Land cleared for $350-million Oxford Commons project

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Published: April 25,2005

Oxford — Land has been cleared for Oxford Commons, a $350-million commercial, residential, hospitality and entertainment development project that will cover some 565 acres on the east side of the old university town and feature a mixed-use square that, to a great extent, replicates Oxford’s historic square.

The project is adjacent to the Oxford Conference Center and has 120 to 140 acres of frontage along Highway 7. In the past, Oxford’s commercial development has been in West Oxford, where Wal-Mart is located.

Oxford Commons will be built in segments over a 10-year period, according to Kenny Farrell, one of the two partners in Kenlan Development of Memphis, which is developing the project. His partner is Lance Forsdick.

“We had our engineers survey the Oxford square and found that it’s 380 feet across, not counting the court house,” Farrell said. “Our square will be approximately 300 feet across, with a 35-room hotel in the center. The hotel will be modeled on the historic courthouse. It won’t be an exact replica but will have a strong relationship to the courthouse architecture.”

(There will be three additional hotels in the development.)

Farrell said that the square in Oxford Commons will create the same mixed-use concept as the original square and will be also be surrounded by two- and three-story buildings. There will be retail stores and restaurants on the ground floor and condos on the second and third floors.

“We want to create a town within a town, with the town square being a point of inspiration.”

None of the retail stores have been named yet, but Farrell said that the type of stores will include home improvement, bed linens, fashion (both general and women’s) and electronics. The types of restaurants will run from drive-thru (though not on the square) to sit-down casual to formal.

There will also be a 10-screen cinema complex with stadium seating and an amphitheater for warm-weather viewing.

“This is a concept that’s developing across the country,” Farrell said. “Not to renovate and redevelop the old downtowns but to build new town centers within the city limits. It’s called the New Urbanism Movement. It features the relationship of pedestrians to the market environment and can include such amenities as bicycle and foot paths.”

Farrell said that it’s a concept of the ancient Greeks that was carried on into the Romans’ building around piazzas, so that “there’s a civility there, a synergy with the market place also being a gathering place.”

The architect for this first phase of Oxford Commons is Looney Ricks Kiss Inc. of Memphis. The contractor is Grace Construction of Memphis.

In addition to the condos on the square, when the development is finished, Farrell said, some 1,000 to 2,000 residences will have been built. These include row houses along a ridge and townhouses. At that time, some 400 acres will be left and Farrell indicated that use for this land is still being assessed.

“The townhouses will have from zero to four acres of land,” according to Clay Short, a Tupelo broker involved with the Oxford Commons development. He added they will be built around two lakes on the property.

Short said that the square in Oxford Commons, while not an exact replica of the historic downtown square, “continues and perpetuates what Oxford has already done so well.”

Max Hipp, executive director of the Oxford Chamber of Commerce, said that the development with a square as a focal point was “a very challenging concept and we’re excited about something this large on the east side of town.”

Farrell emphasized that the quality of the space — a town square — depended on the relationship between the width and length of the square and the height of the buildings around the square that provide enclosure but also give a sense of expansiveness. “It’s important that people don’t feel smothered or squeezed by the buildings but the space shouldn’t be so open that you have no sense of being in a definite, enclosed space,” he said.

As for the restaurants in the development, Farrell said that Wendy’s has already obtained one of the out-spaces. Strong possibilities for other restaurants include Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Chili’s, On the Border and Macaroni Grill.

“During the third week in May, we’ll attend the annual convention of the ICSC (International Conference of Shopping Centers) in Las Vegas and secure retail outlets for the square.”

Oxford Commons is not the only Mississippi project that Kenlan is developing or that’s on the horizon. Such a project, focusing on a city’s unique history for a theme, is already underway in Tupelo. Other places under consideration include Hattiesburg, Meridian, Vicksburg, Holly Springs, Grenada and, later, possibly the Gulf Coast.

Just as Kenlan keyed on Oxford’s long history — it was founded in the 1830s — for its theme, in Tupelo, the developers are using the city’s industrial development past.

The City of Oxford is building an elementary school on the same land parcel, but the school’s 15 acres, as well as the land for the conference center, was bought from the parcel’s owner prior to the Oxford Commons project.

Contact MBJ contributing writer at George McNeill at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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