A River Runs Through It 

Downtown Memphis and a fireball named Turley

Downtown Memphis and a fireball named Turley

The paths Nashville and Memphis have taken toward downtown revitalization are about as different as the calm flow of the Cumberland River and the willful current of the Big Muddy. “The way Memphis moves is atomistic, individualistic—the cowboy way, the frontier way,” drawls Memphis developer Henry Turley. “As opposed to Nashville, which moves methodically, thoughtfully, according to a plan, and with some consensus.”

Turley, like many Memphians, admires that much of Nashville’s recent downtown development has been driven by Metro Government. Church Street Centre, the downtown arena, the Batman building, the Cumberland tower, the Magnatek building, the downtown library—all have been prodded along by the Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency (MDHA) or by Mayor Phil Bredesen. At the same time, some critics would argue that Metro has failed to knit these big boxes into the fabric of an urban lifestyle.

“We’ve never had any strength here in urban design,” acknowledges one Metro insider. “Neither MDHA nor the Planning Commission has ever encouraged it, or educated the public about it. And private developers haven’t stepped into the void.”

In Memphis, however, private citizens have stepped into the void. Armed with the instincts of riverboat gamblers and a sense of civic purpose, they are doing urban design. They are doing it by restoring historic structures, and constructing new ones using the old-fashioned building blocks of urban places. They are doing it with 4,000 downtown residential units (Nashville has 1,000). They are doing it with a new minor-league ballpark adjacent to the Peabody Hotel, at the center of a whole new neighborhood that will include a new elementary school. They have done it in response to the civic nadir of the King assassination, and they have done it with a local government that has been, according to Turley, “only reasonably supportive. Memphis doesn’t have civic leaders, we don’t have a Bredesen or a Fulton,” he says. “We have entrepreneurs.”

Turley is certainly one of those entrepreneurs, perhaps the most influential as far as downtown Memphis is concerned. He says he realized in the 1970s that “no downtown could retain its validity as a CBD (central business district), which was really office towers surrounded by parking lots. Office parks [in the suburbs] will out-compete because of their proximity to people’s homes and the lower costs of development. It seemed that downtown would be lost to us unless we created a real urban experience, a place where people could do a little of everything—live, work, drink, eat. To make that kind of place, we needed to do more housing in downtown.”

Turley started with The Shrine, a 1923 building that had once housed the Shrine Temple. Unlike Nashville, the market for office space in Memphis in the early ’80s was so poor that developers like Turley could afford to buy downtown property for residential conversions. Also, unlike Nashville, the zoning code didn’t forbid downtown housing. “The Shrine had what you need for success in a downtown—great views and unique architecture,” says Memphis architect Frank Ricks. “It proved that the downtown rental market would work.”

Too bad Nashville developer Tony Giarratana didn’t realize that unique architecture was part of the urban living equation before he tore down the Art Deco Sudekum building and replaced it with the Cumberland apartments. And too bad that MDHA didn’t recognize the same thing before forking over a $6 million subsidy for his building, which looks as if it belongs more in East Germany than Music City.

Turley then moved on to another downtown project, the River Bluff co-op. Then it was loft apartments at Paper Works, a 1913 warehouse in the derelict South Main district, which he bought for 83 cents a square foot. “I remember jerking straight up in bed one night, crying out loud, ‘I have built $4 million worth of lofts, and I have never before seen a loft,’ ” Turley recalls. “I’d never even been to New York.”

To be certain, the development of downtown Memphis didn’t rely solely on private initiative. Tax incentives and revenue bonds made financing downtown projects more attractive. The Center City Commission (CCC), which was founded in 1977, administered these programs and provided other assistance for developers downtown.

The CCC recently commissioned downtown design guidelines from Philip Walker, with the Nashville office of Memphis-based Looney Ricks Kiss Architects. A design review board uses these guidelines to advise developers on how buildings should look in each district in order to make them contribute to the urban fabric. MDHA also has a design review process, but lacks Memphis’ detailed guidelines for assessing the urban design values of individual projects.

While Turley was rehabbing The Shrine, other developers were making progress in downtown Memphis as well. Memphis businessman Jack Belz was saving the Peabody Hotel from demolition. Belz purchased the historic hotel in 1975 for $75,000, then spent six years—and $24 million in federal and private funds—restoring the Spanish fantasy to its status as the Alhambra of the Mississippi Delta.

“That was the catalyst for downtown, because everybody had a little piece of the Peabody Hotel in their hearts,” says Turley.

Belz also purchased eight adjacent blocks for Peabody Place, a mixed-use complex that, with the hotel, is the largest historic renovation project in the United States. The complex features apartments, offices, and retail space—including the city’s first downtown grocery—in the turn-of-the-century Gayoso Hotel, the 1915 Majestic Theatre, the former Haverty’s Furniture Store, and the 1901 Goldsmith’s department store. Currently under construction is Peabody Place Retail and Entertainment Center. It will include a 23-screen megaplex and an IMAX theater.

With Harbor Town, another downtown development, Belz and Turley joined forces and moved into what is known in planning circles as “New Urbanism.” In 1988 they purchased 300 acres on Mud Island, which lies between the Wolf and Mississippi Rivers, from the collapsed empire that belonged to the Butcher brothers in Knoxville. The Butchers had wanted to put an interstate down the middle of the island and merge it with the Arkansas Bridge—13 lanes of concrete spaghetti. Turley thought that was a terrible waste of civic space, and formed “Citizens Against the Expressway” to fight it. Though he never thought he’d end up with the property, he bought it when the Butchers folded. Belz and Turley commissioned a master plan for a traditional neighborhood—narrow lots, sidewalks and alleys, public squares and river walks. They hired Looney Ricks Kiss Architects to translate the plan into region-specific-style homes, apartments, and condos—the kind with front porches, big windows, and broad eaves.

As downtown residential increased, the first new office building in downtown Memphis in more than a decade was for AutoZone, the Wal-Mart of car parts. In 1996, founder J. R. “Pitt” Hyde traded his midtown site to the city in exchange for land adjacent to Peabody Place and built a new corporate headquarters, also designed by Looney Ricks Kiss. The striking white building, with its curved wall of glass facing the Mississippi, adds a modern voice to the traditional architectural dialogue of Memphis.

Hyde also used the financial leverage of his private foundation to insist on a new performing arts center as part of the expansion of the downtown convention center. The addition is a sensitive contemporary design by architect Louis Pounders, and it will animate the big concrete bunker of the convention center with a glassy lobby and promenade that provide a front porch to the Mississippi. “One of our primary goals was relating to the river,” says Pounders. “The old building ignored it.”

Memphis entrepreneurism has not been restricted to buildings. It was private citizens Greg Hnedak and Dan Oppenheimer who came up with the idea to run a trolley line down Main Street utilizing historic cars from all over the world, and who pushed the idea through the transit authority. “They’d found out that there were some federal funds available for a project like this, and they wanted my help,” says Turley. “I told them they had the passion to do it themselves, pointed them toward City Hall, and they did it. You all wouldn’t let an architect and a stained glass salesman lay out your downtown transportation system, but we did.”

Other names on Turley’s list of eminent entrepreneurs include Dean and Kristi Jernigan, the force behind the new ballpark. The Jernigans bought the Memphis Redbirds and turned the team into a not-for-profit that last year gave $250,000 to the public schools for baseball-related activities. This year construction begins on a 12,000-seat stadium for the team on a site diagonally across from the Peabody Hotel. The design is modeled on Baltimore’s Camden Yards, and will become the center of a mixed-use neighborhood, with adjacent buildings reused and new ones constructed to create an urban neighborhood. The complex will include 385 apartments, as well as offices, retail, parking, and a national minor-league baseball museum.

What Turley calls “a rare example of leadership by an elected official” is the new elementary school in the works adjacent to the ballpark. Approximately eight years ago, Turley says, he pitched the school board on the need for a new school downtown. “I told them that they couldn’t do this excellent school in any of their constituent neighborhoods, because it would piss off the other constituents. I asked them to do it downtown, because it’s common ground, everybody’s neighborhood.” The board didn’t buy into it until Memphis mayor W. W. Herenton told them he would issue $100 million in new school bonds, but stipulated that one of those new schools had to be downtown. “The board didn’t want to do the downtown school, but they had to to get the money,” Turley says.

The latest Belz/Turley/Looney Ricks Kiss Architects venture is the rehab of a whole neighborhood immediately north of downtown. The Memphis Housing Authority recently awarded the team the development rights to convert two public housing projects and the surrounding blighted Greenlaw/Manassas neighborhood into a mixed-income community. The team plans to work in partnership with nearby St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, which will provide jobs to workers who move into the new neighborhood.

When the town was laid out in 1819, John Overton and Andrew Jackson had been sitting tight on their 5,000 acres on the southernmost of the Chickasaw Bluffs for 25 years, waiting for settlement to spread and real estate values to rise. Jackson bowed out in the early 1820s, deciding that land speculation on the western frontier would be a liability during a presidential campaign. But wheeler-dealers like Jackson and Turley have always been a part of the making and remaking Memphis.

The Memphis way is not Nashville’s way, and that’s just fine. The Athens of the South has never been a Deep South town with a rowdy past. We can be proud that when we were non-violently desegregating lunch counters, Memphis was hosting the martyrdom of the Civil Rights movement. And it doesn’t matter whether a mayor starts with an arena or an entrepreneur starts with housing, as long as the result is truly urban.

But sometimes, when I’m listening to Henry Turley wax eloquent, or to the even more eloquent blues, or I’m eating grits and eggs late at night in Memphis’ Arcade, amidst the shuttered galleries and antique shops and drowsy winos along South Main, I wish for a little bit of Memphis in Nashville. Then I wish that Nashville had a big river that would go all-over silver at dusk.

And I wish that Nashville had saved enough old buildings downtown to define the character of a neighborhood. Most of all, I wish that Nashville had the gamblers who would loosen their ties, roll up their sleeves, and shoot craps on downtown. The stakes are high; the jackpot is urbanity.

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