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VOL. 123 | NO. 90 | Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Hype Builds for Midtown Project

By Andy Meek

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As developer Tom Marsh clicked through slides showing some of the upscale development projects his partners have created around the country, audience members at the Central Gardens Association annual meeting stared in awe.

"I'd love to do something like this in Memphis," said Marsh, referring to Canyon Ranch, a sprawling beachfront condominium and mixed-use development in Miami Beach. And then he couldn't resist stating the obvious.

"But we just couldn't get that ocean view," he added, garnering a few chuckles.

What he and his development team did get, however, also was the reason he was standing in front of the Central Gardens area residents in the first place Monday night. His team has patched together and is redeveloping just shy of 30 acres in Midtown. That's where Marsh and his out-of-town partners, Florida-based WSG Development Co., envision a new retail and residential destination, one that will encompass four to five city blocks.

Shopping close to home

Plans for the development, which has generated substantial buzz in Midtown over the rumored inclusion of Target or a similar retail chain, were unveiled in January. Marsh, whose home on Vance Avenue is a roughly two-minute drive from the site of that future Midtown Memphis Planned Development, took the Central Gardens audience through how the whole thing got started and in what direction it might be headed.

He also offered the most revealing clue yet about what the still-unannounced tenant mix will consist of. The site is roughly in the vicinity of Poplar Avenue and Watkins Street.

"Go out to the Wolfchase mall and look across the street at the shopping center that has Best Buy and some other major tenants," he said, referring to the Wolf Creek retail center that includes Sports Authority, Linens 'n Things and Target. "Some of those will be here."

Marsh said land assembly for the Midtown project took four years, and the developers are continuing to buy property to expand the site. Ultimately, he expects the development to have an economic impact on the area that's worth about $150 million.

Some of that will come from its proximity to Downtown Memphis. Some of that value also will be attributable to Midtowners no longer having to take a lengthy drive to shop.

"The vision for this is mixed-use retail," he said. "And when you have an opportunity to develop 30 acres of land in an urban setting, you don't want to waste it on a parking lot. ... So we're looking at 550,000 square feet of retail and 300,000 square feet of residential. We're also working on an office component as well."

Group hug

While plans for the development have been in the works for several years, they began to pick up speed in 2007. WSG bought nearly 80 parcels at the site in May 2007 in an $11.6 million deal comprised of several land transactions.

A 26.27-acre development plan was filed in January. Among other things, the documents show approval will be sought for apartments, condominiums or some combination of the two to be developed above the retail shops.

Working with the developers is local land planner Brenda Solomito, who said the team is working to bring a revised site plan for the project back for various local approvals around July.

Marsh said the land assembly started with the purchase of a few acres of available property in Midtown, an amount that eventually grew after going to property owners around it and asking if they'd be willing to sell. From some of the homeowners, the developer said he'd receive a hug.

In his presentation this week, Marsh said the area was generally on the decline and a haven for crime before the project first got off the ground and that many of the homeowners were happy someone was interested in buying their property.

Midtown destination

In a question and answer session with the Central Gardens residents, the project elicited mostly positive reactions. One homeowner raised her hand to thank Marsh and his team for working to bring it to fruition.

Another audience member wanted to know how the Midtown project would fare relative to other large mixed-use projects that have been greeted with similar fanfare in the city.

"What about Peabody Place? That had a vision too, but it turned out to be a place nobody wants to go to now," was how one audience member put it to Marsh.

Marsh responded: "That plan was good, it was just a '70s mall model that didn't get built until 10 years ago. Why this will be successful is, for one, we're in the right location ... And I know all the retailers we want in Midtown - they will be in Midtown at some point. We're going to have some great retail in Midtown soon."

PROPERTY SALES 56 295 6,392
MORTGAGES 26 180 4,035
BUILDING PERMITS 128 840 15,361
BANKRUPTCIES 31 153 3,270