It would seem the only thing that might hold up the locomotive that is the Sears Crosstown $180 million renovation at this point is a much-needed $15 million from the city of Memphis.
A lot of money, but not enough to worry project developers Todd Richardson and McLean Wilson, whose analogy – and attitude – is more pedal power than steam driven.
“You’re just kind of looking over your shoulder, making sure that everybody else is right there with you,” Richardson said.
Sears Crosstown developers McLean Wilson and Todd Richardson say the “magic is in the mix” for the massive project that aims to unite the community.
(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)
“The goal is to be in the finish line together,” Wilson added. “If there are any laggards who can’t keep pace with everyone else, that becomes a problem. We’re within an arm’s reach of everyone.”
It’s an idea that began as just that – an idea, a concept – a plan rooted in altruism and community. These are hardly the ideals that come to mind with multimillion-dollar development deals. The act of acquiring land and buildings to develop into something else is rarely based on ideals at all, but profit instead.
And yet, when Richardson and Chris Miner began discussing the idea, in 2009, of a contemporary art center and collaborative artist space with ongoing programming and a little retail thrown in, it was just these ideals that they had in mind. Community, collectives, synergy – it was all underneath an umbrella without a name, much less a home.
It wasn’t until the neighborhood – Crosstown – presented itself that the notion of Crosstown Arts became something concrete. And still there was no concrete. The idea expanded as other entities showed interest. There was the Memphis Teacher Residency Program and the Gestalt charter high school.
“How great would it be to have teachers and high school students and artists all under one roof?” Richardson mused. And further: “What if we did all this in the Sears building?”
It was a capricious thought, one brought up, Richardson said, “Not as an effort to take up space – even now, Crosstown Arts’ footprint is 45,000 square feet – but just simply as a way to rethink what could happen and to kind of reignite the conversation.”
The Sears building at Cleveland Street and North Parkway had been purchased in 2007 by Memphis-based investor group Crosstown LLC. Built in 1927 as a distribution center, and vacated in 1993, the building was left to deteriorate and haunt the neighborhood like a ghost of Christmas catalogs past.
After more than two years of work, including a year-long feasibility study, Richardson sat down with Scott Morris, founder of the Church Health Center, in May 2012, to talk about the possibility of a small satellite office in the building.
“We spent an afternoon together talking about this vertical urban village concept and what that place could be,” Richardson said. “At the end of the day, he said, ‘Well, I’ve got two options for you – we can do what you’re asking me to do, or we can consolidate the entire Church Health Center in the building.’ And I was like, ‘I’ll take the latter, please.’”
Church Health Center agreed to 120,000 square feet, and it soon became the cleaving the groups were looking for – multi-functionality with no single tenant anchor. Instead there is a mixture of health care, education, art, retail and residential. Other partners include Rhodes College, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Christian Brothers University, Southern College of Optometry and Methodist Hospital.
When asked which of these components specifically gets them the most excited, the partners are hard-pressed to cite just one.
“The magic is in the mix,” Wilson says. “What’s awesome about it is the unpredictable. We can’t even understand probably what may happen when an art resident and a teacher resident and a medical resident are eating pizza on a Friday night, dreaming and talking about their city and their ambitions and their goals, and that’s what’s exciting.”
The growth of the idea into reality was largely organic and snowballed with the chemistry of such disparate, yet like-minded, entities coming together. But this is not to discount the work and time that has gone into the effort. It is a $180 million project with all funds accounted for, save the $15 million required by the end of the year to begin construction in early 2014. With such a timetable, the group is looking at a 2016 move-in date.
A recent 20-year PILOT – five years over the normal cap – was recently garnered. It’s this sort of backing by city leaders that will help keep the train on its tracks but not necessarily the impetus for the project itself.
For that, the spotlight turns back on the community. As Wilson and Richardson stand talking with a visitor on the wedge of grass where Cleveland and North Watkins streets meet, beneath Eli Gold’s kinetic sculpture “Beacon,” a woman from the neighborhood approaches the partners to ask what they plan to do with the building across the street.
Wilson answers the question the only way he knows how: “What would you like it to be?”
The woman gives her answer and promises to keep an eye on the progress, just as the rest of the city will be doing.