More than a thousand Memphians gathered on Feb. 21 to witness the groundbreaking of the newly christened Crosstown Concourse
, one of the city's most ambitious projects, which promises a resurrection for the long-abandoned Sears Crosstown building.
Cold temperatures, a steady rain, and sharp winds aside, several hundred attended the event.
Several of the event speakers noted that the $115.3 million undertaking signals a resurrection for the community as a whole. The ceremony marks 88 years since the initial groundbreaking of the Sears, Roebuck, & Co. Distribution Center. After lying abandoned for 20 years, the building is getting a new lease on life as a community hub and catalyst for innovation and the arts.
Converting the 1.5-million-square-foot space will create 1,000 construction jobs, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton said. Eight hundred employees will be needed to service the multi-use vertical urban village once it's up and running in 2017. Todd Richardson, co-leader of the Crosstown Development Team, expects 3,000 people in daily traffic.
McLean Wilson, the team's additional co-leader, admits that many investment groups were skeptical of the project. This "resurrection story," he said, focuses on an empty building in a forgotten neighborhood in a city that "because of the recession was not yet back on the map for real estate investment."
An artist rendering shows the future plans for Crosstown Concourse.
Five years from Crosstown Arts's
initial speculation about re-purposing the building, a bundle of 30 different financial sources closed on the project--and some have an eye toward further Memphis development.
David Gorleku with the Goldman Sachs Urban Investment
group said, "Hopefully all the partners and relationships that we have made while looking at this project will serve as footholds to really enter into Memphis and do much more investing down here in this incredible town."
Several high profile presenters helped to celebrate the groundbreaking.
The project even drew federal praise. Annie Donovan, Director of the U.S. Treasury's Community Development Financial Institutions, called Crosstown Concourse a "testament of why this project (New Markets Tax Credit Program
) works, and the more we can support it, the better."
Richardson and Wilson announced the new name--Crosstown Concourse--to wild fanfare. Uniformed train conductors ushered in the new brand as Memphis' distribution center for ideas, community and growth.
"It's beautiful today to see the resurrection of this great facility for what it can be," declared Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell Jr. to a packed house--or rather, a packed tent. Rainy weather couldn't dampen the carnival atmosphere. People sampled refreshments from the Hi-Tone Café
and Crosstown Brewery
, a soon-to-be tenant to the revitalized neighborhood. Several other local businesses opened their doors to welcome the wave of community enthusiasts.
Among many vendors and volunteers, Crosstown Arts provided a craft table for the children.
Armed with their unique Crosstown Concourse passports, eager Memphians traversed North Cleveland and North Watkins streets, carrying out the Crosstown Development Team's vision for a vibrant, interconnected neighborhood.
And what's the next stop on Crosstown Concourse's journey? Construction on the building began in January and will perpetuate for the next two years. A year from now tenants will begin their individual build-outs, Richardson said in a later interview. Sixteen businesses have already claimed 65 percent of the 1.5 million square feet.
The architectural updates are extensive. Multiple open atria and light wells will bring in natural light and embody Crosstown Concourse's vision of intersectionality. A dramatic 25- by 60-foot theater stair will stretch from the second to the third floor. Richardson described it as "A place in the central hub that does the intermixing and intermingling that we hope will happen, but it will be programmed in order to facilitate that." Tenants and Crosstown Arts artists in residence will share their insights in daily lunch lectures.
Several light wells will also illuminate the 270 residential apartments in the upper floors. "When you come in the main entrance, you'll see sky," Richardson added.
However, Richardson assures that the character of the art deco exterior will remain intact, in accordance with receiving historic tax credits. The 19-acre site will fulfill the Crosstown Development Team's vision of "intentionally creating unexpected opportunities." The south side of the building, which is presently a parking lot, will be turned into a public plaza with a water feature and canopies for food truck gatherings. The second open green space on the north side is "about 70 percent of a football field."
An artist rendering of the newly refurbished Crosstown Concourse.
The site plan also connects to the Vollintine & Evergreen Greenline. The Mid-South Regional Greenprint Committee helped to design an extension for the pedestrian path from its southeastern terminus at North Parkway. $15 million in funds from the City of Memphis and $5 million from Shelby County will go toward infrastructure updates including sidewalks, traffic signals and utility upgrades.
"These tenants aren't just going in the building to occupy space so their employees can get work done and leave. They're all providing incredible resources like healthcare, wellness, a fitness facility, arts and education. All of these things are going to be readily accessible to the surrounding neighborhoods." Richardson also envisions a couple of restaurants, a coffee shop, a bakery, a "small footprint urban grocer," and a FedEx office in the 60,000 square feet of retail space.
The eight "founding partners" that dedicated themselves to the project in 2012 include the Church Health Center, Crosstown Arts, Gestalt Community Schools, Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, Memphis Teacher Residency, ALSAC and St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. More recent additions to the flock include A Step Ahead Foundation, Christian Brothers University, City Leadership, Crosstown Back Institute, the Excel Center for Adult Learners, the Poplar Foundation, the Pyramid Peak Foundation, Southern College of Optometry and Teacher Town, USA.
"When you're trying to communicate a vision that's creating a whole neighborhood in one building, sometimes that's difficult. Believability was the first hurdle. The second, without a doubt, was financing," Richardson added.
Richardson announced the new name—Crosstown Concourse—to wild fanfare.
Securing the financing is a major relief to the Crosstown Development Team. Now the community waits for the unveiling of Memphis' 10-story gem and the inevitable polishing and brightening it will bring to the Crosstown neighborhood and the city's reputation.
"This project and those who have helped us get here truly challenge this idea that those in America are quick to fall back on: that once a neighborhood or an area or even a city starts to descend, it should be written off in favor of what's next," Wilson said in his closing remarks at the groundbreaking. "Instead, what we've done is look inward and take stock of what we excel in and surround it with the resolve to do that which is important and that which is meaningful."