Making the old new again is the secret sauce of the booming neighborhood
by Toby Sells
Dozens of young faces happily huddled close to the glowing campfires of Loflin Yard.
A bluegrass mandolin tinkled softly just above the rowdy din of their conversations that hovered over the yard. The Saturday-evening air was breezy, chilly. But the young revelers just inched closer to the ringed (and L.L.-Bean-perfect) camp fires, and dug their hands farther into their trendy jackets and vests.
A glance over a craft beer and across the yard itself revealed the white facades and landscaped edges of the brand new condos at South Junction, where many of the revelers likely lived. Cars lined Carolina Avenue. The bar was busy, the energy was high, and the whole scene was — without a doubt — vibrant. No one could have imagined this three years ago.
“When I was in high school, I never would’ve thought in a million years that Florida and Carolina and Georgia would be a residential area,” Josh Whitehead, director of the Memphis and Shelby County Office of Planning and Development, told the Memphis Flyer last year. “It was one-story, kind-of-cool brick warehouses. But at night, it was, you know, spooky. The street lights were always out, and it was all these dark brick warehouses from a thousand years ago.”
About a year ago, investors spent about $880,000 to create Loflin Yard. They transformed a former key shop into a bar and light restaurant. They transformed a former barn into an event space. They transformed a small grazing pasture (the barn used to house horses for Downtown carriages) into that Saturday-night gathering spot for all of those new faces.
That transformation process — that turning of a former X into a new Y — is the equation, the road map, the playbook, the sure-fire no-brainer and, yes, the secret sauce of the massive comeback of the entire South Main Historic District.
“You know, we’re recycling an entire abandoned neighborhood,” said Henry Turley, founder and CEO of Henry Turley Company. “[South Main] was industrial. Then it was nothing. So, it’s the ultimate in recycling, when you take the whole neighborhood and bring it back to vibrancy.”
Turley gave me that quote in 2014 and it’s still true. Back then, I wrote about the booming South Main district for the Flyer. At that time, $100 million in private investment was flowing into the area. It was enough money that we headlined the story “$outh Main.”
Two years after my story ran, the investment figure ballooned to around $500 million in total investment in the neighborhood. Now, about $590 million in projects have been built recently in South Main, are under construction, or are being planned there, according to new figures from the Downtown Memphis Commission (DMC).
Why? The economy has recovered, construction loans are flowing again, and downtowns are more attractive to developers than ever. City planners say people are craving vibrant, walkable, urban communities with an authentic feel. Who are these people? The easiest answer is millennials.
Millennials are now the largest living generational group, bigger than baby boomers. They are entering the workforce and are moving to urban centers across the country. It’s why the Financial Times said 50 companies have relocated their corporate headquarters to downtown Chicago in the last decade. It’s why there’s a population boom in downtown Miami, according to the Miami Herald. But it’s also why many poor, inner-city residents are being pushed out of their homes, according to Scientific American.
Turley’s South Junction and some new town homes planned for the area have brought a population density back to South Main. The affordable apartments and condos are attracting that new, younger millennial crowd to the area, the campfires of Loflin Yard, and beyond.
And beyond Loflin Yard, those Downtown millennials in Memphis will soon have a bustling urban workplace and playground just steps from their doors. New deals are regularly being inked in South Main. New projects are being born. Hammers are swinging constantly. And there are few signs that the development boom will slow any time soon.
Here are just a few of the big projects that will soon come online in South Main and forever change the neighborhood:
Developers are still working to get final city approvals for every part of their $55 million project to transform an eight-story apartment building and its campus into a new hotel and more. But some of their vision has already come to be.
Henry Turley Co. and Community Capital unveiled the massive plan for the 1912 building and the area around it in 2015. That plan will bring a new six-screen Malco movie theater close to the corner of G.E. Patterson and Front (using the old Power House building as a box office). The plan will reconfigure and upgrade the space for the Memphis Farmers Market. The idea for a grocery store somewhere close to the development has been floated.
Perhaps the highest-profile piece of the project, though, is converting the tower there into a 123-room hotel and commercial space. Kemmons Wilson Co. will lead the development of the hotel, though no brand for the hotel or the restaurant inside it has been made public.
Under construction now are three apartment buildings with more than 200 units — Main Street Apartments (one, three-story building at Carolina and Main), Front Street Apartments (seven, three-story buildings on vacant land between South Front and the Central Station train platforms), and Railroad Platform Apartments (a three-story building on the elevated platform above Main Street).
The wrecking ball is scheduled to visit Foote Homes this year.
Planners hope to replace the crumbling, institutional housing project with South City, a set of suburban-looking apartment buildings, green space, common areas, and some retail. South City will include 230 apartments, 263 town homes, 99 live/work spaces, and 120 units for senior citizens, according to the South City plan.
That mix of living spaces is hoped to reduce poverty in the area. The South City plan also aims to reduce blight, create affordable housing in Memphis, increase the tax base here, rebuild neighborhood services in the area (with a child-care center and a grocery store), grow the population, and create jobs.
The $250 million price tag for the project is paid for largely with government grants and tax credits although it does include about $25 million in private investment.
The first phase of the project — 120 apartment units — must be complete by 2018. South City officials say the entire project will be complete by 2021.
Construction is in full swing along Tennessee Street as an army of hard-hatted workers transform the 127-year-old Tennessee Brewery building into an upscale living space with 151 apartment units and a four-story parking garage.
Billy Orgel, a cell phone tower developer and Shelby County Schools board member, purchased the long-abandoned Tennessee Brewery building in 2014 for $825,000. Prior to the purchase, the building seemed destined for the wrecking ball.
Leasing agent James Rasberry says that the building’s previous owner would have had the building torn down by the end of the summer 2014 if no one stepped up to save it. Orgel said that 2014’s Brewery Untapped event “really opened my eyes” to the possibilities with the Brewery building.
The four-story tower that once housed the Tennessee Brewery will be converted into 46 apartments. Next to that, a six-story building called The Wash House is coming out of the ground. That building will house 90 apartments. Across Tennessee Street, a 339-space parking garage has been built. That building will also house 15 apartments in the Bottle Shop. The entire project will also include 4,000 square feet of retail space.
Originally, Orgel said the building would be ready for tenants in late 2016. The project’s website now says “re-established in 2017.”
But other, smaller projects will also continue South Main’s transformation.
Old Dominick will soon open its $5 million distillery and tasting room in a renovated warehouse on Front. Work is under way to open South Main Market, a food hall, in a $1.5 million renovation project at 409 Main. Investors are working to transform the former Memphis College of Art building at 477 Main into a 62-room boutique hotel called Arrive Hotel in a $14.2 million project.
The DMC put a laser focus on South Main for years, giving grants and loans for projects to stir development there.
DMC president Terrence Patterson says he’s glad to see so much energy in the neighborhood but “we know we are not done.”
“To build that kind of 18-hour vibrant atmosphere, and to attract further amenities, we need to increase population density,” Patterson says. “That density will come from a mix of single and multi-family developments, and that is exactly what we are seeing in South Main.”
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