Thursday, August 17, 2006

The Ham-Sandwich Factor

Downtown's One Beale is delayed at least 30 days, but do Memphians care?

Posted By on Thu, Aug 17, 2006 at 4:00 AM

You're in the way.

Pat Kerr Tigrett, you're in the way of a zoning change needed for Gene Carlisle's $175 million Number One Beale. Gene Carlisle, your 30-story building is in the way of the view from Pat Kerr Tigrett's Waterford Plaza penthouse.

Carlisle was visibly shaken last week after the Land Use Control Board decided to delay a final vote on his project for at least 30 days. "There's nothing more I can do to change the design," he said. "They want me to not build it."

Tigrett, who spoke against the project, was her usual unflappable self, suggesting at the meeting and in a subsequent letter to The Commercial Appeal that a compromise could be reached on a "splendid project."

Two Memphis downtowners who go back 40 years are at odds. Two tough negotiators. Something and somebody's gotta give. It's an interesting clash of personalities, but I suspect that most Memphians are not all that worried about One Beale or Court Square Center, another proposed downtown project that made headlines last week. They'd like to see something other than a vacant lot at Beale and Riverside Drive or an abandoned building next to Court Square, but when architectural renderings make the front page, it usually means there is not much going on.

I gave up trying to tout or shoot down downtown real estate deals several years ago after getting snookered for at least the tenth time by a developer with "vision," a set of pretty pictures, and a lot of confusing double-talk about financing. Separating the real deals from the impostors was harder than picking stocks or the next Super Bowl winner -- and a lot less interesting.

The notion that downtown is the common ground or gathering place of Memphis is a charming piece of propaganda tinged with nostalgia. Any number of locations, from Cooper-Young to Malco's Paradiso to Wolfchase Galleria, could make a stronger claim. I have been walking and biking downtown from South Bluffs to Harbor Town five or six days a week for years, and, except for special events, the only place I regularly encounter pedestrians is on the sidewalk along the Greenbelt on Mud Island.

Jeff Sanford, the head of the Center City Commission, was quoted as saying that the incentives-laden financing package for Court Square Center was the most complicated he has ever seen. It will put tenants in the Lincoln American Tower and the Rhodes Jennings Building. If those names mean anything to you, chances are that you live or work downtown.

I have developed a much simpler real estate indicator called the ham-sandwich factor. If your project or mixed-use development or neo-traditional neighborhood or whatever you want to call it can't support a place that sells a simple ham sandwich, then you probably have trouble.

The part of Peabody Place that faces Front Street is vacant and counts a grocery store and deli among its ex-tenants. Another grocery failed on the mall side of Peabody Place, as did the basement food court and, most recently, the Holiday Ham store that sold the best pimento cheese in town.

The intersection of Union Avenue and the Main Street mall features vacancies on all four corners now that the smoothie store has closed. The big hole in the ground next to Royal Discount Furniture on the mall looks like it will be there awhile, since a developer backed away from an apartment project. The two blocks of Front Street between Union and Madison, with an unobstructed view of the river, is mostly vacant.

Unlike the Front Street Deli, the Little Tea Shop, Miss Cordelia's at Harbor Town, the Rendezvous, the late Jack's grocery store next to Court Square, and Alice's on South Front, the failures can't pass the ham-sandwich test.

Number One Beale and Court Square Center are all about luxury. The developers of Court Square Center plan to put in a New York-style Italian grocery. Carlisle wants to blow away the competition with a four-star hotel and $2 million condos.

I wouldn't bet a ham sandwich on either one of them.

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