Remember the Main

New development team wants to build $43 million complex at Main and Gayoso

By Andy Meek

WORLD OF POSSIBILITIES: This empty space at Main Street and Gayoso Avenue - which has come to be dubbed "The Big Hole" - has caught the interest of a new group of developers. They want to build a $43 million mixed-use complex there. -- Photo By Andy Meek

In the midst of guiding the development partnership he helped assemble to create what could become the largest African-American-led project ever in Downtown Memphis, Darrell Cobbins heard from an old friend recently.

She told him about her impending move back to Memphis and all but reaffirmed the untapped market for the multimillion-dollar mixed-use project Cobbins' team wants to develop at a key site along Main Street.

Operating as Riverside Partners, the developers have submitted plans to build a $43 million, 20-story apartment and commercial building at the corner of Main Street and Gayoso Avenue. The proposal calls for, among other features, the inclusion of six efficiency apartments, 118 one-bedroom and 78 two-bedroom apartments at the site.

Cobbins and the rest of his team - mostly young black professionals who have tapped some major financial backing for their project - say they believe rental opportunities at top-quality apartment developments Downtown are quickly drying up. Yet demand for them remains intense.

One example is the recent search by Cobbins' friend, who moved back to Memphis within the past month.

"She had to rent an apartment online, sight unseen, just to go ahead and grab it because she couldn't find an apartment anywhere Downtown, and she wanted to live Downtown," said Cobbins, an associate with the Memphis-based commercial real estate firm Commercial Advisors LLC.

Young and visionary

So while two of the three development groups that Cobbins' team is competing with for the opportunity to develop the Downtown site chose to focus largely on hotel use, Riverside Partners went in a different direction.

And in addition to apartments, the team also is planning 14,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space and 390 parking spaces. There's been talk of adding a concierge in the lobby of the development, which will be called Riverview at Gayoso.

The Riverside Partners team - which is comprised entirely of minority members - is joined by such corporate partners as Dallas-based Realty America Group, a deep-pocketed real estate firm that can manage, develop and finance new projects, among other things.

CRYSTAL BALL: This rendering shows how developers envision their 20-story apartment and commercial building at Main and Gayoso. -- Image Courtesy Of Riverside Partners

"They just completed a $100 million hotel and resort in Dallas, and they are in the process of beginning an $89 million project in Chicago," Cobbins said. "So adding them to the team provides a bit more depth, and that's one of the things that's unique from the prior project - they didn't have an institutional-grade partner at the very beginning."

'Big hole on Main Street'

The prior project he referred to is the 28-story apartment tower and garage facility The Nashoba Group planned to develop at the Main Street site before pulling the plug in July. The group ran into financing snags for the project, which ultimately would have filled what's long been referred to unofficially as "the big hole on Main Street."

Not surprisingly, once the Riverside Partners team was in place, the new would-be developers turned to The Nashoba Group to get a handle on what went wrong with the previous project. Both developers swapped information about what's possible at the site, and the Riverside team used those discussions as a launching pad from which to create some big plans of their own.

Where The Nashoba Group's vision was for a 28-story tower, the Riverside team lopped off eight stories, saving about $12 million in development costs in the process. Via a conceptual redesign, the group squeezed in more units with views of the Mississippi River than the previous developer had included.

A roof garden also has been added to the design for the top story, a feature that gives panoramic views of the Downtown skyline and the river.

Beyond that, the Riverside team members met with Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton and the staff of Robert Lipscomb, the city's chief financial officer, to talk about various sources of financial incentives for the project.

Outside the box

The development is the product of a large-scale vision among the young developers, and - as proof - the PowerPoint presentation they made earlier this month to Center City Commission (CCC) officials includes one of the most famous quotes attributed to Robert F. Kennedy: "There are those who look at things the way they are and ask why; I dream things that never were and ask, 'Why not?'"

In a letter to Cobbins sent Nov. 16, Lipscomb wrote, "Your efforts ... are already a success for Downtown development, as well as our city in general."

The resumes of the core financial partners associated with Riverside at Gayoso are heavy on commercial and economic development expertise. Besides Cobbins, there's Cardell Orrin, CEO of Linx Consulting. He also was involved with a large-scale strategic planning process the CCC recently undertook, so he's become familiar with the interests, needs and untapped opportunities available Downtown.

Clarence Mitchell owns the franchise rights to and operates Captain D's stores locally. Reginald Richter has a background in investment banking and is a corporate attorney. Eric Robertson is the economic development manager of the LeMoyne-Owen College Community Development Corp. (LOCCDC).

"Over my six years of working with LOCCDC, we have been heavily grant-funded, and a good portion of those grants come from the City of Memphis," Robertson said. "One of my primary roles in this project is to look at creative opportunities where we could seek some funding to leverage the project with some city grants and other sources of funding."

Lofty company

Other team members, advisers and consultants on the project include LEDIC Management Group, one of the largest apartment managers in the southeast United States; Josh Poag, executive vice president at the Memphis-based Poag & McEwen development group; Carl Mabry, an affordable-housing developer; and former Shelby County Commissioner and now consultant Bridget Chisholm.

Officials with the CCC's Downtown Parking Authority still are evaluating proposals from the four development teams that submitted plans for the site a few weeks ago.