VOL. 127 | NO. 172 | Monday, September 3, 2012
By Sarah Baker
The attention Downtown Memphis’ South Main Historic Arts District and its surrounding areas has received this year has far-reaching implications for future development.
The South Main Historic Arts District in Downtown will benefit from the Main to Main connector the Harahan Bridge project will provide to West Memphis.
(Daily News File Photos: Lance Murphey)
Recent high-profile deals the community has seen get the green light include the Chisca Hotel redevelopment, Storefront Improvement Grant Program, branding efforts with North Star Destination Strategies, growth at The Orpheum Theatre Memphis and Memphis Central Station, a flurry of apartment and loft rehabs, and retail activity with a new athletic club and restaurants.
But to Mark Grawemeyer, who moved to the area in the 1980s along with his wife, Cynthia, there are still strides to be made. The South Main developer has seen the district transition from a deserted neighborhood to a steady growth cycle to what he describes as a “big rush” before “the bubble burst and it sort of started slacking off.”
“The problem that I see with South Main is you need more continuity, you need more infill in these buildings,” Grawemeyer said at a recent South Main Association meeting. “We really need to push to get more of these empty spaces filled. Sort of like in New Orleans, where there’s shop after shop after shop and people just kind of flow, they just start walking and keep walking all the way to the train station and beyond.”
Grawemeyer calls himself a purist taught by South Main king, Rob McGowan. While the area needs some tender loving care, he said it’s crucial to preserve the original charm of the 1920s and 1930s.
“We need to keep South Main the historic property and the architecture that it already is, it needs to stay that way,” Grawemeyer said. “We’re getting younger people coming down here and we need to flex a little bit and welcome them with open arms.”
One boost in that preservation and population push was a recent win by the city when it secured federal funds for the Main Street to Main Street Connector Project, the region’s most ambitious bicycle and pedestrian project to date.
The $30 million project will improve alternative transportation in the Memphis area and connect Tennessee to Arkansas through a converted roadway bridge with a new multiuse trail. Spanning 10 miles, the project bolsters and connects the main streets of each downtown using the Harahan Bridge as a refurbished centerpiece, said Paul Morris, president of the Downtown Memphis Commission.
An aerial shows the Memphis-Arkansas bridge, from right, Frisco Bridge and Harahan Bridge over the Mississippi River in Memphis.
“The connections of this project are what won us this grant and that’s what the feds were really excited about,” Morris said. “A lot of people think that it’s just about the Harahan Bridge and think, ‘I can’t believe they’re spending $30 million on a bridge.’ The bridge was our teaser to get the federal money to fix up Main Street because that’s where the bulk of the money will be spent.”
The rundown of the total $30 million are as follows: about $9 million for the Harahan Bridge, $1 million in Arkansas, with the balance spent in Downtown Memphis on Main Street and connecting Main Street to the bridge.
“Fixing up existing infrastructure is not exciting, but it’s necessary,” Morris said. “When private investors and developers are putting their own capital to build up businesses, they need the public infrastructure to be in place and to be repaired.”
The three-mile reinvestment project along the Downtown trolley corridor will involve streetscape, utility, lighting, sidewalk, roadway, curb and gutters, and drainage improvements. The project puts Memphis on a deadline to “fix up all of Main Street, from Uptown, through the core, through South Main, connecting it to the Harahan Bridge and then onto West Memphis and their main street, which is called Broadway,” Morris said.
The city is in the midst of negotiating with the federal government on the term sheet that will dictate the exact budget and schedule, but the entire project should be complete by 2015.
“It won’t make major changes as we foresee it to South Main,” Morris said. “It’s not like you’re going to be walking and saying, ‘South Main looks different,’ because the charm of South Main is that it’s got the history and the character. I think an important theme for us to take is we need to start fixing what we have.”
Terry Lynch, president of Southland Capital and one of the developers spearheading the $20 million-plus Chisca Hotel redevelopment, agrees.
“One of the main things that is a problem in South Main is the condition of our infrastructure,” Lynch said. “It’s just unsafe, it looks unsafe, it leaves a bad impression on our city. Fortunately, this year, from (the Main to Main project) happening, I think it’s going to create a lot of new development to leverage those dollars even further.”