VOL. 128 | NO. 221 | Tuesday, November 12, 2013
Overton Square Momentum Connects With History
By Bill Dries
If you think Midtown’s recent momentum, particularly in and around Overton Square, is real growth, you are right.
But it is growth in development that Overton Square developer Bob Loeb believes will bring along a denser population in the area.
“Midtown is a couple of hundred thousand people short, and we need to make it an attractive place … to attract new residents into Midtown,” Loeb said on the WKNO-TV program “Behind The Headlines.” “It’s going to take time. And short term, we can build more supply of places than there is purchasing power demand. But the hope is over time that demand will grow. We are betting on that.”
The south side of Madison Avenue at North Cooper Street, the section of Overton Square where the entertainment district began in 1970, should have a new tenant announced this week, according to Loeb.
Loeb said the new tenant would be in part of the space once occupied by Lafayette’s Music Room, the storied live music venue that lasted only five years but figures prominently in the mythology of the original entertainment district.
“We’ve wanted to connect with the history. People said we needed to chase Friday’s and get a new Friday’s there,” Loeb said, referring to the TGI Friday’s restaurant that in 1970 was the cornerstone for the development of the district.
He added that others have suggested the return of other Overton Square brands, such as Bombay Bicycle Club.
“Great names. Great memories,” he said. “But we wanted a 2000-teens version of the community that existed when Overton Square thrived.”
The program, hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, can be seen on The Daily News Video page, video.memphisdailynews.com.
The live music venues to come – including an amphitheater next to the new parking garage – exist in a theater and arts district that already includes Playhouse on the Square and its Circuit Playhouse and TheatreWorks.
And the theaters come with their own hard numbers that underlie the nostalgia.
“It’s not just a theater district,” Playhouse on the Square founder Jackie Nichols said on “Behind the Headlines.” “It’s arts in general. We bring 60,000 people a year to Playhouse and Circuit. TheatreWorks has another 10,000. … It’s going to be 150,000 to 200,000 people coming to the arts there. All you’ve got to do as a restaurant is not screw up.”
Under construction is another critical element to the district, the new location of Hattiloo Theatre, founded by Ekundayo Bandele.
“You have somebody come see a show on opening night. There’s usually six weeks in between one opening night and the next opening night of the next show,” Bandele said. “That’s enough span of time for somebody to return home and get hooked on “Scandal” or “Black List.” … And before you know it, they’ve dropped off from the arts. You can have a person come to Overton Square, and they can be engaged in the arts for almost a month, every weekend.”
Loeb said the crowds in Overton Square already point to the need for a hotel and the one corner at Cooper and Madison that isn’t active is the one where the closed French Quarter Inn stands.
“That property will be redeveloped,” Loeb said. “Whether it’s redeveloped as a hotel or other use is yet to be seen. We are making steady progress. We’ve got some good tenants that have signed leasing and are improving space but aren’t on line yet. We’ve got others in the pipeline. This momentum will continue to build.”
Meanwhile, June West of Memphis Heritage said her group and other preservationists are working on making landmarks a reference point in the changes. In the case of Overton Square, Memphis Heritage challenged earlier plans by out-of-town developers to demolish buildings on the south side of Madison at Cooper to build a supermarket.
“I’m not saying every building should be saved, nor should it be saved,” she said. “That’s the problem here when we have outsiders come in. I’m not saying they aren’t welcome. … You do your due diligence. You market. You talk to people and a lot of out-of-towners don’t do that.”
She also said preservationists have to be involved sooner.
West cited the attempt by her group to save Union Avenue Methodist Church on the southwest corner of Cooper and Union, which was demolished to make way for a CVS drugstore. She said preservationists should be “getting to a point where we are raising the funds where we could have perhaps offered money to that church to help fix its roof early on, where even a small congregation could have been there.”