Intrigue has seemed to shadow the Railgarten project since the very beginning.
Rumblings began in the winter about “something” happening in some of the buildings close to the corner of Central and Cooper. It was a diner, maybe? No one was talking. Then, someone pulled building permits for a restaurant (maybe?) called The Ice House. Still, no one was talking.
The project got some definition when the project’s developers requested a special use permit for a bar or a restaurant or both with ping pong tables and pinball machines. A letter in the application said it was the called The Ice House because the building used to be an actual ice house back in the day. That’s all we knew at the time and no one was talking.
Later someone floated the idea that it was going to be called “Blazing Paddles.” But we couldn’t ever confirm that.
Work was happening on the site. Finally, the name Railgarten was announced alongside the news that it was to be a diner, ice cream shop, ping pong bar, and an outdoor area large enough for a sand volleyball court.
Hundreds of people streamed into the entertainment campus for its opening last month for beers, outdoor games, music, food, ping pong, and more.
Then there were rumblings that city officials didn’t like the bar’s use of shipping containers outside. Later, officials shut parts of Railgarten down for code violations. Railgarten owners resolved those issues and got the ping pong bar back open.
However, the big backyard remains closed, awaiting a hearing next week to see if the bar’s owners can work out all of the remaining details. If so, all of Railgarten may be open once more. If not, Memphis City Council members could pull the bar’s special use permit.
I sat down last week with Martha Hample, one of Railgarten’s owners, to address everything from parking, safety, shipping containers, and more.
Memphis Flyer: You have some hearings coming up with the city council?
Martha Hample: We have two things coming up. We have an evidentiary hearing coming up with the city council on May 23rd, which was prompted around the permitting of the ping-pong bar.
Then, on the 24th, we’re going to go before the Board of Adjustment again to see if we can get our backyard open.
MF: Tell me about the process to get this place open. It’s different than anything else — even Loflin Yard — because (Railgarten) is a campus, really, not a single entity.
MH: Yeah, and that’s a little bit of how we got into the confusion stage. The other confusing thing is that there is a line right down the middle of this property. The back is zoned for light industrial. The front is zoned for retail.
Light industrial, in theory, is zoned for…shipping containers are okay, right? So, we started thinking about it. We said, we have all this space. What are we going to do?
It’s a rail line. We want to further that whole vibe. Archer Malmo’s doing the creative and we named it Railgarten. We thought, wouldn’t it be cool?
What happened was and what we didn’t really understand is when we made those containers into buildings, that triggered the Midtown Overlay. That changes what the rules are. We just didn’t fully understand that.
While - retail-wise - we were following the rules as we understood them and getting permits. We did in the back as well, but the rules sort of started to change. On top of that, this…isn’t like anything else here.
There were question marks down at city hall or wherever about “how do we deal with this?” or “how do we make sure everybody’s safe?” To be sure, all we want is for our staff, and employees, and all the great people who are supporting us to be safe. Obviously, we don’t want anything other than that.
We understand that we have to get this straightened out. It certainly is not our intent to try to go around it. I mean, this has not been great for anybody. We wouldn’t have done that had we known what we were doing.
MF: Has it been frustrating?
MH: It’s stressful. At the outset when we first started to realize — me and the other investors — what was happening, we were like “this is a learning experience. We’re doing something no one has ever done. We’re being creative. We’re making decisions about how we want to use the space on the fly because we’re being creative.”
We were like “oh my god, wouldn’t this be great?” There were no set rules to go by. I took it as a great learning experience. I’m invested in other bars and restaurants and I'm taking that information to those groups. That’s terrific for me.
But as it’s worn on and on and on, we’re starting to go, “oh my god.” It’s a little scary more than frustrating. We put so much heart and soul and energy and money, of course, and gotten people excited about it. We’ve done all this creative and, all of a sudden, we’re in a tough place.
MF: The early stories made it seem like we’re just going use the containers as shipping and then you decided to use them for something else and that’s where the confusion came from? Is that correct?
MH: I’m not an operating partner. I’m sort of the marketing and creative partner. So, I can’t honestly say I was not sitting there when those discussion were happening.
I do know that there was a discussion about, “hey, we’re zoned for light industrial, we can have some containers back here.” As far as who knew what about whether it was OK to do that, I’m not sure.
We did hire a consultant, a land use consultant. She’s a good one. She represents many people. We went to the Board of Adjustment and we weren’t the only ones on the docket she was representing.
That’s not to put the onus on her at all. It’s more to say that we tried to do the right things and hire a structural engineer and hire (the land use consultant) and get the right information.
MF: It’s been sort of controversial since you’ve tried to get this place open. Is that the right word? Controversial?
MH: Dramatic, maybe, is a better word. Well, you know, a little controversial. It’s something that nobody’s tried to do. We did trigger the Midtown Overlay, which we didn’t know we were doing.
Truthfully, we got an overwhelming response that first weekend we opened, April 5. We weren’t prepared for how many people were going to show up, frankly.
We were so excited. We were like “oh my god, people love this. This is terrific. It’s obviously something Midtown needed.” But, honestly, surrounding businesses, were probably surprised, too.
The truth is, with the exception of (Central BBQ), most of this stuff is closed at 5 p.m. Urban Outfitters, I guess, is opened later than that.
Sure, some people did some parking in some wrong places. But the truth is, this is urban. There is street parking. People can walk. We’re doing what we can to encourage people using ride-sharing like Uber and Lyft, ride your bike, ride your skateboard, walk, share rides with friends.
We have since - and this one of the things the council wants to know - is that we’ve done due diligence on leasing some parking. We have leased an additional 140 spaces beyond what we have on site, plus along Blythe.
MF: Where are the other 140 spaces?
MH: So, that I know of, a number of them are at (Palladio Antiques & Art) across the street. Some are at (other Cooper-Young businesses). There’s a lot down toward Southern that I think we leased. There’s probably some other little pieces.
We’ve hired a parking company that’s going to manage that. You drive up and valet. We have’t set a price on that but they can double park people then and turn 140 physical places into more by blocking people in and, then, when you come to get your car, they get your car for you.
Frankly, I think people will love that. I know if I’m going to spend $50 to drink, I’m going to spend another $10 just have someone else deal with my car… Also, they can say, “you’re not fit to drive” and avoid any of those issues. Come get your keys tomorrow and they’ll put you in an Uber.
MF: People were scratching their heads at that Army-looking camper thing in the back and the hammer-and-the-stump game.
MH: So, (laughs) the hammer/stump game is actually a thing. It’s called hammerschlagen. Look it up. I did. I Wiki-ed it. It’s a game commonly played in German beer gardens.
Somebody threw it out there, I can’t remember who it was. I can’t take credit. But people love it. They come and play it.
Same thing (on the Army camper), we wanted to be creative. Of course, kids are going to get excited about a tire swing and a jungle gym. But when they see that thing, they’re like “whoa! This is great!” And parents…I’ve heard from a number of friends and whoever is here that “this is so great.”
I think Loflin experiences the same thing. We can just relax on a Friday night and the kids have something they can do. We can get them a burger and an ice cream cone and we can eat grown-up food.
MF: With some of that stuff, I think they were scratching their heads because they kind of thought it was dangerous. Did you hear any of that?
MH: Not about those two things. I’ve heard some concern about kids on the property. All I can say about that is, as far as the containers go, we hired a structural engineer, we did our homework on that. And it was signed off on as safe.
As far as the hammerschlagen the intent is not for children to play it. And, if you bring your children up here, you’re responsible for your children.
There are wings that come off the camper thing and we lock those in place. So, I don't see that as dangerous. I mean, anything can happen at any time, obviously. Of course, that’s not our intent.
MF: You said you were an investor in other bars and restaurants. I don’t know if Loflin is one of them…
MH: It’s not. Not for me, personally.
MF: I think one of the reasons (Railgarten) was controversial or got dramatic was that people were saying, “well, here we go again. Somebody’s going to open up first and then ask for forgiveness instead of permission to do these things.” Have you heard that?
MH: I’ve certainly seen it in the press for sure. It came up probably at the last Board of Adjustment meeting I attended. But, again, we hired a land planner. We understood the backyard to be zoned for light industrial.
We did what we thought was going to be OK, under her supervision. We made some mistakes, clearly. And I do think this is unprecedented. I’ve seen correspondence where city officials have said, look, we haven’t dealt with this before. You guys are just going to have to be patient.”
Now, we understand. We need to be patient. We want it to be safe. We, obviously, want to get permitted and get open. We’re biting the bullet. We’ve got the backyard closed an have for a number of weeks now.
MF: But the ping pong bar, the diner, and the ice cream shop are all back open.
MH: This (the ping pong bar) is back open and in full, obviously. The back bar is open, full bar.
But there was some confusion. There’s no place where there’s really three different branded places. It’s all Railgarten but I think it was like “is this one place or do we need to permit this separately?”
It’s one place. It’s all called Railgarten. We named stuff so, directionally, people can understand where to go. But it’s all owned by the same people. It’s the same LLC, the same investors in all of it. I think there was fuzziness, which, I think didn’t help us.
MF: Of course, you hope to get this all ironed out at the council and the Board of Adjustment and get open for a future weekend.
MH: Of course.
MF: That’s all I really had. Is there anything you want to add? Anything I left out?
MH: There were some moments when we wished we would’ve turned left when we turned right. But that’s hindsight and, like I said, we’re all in other projects and we are learning a bit as we go, unfortunately.
In spite of having a consultant and in spite of reading the zoning, we triggered the Midtown Overlay and, maybe, didn’t even realize when that happened.
The council is expecting us to meet some certain stipulations, some key issues they had wanted us to resolve before we come back on the 24th, parking being the obvious one.
There were some noise issues early on and we had a sound guy…it was kind of hard for us to know (how far the sound would travel). But people pointed out it was a little loud a little later and we got the sound guy in the next day and we fixed that. We’ve agreed to stop the music earlier.
There are some other stipulations and we’re like, “yeah, absolutely.” Tell us what we need to do to pass muster, get open permanently, and make everybody happy about this.
We want people to be excited. It’s for us, and it’s for Memphis, and our employees. We’ve employed 70 people and those are jobs we’re creating.
John Planchon, another Railgarten partner, added that "when we stacked and penetrated the containers, the city then considered the containers buildings, which we didn't know and we advised that it was OK by the land planner."
Also, Planchon said, that the city determined that the Midtown Overlay was triggered, and that the Railgarten team was "not consulted that this was the case."