200 million to fund the project came from 32 sources.

 

The central atrium at Crossroads ConcourseThe central atrium at Crossroads Concourse has become the new serendipitous meeting place for Memphians. Contractor Grinder, Taber & Grinder cut through 10 floors of concrete and steel in the Sears distribution center to create this space and two other 10-story atriums. McGinn Photography.

 

Much of local contractor Grinder, Taber & Grinder’s work involved gouging out three magnificent 10-story, public atriums that also serve as performance spaces. A separate four-story atrium and four light wells brighten the apartment neighborhoods, which were spread out on levels 7-10.

Of the 265 apartments—studios and one-, two-, and three-bedroom units—115 are market rate ($899 to $2,484/month), 53 are designated affordable. St. Jude’s has 20 units for its PhD residents, 20 for families of patients. Memphis Teacher Residency uses 42 apartments. Crosstown Arts provides 13 resident artists with apartments, free studio space, and dining privileges for three months.

Crosstown Concourse recently won the grand prize in the Congress for New Urbanism Charter Awards. It is the world’s largest historic preservation project to earn LEED Platinum (Core & Shell v2009). Coming to the “vertical urban village” this month is an “XQ Super School” (funded by Laurene Powell Jobs, Steve Jobs’s widow). A 450-seat black-box theater and outdoor swimming pool (serving the charter school and the Church Health YMCA in the building) are nearing completion.

Three thousand people visit Crosstown every day; it’s the city’s new crossroads. During a recent tour, Frank Ricks told me, “If I’m here for 45 minutes I’ll run into a bunch of people I wouldn’t ordinarily see that day.” We ran into four such persons in a half-hour.

 

PROJECT TEAM | CROSSTOWN CONCOURSE

OWNER Crosstown LLC  RESIDENTIAL ARCHITECT / HISTORIC PRESERVATION  /SUSTAINABILITY Looney Ricks Kiss  CORE & SHELL ARCHITECTS Looney Ricks Kiss with DIALOG and Spatial Affairs Bureau  RESIDENTIAL INTERIORS Looney Ricks Kiss; Carkuff Interiors  SE Structural Design Group  CE SR Consulting Engineers MEP / FP OGCB INC.  ENVELOPE RESTORATION Wiss, Janney & Elstner  GEOTECHNICAL CONSULTANT Professional Services Industries  SMOKE EVACUATION CONSULTANT Newcomb & Boyd  LIGHTING /ACOUSTICS / DAYLIGHT MODELING Arup  LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT Hood Design Studio  GC Grinder, Taber & Grinder

 

The Wash House apartmentsTenants in the new six-story Wash House apartments get a sweeping view of the Mississippi and the bluffs leading down to Butler Park from their patios. The $28.1 million first phase of the project involved both reconstruction of the brewery building and new construction for the Wash House and Bottle Shop apartments. Brad Bell Photography.

 

TENNESEE BREWERY: ‘ROOMS WITH A BREW’

Thanks to its popular Goldcrest 51 beer, Tennessee Brewing Company was once the largest brewery in the South. The company, whose brick-and-limestone plant on Tennessee Street was completed in 1890, survived Prohibition but eventually succumbed to competition from national brands; after brewing 12 million barrels of beer, it closed in 1954. A scrap metal company took over the building, but sold it in 1981. The Richardsonian Romanesque edifice was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.

Memphis developer Kevin Norman bought the decaying property in 1999 and invested more money to try to stabilize the structure. Over the next 15 years, he fielded several redevelopment proposals, none of which bore fruit. By early 2014, after the exasperated owner threatened to demolish the building, four enterprising Memphians held a series of public events, which they called “Untapped,” at the brewery to call attention to the historic structure’s pending doom.

One of the Untapped leaders, Douglas Carpenter, asked Looney Ricks Kiss to perform a feasibility study. The firm determined that merely reconstructing the historic property would not make the project financially feasible; reconstruction had to be coupled with new construction. On that basis, Billy Orgel, whose company builds cell phone towers, purchased the brewery for $825,000 in November 2014 and hired Looney Ricks Kiss to design it.

 

FOUR STRUCTURES IN ONE

Nineteenth-century breweries were not constructed as unified entities. Each operation in the beer-making process—shipping, bottle washing, brewing, and storage—got its own building. The four-story Tennessee Brewery was more like several buildings butted side to side, with 16 different floor heights, according to Anthony E. Pellicciotti, AIA, CDT, LEED AP BD+C, the Looney Ricks Kiss Principal in charge of the job.

The discombobulating floor heights complicated the interior redesign to no end. The only solution was to create 36 unique apartment configurations. There are 46 units in the seven-story historic structure (“The Brewery”), 90 in a new six-story building (“The Wash House”), and 15 that front a new 339-space parking garage in “The Bottle Shop.” Most apartments have sweeping views of the Mississippi. Tenants are a short jog from a breathtaking trail that runs along the hundred-foot-high bluffs above the mighty river.

Phase two will see 121 units built across Tennessee Street in the original taproom. (Shapiro & Co. is the architect and Patton & Taylor Enterprises the GC on this phase.) Of the total $41.1 million investment, the city put $5.2 million toward the parking structure and awarded a 20-year payment in lieu of taxes. Reconstruction costs in the old building ran to $185,000 per unit, compared to $110,000 per unit for the new construction, said Pellicciotti.

All 151 living units were rented within five months, but commercial leases have been sluggish. When a restaurant deal fell through, the project team added extra space to the fitness center and converted space originally designated for retail into three additional apartments. In June, Orgel and his 17 employees moved into a 9,725-sf office in the historic building.

“We had good cooperation from the city building department,” said Pellicciotti. “With so many unusual things going on with the different floor levels, they gave us a lot of latitude. As long as we were not making things worse, our ideas would get approved.”

 

The Tennessee Brewery's Goldcrest 51The Tennessee Brewery’s Goldcrest 51 was once the most popular beer in the Mid-South. The Richardsonian Romanesque structure was originally constructed as several distinct buildings side by side, each fulfilling a distinct function in the brewing process, each with different floor levels. Brad Bell Photography.

 

PROJECT TEAM | TENNESSEE BREWERY

OWNER 495 TN LLC ARCHITECT/INTERIORS/HISTORIC PRESERVATION Looney Ricks Kiss STRUCTURAL ENGINEER Chad Steward & Associates CIVIL ENGINEER Michael Fahy/Prime Development Group  MEP ENGINEERHNA Engineering  FAÇADE REPAIR WJE  LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT Blair Parker Design  GENERAL CONTRACTOR Montgomery Martin Contractors

 

THE CHISCA ON MAIN: THE KING HAS LEFT THE BUILDING

The Hotel Chisca, named after a Chickasaw chief, opened in 1913 and quickly established itself as a popular way station for touring vaudevillians. Its most memorable moment came on July 6, 1954, when the radio station in the hotel first broadcast “That’s Alright Mama,” sung by a 19-year-old from Tupelo, Miss. Later that night, Elvis Aaron Presley gave his first-ever on-air interview, to WHBQ DJ Dewey Phillips.

In 1961, the owners added a four-story, Mid-Century Modern motor court. But 10 years later, with the downtown in decline, the owners threw in the towel and donated the hotel to the Church of God in Christ, which used the property as its headquarters and publishing house until 2002, when it moved out. The shuttered hotel fell into such disrepair that it made the state’s endangered historic properties list.

The developer, Development Services Group, began working on the Chisca in fall 2010 (and formed Main Street Apartment Partners in 2011 to acquire it). Carlisle Corporation came in as an investor in 2013 and engaged Looney Ricks Kiss to determine if it could be saved.

The designers gave the thumbs-up to renovating the entire property, but the development team was set on demolishing the new building. Further analysis by Looney Ricks Kiss’s preservation expert, Krissy Buck Flickinger, RA, LEED AP BD+C, WELL AP, convinced the owners that the 52-year-old International-style annex was worth saving, with one proviso: the reconstruction would have to adhere to National Park Service historic preservation standards so that it would qualify for the 20% NPS federal tax credit.

 

the red-brick 1913 Hotel Chisca and the now frosty-faced 1961 Mid-Century Modern addition. The red-brick 1913 Hotel Chisca and the now frosty-faced 1961 Mid-Century Modern addition. Ken West Photography.

 

Two years ago, “The Chisca on Main” started leasing 161 market-rate studio and one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments. The nine-story hotel has 129 units; the annex, now with a bright coat of PPG China White 515-1 on its façade, has 32. Ricks said the annex’s three-bedroom units, which exceed 2,000 sf in size, are in “heavy demand” from professional couples and empty-nest boomers. Ironically, the apartments in the nearly demolished annex were the first in the city to cross the $2.00/sf rental threshold, according to Pellicciotti. The Chisca on Main has also attracted two restaurants: a comfort-food LYFE Kitchen and “industrial-chic” Catherine & Mary’s.

The $31 million renovation did qualify for the 20% NPS federal tax credit. The Memphis Center City Revenue and Finance Corporation kicked in a $2 million grant and approved a 20-year payment in lieu of taxes. The Downtown Parking Authority contributed $1 million toward restoration of the 140-space parking garage.

A second-floor ballroom between the two buildings was demolished. In its place is a 4,700-sf landscaped terrace with fire pits, water features, and a communal farm table. The apartments around the courtyard have individual patios screened with evergreen plantings. It’s the renovation’s nicest touch, a welcome place of respite from the hubbub of downtown. |M|

 

PROJECT TEAM | THE CHISCA ON MAIN

 

DEVELOPER Development Services Group OWNER Carlisle Corporation  ARCHITECT Bounds and Gillespie Architects in Association with Looney Ricks Kiss  INTERIORS Carkuff Interiors  STRUCTURAL ENGINEER Davis Patrikios Criswell  MECHANICAL/PLUMBING ENGINEERS Herschel Powell & Associates  ELECTRICAL ENGINEER Depouw Engineering  FAÇADE REPAIR Wiss, Janney & Elstner  HISTORIC PRESERVATION Looney Ricks Kiss  LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT Kersey/Wike Associates  GENERAL CONTRACTOR Montgomery Martin Contractors

 

The courtyard where the demolished ballroom once stoodThe courtyard where the demolished ballroom once stood; the apartments on each side have private patios. Elvis Presley’s first Sun Records’ recording, “That’s Alright Mama,” was beamed from the WHBQ radio station in the Chisca. Ken West Photography.

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