Train travel gets a reboot with a boutique hotel serving an active rail line in Memphis

Planning a trip? A planned 135-room boutique hotel will serve residents of Downtown Memphis as well as travelers along the Amtrak line which stretches from New Orleans to Chicago.

The $55 million redevelopment of historic Central Station and the surrounding area on South Main moves forward with new details about the planned boutique hotel announced.

In early March, hotel developer Kemmons Wilson Company filed for land use approvals to operate a hotel on the site.

The redevelopment of the existing seven-acre Amtrak station will include the renovation of the historic Central Station tower, which had previously housed 50 apartments, into a 135-room boutique hotel and commercial space as well as the renovation of the Powerhouse into a six-screen Malco Theatre.

Word on the street is hotel developer Kemmons Wilson is working with Hilton to make the hotel part of its Curio brand, a boutique concept designed to appeal to younger travelers looking for an experiential stay.

“We saw an opportunity to create a ‘Welcome to Memphis’ experience,” said Alex Turley, VP of real estate for Henry Turley Co., the master developer of the Central Station project.

“With the building being repurposed as a hotel and Amtrak coming in twice a day, people get off the train and suddenly they end up in this place where they can stay (at) this active place where they are welcomed to the city in an exciting way.”

The last residents of the former apartments of the historic tower moved out by the end of last year, and construction crews are now at work making streetscape and parking improvements outside the station.

“Central Station is a very unique project which makes the hotel component that much more interesting and attractive to potential customers,” said hotel consultant Chuck Pinkowski of Pinkowski & Co. “I think it’s a great development, and it’s going to have a very positive impact on that part of downtown.”

A new concourse will be built on the south side of the hotel to connect Main Street and Front Street.

Pinkowski believes some of the properties owned between Central Station and the Chisca Hotel on Main Street could now see redevelopment with those two anchors in place.

“From that location, you’re closer to Beale Street than you are if you’re staying at the Madison or the Courtyard, so from a guest perspective in the hotel, as that Main Street redevelopment continues it is going to become more and more of a walkable area,” said Pinkowski.

Years ago the area surrounding Central Station was mostly vacant before Henry Turley Co. developed nearly 200 apartments on the south end of the 17-acre parcel. 

In the late 1990s, the Memphis Area Transit Authority redeveloped the Central Station property with the help of an FTA grant. The project turned what was once an office building for the Illinois Central Railroad into about 50 apartments.

“Essentially when MATA put out an RFP several years back and we started evaluating the property, it became evident that because of the deferred maintenance with the building a change of use was in order, and that’s where the idea for a hotel came into being,” said Turley, who pointed out that the big event spaces, such as the Hudson Hall,  didn’t really fit with residential use.

“We went about reconnecting the grid here and repurposing a post-industrial part of the city into a dense, eco-friendly new urban neighborhood.”

The hotel will be able to embrace the big spaces for meetings and events and reconfiguring the parking lot will provide a better experience for the farmers’ market that sets up there on Saturday mornings.

Malco is in the process of redesigning its new theater for the space. The existing trolley stop next to the Powerhouse will be relocated one block to the west closer to the Sugar Services facility.

“That trolley stop acts as a barrier,” said Turley, who expects the new plaza to be open and inviting.

“Right now, we’re in the process of taking what was originally designed and constructed to be a park and ride in the late 1990s by MATA when they restored Central Station and converting it into parking for the new Malco,” said Turley.

The Memphis Farmers Market, which fills the Central Station parking lot once a week, will also benefit from updates to the site.

A new concourse will be built on the south side of the hotel to connect Main Street and Front Street, and the trolley track will be extended slightly south on Main to connect to a new transit center on Main Street.

“One of the main overall goals with the Central Station is to create a transit-oriented development that anchors the South End, South Main, and South City and provides an opportunity for connection between the neighborhoods around here,” said Turley, who also sees the concourse as the trailhead for the Big River Crossing.   

If all goes well, construction should be underway on both the hotel and the theater by the summer.

The Central Station project is part of the larger redevelopment of an area that was previously heavily industrial and blighted with vacant properties over the past two decades.

“Our goal was to connect the river and our development at South Bluffs to Main Street, so when we came back here in 2010 we encountered a neighborhood where the infrastructure needed to be rebuilt,” said Turley.

“We went about reconnecting the grid here and repurposing a post-industrial part of the city into a dense, eco-friendly new urban neighborhood.”

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Read more articles by Michael Waddell.

Michael Waddell is a native Memphian who returned to Memphis several years ago after working for nearly a decade in San Diego and St. Petersburg, Fla., as a writer, editor and graphic designer. His work over the past few years has been featured in The Memphis Daily News, Memphis Bioworks Magazine, Memphis Crossroads, the New York Daily News and the New York Post. Contact Michael.