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VOL. 127 | NO. 132 | Monday, July 9, 2012

Another Round

Overton Square redevelopment combines area’s heyday with new vibe

By Sarah Baker

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The revitalization of Overton Square can perhaps be best summed up with a famous quote often attributed to Mark Twain: “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

The history of the Midtown entertainment district dates back to late 1970, when T.G.I. Friday’s opened its first franchised location on Madison Avenue near Cooper Street following the passage of a referendum vote allowing liquor by the drink citywide a year prior.

Street theater, family entertainment and musical acts accompanied a recent block party to celebrate the takeover of Overton Square by Loeb Properties. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

The restaurant quickly became an anchor for other retailers and led to the Square’s roaring nightlife scene.

The area began to decline in the mid-1980s, and Friday’s closed its doors in 2003. The Square since that time has been a target for possible demolition, unrealized redevelopment efforts and most of all, rampant vacancy.

But a new leaf has turned for Memphis’ first watering hole. Loeb Properties Inc. is wrapping up the closing of its $7.3 million purchase of the nine acres Overton Square sits on (five acres on the south side of Madison Avenue and four acres on the north side) from Blake Fisher of Denver-based Fisher Capital.

“The best thing for the development is that it be sustainable, that we put something together that’s not going to be a shooting star,” said Bob Loeb, president of Loeb Properties, which has owned property in the Overton Square area for more than 30 years.

The deal was a culmination of Loeb’s nearly three years worth of discussions with the seller; meetings with Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. and the Memphis City Council; parking garage and floodwater feasibility studies; and dozens of speeches and town hall meetings with neighborhood stakeholders.

“I don’t see any other way than to be transparent,” Loeb said. “We’ve been here for 125 years and we’re not planning on going anywhere. You can’t please all of the people because one set wants one thing and another set wants something else, but we are listening to ideas from the community to cull out the best ideas that we can.”

By the latter half of 2013, Loeb will have invested about $20 million to revive the district’s footprint to about 115,000 square feet, including the rehab of existing buildings and construction of three new ones.

While the Square will retain the strong retail presence of yesteryear, Loeb plans to convert it into a family-friendly theater arts district, capitalizing on the success of Playhouse on the Square, The Circuit Playhouse, Theater Works and Malco Studio on the Square. Studies indicate those four venues attract more than 100,000 people annually, 87 percent of which patronize nearby restaurants and bars.

By the second quarter of 2014, black repertory theater company Hattiloo Theater will open at the Cooper and Monroe intersection, bringing the Square’s total theater count to five.

“We want Hattiloo to be another regional attraction for Memphis,” said Hattiloo founder Ekundayo Bandele. “We want people to come to Memphis, see something at Hattiloo Theater, and because they’re here, to shop at our restaurants, to shop at our stores, to stay in our hotels.”

Archimania is designing Hattiloo’s new 10,000-square-foot, $2.3 million performance space. For Barry Yoakum, founding principal of archimania, the project is rewarding in both a professional and nostalgic sense.

“Some people are talking about the resurrection of Overton Square, but to a lot of us, that’s where we were,” said Yoakum, 56. “That’s where we dated, we hung out, we got in trouble or not in trouble. It’s kind of fun all of these years later helping design this thing. It’s recreating history again in a new way, and we think the building’s going to be really, really cool.”

Locals were able to get a taste of the future revamped Overton Square last month at Loeb’s block party along Madison between Cooper and Florence. The leasing office was filled with renderings, timelines and a rolling video equipped with phrases like, “the hiatus is over” and “the next round is on us.”

Complete with live music, pop-up art performances and “ink-off” dueling artists competitions, backstage tours of Playhouse on the Square, and vendor booths from area businesses, the event was Loeb’s way of saying thanks to the city and other supporters helping to bring back the Square.

It’s the goal of Anna Holtzclaw, Loeb’s Overton Square promotional director, to elevate the block party’s “spontaneous bizarreness” with more frequency.

“Our next step is to kind of sit down with (the artists) and say, how do we make that type of activity more of an ongoing, everyday occurrence at Overton Square so that it’s not dependent on a big street festival,” Holtzclaw said. “It could be something that happens on a Wednesday afternoon in Bayou Bar & Grill or something like that, too.”

The Square celebrated its sixth annual Cajun Crawfish Festival earlier this year, and will be home to the Church Health Center’s Rock for Love and Indie Memphis Film Festival later this fall. Loeb is also exploring the idea of 5Ks, sporting events and even a rendition of the famous Overton Square Christmas parade.

“I see my job as being the implementer of other people’s great ideas,” Holtzclaw said. “What are the types of things that we think that we can do that will differentiate us and make Overton Square a destination in a different way than a lot of the other great neighborhoods that Memphis already has.”

Some people are talking about the resurrection of Overton Square, but to a lot of us, that’s where we were. That’s where we dated, we hung out, we got in trouble or not in trouble. It’s kind of fun all of these years later helping design this thing. It’s recreating history again in a new way, and we think the building’s going to be really, really cool.”

– Barry Yoakum, Founding principal, archimania

Urban retail consultant Bob Gibbs knows Overton Square’s days are numbered in becoming that destination. In his recent speech to the Urban Land Institute Memphis on sustainable development and neighborhood commercial centers, he told the crowd that Memphis has the opportunity in Midtown and its districts to “outperform (its) market.”

“I think there’s a lot of people that are bored out of their brains in the suburbs that like your Cooper-Young, will like the Broad Street and will like some of these other areas,” Gibbs said. “This Madison Avenue area is very cool. You have Overton Square, which is coming online with cinema, it’s going to be a great entertainment district. This seems to have a lot of promise for restaurants, but also I think for some really good specialty retailers, some fashion and sporting goods.”

Loeb is shooting for one-third of the Square to be retail shops and will acquire additional assemblage outside of the acreage it acquired if it sees fit.

The Square inked its first new tenant in May with Local Gastropub, which come September will occupy the two-story space that housed Yosemite’s Sam’s for nearly 40 years at 2126 Madison. A disco-turned-late-night karaoke bar, Yosemite Sam’s was the longest-running existing business in the Square before closing its doors last August.

Matt Prince, senior vice president of Loeb, said the deal with Local is the “first step in an effort that will not only revive Overton Square but surpass our memories of it.”

Loeb is also talking with prospects for the former Paulette’s space at 2110 Madison, and has the adjoining “gingerbread house” under a letter of intent contract with a breakfast and coffee shop. In addition to the majority of the Square’s existing businesses getting revamped, Boscos Squared and Memphis Pizza Cafe are pursuing expansions.

Then there’s the retail activity taking shape outside of the Square’s limits. Taylor Berger, partner in YoLo Frozen Yogurt & Gelato, plans to open a new gourmet hotdog and Mexican eatery concept called Chiwawa in the old Chicago Pizza Factory space along with six other partners by fall.

The 4,800-square-foot space has been vacant since the late-1980s. It’s just a few blocks west of Berger’s highest performing YoLo location (of 11 regionally) at 6 S. Cooper St.

What’s more, a Five Guy’s Burgers and Fries is in the works for 2100 Union Ave., in the former Mid-South Title Loans space owned by Caruthers Group LLC. The space is across the street from Holiday Deli & Ham Co., a tenant of Loeb’s that’s in the midst of adding a drive-through and additional parking for its high-performing location.

The Square’s neighboring properties are all a feather in the cap for Loeb, whose company is recreating the linchpin between Overton Park and Midtown – and for the city as a whole.

It’s a concept that’s ever-evolving, yet already promising.

“We’ve got three chain operator restaurants that have multiple locations – Bosco’s, Memphis Pizza Cafe and YoLo,” Loeb said. “It’s the best store in each one of their chains.”

PROPERTY SALES 100 375 3,773
MORTGAGES 63 202 2,481
BUILDING PERMITS 392 651 8,607
BANKRUPTCIES 38 117 2,021