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VOL. 121 | NO. 223 | Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Dead in the Water?

Storied brewery development could tank if Board of Adjustment withholds approval

By Andy Meek

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STACKED: The Shelby County Board of Adjustment meets today to determine whether it will re-hear a proposal to transform the Tennessee Brewery into a mixed-use condo development. -- Rendering Courtesy Of Habiterra Architects

When Joe Darion wrote the lyrics to the popular song "The Impossible Dream," it was for a 1960s Broadway musical about Miguel de Cervantes' classic novel "Don Quixote."

But it's beginning to seem like the same idea also could be applied to a landmark structure in Downtown Memphis - the castle-like Tennessee Brewery, whose towering presence has loomed over the South Bluffs community for more than 100 years.

The structure, which stands at 495 Tennessee St., has been the subject of at least three separate redevelopment proposals over the past three years, two of which ultimately did not come to fruition. The third and latest plan could meet the same fate at a public meeting today.

Foiled again?

The current development team that wants to transform the brewery - once the largest in the South - into a condominium and commercial development is due before the Memphis and Shelby County Board of Adjustment at 1 p.m.

The developers need special approval from the BOA because of certain features of their project, which is the latest attempt at breathing new life into the brewery.

The mixed-use project they're planning is taller and denser than allowed by the zoning rules that govern development in the area. The BOA already voted 4-2 in October in favor of the variance the project needed, but the group's bylaws require five votes for any special approvals.

Thus, the developers will try again to make their case for renovating the brewery, which has been vacant for about 50 years, but still elicits awe from visitors because of things like its ornate, wrought-iron themes and the panoramic view of Downtown that's visible from its highest point.

What's more, if the BOA does not agree to re-hear the proposal - thus denying it the chance to pick up the extra vote needed - the developers have indicated they likely will cut their losses and move on.

"If they say no (today), the project's dead," said land planner Brenda Solomito, who's representing out-of-town developers Gordon Follmer, Guy Rizzo and Jim Hysen.

"My clients have spent a great deal of money so far, and they just can't keep trying."

Tennessee Brewery Redevelopment
What: 135 condo units, a four- to five-deck parking structure, office, retail and restaurant space.
Where: 495 Tennessee St.
Basics: Plans hinge on a meeting of the city-county Board of Adjustment, which could nix the whole project today if they reject the plans.

Horseshoes and bocce ball

The BOA weighed in on the brewery project at its Oct. 25 meeting, at which two of the eight members appointed by the city and county mayors were absent. The developers had to get the BOA to sign off on their plans because they want approval for 135 dwelling units in their project - which is above the 60 dwelling units permitted in new construction in that part of Downtown.

The 135 units - which will be condominiums - also represent a step down from the 140 units the developers originally proposed building at the brewery site.

"That's what we're asking to be reconsidered, and then they'll decide (today) if they'll hear us," Solomito said. "If they will, it will probably be set for their next meeting in December."

The project is certainly a large-scale undertaking. The developers estimate it will cost $2.1 million just to get the brewery safe enough for renovation and construction. Deidre Malone, who's helping the developers manage the public relations side of the project, said they're spending an estimated $20,000 per parking space for the development. Solomito said there will be about 250 parking units, which works out to $5 million.

Maybe yes, maybe no

Yet perhaps more so than at any time before in recent years, plans for the brewery have met with steadfast opposition from neighbors and homeowners in the area who are mostly worried about what the large scale of the project will mean for their neighborhood.

Although the developers insist they will preserve 76 percent of the brewery, two wings on one side will be destroyed. That, coupled with the modern condo portion that will, in effect, wrap around the old brewery, has led to speculation that the historic structure could be removed from the National Register of Historic Places.

"If people just look at the renderings of the proposed building wrapped around the brewery, that tells the story," said Mary Relling, an opponent of the current brewery redevelopment who lives three houses north of the site. Her husband is William Evans, CEO of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

"I, personally, think it's better to not have any development if the development's going to be inappropriate."

A nine-story height limit is set for developments in the area around the brewery, but the developers already received approval to exceed that limit from the city-county Land Use Control Board. That's why some condo residents in the six-story Lofts at South Bluffs next door are worried the resulting 14-story brewery development would obliterate their views.

Ignorance, not bliss

Some residents of the Lofts also have apparently been in the dark about the redevelopment project and uninformed about public meetings that already have been held regarding it. They, Relling said, are only just now beginning to assert their opposition.

Those are among several formal concerns some residents have submitted to the Memphis City Council about the brewery, which no one denies has enjoyed a colorful history. 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.

Solomito notes that the brewery is not protected by any local historic landmark designation, which could mean the site gets an entirely different treatment by the next developers if her clients' plans fall through.

"Someone could come along and just knock it down, because you know what? That is the path of least resistance for some people," she said. "Right now, a lot of people are working very, very hard to try to make this happen the right way."

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