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VOL. 127 | NO. 216 | Monday, November 5, 2012

Rekindling Crosstown

Grassroots efforts at heart of breathing new life into neighborhood, building

By Sarah Baker

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Video artist Chris Miner says one way to explain the redevelopment of the Sears Crosstown building is likening it to the process of creating art.

“You get into it with a general idea of what you want to do, but then you kind of let it take you wherever you are going to go or wherever the piece wants to go,” he said.

Miner co-founded Crosstown Arts in 2009 with University of Memphis assistant art history professor Todd Richardson as a nonprofit aiming to accelerate arts-based community and economic development in Midtown’s Crosstown neighborhood.

It was during the time period when other creative concepts were being introduced, like the Eggleston museum and exhibition space locally, and the Ford Foundation’s $100 million allocation to place-making projects nationally.

Crosstown Arts initially served as an incubator of ideas for repurposing the 85-year-old art deco Sears Crosstown building at 495 N. Watkins St., including leading the yearlong feasibility study on behalf of the local owners, Crosstown LLC.

“It started with, ‘How cool would it be if … ’ and then describing all of these things that could be happening in the building at one time,” Miner recalled of tenant prospecting early on in the process. “There’s a way to engage people and bring them into things that you’re doing if you care about it.”

Three years after its launch, and a few hundred sales pitches later, Crosstown Arts is one of nine local entities that have collectively committed to occupy some 70 percent of the 1.5 million-square-foot industrial structure.

Sears Crosstown’s other letters of intent are from ALSAC, Church Health Center, Gestalt Community Schools, Methodist Healthcare, Memphis Teacher Residency, Rhodes College, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and The West Clinic.

Those founding partners bolster a project that’s ever evolving in schematics but constant in inspiration.

“The influx of stimulation from other people,” Miner said. “It took the building as a reason to motivate the whole project to get going, but now, we’ve sort of realized that all of the things that we want to do in the building are 100 percent needed in the community, whether they’re in the building or not.”

Research from Canadian design firm Dialog suggests that sustainable places include five main ingredients: retail, production, education, events programming, and architecture and historical character.

That recipe is present in Vancouver’s Granville Island. The peninsula has cycled from a 37-acre industrial wasteland to possibly the most flourishing redevelopment in North America, with three “urban magnets” of food, boating and art.

“The built environment is associated with what the magnet is,” Richardson said. “For us, our magnets are art, health and wellness, and education. We’re working really hard to have each one of those five ingredients present within those three things.”

The idea is to amplify the existing attributes of the Crosstown area – which is considered by many to be one of the city’s most ethnically diverse and economically challenged neighborhoods – with a “vertical urban village” inside the old Sears, Roebuck & Co. Retail and Catalog Store.

“It’s definitely not a rebrand,” Richardson said. “It’s taking what’s already here and putting it in sharper focus.”

Another famous example of a development that’s reached economic self-sufficiency is the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. The factory turned creative juggernaut boasts 120,000 attendees annually, thanks to its 110,000 square feet of flexible exhibition space for the visual arts, 75 year-round performances, and 15,000 students served for arts-related experiences.

To offset operating costs, MASS MoCA rents space to commercial tenants like restaurants, publishing companies, law firms and photography studios. The museum also collaborates with partners nationwide to strengthen regional tourism.

“It wasn’t just altruistic, it wasn’t just quality of life, but the case studies show the impact of increased real estate values and what that means in terms of increased property taxes for city infrastructure,” Richardson said. “In every case, the level of education goes up in the communities where these initiatives are started, all sorts of quality of life things.”

Collectively, the Sears Crosstown redevelopment team anticipates between 2,800 and 3,000 people entering and exiting the building at peak times. Richardson leads that team, which includes McLean Wilson of Kemmons Wilson Cos.; Tony Bologna of Bologna Consultants LLC; Amelia Carkuff of Carkuff Interiors; LRK Inc. in association with Dialog; Grinder, Taber & Grinder Inc.; and doug carpenter & associates LLC.

“You would have people constantly coming in and out because that’s how you create safety,” Richardson said. “Because we certainly are not going to build a fence around the place.”

Residential will run the gamut from student housing to affordable housing to market rate, and will include 240 units on the seventh to 10th floors.

Developers are also exploring retail “that serves the community’s purpose,” Richardson said, from coffee shops to a small urban grocer, as well as co-working space for up to 20 startup nonprofits.

In addition to ongoing events and programming, Crosstown Arts’ future plans include cultivating a multidisciplinary artist residency, education and outreach program, dedicated exhibition spaces and shared art-making labs. Those offerings are still being fine-tuned and gauged for local demand, especially at events like MemFeast and Pecha Kucha.

“I think there is a willingness to kind of be in process of growing where the need is that is deeply important to us,” Miner said. “Not decide on the front end what we think people need and then create it and try to force that onto people.”

As the programs of Crosstown Arts have advanced, so has support from ArtsMemphis, Tennessee Arts Commission and other foundations in the city. But at this point, Crosstown Arts as an organization is separate from the estimated $200 million redevelopment of the Sears building.

“The development is about making this a model urban community,” Richardson said.

MemFix: Cleveland Street will be held Saturday, Nov. 10, along Cleveland between Overton Park and Galloway. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

Crosstown Arts now has its sights set on relocating from its current space at 427 N. Watkins St. to a Cleveland Street storefront. The nonprofit will be among 8,000 square feet occupied by Visible Community Music College, local sculptor Yvonne Bobo’s wood and metal workshop, exhibition and gallery space, and a substance-free, all-ages performance venue. Darrell Cobbins, president of Universal Commercial Real Estate LLC and Sears Crosstown adviser, helped with lease negotiations.

“We’re starting basically every component of what we would do in the building in small form on Cleveland,” Miner said. “That’s an ideal place to do a performance space – it is on the street, you can open the doors, there’s handicap access.”

That move is expected by the beginning of 2013. Meanwhile, Crosstown Arts is working with Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr.’s Innovation Delivery Team and the Memphis Regional Design Center to launch MemFix: Cleveland Street.

Similar to “A New Face for an Old Broad” organized on Broad Avenue in 2010, MemFix will feature temporary street improvements like bike lanes and crosswalks, pop-up retail, food trucks, activities for kids and adults, live music, a movie screening, art installations and tours of the Sears building.

“It’s bringing people back to a place that they have gotten out of the habit of coming, activating the space and putting stuff up in places where there’s nothing to help people understand what could be there and how cool it could be,” Richardson said.

Tommy Pacello of the Innovation Delivery Team calls it “tactical urbanism,” or “disruptive behaviors that help heal neighborhoods and heal cities.”

“It’s got to be deliberate and it’s got to be focused on making change,” Pacello said at Crosstown Arts’ most recent Pecha Kecha event. “It’s got to be local ideas for local problems. It has to be community-driven, it can’t be top down.”

PROPERTY SALES 81 201 16,108
MORTGAGES 40 104 10,026
BUILDING PERMITS 130 336 38,272
BANKRUPTCIES 28 56 7,528