VOL. 130 | NO. 189 | Tuesday, September 29, 2015
By Madeline Faber
A development 10 years in the making, the abandoned 33,000-square-foot Universal Life Insurance Co. building is within sight of its new lease on life through the support of public and private partnerships.
A groundbreaking on Tuesday, Sept. 29, makes way for the building’s future as an epicenter for small business resources and model for sustainability through Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Gold certification. By this time next year, the building will be vibrant for the first time in 15 years.
“It’s been standing here forever,” said Juan Self of Self-Tucker Architects.
In 2006, the architecture firm acquired the building at 480 and 504 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. with plans for speculative redevelopment. They even secured a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement and a development loan, but the recession put a hold on their plans.
The $6.2 million project was revived thanks to a partnership that views the Universal Life building as a potential stop along the upcoming Heritage Trail, a redevelopment initiative dedicated to telling the story of Memphis’ African-American leaders and uplifting struggling communities. It’s also part of the city’s broader South City redevelopment plan.
The historic building was designed in 1949 by Tennessee’s first African-American architecture firm, McKissack & McKissack, and housed Universal Life Insurance, one of the largest African-American owned life insurance companies in the country. It served as an important civic and social pillar during segregation.
“Given its rich history, the Universal Life building is the perfect environment to spur stronger small business development,” said Mayor A C Wharton in an earlier conversation. “Once completed, the renovation project rids the city of another blighted property and hopefully will encourage surrounding businesses to upgrade and new businesses to open in that community.
Reviving the Universal Life Building will contribute to continuing its historic legacy by serving as a social and economic catalyst.”
Coming in at 12,500 square feet, the largest tenant will be the city’s Renaissance Business and Economic Development Center, an arm of the Memphis Housing and Community Development department. The new offices, to be dubbed the Memphis Minority Business Center, will include the Memphis Area Minority Contractors Association; Black Business Association; Tennessee Small Business Development Center; and the Small Business Administration, among others. The Memphis Office of Resources & Enterprise, which is currently housed in City Hall, will also relocate to the building.
Self-Tucker Architects will take up 5,000 square feet for its own offices and 2,500 square feet will be allocated to co-working space for small businesses and entrepreneurs. Jimmie Tucker added that presently the building has around 15 tenants. The first phase of construction, to be completed by Montgomery Martin Contractors, will include core and shell building and the completion of Self-Tucker’s new offices.
“Our primary problem was the transitional aspect of the location,” said Tucker of the Downtown building that overlooks the FedEx Forum. “When we would get commitments from different prospective tenants, the banks questioned the sustainability of that mix of tenants. That’s why it was important when the city decided to lease space in the building.”
Funding for the project comes from a nine-year PILOT with the Center City Revenue Finance Corp. (which would increase to 10 years when the building becomes LEED certified); a $1.9 million grant from the Memphis Green Communities program; $2 million in Qualified Energy Conservation bonds; federal historic tax credits and a handful of other city-backed loans and grants. First Tennessee Bank will provide a $1.8 million loan, and the development team is investing $595,500.
“We want to make this sort of a learning center for the community,” said Tucker.
In addition to office space, current plans for the building include a gallery, a meeting room able to accommodate 100 people and a deck and “green roof” that could hold around 50 people. The lower level will house a 1,800-square-foot cafe to be serviced by Memphis-based Sweet Potato Baby.
The building, already notable for its Egyptian revival-style architecture and its status on the National Register of Historic Places, will stand-out for its high energy efficiency. Twenty percent of the building’s energy use will be fueled by solar panels with a 50-kilowatt output.
The building will feature increased insulation in the walls and glass, electric vehicle charging stations and cisterns around it to minimize the amount of storm water run-off. Viridian is the project’s LEED consultant.
The development team believes that revitalizing the building and its streetscape could potentially spur more development in the underserved neighborhood around Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. They added that they are interested in adding low-income housing and possibly working with Mt. Olive Cathedral CME Church, just east of the Universal Life building at 538 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Ave., to achieve that goal.
“There are a lot of initiatives around town around small business development and helping startups and helping grow business,” Tucker said. “The aspect that is going to be a little different here is because of adding the community revitalization focus.”