By: Michelle Matthews
At a Thursday morning project unveiling in the lobby of the former Merchants National Bank building, Elizabeth Stevens, president and chief executive officer of the Downtown Mobile Alliance, said the new Merchants Plaza is a $30 million development on one acre of land.
"This is a big deal," she said, comparing the investment to Amazon's recently announced $30 million sortation facility on 31 acres in Mobile County. "It's an example of the power of density as we rebuild the city."
An entire city block of downtown Mobile, bordered by St. Francis, St. Joseph, St. Michael and Royal streets, will be transformed. The project includes five buildings that will become a multi-use development encompassing 225,000 total square feet.
The 18-story former Merchants National Bank building was the first skyscraper built on the Gulf Coast, according to Stephen McNair of Mobile's McNair Historic Preservation, who is advising on the project to fully capitalize on federal and state historic tax credit programs.
The building will become 84 upscale loft apartments, while an adjacent eight-story office building will be renovated into 80,000 square feet of Class "A" office space. The first floors of all the buildings will offer commercial, retail and restaurant space.
According to Stevens, some 350 employees will work in the office building, while 100 or more residents are expected to live in the apartments.
"This is a building full of many stories," she said. When the historic building is given new life, there will be "an opportunity for more stories."
The building was purchased two months ago by Memphis, Tenn.-based Heritage Land and Development Inc., which specializes in restoring historic buildings in the Southeast.
The architectural plans, which were displayed in the lobby, were developed by The Crump Firm Inc. of Memphis.
Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson addressed the curious crowd that assembled to learn more about the project. "Until we have more people living downtown, we'll never really transform it," he said. Someone recently referred to Merchants Plaza as both "the chicken and the egg."
"This project will do so much for our community, will bring so much downtown to keep it on a roll," said the mayor. "Generational opportunities are going on. Anytime there's the opportunity of a lifetime, you have to seize it."
Mobile City Council President Gina Gregory said that the plans will make "a local landmark... as competitive and relevant as when it first opened." The building was dedicated in 1929. The renovation, she said, will create "more momentum that will have a ripple effect" across the city.
"The outpouring of support here is amazing," said Will Yandell, president of Heritage Land and Development.
He said that he and his business partner, John Glassell, chose Mobile because it has "the right environment and leadership." They see "huge potential" in the Merchants National Bank building itself.
"We also look at the trajectory of the city and the strength of its businesses," he said, citing Austal, Amazon, Airbus and Mobile's burgeoning tourism industry. "We really feel good about Mobile and downtown."
Yandell said construction will begin after the first of the year, and he expects the project to be complete in 18 to 24 months.
He is already negotiating with a potential tenant who wants to lease three floors of the office building, and a restaurant is interested in the first floor, he said.
"We're excited about the potential here," he said.