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Memphis downtown boom fueled by riverfront city’s rich history

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Adaptive reuse of breweries, bakeries, and warehouses have brought new life to Bluff City.

An art installation by artist Cat Pena called “There’s More To Be Proud Of,” a streetscape improvement being installed as part of a project of the Memphis Medical District Collaborative, the Downtown Memphis Commission, and the City of Memphis.
Downtown Memphis Commission

As Southern cities like Charlotte, Austin, and Nashville continue their record-setting pace of development and expansion, many have overlooked the building boom taking place in Memphis, Tennessee.

Best known for its rich music history and its pivotal role in the civil rights movement, the riverfront city has seen a real estate rebirth. More than $13 billion in revitalization projects has reshaped Memphis’s downtown over the past four years, and, according to Cushman & Wakefield/Commercial Advisors, tourism grew 13 percent between 2012 and 2017. The city’s Main Street trolley line relaunched in April.

Earlier this summer, New York-based real estate firm Townhouse Management announced plans to rehabilitate an abandoned 37-story high-rise, 100 North Main, as part of a deal that would bring 500 luxury residential units, a new Loews Hotel, and roughly $1 billion of commercial and residential development to a sleepy stretch of downtown. Along with the $225 million One Beale project, a multi-use hotel, retail, and office project on the riverfront, it promises to reshape downtown.

“It’s a great city, and it’s underinvested,” says Arlene Maidman, executive co-chair of Townhouse. “This project can help revitalize an entire downtown.”

While a project featuring significant investment from an out-of-town firm, 100 North Main, has grabbed headlines, in many ways, the high-rise rehab plan is indicative of the deliberate development transforming Memphis. And it’s also just the latest big-name project adding to the magnetism of this mid-size city of roughly 652,000.

Jamie Harmon
Jaime Harmon
Jaime Harmon

Developed in part with local groups such as the Crosstown Collaborative, the building now includes a vibrant web of neighbors, small businesses, non-profits, artists, and even Crosstown High School.

Other signature developments recently completed or in the works—Crosstown Commons, an abandoned 1.5 million-square-foot Sears distribution facility turned “vertical village”; the $55 million reimagining of an Amtrak station; the recent redevelopment of the Tennessee Brewery building, which includes 700 new apartments; and the conversion of an old Wonder Bread factory into residences—have focused on adaptive reuse.

Local developers and planners haven’t thrown up cookie-cutter, contemporary glass towers, says Tommy Pacello, a former planner and current president of the Memphis Medical District Collaborative. Since the second-tier market has been slower to ramp up post-Recession, developers have had to be more thoughtful, deliberate, and thrifty, leading to an outsize focus on adaptive reuse.

“We’ve been figuring out how to do good urbanism without spending a lot of money,” says Pacello. “We’re more about rehabbing our buildings, not gold-plating them.”

A sprawling city redefines growth

As Terrence Patterson, former president of the Downtown Memphis Commission, once said, “we don’t aspire to be Charlotte or Nashville or Austin or Atlanta. We aspire to be a better Memphis.”

A big part of building that better Memphis is rethinking what growth means. For decades, development here has equaled sprawl. According to Pacello, the city’s population grew by 4 percent between 1970 and 2010, while annexation of nearby suburbs and towns expanded its area by 55 percent. At roughly 324 square miles, Memphis was nearly twice the size of Detroit, with roughly the same population, and new developments sprang up along its periphery.

Like many large cities riven by the midcentury urban planning paradigm, the seeds of Memphis’s current wave of redevelopment were planted in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Significant flight from the central city in the ’60s and early ’70s, especially after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, deflated downtown.

A rendering of 100 North Main.
Townhouse Management

But starting in the late ’70s, downtown started a comeback with the redevelopment of the city’s famed Beale Street as a center for musical tourism, the establishment of the DMC, and the construction of Harbor Town, a New Urbanism-style development on a former sandbar in the Mississippi River called Mud Island. The reopening of the historic Peabody Hotel in 1983 added a “neighborhood living room” to a recovering city core.

Decline created the conditions for a resurgence, said Jennifer Oswalt, current president of the DMC. The city couldn’t rely on the same “eds and meds” formula—leaning on schools and health districts—to bounce back, like Pittsburgh. Instead, says Oswalt, a group of dedicated local real estate investors, including Henry Turley, whose firm developed Harbor Town, Belz Enterprises, which helped restore the Peabody Hotel, and Billy Orgel, who rehabbed the Tennessee Brewery, placed bets on a re-established downtown.

“We began to open up apartments downtown, because we thought it was important to repopulate downtown with average people,” says Turley.

How projects like Crosstown redefined Memphis

Ever since Memphians and others began returning downtown—first a trickle, and now a flood—the city has densified. This rise in new residents and businesses has attracted large corporate relocations. ServiceMaster, which moved its corporate headquarters downtown, will eventually employ 1,200, according to the company.

Memphis’s history as a river port and shipping hub, and its outsize supply of warehouses and logistics facilities, explains why so much of the new generation of development has focused on adaptive reuse and infill projects.

“Memphis is worth championing, but how can we rebuild that and sustain that?” says Justin Entzminger, executive director of Innovate Memphis, a public-private partnership focused on solving urban problems.

Crosstown Concourse exemplifies the way Memphis developers have breathed new life into older structures. The $200 million reconstruction project reanimated the gigantic warehouse facility. During construction, 3,200 window sections were added—more windows than the White House and U.S. Capitol combined—and 10 million pounds of metal were removed from within the aged building.

According to Entzminger, the growth downtown and in surrounding neighborhoods has changed how Memphians see their city.

“There was a generation of Memphians that were told that success meant a career somewhere else, usually a bigger city or the latest ‘it’ city,” he says. “Now, for people who want to have a creative career, Memphis is a viable option. You don’t have to climb and climb a ladder to get in front of somebody. The barriers to entry are pretty small.”

Making sure development works for every Memphian

While things have changed for the better, Entzminger also agrees that Memphis, like most American cities, struggles with equity and leveling the playing field for residents and neighborhoods disadvantaged by generations of segregation, especially in the southern, predominantly black sections of the city. In 2016, the poverty rate in Memphis was almost 27 percent, with half of Memphis’s children living in poverty.

“We still struggle with access to opportunity,” he says.

Roshun Austin, executive director of the Works, a community development corporation operating in South Memphis, says city leadership has done a much better job over the last 20 years listening to people in the field and having conversations about inclusive development. “We’re having real conversations,” she says, “and they’re putting their money where it matters.”

Austin says she has seen significant change on a few fronts: Her organization helped bring grocery stores to areas lacking access to fresh food, and pushed to improve transit access to new jobs downtown.

The city’s seen particular success with improvements in biking infrastructure. In a spread-out landscape lacking transit access and sufficient bus service—trolleys cover a small fraction of the city—a rapid investment in cycling infrastructure has made significant inroads. According to the Memphis Flyer, the city went from 1.5 miles of bike lanes in 2010 to 400-plus miles of bike-friendly thoroughfares today.

“We built our lives around the automobile,” she says. “We built our parkways 75 feet wide without a median. People can’t walk that way safely. The lack of transit leaves people in a desert; not just for food, but [for] retail, jobs, and medicine.”

Can a city change without losing its character?

Many Memphians have put their hopes in the forthcoming comprehensive plan, and in promises to create inclusive growth that links the city’s far-flung neighborhoods. Other developments around the edges of downtown also aim to capitalize on the business district’s resurgence. According to Pacello, president of the MMDC, the nearby medical district is in the midst of a large-scale redevelopment, anchored by a commitment from St. Jude hospital to invest $1 billion. With 24,000 employees and students working and studying in the area every day, the district has the potential to become an even larger job creator. He’s hoping to convince more Memphians to make the neighborhood home.

Part of Studio Gang’s vision to redesign the city’s riverfront.
Studio Gang

Memphis has also committed to reclaiming its working riverfront for residents. The city recently allocated $10 million for the first phase of an expected $75 million waterfront development set to create a connective network of parks and public green space. A Studio Gang-designed park project, covering six miles of waterfront that will connect to Beale Street downtown, will begin work next year with a redevelopment of Tom Lee Park, the first phase of a more extensive Memphis Riverfront Concept being pursued by the Memphis River Parks Partnership.

Set up like a series of rooms offering different entertainment and recreation offerings, the park project is “emblematic of where Memphis is heading right now,” says Gia Biagi, Studio Gang’s head of urbanism and civic impact.

“We worked really hard to position the riverfront as part of the whole city, great for people who live close to it and those who live very far away,” says Biagi. ”The idea is to create a holistic civic asset.”

In its own under-the-radar manner, Memphis has managed to avoid the kind of supercharged growth that has changed the character of other cities. For all the activity, the city isn’t yet covered in cranes. But as a reinvigorated downtown spreads outward, it’s important that everyone feels connected to growth.

According to Austin, the community activist, development needed to start downtown. Historically, that’s been the city’s engine, where it all began on the riverfront three centuries ago. But it’s time to build more connections for all Memphians. “We learned to be a suburb,” Austin says. “Let’s learn how to be a city.”