Memphis is a town fueled by innovators. The first self-serve grocery store, FedEx, and Rock and Roll were all born in Memphis; even Thomas Edison spent some time in the Bluff City. And while Memphis doesn’t have the influx of new music-industry money that fuels the Nashville economy, it is a city that loves history, leans into adaptive reuse, and cheers for the underdog. And that complicated intersection is where one group of innovative thinkers found themselves as they took on the City’s most prominent blight issue - 100 North Main, Downtown Memphis, Tennessee.
37-stories, Zero Active Prospects, Unlimited Potential
The problem isn’t new. The team at the Downtown Memphis Commission (DMC) has been proactively fighting commercial blight for decades. Not content to wait for developers to walk projects through the door, the DMC seeks them out. In addition to the more typical economic development portfolio of grants, loans, and tax incentives, the DMC also takes problem property owners to court under Tennessee State Law’s Neighborhood Preservation Act, using option contracts to get strategically important properties unstuck and on a path to redevelopment.
Before its vacancy, 100 North Main was once almost 600K square feet of bustling activity and commerce, full of office workers, restaurant-goers, and community. However, as it sat vacant for seven years, the property was simply too big to be viable for most developers, and the standard tools didn’t work.
It was a beast. It required new tools, even for experienced blight fighters. So, in 2020, when an opportunity to purchase the building was presented, a group of committed City advocates jumped into action.
“Collectively, we decided to stop waiting around for something to happen. Instead, the DMC, City of Memphis, and Shelby County government decided that bold action and public-sector leadership were needed to transform this blighted property back into a neighborhood asset.”
· Doug McGowen, Chief Operating Officer, City of Memphis
In the case of 100 North Main, bold action meant financing the purchase through a tool created by one of the DMC’s affiliated boards. Bold action meant taking on the task of finding a purpose, a path, and a developer for the property.
Luckily, the property has immense potential. The 37-story main tower building was built in 1965 and is approximately 579,000 square feet. In addition, the site includes a total of nine adjacent parcels covering over two acres. While the tower has remained vacant since June 2014, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in April 2015, which makes it eligible for Historic Tax Credits.
The site is also in great company, as much investment has already happened in the neighborhood immediately surrounding 100 North Main. Within a 5-minute walk of the property, there is more than $428M in property value, 713 hotel rooms, 11,000 office jobs, internationally renowned St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital campus, and more than 1,200 residents who call this part of Downtown home. Redeveloping the property would be critical in attracting additional investment in the area; stabilizing the property would help shore up the tax base from further erosion and decline. But taking on this challenge is ambitious, even for a team that helped turn an empty, one million square foot Sears warehouse into a vertical village and a decades-abandoned 66,000 square foot brewery into a mixed-used community anchor.
Community-draining Problem meets Community-focused Solution.
Having been involved in previously ambitious adaptive reuse projects, the DMC knows the unique challenges with this property. The team recognizes the herculean effort needed to change the trajectory of this building and put it on a path back to productive use. But, one of the DMC’s primary roles is to advance the public interest and build a Downtown for everyone, and this strategic intervention represents an opportunity to reinvest in the greater community.
Downtown creates the definitive Memphis brand. A tall vacant skyscraper damages the district’s image as an attractive place to live, work, visit, and invest. Letting the tallest building in Memphis remain empty and dark would simply send the wrong signal about what Memphis is willing to tolerate and how the city sees itself.
“We’re building Downtown not for the sake of Downtown, but as a strategy for growing and bolstering the tax base of Memphis and Shelby County. Building a strong city and county takes a vibrant, healthy Downtown and urban core.”
· Paul Young, President and CEO, Downtown Memphis Commission
Focusing on creatively reusing existing buildings helps maintain downtown Memphis’ sense of place and authenticity. Taking on this monumental challenge would pull the DMC, the City of Memphis, and Shelby County Government together to fight the stagnation currently holding the building back. Buying the property was only the beginning. The real challenge would be finding a developer for a property that hasn’t found its purpose. The DMC-led team landed on an outrageous strategy — the pitch: Skyscraper - Free to Good Owner.*
It’s the climb.
In the weeks that followed the DMC’s purchase of 100 North Main, Brett Roler, VP of Planning and Development for the DMC, has climbed the equivalent of a small mountain to help showcase the property. He has led more than 20 trips to the top of the building, all sans elevator. Climbing up and down the 37-floors and trekking through the 8-level garage has allowed Roler to explore the building in a particularly unique way.
“It’s been said that human beings can get used to anything. I think about that every time I walk by or lead a tour of this building. We simply can’t let that happen here.”
· Brett Roler, VP Planning and Development, Downtown Memphis Commission
As Roler explains it, investment at this location will serve the greater community in two key ways. First, the 2-acre site itself is a catalytic development opportunity in the heart of Downtown Memphis. Adding density and new population to the core city is a high priority and will benefit the entire region. Second, new public parking at this site can increase the development potential of nearby vacant lots and empty buildings, increasing property values and the related tax base.
Reanimating a vacant tower will not be an easy undertaking. The team is clear-eyed about the challenge ahead; redevelopment would have happened by now if it was going to be easy. But Memphians tend to love an uphill climb - even the kind presented by a literal mountain of blighted historic building stock - and the DMC is looking for a qualified development partner who shares this same can-do spirit.
So, who is going to walk away with a free skyscraper? The ideal proposal will create a high-quality development that appropriately fits the downtown context and exemplifies design excellence. The goal is to develop the entire property to build compact critical mass, increase density, and significantly grow the tax base. Additionally, increasing opportunities for minority and women-owned businesses in all development phases is a high priority for the DMC.
Beyond the catchy headline and the free skyscraper (really, a free skyscraper), there is an amazing, resilient, and growing community looking for a creative solution for a core issue - one that exists in every community across the globe; but a solvable one. So, if solving big problems is your thing, Memphis might be your future.
Help the Downtown Memphis Commission transform an eyesore into eye candy. RFP here.
Contact Brett Roler, VP Planning and Development at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*The price for 100 North Main has yet to be negotiated, but it could be free, or close to free, with the right proposal.
Penelope Huston is Vice President of Marketing and Communications for Downtown Memphis Commission.