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VOL. 125 | NO. 114 | Monday, June 14, 2010

Bass Pro and Beyond

Hope for civic transformation with Big Three city projects

By Bill Dries

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Use/Square Feet:
Anchor Retail: 150,235
Dining & Drinking: 42,415
Hotel Complex (335 rooms): 287,100
Aviary & Museum: 180,154
Parking (500 spaces): 70,000
Total: 729,904
Source: RKG Associates Inc. 2008 report based on Bass Pro Shops proposal

"Adaptive reuse” is the term for what city leaders hope will happen at The Pyramid.

Throw in the Mid-South Fairgrounds and the Beale Street Landing projects, though, and “adaptive reuse” seems inadequate to define what is happening among the three concepts.

The three big-ticket civic projects are in various stages of construction or negotiation. What is significant is all are remakes or adaptations of past civic projects that were supposed to transform the city in their original incarnations.

And all have grown in scope and price during the transition from one mayor to another to another in less than a year. All face uncertain futures. And all signify that no matter who is mayor, City Hall still has an affinity for moving dirt.

Bass Pro Shops at The Pyramid

By now, the city and Bass Pro Shops executives had planned on having a lease agreement.

With no advance notice, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. went to the City Council in early April to announce that Bass Pro Shops executives had set November 2011 as their opening date in The Pyramid and that negotiations on lease terms were under way.

He hoped to have a lease signed by all parties in late April.

The project also has several new pieces. The development firm Poag-McEwen has been involved in the lease talks, which now encompass development of the Pinch District due east of The Pyramid starting on the other side of Front Street from the replica of the Ramses monument.

The other piece of the puzzle is Uptown West, the next stage of the Uptown residential development.

The city went to the state Building Commission in April and got an extension of the Downtown Tourism Development Zone. The extension allows the city to finance public improvements around The Pyramid with sales tax revenue generated in the Downtown area.

At press time, the lease negotiations had gone into overtime. It’s a now common feature in the five years since then-Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, then-Shelby County Mayor Wharton and Bass Pro executives pulled out fishing rods and reels and staged a ceremonial unveiling of the idea of Bass Pro Shops at The Pyramid.

Both parties agreed in late March on the seismic standards that are to be used to evaluate The Pyramid.

The evaluation is critical. The seismic concerns nearly killed the deal in 2008. Consultants hired by the retailer were concerned the soft soil below The Pyramid could render any new construction “economically unfeasible,” according to a quote in an August 2008 report from the Herenton administration.

“We are confident that with effective design and attention to detailing, these issues can be addressed in a cost-effective manner and with minimal project impact,” said architect Tom Marshall in the report.

But the catch, according to several sources who didn’t want to be quoted, remains the terms of a costly seismic retrofit the city of Memphis will pay for as the landlord of the facility.

Bass Pro Shops doesn’t want the seismic safeguards to just meet the letter of the law.

The city intends to pay for the retrofit using $41.5 million in federal recovery zone facility bonds that are coming the city’s way this summer.

Seismic retrofits are not new territory for Downtown projects.

When the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law moved into the old Customs House Building last year, it was after a seismic retrofit of the building, parts of which date to the 19th century.

Pro Shot Concrete Inc. of Florence, Ala., did the retrofit on that building as well as the annex to the National Civil Rights Museum further south. The company also has done retrofits of sewer lines for the city of Memphis.

Pat Mooney, senior estimator and senior project manager of Pro Shot, hadn’t heard about the plans for a seismic retrofit of The Pyramid.

“That’s going to be a fun one there, just because it’s an odd shape,” he told The Memphis News. Mooney has 30 years of experience in the field.

“I think it could be done. It would take some engineering to do it. If I was them, I would want some sort of protection too, because of the whole area,” Mooney said. “It’s getting to be just about any building down there now is getting to be retrofitted. Or if they are new buildings, they are all being built to that spec.”

Engineers and designers work out the plan, which involves hundreds of tons of concrete and steel. Mooney and his workers supply the concrete and coordinate their work with the placement of the steel.

They use a process called “shotcrete,” which Mooney defined as “pneumatically applied mortar.”

“We use a wet mix process where ready mix trucks back up to a pump,” he said. “You’re forcing it through a hose and when it gets up to where it comes out, there’s a nozzle on there with air that causes the splatter effect.”

Getting to the point where the concrete is pumped into the open spaces involves a lot of other construction trades and crafts.

The steel – the other critical part of seismic retrofitting – is put in first.

“We had to make penetrations before we put our shotcrete in,” Mooney explained. “They would have to cut it out, which cutting through double matt steel is no fun.”

The steel and concrete don’t make the buildings earthquake-proof, but they would keep the shell of the building intact in case of such a disaster.

The materials also take up a lot of open space, which Mooney said means engineers and designers will have to decide how far up the sides of The Pyramid they want to go with the one-piece steel.

“If you go up all the way, you’re taking so much of the space away from the top,” he said. “You would have to drill holes between the floors to run your steel because the steel has got to be all continuous from the basement on up.”

There are several sets of drawings for what a Bass Pro Shops development in The Pyramid would look like.

All of them include a restaurant at the top of the structure and an inclinator ride up the outside of The Pyramid to get to the restaurant. All of them include a “grand lodge” entrance to The Pyramid facing Front Street.

In one set of plans, the grand lodge would be an approximately 350-room hotel planned as part of an entrance off Front – a separate building from The Pyramid.

In another set of plans, the hotel is inside The Pyramid and an elevator tower is in the center of the interior going to and from the restaurant at the top level. That version also keeps the inclinator ride on the outside of the structure.

Aviaries and aquariums are also featured with the development of a marina and demonstration area in the Memphis harbor, which is on the west side of The Pyramid.

The Mid-South Fairgrounds

All three projects have tapped an irresistible urge in the creation of Memphis civic projects – expansion.

The most irresistible of the Big Three has been the one that has the furthest to go and the shortest amount of time to get there.

A long-term master plan for the Mid-South Fairgrounds appeared close to moving forward in 2009 toward the end of Herenton’s tenure as mayor. But it stalled with Herenton refusing to sign an agreement with Fair Ground LLC, the master planner of the project.

This past fall, city leaders scraped together a plan for a lawn or ribbon of greenspace to run from East Parkway to the west side of Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, with no impact on whatever future plans might materialize quickly took on a life of its own.

The idea was and still is to get it done by mid-September, when football season begins at the stadium with the Southern Heritage Classic.

What was left of the old Libertyland amusement park was demolished and carried away. That was planned.

However, tenants of the stadium, ever mindful of the number of parking spaces on the property, were alarmed in February when Kevin Kane, head of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau, decided to stop by on the way home from church to see what was left of the Zippin’ Pippin’ roller coaster.

What he saw was that the bulldozers kept going east of the park’s wooden fence and rolled up the asphalt parking lot west of the Mid-South Coliseum.

Word spread quickly among the tenants who didn’t know about that part of the plan.

Other critics believed wiping out the parking lot was a warm-up for crossing Early Maxwell and demolishing the coliseum too.

The Herenton administration had at one point favored tearing down the coliseum as well as the Liberty Bowl stadium and building a new stadium. The plan for a new Liberty Bowl died quickly.

The coliseum survived, with a less certain pledge to see what future plans might bring. Wariness on the part of those who want the coliseum saved still lingers.

The effort that had continued through three Memphis mayors in a six-month period stopped. A committee of the tenants was formed and met.

Southern Heritage Classic founder Fred Jones was the most skeptical about whether the new plan would increase the number of parking spaces by game time in September as the city contended. But he eventually went along.

Between the time the work resumed and when the council approved a construction contract at its last meeting in May, the plan for the fairgrounds was named Tiger Lane and it had expanded to include:

  • A new road off Hollywood Street by the Children’s Museum of Memphis that would run to the Salvation Army Kroc Center
  • New lighting and wrought-iron fencing for the parking area off Hollywood Street
  • An extension of Young Avenue across East Parkway, through what used to be Libertyland, connecting to Early Maxwell Boulevard on the west side of the coliseum
  • Renovation of the Pipkin Building and the Creative Arts Buildings, the only two structures outside of the coliseum and Liberty Bowl left standing, to include bringing each up to Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards
  • Taking out the parking lot on the north side of the coliseum to handle drainage issues
  • Building a wall on the west side of the stadium with six portals to offer pedestrian access and also to solve some drainage issues
  • A renovation of the two railroad underpasses on Southern Avenue
  • Better lighting for the Hollywood side parking lot
  • Parking pads where the foundations of recently demolished buildings are to allow better parking
  • An entrance fountain off East Parkway as well as sandblasting and restoration of the monuments at the main East Parkway entrance

Council members called the version of the plan with all of the suggestions an “all in” plan.

The city of Memphis has $3.8 million in the current fiscal year’s budget available for Tiger Lane. And another $9.4 million is to be set aside in the new fiscal year’s capital improvement projects (CIP) budget. That leaves the $15.7 million “all in” Tiger Lane project approved by the council last month approximately $2.5 million short.

Initial cost estimates had been around $10 million, which would have left about a $3 million cushion for a few extras.

But all 10 contractors came in with the same figure of $15 million once drainage and the restoration of the two surviving buildings were added.

“It is what it is,” said council member Reid Hedgepeth, who chaired the committee of Liberty Bowl tenants. “We never need to put a price on what something should cost because now we are seeing sticker shock. It was an estimated cost.”

“We don’t need to piecemeal this project,” council member Bill Morrison said as the council reviewed the final plans and voted to approve them.

”Where is the extra $2.5 million coming from?” asked council member Jim Strickland, who added that the council’s rule was to add funding for such projects only if the same amount was cut from another project. “This blows that rule out of the water.”

The Wharton administration endorsed the $13.2 million project without the extra $2.5 million third phase. But after the council decision, Wharton said his administration would probably be able to find the money.

Beale Street Landing

Beale Street Landing is the surviving remnant of an ambitious remaking of the city’s riverfront envisioned by Herenton, whose original plan was to fill in the Memphis harbor and create a beacon of some kind on the southern tip of Mud Island.

The idea wasn’t new. It had been proposed in the 1930s by political boss E.H. Crump. Both political leaders quickly lost interest in the scheme.

Construction continued on Beale Street Landing on the north end of Tom Lee Park even as grander plans for the riverfront were quickly forgotten.

Work on the landing, overseen by the Riverfront Development Corp., continued as overnight river cruise ships running between St. Louis and New Orleans went out of business. But backers of the project insisted local excursion boats, although also hit hard by the recession, will use the landing just as they use similar facilities in Tunica.

RDC President Benny Lendermon defended the project as necessary to improve neighboring Tom Lee Park, which he terms “probably the worst waterfront park in America” because of its lack of trees and shade in the summer and its lack of access to the Mississippi River.

The pilings for the boat landing off the north end of the park were ample evidence the project had passed the point of no return, even though federal stimulus funding for the next phase had vanished by the summer 2009.

But the RDC, which is overseeing the project, didn’t initially sound the alarm when the stimulus money vanished.

The city has since been advancing money in anticipation of another $8.9 million it is to get from the federal government later this year for the next-to-last phase. This phase includes a gift store and restaurant to be built below the park surface with access to the boat dock.

The money problems came at a politically sensitive moment. Herenton was preparing to leave office. And Beale Street Landing was no longer one of his priorities to resolve before leaving.

The RDC didn’t tell Mayor Pro Tempore Myron Lowery, Lendermon said, because Lowery was a temporary mayor.

“They were issues we thought we could deal with through redesigns, stimulus money and other issues,” Lendermon said. “We didn’t know the magnitude of the dollars until the two construction contracts were awarded in late ’09.”

The city still must come up with another $6.9 million if it intends to follow through with the final phase of Beale Street Landing – the construction of a park, smaller than originally intended several years ago, to go over the spiral staircase leading to the boat landing itself.

When asked where the money would come from, Lendermon reminded the council the project is city-funded. The Wharton administration and the RDC have already rounded up a $1 million private donation and come up with another $1 million in matching city funds to bring the project’s price tag down to $6.9 million.

Several council members appeared poised to vote against the $10 million construction contract last month. But they relented when Lendermon explained that stopping the project where it is might mean the federal government won’t turn over the $8.9 million the city is counting on to reimburse itself for the work already done.

PROPERTY SALES 32 252 16,449
MORTGAGES 35 120 10,207
BUILDING PERMITS 215 1,041 39,585
BANKRUPTCIES 52 188 7,785