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New Day Coming for Sears Crosstown Urban Village

 The historic Sears Crosstown building in Midtown Memphis is being redeveloped as a mixed-used vertical urban village, with nine “founding partners” in local health care, education and arts organizations that have signed on to occupy 600,000 square feet of the total 1.4 million square feet of space.

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 have committed to anchor the 85-year-old facility at 495 N. Watkins St. and transform it into one of the largest planned historic adaptive reuse projects in the city’s history. Each of the partner’s location and specific use within the building are still being determined.

The Church Health Center, which serves uninsured working people and their families, will take up the largest amount of space besides residential as it consolidates its 11 locations into the Sears building. For more on the nonprofit and health care implications of the deal, see related story.

In total, the nine founding partners will occupy 60 percent of the 14-story building, which has been vacant for nearly 20 years. An arts component will take up at least 10 percent of the space, as well as other commercial retail and shared spaces, said Todd Richardson, University of Memphis art history professor who is leading the Sears Crosstown development and consultant team.

“It’s really more about whole being, well person development,” Richardson said. “We’ve always thought about it as this vertical urban village. So in a village, you have residential, you have arts, you have commercial retail, you have health care, all of these things.”

Richardson formed Crosstown Arts in 2009 along with video artist Christopher Miner to accelerate arts-based community and economic development in the neighborhood. The group holds regular events like MemFEAST and Pecha Kucha, as well as public lectures from notable artists and urban planners.

“In addition to shared art-making labs, a multi-displinary artist residency, and dedicated exhibition space, the best way to think about Crosstown Arts’ involvement is … as the creative agent for the culture of the building,” Richardson said. “So think about curating common space, building-wide events and programs, that kind of thing.”

Besides Richardson, the development team includes McLean Wilson of Kemmons Wilson Cos.; Tony Bologna of Bologna Consultants LLC; Amelia Carkuff of Carkuff Interiors; LRK Inc. in association with Canadian-based design firm DIALOG; Grinder, Taber & Grinder Inc.; and doug carpenter & associates LLC.

This team is currently generating schematic designs, cost estimates and financing models for the redevelopment. Historic tax credits are also being explored.

“Total project cost – it’s really just too early to say,” Richardson said. “What we’re doing right now is the architects and engineers are putting together a concept study based on the needs of the founding partners. We’re (having) a series of conversations with each founding partner, understanding their programs so that the space can be designed. Then, Grinder, Taber & Grinder, our general contractor, is going to take that concept study and cost estimate it.”

The Sears, Roebuck & Co. Catalog Order Plant and Retail Store opened in 1927 as the 14th Sears retail location in the country, welcoming almost 30,000 shoppers on its first day of business. Sears closed its distribution center in 1993 and sold to a group of New York investors, Memtech LLC, for $1.25 million in 2000.

Local investor group Crosstown LLC bought the building in August 2007 from Memtech for $3.5 million. The developer behind Crosstown LLC at time of purchase was Memphian Andy Cates, according to real estate information company Chandler Reports,

Property taxes on the Sears building and its land area of approximately 16 acres total $63,738.21 for the city and county. The Shelby County Assessor of Property’s 2012 appraisal is $2.2 million.

The Crosstown neighborhood is one of the city’s most ethnically diverse and economically challenged areas. Crosstown Arts sees the redevelopment as a neighborhood revitalization project, similar to Minneapolis’ Midtown Global Market, also an adaptive reuse of a former Sears facility.

“The Phillips neighborhood, where that is, is a very similar neighborhood to Crosstown,” Richardson said. “If you look at an aerial of where the Crosstown building is, it’s one mile west of Rhodes, one mile east of St. Jude, and one mile north of Methodist. It’s kind of the heart between those three. We see Crosstown as the last variable in helping to knit together those other areas into a really strong, vibrant center city.”

With the number of committed founding partners, Richardson expects 2,000 to 2,500 people being in and out of the building at peak times. He also hopes to have a “diverse range of residential,” from student housing and affordable housing to market rent apartments and potentially some “with higher amenities like condos on the top floor.”