When Octavia Young opened Midtown Crossing Grill in 2014, the area around what would eventually become the Crosstown Concourse was a lot different than it is now.
Though there were some agreements in place at the time, there were no guarantees that the wildly ambitious but risky project would a success, and even if it was, there was no telling how long it would take for that success to spill out into the surrounding neighborhood.
“When I was looking at my building, there was just a chain-link fence behind (Crosstown Concourse), and only a shipping container out there,” Young said. “It was still kind of iffy.”
But it didn’t deter Young, because that’s not what attracted her to the neighborhood in the first place.
“There was a good mix of people and cultures, ages, families,” she said. “Just a nice eclectic mix of people – that’s what really drew me to this area.”
Roughly 18 months since the first tenants began to breathe new life back into the old Sears building, its effects on the surrounding area are becoming more noticeable every day.
“It’s changed quite a bit since we first got here,” Young said. “There was a lot of crime. The alarm would go off all the time, but now we don’t have that issue.”
The plethora of abandoned and neglected buildings were a hotbed for squatters who caused a lot of problems in the area, Young said, but now that more new businesses are beginning to move into the neighborhood and occupy structures, crime is becoming less of an issue.
In addition to new businesses, residents, both new and old, are showing a renewed interest in the Crosstown area and are working to shore up blight on the residential side of the neighborhood.
“They just got the historic designation for Speedway Terrace right behind (Crosstown Concourse),” Young said. “Before there were a lot of renters and a lot of drugs. So that community is taking control of their area.”
Young credits the efforts of the Crosstown Community Development Corp. as a significant driver of both change and cohesion in the area, the latter of which she said is important because while progress is good, it shouldn’t come at the cost of the neighborhood’s identity.
“I think it was very important and something that was missing,” she said. “We don’t want this to feel like Southaven, where it could be anywhere in America.”
Like Young, David Kirsch was intimately familiar with the Crosstown area before and after the Concourse came online.
His family has owned a row of shops directly south of Crosstown Concourse in the 430 block of North Cleveland Street for about 30 years. The change is almost like day and night, he said, even if it’s not happening as quickly as he hoped.
“Before the Crosstown Concourse came along it was horrible,” said Kirsch, owner and manager of Kirsch Associates Commercial Real Estate. “I was getting $2 a square foot.”
He said that level of rental income made it economically unfeasible for him to significantly invest in this property beyond the necessary maintenance, but now asking prices in the area are rising, so he’s been able to sink some money into the 75-year-old building.
“Earlier in the year I put $20,000 into my own building to paint it and renovate the façade,” he said.
Currently Kirsch has two vacancies out of the five bays in his building with a third that will become available at the end of the year.
“There’s been a million lookers,” he said. “It’s definitely interesting getting the phone calls every day.”
His tenants include clothing and shoe store Glitter & Glamour and West Tennessee Print Co. Proud Mary, a small art-based retail shop, is opening in late June. Kirsch said he is in late-stage negations with an arts-related tenant to fill one of the remaining vacancies and has already entertained offers for the Glitter & Glamour space when it comes online at the end of the year.
He hopes to build on the arts-centric theme of Crosstown with his tenant mix moving forward.
While much progress has been made, Kirsch said there is still a lot of work to be done.
Acknowledging that squatters were a big issue and source of crime in the area, both he and Young said the site where the new Black Lodge Video is going was a hotbed for criminal activity. But once the indie video store began to renovate and occupy the building, it significantly improved the property and area around it.
But the neighborhood is still somewhat of a dichotomy, Kirsch said, with new development and blighted old structures sometimes right next door to each other, such as the former home of Metro located adjacent to his property at 1349 Autumn Ave. The blighted properties are an eyesore, potential safety hazard and attract criminal activity.
“I was hoping a similar momentum like Overton Square or South Main would happen in Crosstown, but it hasn’t really happened as fast,” he said. “It’s happening, don’t get me wrong, but the rate isn’t overnight like Overton Square – I’ve never seen something like that before.”
Full occupancy, or close to it, for the whole area is probably a still few years down the road, he said.
McCraw, a multisector agent who specializes in retail, said there has been no shortage of perspective tenants in the past several months.
“The interest has been huge,” he said. “I’ve probably shown that property twice a week.”
McCraw said some space in the area has seen lease rates nearly triple because of all the interest.
“It’s right next to Crosstown Concourse, and people are seeing that is really blowing up,” McCraw said. “That entire neighborhood is changing with the Crosstown Concourse.”
And the changes are not limited to Crosstown area, he said.
“We’re seeing a big resurgence in the entire city from all the focus on the Medical District, Crosstown and Edge neighborhoods,” McCraw said. “It’s really nice to see the city focusing in on the core.”
In turn, this reinvestment trickles down into other neighborhoods that still have further to come like Parkway Village and Whitehaven, McCraw said.
“With the price per square foot going up in the core areas, it’s pushing people to other areas,” he said. “It’s making those other areas that weren’t as good, better. It’s almost like when you drop a rock in a pond and the ripples go out – that’s what we’re seeing.”
Alzheimer’s & Dementia Services of Memphis, a local nonprofit day program for patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and related dementia, is joining Black Lodge as a new business near the concourse.
“We’ve been looking to expand our center for a while now and we really wanted to go back to Midtown,” ADS development director Stacey Sears said. “We were looking in that area because it is an underserved population that really needs our help, and when we found a building we could afford, jumped on it and we jumped on it quickly.”
Though ADS purchased the old coin laundry in early 2017, it allowed the operator to keep running his business until the end of December, then ultimately decided to scrap the old building for something fresh.
“We thought it would be better to tear it down and build a more green building,” she said.
While most of ADS’ Alzheimer’s-related services are done in-house, Sears said proximity to the concourse and its amenities was a big selling point.
“The concourse has so many great areas that we hope to utilize because it’s literally across the street,” she said. “We’re very good friends with the Church Health Center and a lot of the other nonprofits over there, and we’re looking forward to making those relationships happen.”
Like Young, Sears said it’s important for the neighborhood to maintain its character amid the change and growth that is crucial.
“Looking at the studies, you have every type of diversity living in that 38104 ZIP code, and that’s what Memphis is made of,” Sears, a native Midtowner, said. “When you bring services like ours and the ones that the concourse offers, I hope that it makes an impact and makes it a stronger community.”
Porsche Stevens, community relations coordinator for Crosstown Arts, a Crosstown CDC board member and Crosstown resident since 2009, said she is excited about the new businesses, which include the recently opened restaurant Atomic Tiki, the yet-to-open Elemento’s Pizza and the Crosstown Performing Arts Center amenity that will open in the latter part of the fall.
“We even have a brewery now,” Stevens said. “Crosstown Brewing opened up a couple of months ago, and they always have a lot of fun, exciting events happening over there.”
This flurry of commercial activity is driving increased interest in the community from its residents.
“The Crosstown Memphis CDC membership is increasing so neighbors are coming out, getting involved and volunteering throughout the neighborhood,” she said. “The residents of the concourse are even helping out.”
Stevens’ Speedway Terrace neighborhood has always had a connection with the old Sears building, and now that it’s back online, her neighborhood is again reaping the benefits.
“People are moving into our neighborhoods, taking our blighted properties and rehabbing them,” Stevens said. “When I drive down Faxon Street there are homes that are now really nice. So I see the neighborhood growing, progressing.”
Kathryn Garland, an associate broker with the Garland Company Real Estate who has both lived in and sold homes in the Crosstown area for the past decade, said she has noticed property values increasing quite a bit.
“People have always loved to live in Midtown,” she said. “The new Crosstown Concourse has only increased that desire. People like to live, work and play in close proximity to their homes and Crosstown has given people a new avenue to do just that.”
She described the concourse as an incredible building and great use of the old space she’s happy to finally see activated.
“Honestly, I don’t see a negative – anytime we have so many groups working together to make our city better will always be a good thing, in my opinion,” Garland said. “I would imagine the neighborhood will continue to be a well-loved area, and I look forward to seeing what the future holds.”