Bass Pro’s Pyramid Plans Shaken by Seismic Concerns

By Bill Dries

It’s always been about the chance of an earthquake.

The biggest hurdle three Memphis mayoral administrations in five years have had to clear was a seismic retrofitting of The Pyramid for its redevelopment by Bass Pro Shops.

The outdoor retailer’s concerns lingered even after the Wharton administration reached an agreement last year to move ahead with plans for the outdoor retailer to open a super store there with other attractions.

This week, new seismic concerns caused the city to take another look at how much the seismic retrofit will cost and whether the city wants to pay that much or demolish The Pyramid and let Bass Pro Shops build something new on the Downtown site.

The issue came back to life last month when state officials said the city had to meet higher state seismic construction standards.

The Pyramid, built in 1991, was grandfathered out of the higher standards.

But its adaptive reuse caused the state to “issue an edict” to meet the higher standards, according to architect Tom Marshall, a consultant to the city.

“Because of the change in occupancy from an arena to a commercial structure, we are required to take advantage of this change of occupancy,” Marshall said. “It comes down to this: Bass Pro as a safety measure asked for one last test to be conducted on the site in order to determine if there is the potential for liquefaction in the event of an earthquake.”

Liquefaction is an earthquake phenomenon where the underground soil moves like water and shifts everything above.

“If you have a wet sponge and you were to squeeze that sponge and the water comes out through your fingers – that’s what could happen to a given site in any given earthquake,” Marshall said. “Given its proximity to the river where there’s a higher water table, liquefaction becomes an issue.”

Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris and CEO Jim Hagale called Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. and said they are also no longer interested in Bass Pro Shops being master developer of an expanded project with a revitalization of the neighboring Pinch District attached.

The city will be putting out a request for proposal for a Pinch master developer, a role that developers Poag & McEwen Lifestyle Centers were in at the insistence of Bass Pro Shops executives.

In a letter this week to Morris and Hagale, city Housing and Community Development director Robert Lipscomb confirmed the set of milestones in the Pyramid project has now been pushed further out, with financing now due to be completed by July 29.

If the seismic studies add to the cost of a retrofit, it’s a cost the city of Memphis would have to pay. Lipscomb said the city would have to decide then if it wants to continue with a renovation of The Pyramid or possibly demolish the building and Bass Pro Shops consider it as one of several Downtown sites to build an all-new structure.

“We always knew the building had problems,” he told reporters this week.

“If, after this process, we conclude that the seismic cost is prohibitive, we will work with you to consider alternatives for a distinctive retail store in Downtown Memphis,” Lipscomb wrote Morris and Hagale.

Meanwhile, the administration’s plan has picked up some new elements including talks with owners of the Memphis Marriott hotel at the Memphis Cook Convention Center to expand.

The hotel added another 200-room, 14-story tower in 2004.

The Bass Pro Shops plan for The Pyramid has always included the possibility of a hotel either inside the reconfigured Pyramid or in a separate building to the east of it facing Front Street.

Bass Pro Shops executives settled on a separate hotel on Front Street last year because of the more complicated seismic issues and the resulting higher cost.

The Marriott expansion would be part of a bid by the city to undertake another renovation of the convention center just six years after it underwent a major renovation that included construction of the new Cannon Center for the Performing Arts.