Todd Richardson gave some schemes – albeit changing ones – of the redeveloped Sears Crosstown building in Midtown Friday, Oct. 5, at Universal Commercial Real Estate’s Regional Minority Business Entrepreneur Power Breakfast.
“I can stand up here with excitement and say to you that we’re moving in a really great direction,” said the assistant professor of art history at the University of Memphis and co-director of Crosstown Arts. “It’s not a done deal by any means; as we all know, financing is the last say, but nevertheless, we are in positive trajectory.”
The “vertical urban village” will be anchored by arts, education, health care and wellness. About 71 percent of the building’s tenancy has been committed from 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 other sectors of the project are residential, office, retail and unassigned flex space.
Richardson said the residential component “will be extremely diverse from student housing to affordable housing to market rate” and will include 240 units on seventh to 10th floors. One hundred of those units are already guaranteed through the founding partners.
And, he added, “having retail that serves the community’s purpose,” are also being explored for the building’s ground floor, from coffee shops to a small urban grocer.
In addition, the redeveloped Sears building will include a co-working area for 15 to 20 startup nonprofits.
“A suite of offices that would share a receptionist, back office, copier, conference room,” Richardson said. “They need all of these things, but just not all of the time.”
Other potential groups that could occupy the building’s remaining 30 percent are architects, advertising agencies and graphic designers. A small creative office for all of those businesses to use is also in the works.
“It’s not a done deal by any means; as we all know, financing is the last say, but nevertheless, we are in positive trajectory.”
Co-director, Crosstown Arts
“The idea is that, with what Crosstown Arts is doing with shared art-making facilities and the exhibition space, we would love it if there were people who wanted to take advantage of that and be around that community,” Richardson said.
Currently, the Sears, Roebuck & Co. Retail and Catalog Store’s gross size is 1.5 million square feet, built in stages since 1927. But after developed, Richardson said it will total somewhere between 900,000 and 1 million square feet “by the time you factor in light wells, atriums, common areas and some select demo.”
Richardson said the project now has between 20 and 25 people working on it each week. He stressed the building’s structural soundness, saying one of the first notes its engineer wrote in his report is that, “If there’s an earthquake in Memphis, I’m going to be running to this building. It is solid.”
As far as financing, the estimated $200 million redevelopment is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places and therefore eligible for tax credits, which is about 20 percent of the construction costs. Also being explored for the 85-year-old art deco building at 495 N. Watkins St. is “new market tax credits, which is another good portion of equity that makes it possible,” Richardson said.
Besides representatives from the nine founding partners, several neighborhood stakeholders were present at Friday’s breakfast. One of those was Leah Bray Nichols, owner/director of Evergreen Yoga, who asked Richardson what was being done for the Sears building’s surrounding businesses that have located there over the years because of cost.
“What’s being done so things won’t skyrocket so much that we be able to afford to do business there?” Nichols asked.
Richardson said the issue of gentrification and how development helps to create or retain the neighborhood’s attributes has been a “big question” from early on.
“It’s really important on every level from the development of the community – the people who were there, to people who work on this project, to the people who work there after it’s done, to be as diverse as possible to carry on that identity of Crosstown,” Richardson said.
“Up until now, obviously, our attention has been to the building itself. But the next stage is to turn our eye more towards outside in the neighborhood.”
The breakfast made sense for Darrell Cobbins of Universal Commercial to host, who told the crowd he has been quietly involved in the deal since 2007 as an adviser.
“I’ve been helping them look strategically at the surrounding area,” Cobbins said. “Thinking through sort of the impacts of the building on the surrounding environment and vice versa.”