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    New projects turn Overton Square into an oasis of construction

    Thomas Bailey, Jr. - The Commercial Appeal -

    The trackhoe operator on Tuesday had just made rubble of the old, yellow Mid-South Title Loan building at 2100 Union and eaten lunch next door at Burger King when he approached a reporter, nodded toward much bigger trackhoes digging nearby at Overton Square and asked, "What's going on over there?"

    A lot, in and around Overton Square.

    A flurry of commercial construction and renovation has returned those sweet, pre-recession sounds of hammers and diesel engines to the Overton Square neighborhood. At least four projects are happening there simultaneously.

    But most the Memphis area isn't so lively. "It's still hard out there in the construction industry," said Terry M. Lotz, executive director of Associated General Contractors — West Tennessee Branch.

    "It's still pretty flat," Will Patterson of Builders Exchange said of construction activity.

    Travis Nutt, the trackhoe operator who's making room on Union for construction of a Five Guys hamburger restaurant, asked about the dual-purpose construction site in the parking lot behind Overton Square.

    There, Montgomery Martin Contractors is digging a 21-foot deep hole that's 288 feet wide and 183 feet long. It will detain 1.1 million cubic feet of stormwater. Above the detention basin will rise a three-level, 40-foot-tall parking garage.

    The $13.6 million project will keep houses dry from Lick Creek's flooding and accommodate up to 449 vehicles of diners, shoppers and theatergoers in the revitalized Overton Square.

    Work on the detention basin/garage started Aug. 10 and should be substantially finished Aug. 10, 2013, project manager Tom Marshall said.

    Just northeast of the growing hole, another construction crew on Tuesday was tearing out old insulation and ductwork inside Overton Square's curved building at 2125 Madison, at Cooper. That's where Bar Louie will open an upscale neighborhood bar and grill, occupying 5,650 square feet.

    Across Madison from the future Bar Louie, crews for Grinder Taber & Grinder were getting closer to completing the total renovation of the old Yosemite Sam's for a new Local Gastropub restaurant. Local hopes to open in October, said Bob Loeb of Overton Square landlord Loeb Properties.

    Loeb plans to spend nearly $20 million to renovate old buildings and build new ones in the entertainment district.

    On the Square's west edge Tuesday, Viktorhall Construction had nearly gutted the old Chicago Pizza Factory, on Madison at Diana. A group of owners led by Taylor Berger is renovating the space for Chiwawa, a restaurant that will serve Mexican inspired Southern cuisine.

    "This week, we're going to pull the final permits to start the building," Berger said. The owners hope to open Chiwawa in November.

    Immediately south of Overton Square, Nutt's employer Mulrooney Enterprises should finish in another day or so clearing away the old title-loan building to clear space for Five Guys.

    Property owner Taylor Caruthers will build and lease the 2,500-square-foot structure to the chain. He's hiring Mobile, Ala.,'s CNA Construction, which has built most of Five Guys' buildings.

    It's a narrow, long lot, so customers will access Five Guys from both Union and Monroe.

    Despite the site's tight width, Caruthers has taken care to save a tall oak tree whose branches stretch over neighboring Applebee's. "We'll put a patio around that tree," using brick pavers instead of concrete so that the tree gets water, Caruthers said.

    Despite the concentration of construction, work is hard to get for contractors, Lotz said.

    "There are spots of activity," he said, "but the industry as a whole is continuing to struggle because there still is just not enough money being released in the private sector by the banks to fund the projects that may be on the drawing board."