Memphis, TN: South Main Artspace Lofts

United Warehouse building

Photo courtesy of Artspace

How can a developing part of the city create artist housing as a way to ensure the area stays both vibrant and residential?

In a red-brick warehouse district just south of downtown Memphis on the banks of the Mississippi River, a vibrant gallery and studio scene started to emerge roughly two decades ago, led by artist “pioneers” to the area. A result of its success, however, is that today there are few affordable options for residential spaces. To counteract this effect and to help grow the residential population, the city set out to transform a 110- year old warehouse into affordable live/work units for artists. These efforts will help to catalyze the district’s local neighborhood base and add to the economic and cultural vibrancy that the area already possesses.


Sitting on the banks of the Mississippi River, Memphis is Tennessee’s largest city. When it was incorporated in 1826, it quickly became an important node in the thriving river-related commerce. One of the waterfront districts, South Main, is just south of the Memphis downtown area and is comprised of historic low-rise industrial buildings. The district is home to several landmarks, too, including the Central Station, the National Civil Rights Museum, and the popular Arcade Restaurant. In recent decades, the area has begun to transform into an arts district, with galleries and studios moving into many of its loft-like spaces.


After the Civil War, the city became a central area for people moving up through the Delta or on their way to northern cities. This confluence of people helped grow the rich Blues heritage that the city is known for and that later transformed into the genre of Rock and Roll. Today, Memphis has a young demographic; its median age is 34 and it is a majority-minority population of 63% African American. While the median household income is $37,207, the city also has a poverty rate of 24.1%. The arts play an important role in the economy; 1,174 arts- related businesses employ 7,637 people. With Memphis’ historical music legacy, artists and musicians have always been attracted to the city. Playing off this legacy, recent efforts in the city have resulted in more strategic focus on a cross section of stakeholders (government, public, corporate, philanthropic) and ensuring that artists continue to call Memphis home.


Even though the South Main area was becoming home to a growing number of galleries and studios, restaurants, and the city’s largest farmers market, there was a need for affordable artists housing since most housing in the area was for higher-end apartments. A survey by Artspace revealed that artists and musicians in Memphis needed more low/no cost performance venues and more working studio spaces. As a city the size of Houston with half the population, Memphis also suffers from a lack of density in some of its central areas. Recognizing that many artists like to live in creative communities, project planners knew that they could leverage the transformations already under way in the South Main area by inserting more performing and convening spaces and creating opportunities for artists to move to the area. The challenge was to create an environment where artists would want to live with their families – and to do it in a way that honored the history and character of the area.


Knowing the important role of the arts in stimulating economic development, the City of Memphis wanted to boost opportunities for artistic employment, along with creating live/work spaces. Within the South Main area, in particular, the city saw an opportunity to transform the former industrial area into a full-fledged arts district. Project partners identified the historic United Warehouse building, a three-story red-brick structure built in 1904, as a prime candidate for redevelopment. After working through various scenarios the final vision was to transform the building into 44 live/work affordable artist studios that could then become an anchor for the neighborhood. “We think it can have a catalytic effect to grow the South Main creative district,” said Wendy Holmes, a senior vice president at Artspace.

“THE WORLD WILL BE CHANGED BY THOSE WITH A BURNING PATIENCE.” - Purvuian saying, and mantra of project manager Gretchen Wollert McLennon


To do the work of development, the city turned to Minneapolis-based Artspace, a non-profit company with a national profile that develops art-related spaces. “We’re not like a for-profit developer who comes into town and speculates,” Holmes said. “We’re about creating a sustainable space that’s affordable for artists for the long term.” One of the building’s neighbors, the Memphis College of Art Graduate School, is an enthusiastic supporter of the project as many of its graduates could directly benefit. The project was also fortunate to have the Hyde Family Foundation help lead a major fundraising effort to support the development.


Artspace’s plan was to first renovate the 65,000-square- foot United Warehouse building, followed by new construction adjacent to it. To do this, the non-profit applied for low-income housing tax credits before starting construction. They also knew that it was very important to correctly gauge the priorities and needs for studio spaces, so they conducted a survey of area artists. Based on the results of the survey Artspace did to assess the needs of the local arts community, the final plan called for the inclusion of 44 live/work units, 6,000 square feet of commercial space, 22,000 square feet of community space, and include one-, two- and three- bedroom units, plus studios. They made sure to value the units at 30-60% of the area’s median income. After the project team hired a local architect to see what the space could look like, they discovered a major bayou running under the land, and so had to create a plaza on the first level and develop the building at an angle.


Once it’s complete, the South Main Artspace Lofts will be able to add much needed affordable artist live/work spaces in the area. This project will also contribute to changing the character of the place by transforming a daytime gallery district into more of a 24-hour residential neighborhood, thus helping the area to “fire on all cylinders” said project manager Gretchen Wollert McLennon. By having a permanent community of mixed-demographic residents, the project will encourage a sense of vibrancy throughout the area. It is also hoped that the project will have a stimulating effect on the economy and will help keep the city’s significant art talent from moving elsewhere.


Getting to the place where the City could begin to put shovels to the ground was not always easy. To keep the project in budget, Artspace had to secure affordable housing tax credits in a very competitive process. On the first try, it did not secure the credits, which set back the project timeline. Kerry Hayes, Special Assistant for Research and Innovation at the City of Memphis, advised others undertaking a similar project to be prepared as, “it will take longer to materialize than you originally hoped or envisioned.” The city persisted, though, and eventually was successful in obtaining the credits.


South Main Artspace Lofts
Overview document on the Artspace website

Memphis picks South Main building for ArtSpace project
Article in the Memphis Business Journal

Artlounge on the Dock – Announcement
A flier announcing one of the predevelopment community engagement activities