LRK Turns 30 With Eye Toward Growth

By Michael Waddell

LRK Inc. is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, and the full-service architectural, planning, environmental and interior design firm is involved with a diverse range of high-profile projects, both locally and nationally, with the intent of creating special places for clients and users.

RICKS

The firm’s founders are passionate about the power and importance of “placemaking,” a multifaceted approach to the planning, design and management of public spaces that capitalizes on a community’s assets, ultimately creating public spaces that promote health, happiness and well-being.

“If you can get the mixture of uses just right within a given project, you can create some powerful synergy,” said LRK managing principal and co-founder Frank Ricks.

Ricks met Carson Looney while attending the University of Memphis in the early 1980s. Ricks met Richard Kiss shortly after and went to work at Taylor & Crump, where Kiss also worked.

The trio began having conversations about starting their own firm, and then made it happen in December 1983 with the creation of Looney Ricks Kiss Architects Inc.

Each brought their experience with different project types to the fledgling firm. Looney had worked on residential and small-scale commercial projects; Kiss had handled governmental, institutional, corporate and hotel projects; and Ricks had been involved with health care, hospitality, office and residential projects.

“We started out really as an architecture firm and we’ve expanded services and project types over the years,” said Ricks.

Within three years, the firm got into interiors work – primarily in the hospitality and corporate sectors – and that evolved into community planning urban design work and placemaking.

“Over the years, we’ve become very passionate about how we create ‘place,’ both to create value for our clients and also to create positive places for the users of the spaces, whether they are buildings or outdoor spaces or streetscapes,” Ricks said. “We had good fortune to get involved with projects that allowed us to learn about the different facets that were much broader than just architecture, and it really shaped our firm in a way that we did not imagine.”

The firm’s work in its early years with Hampton Inn and First Tennessee Bank helped the company grow, and the seed was planted in 1989 about the value of placemaking, when LRK worked with Henry Turley on Harbor Town.

The firm’s work on that project caught the eye of Disney, which contacted LRK about working on their town outside of Walt Disney World, called Celebration.

“Ultimately they asked us to open an office there in the late 1990s, and we’ve been there ever since trying to help them finish it up,” Ricks said. “It’s a huge undertaking.”

Since then, LRK has built an impressive portfolio of work across the country, especially in Florida and Texas, and the firm now maintains offices in Baton Rouge, La.; Princeton, N.J.; and Celebration, Fla.

Locally, LRK has also been involved with planning and/or design of the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library, AutoZone Park, FedExForum, AutoZone Inc.’s Downtown headquarters, Lenox Corporate Park, FedEx World Tech Center, the redevelopment of the Stax Museum area, and Chickasaw Bluffs.

“In some cases, we go into existing environments that have been neglected and breathe new life in them, like with Overton Square and the ‘Heart of the Arts’ plan,” Ricks said. “We get excited about rebuilding neighborhoods and tapping into history. Those projects are really special and fun to work on.”

Like many companies, LRK experienced rough waters when the recession hit several years ago, even filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in early 2010. Pre-recession, the firm had nine offices and 250 employees, but those numbers were slashed to four offices and 65 employees after work dried up.

“Many of our clients shrank the same way. Many of them had projects that they thought would crank back up, but then they didn’t,” Ricks said. “We had to adapt and rapidly contract. We are growing again, but we are being very cautious. We are recruiting people regionally who are interested in the type of projects we handle.”

LRK is working locally on the Sears Crosstown and Hotel Chisca mixed-use historic rehabilitation projects, and the Soulsville Charter School.

“We are also the lead planners for the Mid-South Regional Greenprint and are looking at some new opportunities in Nashville,” Ricks said.

Ricks has seen some of his clients restart large-scale, single-family home developments in Florida, with LRK designing welcome centers that become community buildings after all homes are sold, and the firm is working on high-density transit-oriented developments in Toronto and New Jersey, an employment center/community planning project in Phoenix, and grocery stores, single-family houses and mixed-use developments in Texas.

Richard Kiss retired from LRK about five years ago, and the 10 principals of the firm are now Ricks, Looney, Rob Norcross, Rebecca Courtney, Victor Buchholz, Tony Pellicciotti, Mike Sullivan, Mark Jones, Elaine Covin and Jim Constantine.

LRK hopes to debut a new website within the next month.