Long-stalled development projects moving forward across the Memphis area

Projects include restoration of the Universal Life Building downtown, plans for multifamily units in Midtown, a new pedestrian bridge in the Pinch District, a Trader Joe’s in Germantown and the former Justine’s restaurant building in South Memphis.

Several highly-anticipated development projects, some of which have been stalled or on life support for many years, are now seeing various degrees of progress. Projects include the restoration of the historic Universal Life Building downtown, plans for multifamily units in the heart of Midtown, a new pedestrian bridge in the Pinch District, a new Trader Joe’s in Germantown and the blighted former Justine’s restaurant building in South Memphis.

The restoration odyssey of the Universal Life Building

After more than 11 years in the development pipeline, Self Tucker Properties LLC finally held its pre-construction kickoff meeting late last month for the Universal Life Building downtown at the corner of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue & Danny Thomas. It has been vacant for many years and was last fully occupied in the early 2000s.

Juan Self and Jimmie Tucker purchased the building in 2006 and immediately had the building placed on the National Registry of Historic Places. Concurrent to that, they developed plans for the redevelopment of the building as an office building.

“Just when we were about ready to move forward with the project in terms of the construction, the real estate market crashed,” said Juan Self, partner with Self Tucker Properties LLC and Self+Tucker Architects. “Through the curse of that, we thought we had several opportunities to get the project jumpstarted, but the economy just stayed down for such a long time, particularly from a commercial real estate standpoint.”

Then three years ago, the developers received a challenge grant for sustainability from the federal government, and it was one of the key factors that helped the project move forward.

“But even with that, it’s taken until now to really get the project going,” said Self. “It’s been an 11-year journey, so it would qualify as an odyssey.”

The building will feature a high level of sustainability, energy efficiency, historic preservation and restoration. Total renovation costs are estimated at $4.5 million, and Montgomery Martin Contractors and Bricks Inc. will handle the construction work.

The complete renovation will include installation of all-new electrical, heating, plumbing and air conditioning systems, as well as new roofing. Exterior windows will be replaced, and the facade will be cleaned and restored.

“The building itself has great bones. It’s a poured concrete structure and has been well preserved,” said Self. “We’re restoring as much of the main corridor and historic entrance, which features Tennessee marble throughout, as possible.”

The Egyptian Revival-style building was originally constructed in the late 1940’s for the Universal Life Insurance Co., an African-American owned company established in 1923.

“A lot of the planning of the civil rights era was done right there at that building, and it was a very large employment center, for African-Americans in particular,” said Self.

Self+Tucker will occupy approximately 5,000 square feet of the 33,000-square-foot, three-story building, and the remaining space will be leased out to other office tenants. The City of Memphis is a major partner with Self+Tucker on the project and will be leasing out a significant portion of the extra space.

“We’ve been successful in attracting several other tenants, so the building should be close to 85 percent to 90 percent occupied when it opens in March of next year,” said Self.

Possible revived plans for Trader Joe’s

Work on the new Trader Joe’s in Germantown had been expected to start earlier this year at 2130 Exeter Road at the site of a former Kroger store, but complications forced the developer, South Carolina-CAP Germantown LLC, out of the project. Now, potentially a new developer has stepped in to revive the project.

“Trader Joe's is still very much interested in Germantown, but [the previous] developer had the property under contract and it fell out of contract and went away,” said Terry Radford, First VP with CB Richard Ellis, which represents Trader Joe’s. “The property is again under contract with another investor, but I can’t say anything more than that at this time.”

Delays to the initial proposed construction timeline were not related to any city regulations, permits, processes or planning, according to Germantown Mayor Mike Palazzolo.

CAP Germantown LLC had planned to build a new 19,500-square-foot building on the property for Trader Joe's to occupy a portion of, along with modifications to the 23,000-square-foot former Kroger building that would have been subdivided for three new tenants. It is unclear what plans the new developer has for the parcel.

“It will be very significant for us to have the first Trader Joe’s in the Mid-South,” said Palazzolo. “This will add another one-of-a-kind merchant to our inventory of retail providers on the grocery side for our residents not only in Germantown but also in the greater region.”

The Pinch District off N. Main St. lies just north of downtown Memphis.

Downtown Connector

A new pedestrian bridge in the Pinch District is moving closer to being a reality.

The bridge will run from the curb of Front Street and extend more than 200 feet to the Big Cypress Lodge, part of the Bass Pro Shops at the Pyramid, allowing pedestrians to avoid the traffic on Front Street.

“We presented two proposals to the City of Memphis Division of Housing and Community Development (HCD) for approval, and we’re still developing the final conceptual design that they will accept,” said Michael Robinson, principal architect with Robi4 Architecture and Planning. “We’re working with several consulting engineers on this project.”

This is the first pedestrian bridge designed by Robi4, a multidisciplinary minority- and women-owned firm that was founded in 2013.

Robinson anticipates that construction could get underway on the bridge by the start of the winter of 2018.

Rendering for the new Madison & McLean multifamily project.

Multifamily projects coming to Midtown

Makowsky Ringel Greenberg, LLC (MRG) is one step closer to constructing a multifamily project on the block from McLean to Idlewild on the south side of Madison.

On July 19, EDGE awarded MRG a fourteen-year Residential PILOT to help the company build a $14 million, multifamily development on the 1.4-acre parcel. The 132,477-square-foot building will be a four-story wood frame constructed structure built above a podium that will include 127 on-site parking spaces.

The project will include 2,500 square feet of commercial space, 72 one-bedroom apartments, 32 two-bedroom apartments and four studio units. An estimated 22 units will be available for low or moderate-income occupants. Amenities will include bicycle parking, a fitness room and a community room.

The site was previously home to a car repair shop and detailing business and Neil's Bar & Grill, which burned down in 2011.

The Residential PILOT is the first of its kind for EDGE, with the purpose of sparking investment in market-rate, multi-family residential rental projects in the City of Memphis and unincorporated Shelby County.

“We have probably another nine to 10 months of design, with hopefully a groundbreaking within the first quarter of next year,” said Michael Greenberg, principal of MRG, which was founded in 1967 and has developed and renovated thousands of apartment units across Memphis and northern Mississippi.

Belz Enterprises and Georgia-based Harbour Retail Partners are also planning a multifamily project one block away at the corner of Union Avenue and McLean. The companies had intended to demolish the blighted Towery Building and the former Artisan Hotel in order to build apartments and 30,500 square feet of ground-floor commercial space to attract a national grocery store as the anchor tenant, but earlier this year plans were amended in favor of renovating the former hotel into apartments and demolishing the Towery Building in order to build upper-floor apartments and ground-floor commercial.

The total cost of the project, which will feature 175 apartments and 288 parking spots, is estimated at $33.5 million. The revised proposal features 26,500 square feet of commercial space, with the existing Methodist Minor Medical office being renovated for new tenants by 2019 after the existing lease expires.

The former Justine's restaurant on Coward Place near Lamar Ave.

A historic building rises from the dead

The Orgel Family LLP, led by father-and-son duo William “Billy” Orgel and Benjamin Orgel, acquired the former Justine's restaurant building (also known as the Anderson-Coward House) located near Elmwood Cemetery in February 2016 for $50,000, and they have partially rehabbed the building.

“We’ve built the building back and made into a shell basically,” said Benjamin Orgel. “We’re really not going to do anything further to it until we find someone to purchase the building or lease it from us.”

The 7,600-square-foot building was very dilapidated and had collapsed, and the Orgels came in and installed a new roof, repainted the front and cleaned up the nearly 1.2-acre lot. Keeping the historical integrity of the building was important to them. The rehab work took eight to nine months.

“We like to save old buildings and not let the history of Memphis get knocked down or built into big steel buildings. It’s a passion for our family,” said Orgel, who is also involved in the restoration of the Tennessee Brewery and the old firehouse near the FedEx Forum.

The building was constructed in the mid-1800s and has sat empty since Justine’s closed approximately 20 years ago.

“I think it could really be used for anything. We don’t have a specific use in mind. We just want someone to improve the area. It could make a good office or an amazing event facility,” he said.

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.