Between the World Wars, Sears built 10 giant centers around the country. The one-to-three million square foot fortresses served as department store, regional office and fulfillment center for the catalog business. As Sears’ business dwindled in the early 1990s, the centers were closed. Most sat idle for years. Three were eventually demolished. The one in Seattle became the headquarters of Starbucks. Some turned into condos. The one in Memphis turned into the most interesting adapted use project in America.
Just before the Great Recession, in 2007, Staley Cates bought the vacant Sears Crosstown 1.5 million-square-foot building for $3 million—a steal on a square foot basis, but a disaster of a building in a blighted and forgotten neighborhood.
In 2010, art history professor Todd Richardson and video artist Christopher Miner formed Crosstown Arts to work with Cates to both inspire the redevelopment of the old Sears building and invigorate Memphis’ creative community. Along with development and design professionals, they worked on a feasibility plan during the day; with the help of additional grants, Miner and Richardson hosted art, music and maker events at night. A plan for a contemporary arts center ermerged—maybe a portion of the building could be an arts and music mecca with performance and gallery spaces.
The feasibility study made two things clear: funding would have to come from multiple sources (city, county, state, federal, philanthropic, and private), and most of the building would need to be pre-leased to get it off the ground. These conclusions, amid growing community interest, led to a new vision of a ‘vertical urban village’ with a mixture of residences, restaurants, health, education, art and cultural venues. By the end of 2012, eight local organizations including Church Health, Memphis Teacher Residency, Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital had committed to lease over 400,000 square feet of space in the building. A host of highly regarded organizations saw the value of being “better together” with Crosstown Arts in what became Crosstown Concourse.
Church Health sponsors a huge YMCA facility on the second floor (below)