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VOL. 121 | NO. 202 | Friday, October 13, 2006

If Plans Pass Final Muster, Big Changes on Tap at Tennessee Brewery

By Andy Meek

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What a difference a PR team, higher elevation, more condos, a bigger price tag, a new dog walk, fresh landscaping, restaurant and retail space make.

When it comes to the current set of plans for redeveloping the ornate, castle-like Tennessee Brewery in Downtown Memphis, the latest team of developers and investors has picked up where their forerunners either couldn't or wouldn't go. And those extra touches may have finally assured the success of the project, which has been tried several times over the years.

On Thursday, the out-of-town developers were scheduled to take their vision of transforming the hulking brewery building and its surrounding property into a mixed-use, luxury condo development before the Memphis and Shelby County Land Use Control Board.

That means the Memphis City Council likely will give its decision on the project - and thus the final word - about a month from now.


To the finish line

How the large-scale project got from the drawing board to just shy of the finish line has to do with the ins and outs of urban real estate development, as well as some old-fashioned salesmanship.

And it probably doesn't hurt that the Carter Malone Group, which the developers hired to help with marketing, has an office next door to the brewery. Or that the development team has discussed renderings of the property on three occasions with representatives of the South Bluffs community and property owners such as William Evans, CEO of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, who owns a home near the brewery.

Assuming the details that were released at the beginning of this week remain unchanged, a clearer vision of the project has come more into focus since the plans were first made public a few months ago.

A New Brew
WHAT: Redevelopment of the Tennessee Brewery
WHERE: 495 Tennessee St.
BASICS: Plans call for 140 condo units, a four-to five-deck parking structure, office retail and restaurant space.

"The Brewery project will have approximately 140 residential condominium units, one or two floors of shop and restaurant space and approximately four or five floors of garage parking," wrote land planner Brenda Solomito this month in a letter to city-county planners.

Condo prices, she wrote, will start at $225,000, with the average price hitting the $600,000 mark. Penthouse units will vary between $900,000 and $1 million.


Years in the making

Deidre Malone, president and CEO of the Carter Malone Group and a Shelby County Commissioner, said the developers are spending an estimated $20,000 per parking space for the project. Solomito said there will be about 250 parking units, which works out to $5 million.

The project will preserve about 76 percent of the original brewery building, which was built in 1890 and has been vacant for about 50 years. The crux of the LUCB meeting this week was a request for the brewery project to exceed the nine-story height limit in the area.

The developers are planning for the mixed-use project to top out at 154 feet, or 14 stories.

A site plan for the brewery property shows the developers want to install a parking garage in the northwest corner of the rectangular, .93-acre property. A garden wall lines the side of the project where Monteigne Boulevard and Rienzi Drive meet. Mixed-use spaces fill the south side of the property, along West Calhoun Avenue, as well as the eastern side, facing Tennessee Street.

Habiterra, the architecture firm housed in the Brodnax Building at Main Street and Monroe Avenue, is the project architect.

"The Brewery project will have approximately 140 residential condominium units, one or two floors of shop and restaurant space and approximately four or five floors of garage parking."
- Land Planner Brenda Solomito,
From a recent letter to city-county planners

A quick glance at the imposing structure, where a panoramic view of the city can be seen from its highest point, reveals why the brewery is an attractive development prospect. And it shows why plans like these have been drawn up several times by varying developers, all with grandiose visions.

"Its picturesque, irregular silhouette and amazing interior space make it the most architecturally interesting structure in town," said architectural historian Judith Johnson about the Romanesque masonry brewery.


Echo from old world

The 116-year-old building at 495 Tennessee St. is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A previous developer who tried to tackle the same project said he was told by a consultant that the structure has about 150 times the strength needed for residential use.

It also is a visual wonder, with wrought-iron railings that line the staircases and walls in some places that are up to 4 feet thick. It was, after all, a brewery, built to keep beer at a stable temperature.

The brewery was founded in 1885 by three men, one of whom came from a family in Germany that had brewed beer for 500 years.

Meanwhile, the appropriateness of the latest redevelopment plans for the brewery - as is the case with any historic renovation project - has been the source of concern among some stakeholders, property owners and preservationists.

June West, executive director of Memphis Heritage Inc., for example, said she has "extreme concerns" about the scale of the project.

"I do understand their motive - that they've got to build enough square footage to sell and be able to justify their cost," she said.


Shadow of doubt

But she also recounted an e-mail she received from a former MHI board member asking "What are we going to do about this?" in reference to the project that could be an imposing presence on the South Bluffs skyline.

Jeff Sanford, president of the Center City Commission, said, "We are excited at the prospect of the brewery becoming part of a larger development project, and we are increasingly supportive of this particular plan.

"We just want to make sure that, from a design standpoint, it respects the historical integrity of the original buildings and that the brewery is not overshadowed by the new construction being proposed."

For now, the argument that appears to have won the day is that the entire site is less than one acre, so the developers need the volume - and the extra stories - to make it work. By comparison, a previous effort to redevelop the brewery into condos called for 35 units, as opposed to the current 140.

"This does provide a benefit for the neighborhood," Solomito said. "But in order to do that, it has to be 14 stories."

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