The restoration and planned development of the Chisca Hotel is moving along after an approved closure of a downtown street.
The unanimous approval to close Mulberry Street between Pontotoc and Dr. M.L.K. Jr. avenues came at a Downtown Memphis Commission (DMC) Design Review Board meeting last week.
The street will close to allow for more parking on the service lot east of the hotel building. That lot will be redesigned and landscaped, and it will be enclosed to only allow for Chisca parking.
The refurbished hotel will include 161 apartments, as well as retail and restaurant space on the street level. The redevelopment is being spearheaded by Main Street Apartment Partners LLC.
LYFE Kitchen — a fast-casual, health-focused restaurant startup chain — will be moving into the property. LYFE is currently headquartered in Palo Alto, California, but it will be moving its base of operations to Memphis in 2015.
Members of the South Main Association objected to the Mulberry Street closure. At the DMC meeting, Ben Avant, a former president of the association, read from a prepared statement from members, some of whom were looking forward to seeing the street open again after construction was complete. Currently, the street is blocked off with construction equipment.
"One of South Main's biggest strengths is our unique pedestrian environment," Avant said. "Reducing this pedestrian access by closing this stretch of Mulberry will affect the surrounding blocks by further dividing the area and dominating the urban setting."
The DMC design review board's staff report opposed closing Mulberry Street, but it recommended approval of the design of the reconfigured lot.
"Closing public streets runs counter to basic urban design theory about how to strengthen the pedestrian connections and enhance the pedestrian experience," the staff report reads.
Brett Roler, the director of planning with the DMC, said the proposal might not fall into what the board is supposed to decide.
"From [the] staff's perspective, if you can see that it's okay to close a street and you can see that it's okay to configure the parking lot this way, what they're proposing is consistent with the guidelines in terms of the design of the fence [enclosure], the size of the fence, the character of the fence, and the character of the landscaping," Roler said. "We believe all of that to be appropriate. The question really is, 'Is it okay to close a public street to accommodate a parking lot?'"
Roler also questioned whether or not Mulberry functions as a street anymore, which prompted later discussion from the board about tourists who navigate to the National Civil Rights Museum, partly due to Google Maps guiding unknowing tourists onto that road versus taking them down Main Street.
Terry Lynch, a partner in the development group, said the size of the reconfigured block would be consistent with the blocks in the surrounding area, like the Memphis, Light, Gas, and Water property as well as the Orpheum property.
"It's very consistent when you do big projects like this that you include the areas around it," Lynch said, citing the Peabody Place project among others. "In the 10 years since the FedExForum, since we spent $250 million and got a great Grizzlies team, that building looks like it was built three years ago. It looks great. But if you look around there, there hasn't been one permit issued. There's been no economic development. This is the first attempt that's been made to do anything in 10 years — in this case, 20 years. We're stepping up to the table, putting $25 million into this asset that's going to open up South Main like you've never seen before."