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VOL. 121 | NO. 45 | Thursday, February 23, 2006

What's Cooking on the Highland Strip?

A lot more than pub grub, further development indicates

By Andy Meek

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OUT FOR A STROLL: Debora Volner walks her dog, Baby Girl, along the Highland Strip, which is fast becoming a revitalization mecca with several developments going up one after another. -- Photograph By Andy Meek

A few months ago, Marty Roberts was scouting for possible sites for a small retail complex. He bought what he considered a promising piece of vacant land along Park Avenue, where he's planning to begin construction soon on a 4,400-square-foot strip center.

Discussions already have begun with possible tenants, some of whom have said they want to wait until the building's frame goes up before making a firm commitment. But Roberts - a Memphis-area home builder who dabbles in commercial real estate - doesn't think the building will be hard to lease at all.

The reason: It's at the tail end of the Highland Strip, the popular commercial stretch that runs near the University of Memphis and serves as a magnet for college students. Old buildings there are being renovated, and new businesses like RP Billiards are bringing a fresh look.

Early days

Makowsky Ringel Greenberg LLC is in the early stages of developing a 40-unit condominium building on 1.29 acres at the northeast corner of Highland Street and Central Avenue. The Memphis firm Looney Ricks Kiss Architects is drawing up a master plan for the whole area.

Such a massive transformation won't happen overnight, and efforts like Roberts' represent a small first step.

"At this time, that's the only project that I've got going in that area," he said. "I'd like to tell you I had long-term plans on doing some kind of renaissance for the area, but I really don't. I found a piece of property that I thought would be in a good area for a strip center, and it's the only piece I have bought there at this time."

"Would I do it again? I'm just going to see how this goes and keep a look out for other potential projects."
- Marty Roberts
on the 4,400-square-foot strip center he's building on the edge of the Highland Strip

Dan Morgan, president of Morgan Construction Co., said the property at 3449 Park Ave., which formerly was the site of two homes, would be an improvement to the neighborhood once the center is built. His firm is the general contractor for the infill project.

A building permit valued at $240,000 was issued Feb. 1 for the project, according to the Daily News Online, www.memphisdailynews.com. The property's 2005 appraisal was for $14,500, and Eric Fuhrman, a Realtor in Crye-Leike's commercial division, is the leasing agent for the development.

"The homes on this lot sat vacant for a number of years, and (Roberts) is taking that and building a retail strip center that's going to look real nice," said Morgan, whose company is a pre-engineered metal building contractor.

"That area is coming up some, and I just got through building a new building this past summer for AAA Safe & Lock Co. on the east side of Highland, north of Park."

Buzzing bar scene

The Highland Strip is perhaps most popular for its scores of bars and such college hangouts as Newby's, Gill's and RP Tracks. Clubs along the strip have played host to national rock bands like Sister Hazel and Papa Roach, as well as acts with local roots like Saliva and Ingram Hill. But many of the storefronts have been neglected for decades.

Roberts is considering buying other properties in the area at a later time.

"I may do that in the future," he said. "I just thought this was a good location for the type of product I wanted to put there, and I felt like a new building would go over well in the area, versus some of the older product."

Memphis has been slow to climb aboard a national bandwagon of redeveloping university neighborhoods. Almost a decade ago, the Fannie Mae Foundation was tracking the efforts of more than 80 universities that were part of a trend across America to create university-community partnerships that revitalize communities.

Slow but steady

But pieces in Memphis have begun to fall into place. At the opposite end of the Highland Strip from the new retail center, MRG has plans for a U-shaped residential condo complex that would include underground parking.

In plans submitted to the Memphis and Shelby County Land Use Control Board earlier this month, Makowsky Ringel Greenberg officials said the outside of the building would have traditional stone and masonry features. There would be one-, two- and three-bedroom units, and the building could have a maximum height of 70 feet.

The LUCB unanimously approved the plans, which would join other residential properties nearby. Across Highland Street from the future condos, to the east, are two single-family residential developments. To the north is a 13-story apartment complex for the elderly. Farther north is a 12-story residential condominium project.

Longtime landowners like Cecil Humphreys are buying up vacant properties and transforming others, and the rumored move of the Highland Street Church of Christ at 443 S. Highland St. would offer a prime piece of land for more development.

"Would I do it again? I'm just going to see how this goes and keep a look out for other potential projects," Roberts said. "I'm excited about the project."

There will be four bays, which can be altered to accommodate the number of tenants who want to be involved. Morgan said construction should begin soon, depending on the weather.

PROPERTY SALES 85 305 21,577
MORTGAGES 62 223 16,417
BANKRUPTCIES 34 138 6,717