Crosstown Memphis - Built on History, Powered by Renewal
By Gerry Glenn Jones
Photography courtesy of Chad Mellon and used with permission from Todd Richardson
Restored beyond its original grandeur, the once dilapidated Sears distribution center has a new life as the Memphis Crosstown Concourse – a mixed-use vertical urban village.
Who says the dead can’t be brought back to life; the Memphis Crosstown Concourse building is a perfect example of a modern reincarnation. This behemoth – located at 1350 Concourse Ave – contains 1.2 million square feet of space and is a direct descendant of the Sears distribution center which opened in Memphis on August 27, 1927. Its demise came in 1993.
Although the Great Depression was looming at the doorstep of America, that didn’t stop the mail-order giant, Sears, Roebuck & Company, from planning for the future. While some businesses were cutting back to prepare for whatever uncertainty lay ahead, Sears continued to build large mail-order processing warehouses for their thriving mail-order business. Most had retail capabilities, also.
Like many other U.S. cities, Memphis was growing and thus, was chosen by Sears to build its eighth catalog distribution warehouse, which would also serve as a retail outlet. It was located at Crosstown, which was at the time, a suburban neighborhood. The cost of the original Sears construction was $5 million, and on opening day, over 25,000 shoppers visited the center, and when it reached its pinnacle in business, around 45,000 catalog orders left the facility every day. Not only did it have this distinction, but it was also the largest building in Memphis at that time, with over 600,000 square feet of internal space and more than 1,000 employees.
The Art Deco-style building consisted of 10 floors, with 14 floors in the tower. This was an elaborate style that was not just found in buildings, but was also seen in the manufacture of jewelry, ocean liners, cars, movie theaters, furniture and many other luxury items made at that time. It appeared first in France in the early 20th century, and can be seen in many New York skyscrapers, including the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center, the General Electric Building and many others.
Over the years, Sears made five additions to the building. In 1983 the Sears Crosstown retail business closed, but the distribution center continued until 1993 when it closed also. Its demise was caused by the development of other large retail stores that carried a large variety of clothing, hardware, leisure products, as well as food items under one roof, and at a discounted price.
The building sat abandoned for 17 years, before Crosstown Arts, a 501(c)3 non-profit, was formed in 2010 to facilitate its redevelopment. Arts and culture would be the catalyst for change.
Todd Richardson, co-leader of the project, explained the vision for the project was created by a conglomerate group of people brought together to complete a year-long feasibility study.
When the deal was being worked out to use the original Sears structure for prefabrication into the Crosstown Concourse, planners realized it could be much more than a retail structure. By combining education, health care, arts, retail, office and community living into what the developers called a mixed-use vertical urban village, it became “a city inside a city.” At a reported cost for renovation of $200 million, the project outweighed the original Sears construction by $195 million dollars.
“Construction on the building is mostly complete,” says Richardson. “We have two new structures next door to Concourse that are under construction; a 425-seat performing arts theater and gymnasium for Crosstown High School. There are also some office spaces and retail spaces inside the building that aren’t totally finished yet.”
According to Richardson, the Crosstown Concourse is a private development headed by himself and McLean Wilson, who do not use the term CEOs, but rather consider themselves co-leaders. He also stated that Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, and the Memphis City Council and Shelby County Commission have been receptive and supportive of the project from the beginning.
The directory of the building lists the following as businesses already open: Area 51 Ice Cream, A Step Ahead Foundation, Cheryl Pace, Church Health, CBU, City Leadership, The Curb Market, Crosstown Arts, Crosstown Back Pain Institute, Crosstown Back Pain Institute, Crosstown Dental Group, Farm Burger, FedEx office, Focal Point, French Truck Coffee, G4S, Gloss Nail Bar, Juice Bar, Madison Pharmacy, Mama Gaia, Memphis Education Fund, Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare, MTR – Memphis Teacher Residency, Mempops, NexAir Crosstown, Next Door – American Eatery, The Poplar Foundation, The Pyramid Peak Foundation, So Nuts Confections, Suntrust Bank, St. Judes Children’s Research Hospital, Tanenbaum Dermatology Center, TeachforAmerica, Tech 901, Temple Israel Crosstown, The Urban Child Institute and the YMCA.
“The Parcels apartment community on the upper floors contain 265 apartments, which are 97 percent leased,” said Richardson. “Since Concourse began construction, a few new businesses have either moved into the surrounding neighborhood or made plans to move to the neighborhood soon, including the Tennessee Karate Institute, brg3 architects, Black Lodge, My City Rides, Alzheimer’s & Dementia Services and The Atomic Tiki.” Says Richardson.
In addition, overnight and short-term rental options are offered in furnished apartments through Layover at Concourse. A variety of events – from cooking classes, live music, and art receptions – are already going strong. A schedule of upcoming events is on the Crosstown Concourse website.
With any project of this magnitude, additional businesses usually migrate nearby. Richardson added, “This fall, Crosstown High will welcome its first batch of students; all ninth graders selected by lottery. The school will add a grade per year until it’s a full-service high school. In addition, in the fall, the Crosstown Arts Performing Arts Theatre will open its doors on the north side of the building.”
He also commented on parking and security, “There are 1,900 spaces onsite — 1,200 of which are in a garage next to the building. Ample handicapped and short-term parking options are available, including a mixture of one-hour and two-hour spots for our retail and restaurant patrons. Also, G4S Security Solutions provides security for building and campus.”
Some of the other amenities include close vicinity to the interstate highway systems, availability of nearby bus and trolley transportation and access to the Vollintine-Evergreen (V&E) Greenline.
The unique reincarnation of a once dilapidated building, which has been restored beyond its original grandeur, is worth a visit. You can shop, eat, listen to live music, take a class, or just spend the night in a luxurious loft. After all, you’re coming into a city within a city.
For information on Crosstown Concourse, visit crosstownconcourse.com.