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VOL. 127 | NO. 192 | Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Daunting Vision

Sears Crosstown redevelopment team acknowledges risk, moves forward

By Sarah Baker

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To say the team behind the redevelopment of the nearly 20-year-vacant Sears, Roebuck & Co. Retail and Catalog distribution facility in Midtown’s Crosstown neighborhood has their work cut out for them would be an understatement at best.

In an appearance on the WKNO-TV program “Behind The Headlines,” University of Memphis art history professor and Sears Crosstown project leader Todd Richardson talk about the challenges the group faces.

(Daily News File Photo: Lance Murphey)

The 85-year-old art deco building at 495 N. Watkins St. has been robbed of its copper and requires remediation of asbestos, lead paint and glazing compounds. But that doesn’t begin to compare to the building’s daunting size of 1.5 million square feet.

“In a traditional commercial real estate sense in looking at the capabilities of getting the kind of return that you would want to get, it’s almost impossible to redevelop this building,” Todd Richardson, University of Memphis art history professor and project leader of the Sears Crosstown reinstatement, said on the WKNO-TV program “Behind The Headlines.”

“The question from the beginning when we first started the feasibility study two and a half years ago was … not necessarily the state of the building, because there are plenty of buildings in Memphis that were built around the same time that have been redeveloped. It’s the size.”

“Behind The Headlines” is hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, and can be seen on The Daily News Online, www.memphisdailynews.com.

Memphis’ Sears building was one of 10 that were built across the country between 1910 and 1930. Since then, three have been demolished, three are empty and four have been redeveloped.

When Sears was at its height, 1,500 people worked in the building. Instead of re-creating that daytime population with an anchor tenant and satellite businesses, the idea is to create a “vertical urban village” that attracts up to 2,500 people during peak hours, supported by residential units that spur activity 24 hours a day.

Nine groups have inked a collective letter of intent to occupy 600,000 square feet of the building: ALSAC, Church Health Center, Crosstown Arts, Gestalt Community Schools, Methodist Healthcare, Memphis Teacher Residency, Rhodes College, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and The West Clinic.

“The beauty of what we have at Crosstown is really a combination of two things,” said McLean Wilson, vice president of Kemmons Wilson Cos. “One is the tenant mix of the arts, education and health care. The second is the historical nature of the building, which allows us to really go out and explore various public and private funding sources. There’s a balancing effect and an equalizing effect with respect to some of the funding that we can receive from the federal government and other grants, etc.”

Wilson’s real estate experience includes spending time working on a development “for a gentleman who had a similar out-of-the box vision for a district in Raleigh, N.C.”

“I was able to work with him from the beginning and really just see what passion, commitment and a big vision can do for a city,” Wilson said, adding later in the show, “There are a lot of things that are atypical about this project. We’re just taking it incrementally as we go and refining as we go.”

Frank Ricks, principal with LRK Inc., has also been involved with larger-than-life undertakings that many deemed impractical on the front end, like Henry Turley’s Harbor Town in the 1980s.

“Just for the average person, they didn’t feel that was a viable alternative,” Ricks said. “I think with the scale of the Sears building and the fact that it has been vacant for quite some time and the condition around it, it’s just hard for some people to imagine that you could actually swing the pendulum back the other way.”

Richardson knows that hesitation all too well. He stopped counting the number of meetings he had with tenant prospects last year at 220.

“I often say that I felt like I was beginning to grow the third eye that people looked at me as if I had,” he said. “It’s just perseverance. If you have a vision, it’s just a matter of time before people catch it if you believe in.”

Richardson co-founded Crosstown Arts, a nonprofit to accelerate arts-based community and economic development in the neighborhood, in 2009. It was less than two years after the building was bought by Crosstown LLC – a local investment group that has kept a meticulously low profile since the purchase, claiming its intentions have always been a “purely civic purpose.”

“Their vision was to buy it and donate it and to help make something positive happen for the city,” Richardson said. “They recognized the importance of it, not only in terms of an architectural icon, but also from the perspective of the history of Memphis as the nation’s distribution center.”

But, as with other revitalization projects like The Pyramid, Overton Square and the Chisca Hotel, the city could be asked in the future to contribute funding. A concept study is being compiled by LRK in association with Canadian-based design firm DIALOG, Tony Bologna of Bologna Consultants LLC, and Amelia Carkuff of Carkuff Interiors.

Grinder, Taber & Grinder Inc. will then cost estimate the study before the financial structure is built out.

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