It Takes a Village

proposed buildingThe Sears Crosstown building is being redeveloped and preserved into Crosstown Concourse, a mixed-use urban village.


You've probably heard about it. You've probably even seen it—the massive, historic Sears Crosstown Distribution Center in Midtown that until recently had become an eyesore and huge waste of space. Like thousands of other Memphians, you've probably wondered,
"How cool would it be if they did something with that building?"

Dr. Todd Richardson, associate professor of art history at the University of Memphis, and the Crosstown Development team did more than just talk about it. Richardson said the idea to redevelop the property came to him while working on an artist residency program with video artist Christopher Miner. "What initially piqued my interest was a simple conversation with the building's owners, Staley and Elizabeth Cates, that started with, 'Wouldn't it be cool if...?'" Richardson explained. "While I love academia, it quickly became clear to me that I needed to get involved in the community in a more meaningful way. At the time, I didn't know what that might look like, but as an art his-torian, I understood the power of art to engage minds and build community." We said, "What if something amazing could happen at Sears Crosstown? And what if art was the catalyst? That was enough to engage my research training, and I set out to determine whether anything like this had ever been done."

Sears, Roebuck & Co. closed all its distribution centers across the country between 1990-1994 (there were originally ten of these hulking structures). The Crosstown location, which also included a retail store, has sat abandoned for 20 years.

"At 1.5 million square feet, the Sears Crosstown distribution center is the largest commercial build-ing in the city of Memphis—by a long shot," Richardson said. "It's bigger than 25 football fields, bigger than the Chrysler Building in New York. In spite of its art-deco beauty and central location, it has been abandoned for almost 20 years."

In 2010, Crosstown Arts was created to push the redevel-opment of the building. The non-profit organization uses arts and culture as a catalyst for change. Earlier this year, the planning, designing and campaigning paid off. A ground-breaking event was held for the $200 million project to redevelop and preserve the 87-year-old buildingåç that will become Crosstown Concourse, a mixed-use vertical urban village. The project is expected to be completed by early 2017.

The initial development team was composed of experts in development, engineering, architecture and design, marketing and communications, and the arts. The group expanded to include a master architect, general contractor and a team of attorneys. By 2014, there were more than 50 people working on the project.

"The key word here is team," Richardson said. "This project has never been about a single person or preconceived redevelopment vision. Everything has evolved organically, just like an art project. We had to paint over our canvas and start anew many times, but the end result is much better than anything we could have imagined when we began."

A major undertaking, the project has received 30 sources of funding from a variety of financial partners. The economic impact
of the project is enormous, with 1,000 construction jobs needed to revamp the building, providing $36 million in wages. There will be 800 new permanent jobs with $50 million per year in wages. The Crosstown development team expects to see about 3,000 people coming in and out of Crosstown Concourse daily.

Located on the southwest corner of the Cleveland and North Parkway intersection in Midtown Memphis, Crosstown Concourse is already 65 percent pre-leased according to McLean Wilson, a co-leader on the redevelopment and a principal at Kemmons Wilson Companies.

In addition, there will be 270 loft-style apartments, including one, two and three bedroom units, on floors 7-10 of the building, as well as a small grocery, pharmacy, coffee shop, fitness center, teaching kitchen, art gallery, shared art-making labs, technology training center and traditional office space. This collection of future residents is in line with the vision of Crosstown Concourse. Building on three of Memphis' strongest community assets—arts, education and healthcare–people will be living and working, learning and teaching, healing and growing, creating and recreating, shopping and eating.

"Rather than look at the building simply as space to be filled, we saw it as an opportunity to create something new," Richardson said. "By juxtaposing arts organizations with healthcare providers, schools and restaurants with residential and retail, we're taking all the elements of a great neighborhood and stacking them vertically...hence the term 'vertical urban village.'"

Founding tenants like St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, Crosstown Arts, the Church Health Center, and Memphis Teacher Residency committed to the project because they believe they'll be better together. Rather than operating in silos, they want to work together, sharing knowledge, resources, programming and common spaces.

That dream presented some design challenges. The reality is that we gravitate to people who look like us and think like us, spaces that are familiar and comfortable. So, according to Richardson, the driving design question was how to create a built environment that generates opportunities for spontaneous interactions among diverse people and ideas.

That led to some drastic moves like sacrificing more than 200,000-square-feet of rentable space to build three atriums. These common spaces, which extend through all 10 floors of the building, are designed to create shared experiences and unexpected interactions among tenants and neighbors.

"For example, a 60x100 foot atrium will serve as the heart of the building, where people will arrive to start their journey. A 25-foot wide theater staircase connecting the second and third floors is just one location of many where people can interact and experience public lectures, presentations and live music," he said.

Community buy-in is important to the success of a project of this magnitude. Richardson explained that he started small with "one conversation at a time. If there's one thing I've learned, it's that there's no shortcut to building meaningful support. It requires time, patience and a willingness to deviate from preconceived plans. From the beginning, our motto has been to use 'building' as both a noun and a verb. Obviously, the project is about renovating
a building, but it's also about building community. And that imperative has driven everything about the project, from architecture and design to our choice of tenants and our engagement with neighborhood stakeholders. Simply put: If the development is a commercial success, but the community around it remains poor and underserved, then we've failed."

Richardson said he and Wilson both say that success is not breaking ground or opening day. Success is 10 years from now, when tenants are renewing their leases, the vertical village is thriving and the surrounding communities are vibrant.

"I hope the project is a source of inspiration and courage," he said. "Our journey over the past five years is one of those clichéd, underdog stories of passion and conviction confronted by skeptical snickers, laughter and the predictable response: 'You want to do what?! In Memphis? Yeah, good luck with that.' Despite the building's beloved history, prime location and iconic status, no one believed it could ever be redeveloped, much less transformed from debilitating blight into a community asset. The unlikely ending is the most miraculous part. A one million square foot former distribution center in a severely disinvested area where the poverty rate extends beyond 30% and unemployment is triple the city's average will be resurrected not as an office complex, industrial park or sports arena, but as a mixed-use vertical urban village."

Although it might seem unusual that an art historian would take on one of the largest commercial real estate projects this city has ever seen, Richardson credits three important skills from his liberal arts train-ing that have been instrumental in helping him lead the development team—critical thinking, information management and connecting the dots.

The ability to think critically makes him question processes and information and not just take things at face value. "Higher education is not just about learning in-formation, it's about creating new knowledge." He believes that, "Assumptions and standard ways of doing things become habits that are obstacles to originality."

On a project of this scale, the amount of information is staggering, so management is key. "The ability to process an enormous amount of complicated information from across professions—design, finance, legal, communications, politics and leasing—and discuss it with a diverse range of people in a concise and understandable way is probably the most important skill one can have for a project like this. The only reason I wasn't intimidated and completely overwhelmed was my experience writing a Ph.D. dissertation and teaching."

Finally, Richardson had to be able to interconnect seemingly disparate ideas across various professions and practices. He explains that this is a skill especially important for an education in art history. To understand visual communication, it is necessary to consider other components of the culture, such as religion, politics and economics. Interweaving information from multiple disciplines in order to interpret a work of art creates a habit of mind that is flexible and comfortable navigating unfamiliar territory.

"Over the last five years, I've had the privilege of engaging conversations in design, politics, economics, community development, real estate, leasing and law," Richardson said. "Art history gave me the intellectual courage to do so." For more information about the project, go to crosstownconcourse.com.