The groundbreaking for the newly christened Crosstown Concourse on Saturday was just a ceremony. But the $200 million transformation of the old Sears Crosstown building has already caused an economic and social ground-shaking in the long-suffering Crosstown neighborhood squeezed between Midtown and I-40.
It’s a vertical, mixed-use development that marries big Memphis money, proven Memphis developers and aspirations that are almost utopian.
Grand opening is two years away, yet the first 16 tenants to commit already consume 65 percent of the 1.1 million square feet.
The goal of Crosstown Concourse is not just to shelter occupants and collect the rent, but to build community and collaboration. The interior redesign throws strangers together and provides space where old friends or recent acquaintances could bump into each other.
Art will be the catalyst.
“Someone working in the ALSAC contact center – (one of the tenants) – is going to walk past a contemporary art gallery every day going to work,” said Todd Richardson, co-leader of the redevelopment. “That’s not the case now. Our hope is they will be exposed to things and have conversations they wouldn’t have otherwise.”
Outside the building that hovers over the intersection of Watkins and North Parkway, the big investment has already stoked community-building from investors, businesses and people who want to live close to all the new action.
The cozy home Donna Palmer purchased 14 years ago for less than $40,000 backs up to the former Sears warehouse that has been vacant more than two decades but is now a beehive for 300 construction workers.
The letter she and some neighbors on Forrest received mid-December from a real estate investor didn’t mince words:
“Dear Donna Palmer, My name is Robert Thompson, and I am interested in purchasing your property…”
Palmer set her price at $200,000 – the investor declined – in part because she’s not interested in leaving all the music, lectures, book signings, art exhibits, festivals and other activities that Crosstown Arts started bringing to the neighborhood several years ago.
The re-developers founded Crosstown Arts to provide art as the change agent for community building inside and outside the Crosstown Concourse.
Even the daily rumble of heavy equipment a few yards behind her backyard fence is like performance art to Palmer. “It sounds like the war of the worlds sometimes,” she said with a smile. “It’s sweet music to me. Sweet noise.”
On the other side of Crosstown Concourse, real estate agent Melody Bourell hosted an open house last Sunday where more expensive homes of the Evergreen Historic District stand. Despite terrible weather, the house listing for $259,000 at 300 McNeil drew about a dozen lookers and three competing offers.
“We alerted all three buyer’s agents for everyone to bring their highest and best offer, if they wanted to make a change,” Bourell said without using the word “bidding.”
A “For Sale” sign posted for ages in front of 494 Garland would seem to suggest real estate in the shadow of Crosstown Concourse is not that hot.
But the house is tied up with a bank in a complicated short sale, said Re/Max agent Jessica Brown, adding, “We have multiple offers.”
On weekends, 800 to 1,200 Jehovah’s Witnesses come from across the Mid-South to receive instruction at the Memphis Assembly Hall, which is a block south and across Cleveland from Crosstown Concourse.
For years, Byron Chew and other Assembly Hall leaders have cautioned their visitors: During breaks, perhaps stroll east toward Overton Park and the Memphis Zoo, never west across Cleveland where the streets are more deserted.
That guidance is about to change. “We hope to say soon, ‘Go down to the Sears building,’ ’’ Chew said several days before the “Crosstown Concourse” name was unveiled.
Over the years, typical signs of economic distress have sprung up along the Cleveland commercial corridor south of Crosstown Concourse.
High-interest loan businesses like Check ‘n Go and TitleMax and a for-pay blood donation center operate there. Even the discount vegetable grocery Easy Way closed there five years ago.
But with the coming of a vertical village — 3,000 people walking daily into and out of Crosstown Concourse — signs of vitality are emerging like February daffodils.
Perhaps the most desired space for new businesses will be on the first floor of the building, where 65,000 square feet is set aside for retail.
“There is a strong interest from retailers to go in that project,” said Shawn Massey, a broker for The Shopping Center Group.
No announcements have been made on who will set up shop inside the building; those decisions have not been made.
The development team wants to finish the tenant roster before selecting retailers who can best serve the occupants, Massey said.
“Now they are getting pretty close to where they are going to focus on the retail,” he said of the development team. “They really have not sought out anybody.
While “cool, funky stuff is what everybody is hoping for,” Massey said the retail line-up will likely include a cleaners, a FedEx or UPS store, some fast-casual and café-style restaurants, and a small grocery store offering more prepared foods than the Kroger down the street.
The ground-floor retail will face both Cleveland and a new interior street that will run along the south side of the building.
“This is very different,” Massey said of the building’s impending retail. “There’s no model like (Crosstown Concourse) in Memphis… The real cool thing about (Crosstown Concourse) is that 65,000 square feet is under one ownership. They can really do an amazing job of merchandising and don’t have to worry about other landlords competing for tenants.”
Drawing 3,000 people a day to the building also will affect the commercial landscape outside, along the dog-eared Cleveland corridor.
“This echoes for the other retail up and down Cleveland that will see a continued renewed interest by many retail tenants seeking to capitalize on the change taking place,” said Massey, who noted an additional 6,000 people work within a mile of Crosstown Concourse.
Just last week a couple of seasoned home beer brewers announced they will open the Crosstown Brewing Company next year.
“I was pretty excited about that,” said Mike Kirby, a retired Rhodes College professor who has been an active volunteer in another adjacent neighborhood, Vollintine-Evergreen.
“One of the things we know about microbrewers is that they create and follow development,” said Kirby, whose field is political science and urban studies. “I think that is an indication of something positive happening there.”
Crosstown Concourse should have a good effect on something else dear to Kirby: The V&E Greenline. He helped establish the 1.7-mile rails-to-trail path, which slants through Vollintine-Evergreen and terminates, on the west end, across North Watkins from Crosstown Concourse.
The developers plan to connect the building to the V&E Greenline by extending it across Watkins.
“The more people who use the trail the more positive it is,” Kirby said. “You get a sense with more people using it, they treasure it. I think there’s a feeling of more safety when there are more people on the trail.”
Rev. Francis Ssebikindu and his Living Water Community Church moved to what was then a pretty dead neighborhood 16 years ago at 429 N. Watkins.
“The flea market wasn’t there, the laundromat wasn’t there, everything was boarded up,’’ he recalled.
“… We never thought something like this would come about,” he said of Crosstown Concourse. “But we were praying for something special to happen.”
2007: Elizabeth and Staley Cates bought vacant building for civic use
2010: Development team formed to complete yearlong feasibility study. Crosstown Arts established
2012: “Founding Partners” (first tenant commitments) announced in August
2014: In December, financing for construction closed. The 21 sources include private, philanthropic, public, grants, loans, and tax credits)
2014: In summer, interior demolition started
2015: Construction started in January
2017: Completion expected early that year.
Crosstown Concourse by the numbers
1.1 million: Square feet being redeveloped.
400,000: Number of bricks being replaced.
17,225: Tons, so far, of concrete removal.
4,687: Tons, so far, of scrap metal and rebar removal.
3,200: Number of window panes being replaced.
360: Number of miles of brick joints (mortar) being restored.
270: Apartments being built on floors 7-10.
16: Tenants committed so far.