It’s a Memphis landmark that many loved, but nobody could save.
Developers had been looking at the Tennessee Brewery, crunching the numbers and backing off for the better part of 60 years.
But Billy Orgel saw opportunity in a wellspring of public affection for the castle-like building perched on the bluff overlooking the Mississippi River.
He made it the centerpiece of an ambitious, $42 million mixed-use development that covers 2½ acres where the brewery complex once sprawled.
Three and a half years later, Orgel and partners are closing in on completion by Dec. 31 of 166 apartments, office and retail space, paired with a 339-space public parking garage.
More than half of the apartments are pre-leased, at monthly rents ranging from $800 to more than $3,000, including 42 units in the 1890 brewery building. A second phase of 128 apartments is in the works across the street.
'No one could figure out how to do it'
Orgel, a cell phone tower developer and investor in Downtown apartment projects, said it has been challenging but he has no regrets.
“It’s a great building. Otherwise you’d sit here forever vacant. The building might have been torn down, and you’d sit here with a vacant lot. People speculate on land, and they just let it sit and they try to develop it and it doesn’t work out. That’s what happened with this building. No one could ever figure out how to do it,” Orgel said.
Orgel got hooked during Untapped, a pop-up beer garden that drew 20,000 people in April-May 2014.
The building was under threat of demolition.The previous owner saved it from imminent destruction 15 years earlier, invested heavily to stabilize and weatherproof it and entertained a series of development proposals that didn’t pan out.
Untapped spotlighted possibilities
By early 2014 the property was on the market and word was out it would be torn down if a viable developer didn’t come forward. Untapped was organized to show the space had commercial value.
“We were clearly motivated by the threat of tearing it town,” said Doug Carpenter of creative communications firm DCA, which was part of Untapped.
“We created a situation that demonstrated the commercial viability and vitality and the attraction of people to the building, as a way to actually save the historic structure,” Carpenter said. “Sometimes the philosophy of saving a building without a realistic plan for activation doesn’t do much good.”
“We couldn’t have predicted how well it turned out,” Carpenter said. “When he’s done, that part of town, that did not have that much vitality, will be fairly well inhabited with commercial and residential enterprises.”
Solution defied developers
The brewery, dating to the 1870s, was once one of the largest in the South and was perhaps best known for Goldcrest 51 beer before it closed in 1954. The ground floor served a metal salvage and recycling business for 25 years before the building went completely vacant in 1981.
Nearly all the would-be developers over the years didn't look beyond the decaying historic Romanesque Revival structure.
Real estate agent Skip Miller was part of a group that explored a condominium project in 2004. “The numbers didn’t really work. I think Orgel was able to piece together two or three pieces of property. That’s what we reached the conclusion it would have taken.”
“I’m proud of it and happy for him,” Miller added. “It’s a good use.”
Orgel: Go big or go home
Orgel’s group, which includes Jay Lindy and Adam Slovis, bought adjoining property and assembled incentives: parking garage, tax abatement, federal historic preservation tax credits and city assistance on replacing century-old utility infrastructure.
“The way to do it was to make it bigger, do more units and do density,” Orgel said.
“If you just came in here and said I’m going to redo the Brewery, it never would have worked,” Orgel said. “The economy of it wasn’t good. With all those incentives, it’s still a very average real estate deal," Orgel said.
The project consists of the historic Brewery and the Wash House, six stories of new construction, both on the west side of Tennessee; the Bottle Shop, garage plus 18 apartments, all leased, on the east side; and the planned Tap Room, four stories of new construction, next to the Bottle Shop.
The Brewery will house Orgel’s firm Tower Ventures’ 15 employees in 10,000 square feet of office space spread over five levels, and a first-floor beer garden-type restaurant that could open in the first half of 2018. Commercial space in the Bottle Shop will house an I Love Juice Bar.
The Brewery and Wash House are connected on multiple levels so residents can share amenities. Many units have river views that get better on upper floors.
Brewery's flavor shines through
Looney Ricks Kiss Architects designed the Wash House with an interior, open-air courtyard that mirrors the courtyard in the historic building.
The Brewery's units are unconventional and varied, because of the mishmash of spaces in the former brewing operation. It has lots of exposed brick, large, deep window frames with masonry sills, soaring ceilings, splashes of graffiti and industrial remnants such as pulleys and a large grain hopper.
Orgel estimated there are 150-200 new windows in the old building..
One unit occupies a former grain elevator. A three-level unit has stairs lead up to a rooftop deck with a panoramic Mississippi River view beyond a graffiti-covered parapet wall.
Jennifer Oswalt, president of the Downtown Memphis Commission, said Orgel’s project checks a lot of boxes.
“The Tennessee Brewery has long been a high priority for the DMC. The completion marks what is sure to be a catalytic transformation in a key area of Downtown and a great example of adaptive reuse,” she said.
From relic to revival
Oswalt said pre-leasing shows "the demand and excitement for projects like this. And when fully leased, more than 300 people will call Tennessee Brewery home, as will at least two retail tenants, which will add density and further improve the mix in the neighborhood."
Judith Johnson, a preservation consultant and former Memphis Heritage executive director, said Orgel “had the money and the talent and the experience to come along and take on the project. Being local, he was really committed to the sense of place.”
“If Orgel hadn’t been able to come in and make that work, at some point it would had to have been taken down,” Johnson said.
Orgel said infrastructure has been the biggest challenge, “getting it coordinated, which they’ve done a great job of, city engineering has done a great job. MLGW has been a big help. You’ve got stuff that’s been in the ground over 100 years and you start digging up the street. “
The city helped with $2.5 million for water, sewer and electrical infrastructure.
Units leasing quickly
The biggest surprise? “How quickly they’ve leased up. There was a lot of interest in the building and that’s how we got involved in it at the beginning, by coming to Untapped three and a half years ago and seeing the building."
Leasing information can be found at atthebrewery.com. Fogelman Management Group is handling leasing.
Orgel said contractor Montgomery Martin was at more than 80 percent completion in early November and he was confident they'd meet a Dec. 31 deadline. The first residents are due to arrive in in January.
Contact reporter Wayne Risher at (901) 529-2874 or email@example.com.