The Downtown Memphis Commission is to issue a request for proposals June 15, but is taking steps already to find a new developer and life for the city’s tallest building.
“We’re at 12,300 steps,” Brett Roler announced midmorning Sunday, May 30. Roler had glanced at his Fitbit as he, a reporter and photographer descended 100 North Main Building’s dark stairwell.
This is the fifth or sixth tour up the 38 floors that the commission’s vice president has led since April.
Developers. Architects. Engineers. Public officials. Roler will take anyone who can help breathe new life into the dark, vacant, ransacked and vandalized skyscraper is welcome to take the guided hike.
He plans more tours, and soon. Summer is approaching, and climbing up the powerless tower in the heat may be too dangerous.
“Wear sturdy shoes,” Roler advised, because of all the broken glass.
“Wear a mask,” he said, because of the dusty stairwell.
“Bring a flashlight,” he said, because light is limited in the powerless building.
“Bring a water bottle,” he said, because of the exertion.
The 10 high-speed elevators – the five express ones ascended 700 feet per minute in their day – are useless now.
But Roler’s leadership made the challenge surprisingly doable for a reporter who hasn’t strenuously exercised since the pandemic started 14 months earlier.
Roler often stopped the stairwell climb to explore an entire, deserted floor. On Sunday, the trio caught their breath by wandering through floors 14, 18, 21, 25, 28, 30, 34, 35, 36 and 37.
Roler’s sunny curiosity elevated the dimly lit tour. “Let’s see what’s in here,” he said before opening the door to floor 30. “There’s a surprise around every corner.”
But the urban trek began with an orienting stroll around the entire block, followed by a pre-amble up the parking garage’s spiraling ramp.
Someone mentioned the oddity of a kitchen blender sitting on the ramp. Roler responded, “That’s not the weirdest thing you’re going to see.”
Right he was.
The skyscraper was placed on the National Register of Historic Places as a fine example of late International style architecture. But inside, the atmosphere created by darkness and massive evidence of misbehavior was more Gothic.
An unknowable number of humans have breached the tower since the last of the paying tenants left seven years ago.
The benign ones, perhaps, have been the urban explorers, who just wanted to be photographed illegally atop the city’s Mount Everest.
But the vandals have been ferocious.
Glass is their enemy, and they shattered a lot of it: Light fixtures; the small, square windows of every stairwell door; scores of exterior windows; glass partitions of desk cubicles; the plate glass separating the floor lobby from a law office’s reception desk.
The dining tables and chairs of the old Top of the 100 revolving, rooftop restaurant were hurled through the large, angled windows onto the gravel roof below.
Of all the wall-mounted, glass encasements for fire extinguishers on each floor, tour-takers on Sunday spotted only one that had not been shattered.
Graffiti marks much of the interior. From “Chance in yo pants” in the stairwell on floor 17 to “Don’t B A Democrat” on level 21.
Just as destructive have been the thieves of copper and other material of value. Gaping holes are punched through the sheetrock walls. Ceiling panels are torn away, and uncountable light fixtures dangle by their wires.
The stairwell’s concrete steps on the lower floors are consistently and mysteriously chipped in the middle of each step. Roler speculates that perhaps copper thieves damaged the stairs by dragging heavy objects down them.
The commission has taken a number of measures to secure the property since its Downtown Mobility Authority bought 100 North Main for $10.75 million earlier this year. But the preceding owners, including New York-based Townhouse Management, had allowed the building to sit vacant, deteriorate and be abused the past since 2014.
Roler had to unlock the outside gate and two more doors to get inside. Commission personnel monitor the fence twice daily for telltale damage and illegal entry.
But 100 North Main is so vast that the best way to secure the building is to populate it with tenants, Roler said.
Even the legal visitors left disturbing waste.
The Shelby County SWAT team has used the building for training. So on the floors are countless simulation cartridges, which have metal casings but paint instead of harmful bullets. And on numerous walls are posters with the target images of men with the kind of head scarfs that are perhaps worn by terrorists. Images of angry looking women pointing a gun are also used as targets.
A large knife lay ominously on one office floor.
Not that the skyscraper doesn’t shelter a ton of more benign, even humorous objects. Like the antique Battle Creek brand vibrating belt “fat shaker” in the massage room of the Tennessee Club on the penultimate floor.
The club’s space was of its time. At the rear of the dining area is a door marked, “Men’s Dining Room.”
Despite the daunting destruction, 100 North Main’s unrivaled views prevail over the darkness. By floor 30, the tour-takers could look down on the nearby Raymond James Tower.
If those south-facing offices were somehow turned into, say, apartments, the sight of the layered, gorgeous architecture of the Shrine Building, the Sterick Building, One Commerce Building and other towers would serve more like wall art as a window opening.
Coming with the purchase by the Downtown Mobility Authority was the entire, two-acre block on which the tower sits. Main, Adams, Second and Jefferson form the block. The property comprises the tower’s nine-level parking deck of about 400 spaces, an adjacent surface parking lot, and a row of historic buildings on Main built between 1890 and 1920.
The latest appraisal by CBRE counts 579,000 square feet of gross space, 429,000 of which is leasable, Roler said.
Despite all the interior destruction, Roler describes the property as “two acres of prime opportunity.”
“Within a five-minute walk of this there are 7.5 acres of surface parking lots … $428 million in property value, 1,200 people who live within a short walk, 713 hotel rooms,” he said.
Two blocks south is the newly renovated Renasant Convention Center. Two blocks west is the Mississippi River.
Left vacant, Roler said, “a building like this can harm the tax base and drive down property value. And it signals that disinvestment is OK, that we tolerate large vacant blight to go on. It discourages people from investing their hard-earned capital in our market.”
The request for proposals will ask questions about three areas, he said.
What is the developer’s experience in getting such projects completed and does the developer have the ability to attract capital and investors?
What is the developer’s vision for 100 North Main? The commission’s first goal is to save the tower. But if adaptive reuse is not proposed, what is the vision?
And what does the developer need to make the project a success? What public incentives, if any, are needed? And what would the developer pay for the property?