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VOL. 126 | NO. 99 | Friday, May 20, 2011

Blank Palette

Developers ponder Sears Crosstown building’s future

By Sarah Baker

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When best-selling author Richard Florida visited Memphis recently, he spelled out to a room full of artists the formula for building a city’s creative class – attract, retain and engage talent.

But in Memphis, that formula needs to be flipped, said Doug Carpenter, a longtime advertising professional who serves as chairman of the board of Crosstown Arts, the nonprofit powerhouse behind the transformation of the Sears Crosstown building.

“I would take an approach that says we need to engage, retain and attract,” said Carpenter, principal of doug carpenter & associates LLC. “We have tons of talent in this city that’s unengaged, apathetic, but may be interested.”

About a year ago, Carpenter was asked to help Crosstown Arts transform the 1.4 million-square-foot Sears Crosstown building at 495 N. Watkins St. into an urban arts village.

“It’s a really big building – it’s going to be really expensive to do,” Carpenter said. “Our job is to figure out can we make that work so that people see the value in it, are willing to invest in the building to make it a sustainable project.”

In 1927, the 11-story Art Deco building opened its doors as the regional office of Sears Roebuck and Co., housing more than 1,000 employees.

A total of 10 Sears buildings were built across the country in the early part of the 20th century. Memphis’ Sears building, however, is one of the only structures that remain vacant.

A local entity called Crosstown LLC bought the building in 2007 for $3.5 million. The group is represented by Andy Cates, who is quick to point out his role in the limited liability company.

“I helped the ownership group (Crosstown LLC) purchase it and brought the due diligence and pre-development team together,” Cates said. “I am not an owner and have donated my time. Crosstown LLC was put together as a civic venture, not an investment.”

The previous ownership group was made up of out-of-town owners whose efforts to redevelop the building were met with various obstacles. A huge factor in rehabbing the massive building is cost, which Cates said is, “unknown and dependent on many variables.”

That’s why rather than visualizing the project as a commercial real estate venture, Crosstown Arts is calling it a “neighborhood revitalization project.”

The project’s bottom line, Carpenter said, is to engage the local community – including artists – keep them in Memphis and then attract other people nationally and internationally to come to Memphis.

“If we are going to be a city that grows and prospers, then we have to be pretty damn attractive to a lot of people,” Carpenter said. “If we concentrate our efforts on one project after one project that we’ll grow at about that pace.”

That’s where Todd Richardson and Chris Miner come in. Over the past year, the Crosstown Arts co-directors have devoted their time by touring those other cities and piecing together the appropriate blueprint for Memphis.

Crosstown Arts, a non-profit organization, in conjunction with the local owners of the Sears Crosstown building, just finished a yearlong feasibility study that examined the financial viability of a mixed-use development, including residential, commercial, education and the arts. Doug Carpenter is chairman of the board, standing, and Todd Richardson, right, and Christopher Miner, left, are co-directors of Crosstown Arts.

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

“This is a project that takes on all of the aspects that make a holistic community work well and creatively putting them together and building where each component makes the other component more viable,” said Richardson, assistant art history professor at the University of Memphis. “It’s about residential, commercial, education and the arts – it’s all of those things being interconnected and kind of mutually enabling.”

While the arts component is in terms of Sears Crosstown’s identity, it will only make up 10 percent of the building’s actual space.

“That we know of, there is not another development of this scale that takes the exact components that we have in mind to build this kind of urban village,” Richardson said. “But we didn’t want to just take something that existed somewhere else and plop it in Memphis because that’s definitely not going to work.”

Crosstown Arts is currently in the “discussion phase” in which it devises a “best-case scenario.” The group has a website and Facebook page encouraging people to share ideas and get engaged. Eventually, it plans to hold town hall meetings and tours of the building.

“There’s no way this project or any project of this magnitude can work without a lot of constituents having an interest,” Carpenter said. “We’re far away from a tenant conversation. My interest is to get it to a point where we can decide, yes, this could work, or it couldn’t work and not leave anything unturned.”

It’s no question that Sears Crosstown is daunting to absolutely everyone, Carpenter said. After all, it’s the size of two Clark Towers. But as more concrete visions are shared and financing modeling for different development scenarios progress, it will become clear that the end result of the building’s square footage will be far less than its existing 1.4 million square feet.

Possible site plans include atriums, open air space, bike lanes and even changes in the façade, depending on historic tax credits and other issues.

Another idea is to take the best of the arts, culture and food of the city’s ethnic minorities and put it in one 30,000-square-foot “small-business incubator space,” with food shops, places to sell their crafts or teach dance lessons.

“Because Crosstown is the most demographically diverse district in Memphis, we want to showcase that in a way that hasn’t been done before,” Richardson said. “To bring all of that together seems like a really important thing for Memphis as a city to showcase the cultures that are represented here.”


The Sears building in Minneapolis was transformed into the Midtown Global Market, which houses office space, housing and a food market. The vision for the Minneapolis project was formed by studying other public markets around the country, such as Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market and Seattle’s Pike Place Market.

(Photo: Saari & Forrai Photography)

It’s a component that’s thriving in Minneapolis’ Midtown Global Market. Initial discussions to save the city’s long vacant Sears Building involved placing various restaurants in the space. While Minneapolis’ Sears building is anchored by a major 400,000-square-foot health care tenant, the progress of the Phillips neighborhood and its dramatic transformation is the piece Crosstown Arts wants to bring to Memphis.

“Nobody thought that was possible,” Richardson said. “It was in the worst neighborhood in Minneapolis, and in large part because of that redevelopment, it’s been a catalyst.”


The Landmark, Boston’s version of a rejuvenated Sears building, is a mixed-use success story that features a host of national retailers, including a cinema. While those looking to create a viable plan for Memphis’ Sears building don’t except to follow the same blueprint, they want to create something that fits into the Crosstown neighborhood.

(Photo: Warren Patterson)

The vision for Minneapolis’ Midtown Global Market was formed by studying other public markets around the country, such as Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market and Seattle’s Pike Place Market, the latter of which is home to more than 200 year-round commercial businesses, 190 craftspeople and about 100 farmers who rent table space by the day. The area also boasts 240 street performers and musicians and more than 300 apartment units, most of which provide housing for low-income elderly people.

While a significant chunk of Pike Place’s nine acres houses the Starbucks headquarters, the market attracts 10 million visitors a year. This feeds into Crosstown’s ultimate goal of economic viability.

One way to do that is through artist live-work space. While not a former Sears building, Brooklyn’s 3rd Ward is Crosstown’s model for art-making facilities.

“Think of it like an art gym – you pay a monthly membership fee to go to a gym to use equipment and resources that you could never afford individually,” Richardson said.

Five years ago, 3rd Ward started with facilities like a wood shop and digital lab and have grown every year since. Currently, there are more than 700 members that utilize the space’s resources while at the same time building community.

“Now, because they have an identity as this really cool place where cool stuff is made, they actually now are getting work, funneling jobs to their artists so their artists are making money,” Miner said. “The guys that created the place would not have been able to foresee all of this great stuff happening, they were just thinking we want to give artists a place to make their work and that happened as a result.”

Then there’s Toronto’s 401 Richmond – a 250,000-square-foot former 1900s canning factory that started with artist live-work space, arts and crafts facilities, restaurants and bars. Now that it has been successful, condos are coming to the area.

In terms of the financial model and what it will take Sears Crosstown to succeed, a high priority is the opportunity for a large shared space, whether it’s a stage, auditorium or similar performance venue.

For example, a church could use the space for Sunday school classes, a school could house its operations there during the week, and artists could fill the space on the weekends.

“It’s constantly programmed, but yet, these three different entities don’t have to pay for their own,” Richardson said. “Shared spaces cut down on costs and would be an amenity that they wouldn’t be able to find anywhere else.”

Of course, there are examples of past Sears buildings that are either in transition or have failed.

Los Angeles’ former Sears building in its Downtown Boyle Heights neighborhood has been up for sale for several years. Philadelphia’s was demolished for a Home Depot, and the powerhouse of Chicago’s 3.5 million-square-foot space was converted into a charter school.

Yet another example is Atlanta’s 2 million-square-foot structure. Partially occupied by City Hall, it’s still an area very much in transition. There are discussions of turning it into a big-box retailer, Richardson said. But that’s not very compelling for Memphis. But he is bullish that the building’s third effort will see success. And it all goes back to the neighborhood.

“It’s a building that really in a significant way helped define Memphis as a distribution hub,” he said. “Architecturally, the location, everything kind of screams for another effort. Crosstown Sears building will succeed when the neighborhood succeeds and the neighborhood will succeed when this succeeds.”

PROPERTY SALES 103 137 4,008
MORTGAGES 84 131 4,521
BUILDING PERMITS 178 368 9,636
BANKRUPTCIES 50 110 2,995