Midtown: More on Overton Square and Sears

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Bob Loeb - FRIENDS FOR OUR RIVERFRONT
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Bob Loeb says don't expect a return to the days of sex, drugs, and rock and roll at Overton Square when Loeb Properties gets done with its renovations.

"We're not bringing Billy Joel back," Loeb told the Memphis Rotary Club Tuesday. "Our plans are relatively modest. We're rehabbers. We love old buildings."

He gave an overview of the project that managed to whet appetites for a revived Overton Square while tamping down expectations a bit. The space, he noted, is "not that big" but the project seems bigger and more expensive — pushing $20 million — because of the partnership with the city on a floodwater detention basin and parking garage. Developers believe $4 a gallon gas will lead to inward migration and a more vibrant Midtown.

Loeb praised ongoing improvements at Overton Park and along Broad Street and said there is hope for Crosstown and for Washington Bottoms (a leveled tract south of Poplar east of Cleveland) acquired by Lehman Brothers.

"It's back in play," he said.

The new Overton Square "will not be Beale Street Two" but will be "a lot more local" and will not compete, Loeb says, with Cooper-Young bars and restaurants. The Overton Square theater district theme was downtown developer Henry Turley's idea, Loeb said, and seconded by Jackie Nichols. Construction will begin this spring or early summer, but we'll have to wait and see who goes first, Loeb or the city. Who needs a big new parking garage for a space that isn't fully developed or is half occupied?

More on the wait and see front . . .

Mea culpa. I got ahead of things in an earlier blog post as far as Yates Construction and Sears Crosstown. Blame it on impatience and too much caffeine. My bad, anyway.

A Yates spokesman who asked me not to use his name said the company is doing due diligence on Sears, is tracking it on the radar, and has its finger on the pulse and is "very interested."

"This is a project well within our means," he said.

As for the readers who noted the building's survival as a distribution facility until 1993, ten years after the retail part closed, so be it, and thanks for the correction.

I think Sears is a blighted, ugly, dated behemoth that is too expensive to tear down and too expensive to redevelop. This week I ran it past developers Jason Wexler of Henry Turley Company, Josh Poag of Poag & McEwen, and John Elkington of Beale Street and they all said it's a whopper and a long shot. Wexler had an interesting idea: put MLGW's administrative headquarters in it as the city's contribution, then put out requests for proposals for the current MLGW headquarters downtown west of FedEx Forum. The utility building, he said, separates Beale Street and FedEx Forum from The Orpheum and the riverfront.

As a Sears neighbor since 1984, I have long since run out of patience and gone all NIMBY. I don't believe this building in its blighted condition would be tolerated in Collierville, Bartlett, Germantown, or the commercial parts of East Memphis. And if it was in a warehouse district or industrial area it would have been forgotten long ago. Its location gives it such value and interest as it has. Responsible residential and commercial neighbors on all sides of Sears have indirectly borne the carrying costs of this mess and whatever hope it has for redevelopment. You own a building, small or large, and say you love its future potential, then you take care of it today, and that goes for everyone.

My suggestion is to photoshop Sears Crosstown. Not with light shows or painted plywood in the windows, like the Chisca Hotel downtown. Put in real windows, a little landscaping, paint it, tear down the fire escapes, put a faux entrance on Cleveland, demolish the parking garage, and replace the fence with something that doesn't scream maximum security prison. Then lock it up and hide the keys. Wexler said former New York Mayor Ed Koch did something like that with blighted housing projects years ago. It wouldn't be cheap and it wouldn't be a beauty, but it would also not be the eyesore and drag on the neighborhoods it has been for decades. I nominate it for Mayor Wharton's Next 100 Days project.

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