What would begin as 67 apartments in the former U.S. Marine Hospital and nurses’ quarters on the northern edge of the French Fort neighborhood would grow in phases to a $150 million development south of E.H. Crump Boulevard, according to a plan unveiled over the weekend.
The development would make the area a denser and more diverse mix of housing alongside hotels and access to the Mississippi River.
The master plan unveiled by City South Ventures would be the biggest development south of Crump in decades, with 15 multifamily or mixed-use multifamily properties in the immediate vicinity of a new Interstate 55 roundabout planned by the Tennessee Department of Transportation.
Lauren T. Crews, managing partner of City South Ventures, described the master plan as “a work in progress” as he spoke to a group of around 200 people Saturday, July 19, on the front lawn of the hospital property.
“I appreciate you 10 or 12 people coming here and helping us do a little planning,” Crews joked, referring to the initial plan to draw no more than a dozen people to talk about how to bring more attention to the plans and the area.
The weekend effort included the launch of a website, frenchfort.net, which has details of the tentative 16-part plan with renderings and videos.
Even before the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression cooled the city’s condominium fever Downtown, developers were talking about the inevitability of the boom moving south to E.H. Crump Boulevard and jumping Crump into South Memphis proper.
The French Fort master plan is more than a jump. It’s a cannonball leap into waters that carried away Crews’ original plan for condos on the hospital property but have calmed since.
These days, Crews calls the devastating effects of the recession on his original plans a “blessing in disguise.”
“It kind of knocked my legs out from under me, you might say,” Crews said of the recession. “I began to study more and more about urban development. … I began to see where there’s kind of a trend across the nation where people were reconnecting these areas that were in decay back to the Downtown core, and most of these areas were areas that were affected by these interstate projects of the 1960s.”
The apartments, billed in renderings at Saturday’s event as The DeSoto at Historic French Fort, are a chance to be taken ahead of the Interstate 55 roundabout, which has state approval but an uncertain start date that in state road projects can linger for years.
“It is expensive to hold on to these properties,” Crews said. “It’s not been profitable at this point. But it looks like it might get profitable and I could make my money back.”
He recalled talking with his brother, who is a developer in Nashville, about how long it would take for that to happen. “I was hoping I would make it before I die. But it looks like it’s only going to take 15 or 20 years now,” he said.
The general plan includes two areas of single-family homes on open land that borders the French Fort neighborhood of single-family homes.
The multifamily development would replace several warehouses and storage sites in the area, bordering Chickasaw Heritage Park and what is now a commercial strip of land where Interstate 55 becomes E.H. Crump Boulevard past the eastern end of the Memphis-Arkansas Bridge.
The strip would mix multifamily housing with several hotels, including a Riverwalk Inn boutique hotel on the western end of Crump Park overlooking the Mississippi River. To the north would be the trio of bridges, including the proposed Big River Crossing, a pedestrian and bicycle boardwalk on the northern side of the Frisco railroad bridge.
The current river-supply businesses at river’s edge below the Marine Hospital would become Crump Landing, a conference center with a restaurant and bar, as well as parking, a dock for water taxis and a boat launch. It would be connected to the Riverwalk Inn by an inclinator or elevator.
City South Ventures would buy or lease some of the land from the city of Memphis. Other property is owned by DeSoto Pointe Partners, a partnership that also involves Crews, and would be bought by City South Ventures.
The early financing options include tax increment financing with a TIF zone that would be confined to the redevelopment area itself. New property tax revenues from the redevelopment projects that exceed what the existing property generates now would finance affordable housing and public infrastructure within the boundaries. That could include property acquisition and relocating industries in the zone.
But Crews said Saturday that he hopes to minimize the use of the zone with more private investment he believes may be ready to commit to the plan.