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The history of the South Main Historic Arts District is as colorful as its present-day users, an alternating rhythm of sorts in Memphis’ songbook.
The area has oscillated from its ritzy suburban roots of the 1800s to the industrial era ghost town of the 20th century and now to its current status as Downtown’s flourishing arts and boutique district and the subject of some $100 million in investment. And it’s all due to stakeholders who braved the status quo in distinguishing the southern end of the Central Business District as that funky place with an indescribable vibe.
“South Main is fully developing as a mixed-use district,” said Jeff Sanford, urban development consultant and interim director of Memphis Regional Design Center. “It isn’t all restaurants, it isn’t all galleries – it isn’t just one thing or another. But it is evolving as a rich and diverse cross-section with residential, commercial and entertainment.”
The corridor’s distinctive nature stems back to the mid-1800s when it was considered the outskirts of Memphis. Dr. John E. Harkins writes in his book, “Metropolis of the American Nile,” that the now-called South Main district was a residential municipality called City of South Memphis – a “high-fashion neighborhood with mansions along Beale, Vance and Linden streets” where “perhaps those with means were attracted … to avoid Memphis city taxes.”
South Main’s second era, from the early 1900s to 1950s, was characterized by its bustling train and commerce scene. Union Station and Central Station, assembled in 1912 and 1914, respectively, brought 50 passenger trains daily to the district. Houses were replaced with commercial and industrial development like Memphis Brewing Co., Clarence Saunders’ Piggly Wiggly headquarters and “Film Row” near Vance Avenue and Second Street.
“That changed everything in South Main,” Paul Morris, president of the Downtown Memphis Commission, said at his annual “State of Downtown” speech. “Most of the buildings that we think about today in South Main were built in this era.”
In 1954, South Main was introduced to rock ‘n’ roll when Elvis Presley’s Sun Studio-recorded “That’s All Right” was broadcast on the mezzanine level of Hotel Chisca during Dewey Phillips’ “Red, Hot and Blue” show on WHBQ radio.
“South Main is fully developing as a mixed-use district ... . It is evolving as a rich and diverse cross-section with residential, commercial and entertainment.”
– Jeff Sanford
Urban development consultant and interim director, Memphis Regional Design Center
But then South Main sunk into the “dark ages” of the 1960s – the epoch of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and suburban sprawl – leading to relocation of warehouse projects out East and Downtown abandonment.
“The good news about that is we didn’t suffer the urban renewal that other places might have encountered,” Morris said. “All of the buildings that were built during the train era stayed there. People didn’t care about them, so they didn’t knock them down.”
Then came 1982, when Rob and Annie McGowan moved into the building that’s currently the National Civil Rights Museum’s gift shop. The couple invited their artistic friends to locate in South Main, fought to protect the architectural value of the neighborhood and strengthened its reputation as a trendy place to live and work. That same year, 11 blocks and 105 buildings were designed as the South Main Historic Arts District.
Meanwhile, Hollywood took notice, and films like “Mystery Train,” “The Firm” and “The Client” were shot in the South Main area. And a flurry of activity transpired – the opening of the Civil Rights Museum and the Main Street Trolley line, Central Station’s $23 million apartment facelift, and the additions of Memphis Farmers Market, EmergeMemphis and WEVL.
In more recent years, institutions like Memphis College of Art Graduate School, The Blues Foundation, Memphis Music Foundation and other creative groups set up shop along South Main. RiverArtsFest, retailers, restaurants, galleries and fitness studios also chose South Main as home.
Morris calls this last period of South Main’s history “the rebirth.” That’s because there’s been a clear demarcation since 2010, making way for the fifth and current era that includes redevelopment, reinvestment and a true realization that “South Main is the hottest neighborhood in Downtown right now.”
“We can’t lose the thing that makes South Main cool – the special vibe that really cannot be defined,” Morris said. “Whatever that is, we must preserve that historical character, but at the same time with this over $100 million being invested, we must welcome new people to come in and have a new era of South Main.”
Those projects representing $100 million in investment are as follows:
1. Making its first renovations since opening in 1991, the National Civil Rights Museum is spending $27.5 million on renovations to the Lorraine Motel and its newly acquired administrative building on St. Martin Street.
The facility’s footprint won’t change, but the way the space is used will be greatly enhanced by early 2014 when it reopens. The National Civil Rights Museum expanded to South Main Street in 2002, spawning aggressive and ambitious growth in its proximity, said museum president Beverly Robertson.
“The museum has been a dynamic economic catalyst for a lot of the redevelopment efforts that have gone on, which means that it’s an even more exciting place to be because of what we will be doing with this major renovation,” she said.
The Civil Rights Museum expects its reconstruction to have a return on investment of $182 million, including increased local spending and employment.
2. National nonprofit Artspace Projects Inc. is bringing a live/work space for local artists behind The Arcade Restaurant called South Main ArtSpace Lofts, thanks to the Hyde Foundation, the city and a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts. The $12.9 million project entails renovating the United Warehouse building at 138 St. Paul Ave. and constructing a new building next to it. A total of 44 units of affordable live/work space will be available for artists and their families as well as seven non-residential working studios. There’s also 15,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor gallery, exhibition and support service space for arts education programs.
ArtSpace vice president of properties Heidi Kurtze said the tax credit application has been submitted to the Tennessee Housing Development Authority, which makes up 70 percent of the project’s overall funding. If those are secured in June, ArtSpace will start construction in 2014.
“Now seems like the perfect time for ArtSpace to be coming in with this type of activity because our model really does spur additional economic investment and redevelopment,” Kurtze said. “One of the things I love about this project is its connection to the South Main district. We’ll be able to highlight, promote and collaborate with the Graduate School, Memphis Music Foundation and hopefully the Civil Rights Museum.”
3. Memphis Area Transit Authority closed its Request for Proposals in February for Central Station Redevelopment Phase 2 – the five undeveloped acres on the east side of Front Street between G.E. Patterson and Georgia avenues.
MATA’s ideal managing general partner would finance and manage the property development and renovations; market, lease and manage the existing Central Station structure that was reconfigured in 1999 as a publicly funded intermodal terminal and a private mixed-use commercial and residential development; and develop new buildings and facilities.
“People have been looking at that land for quite awhile,” said Allison Burton, MATA’s director of marketing and customer service. “It’s a great piece of property.”
4. Greenbrier Partners LLC will soon deliver two mixed-use developments totaling more than $6 million near South Main – The Cabinet Shop and
Printer’s Alley Lofts.
Named for former owner Bill Scudder and his business S&S Custom Cabinets, The Cabinet Shop is a partial demolition/reuse of the century-plus-old warehouse at 436 S. Front St. The project, slated for an early March opening, involves a three-story, 29,000-square-foot building with 5,500 feet of restaurant space, 25 apartments and 25 underground parking spaces.
The Downtown Condo Connection has already leased eight units to “a mix of everything” but “mostly younger professionals,” said real estate agent Nicholas Dacus.
Printer’s Alley Lofts are about 90 percent finished with its demolition work at 347 S. Front St. Greenbrier expects final engineering and code enforcement approvals within the next 45 days and to “start putting it back together in about 60 days,” said chief manager Vince Smith.
The Printer’s Alley project is a revamping of the 24,600-square-foot existing structure for 20 loft-style apartments and erecting a three-story building on its parking lot for nine townhome-style units, retail space and 17 secured parking spaces.
5. The eight-story, 100-year-old Hotel Chisca was purchased in October by Main Street Partners LLC for $900,000 from the Church of God in Christ. Main Street Partners – Gary Prosterman, Terry Lynch, Gail Schledwitz and J.W. Gibson – plans to pump more than $20 million into the 292,000-square-foot historic hotel at 272 S. Main. The renovated Chisca, which will likely retain its name, will have 150 multifamily units and 5,400 square feet of retail.
“We’re going to be upscale market-rate apartments,” Prosterman said. “We’re going after the Downtown workforce, as well as young people that just want the urban lifestyle.”
The city is spending $2 million on the Chisca’s blight remediation; Main Street Partners is spearheading the remaining investment and recruitment of private equity. The 16-month project is expected to break ground in May.
6. The $30 million Main Street to Main Street Multi-Modal Connector Project, spanning 10 miles, is the region’s most ambitious bicycle and pedestrian project to date.
The phases will include streetscape, utility, sidewalk, roadway and drainage improvements from Uptown to South Main; conversion of the existing roadways on the Harahan Bridge to a bicycle and pedestrian bridge; and construction of new multiuse trails to connect the bridge with new Broadway Avenue improvements in West Memphis.
Mike Carpenter, Main to Main project manager, said work should start on the Harahan this summer and in South Main in January 2014. While the “old bridge” is the project’s centerpiece, he cautions its other components are also noteworthy.
“Approximately half of the money is going to be spent on Main Street,” Carpenter said. “That’s probably been lost in a lot of folks because so much has been made about the bridge. We’re glad to be able to make some key improvements on Main and take care of maintenance that’s been deferred for many years now.”
7. The Orpheum Theatre Memphis plans to build an $11 million to $14 million Performing Arts and Leadership Centre on the 0.87-acre parking lot immediately to the south of the iconic theater at 203 S. Main.
Pat Halloran, president and CEO of Memphis Development Foundation, said the facility will help alleviate The Orpheum’s overcrowding and to help build a future generation of theatergoers.
The contemporarily designed facility will first and foremost include a rehearsal hall and black-box theater, and possibly administrative offices, a commercial kitchen, a board room, dressing rooms and storage areas.
The Orpheum accommodates 60,000 people a year, and the “state-of-the-art, first-rate quality education center” addition will allow for an expansion of up to 90,000 patrons annually.
“Our project is going to be a major enhancement in the area between the Main Street Mall and South Main,” Halloran said. “We’re going to draw tens of thousands of people to our center every year, and those people are going to have an economic enhancement for the restaurants and other businesses in the Downtown area. The ripple effect is going to be considerable.”
8. In addition to capital-intensive projects along South Main, several smaller deals are taking shape. Downtown Candle Co., a boutique candle concept by Downtown resident Eumora Reese, is opening its first brick-and-mortar location in March at 107 E. G.E. Patterson Ave. in between Hoot-Louise and The Arcade.
Also coming soon is Carrot, a cupcake and wine pairing bar at 314 S. Main. from Neil Armstrong, who moved to Memphis after living near California’s Wine Country.
Doug carpenter & associates, a 3-year-old advertising, public relations and consulting firm, is taking up the remainder of the third floor at 431 S. Main, expanding from 2,000 square feet to 5,300 square feet.
Nashville-based North Star Destination Strategies is wrapping up its portion of the South Main rebranding initiative. Once completed, the DMC will roll out the new image across websites, print ads, tours, on-street signage and a visitors guide.
“This is sort of a living organism and you have a lot of really passionate stakeholders who have their own feeling about what South Main is,” said DMC vice president of marketing and communications Leslie Gower. “It’s a process to help us get our arms around all of the pieces in South Main to get the word out about it.”