Memphis rising: Can this Mid-South city of 670,000 become the next Austin?

Building Design & Construction
Robert Cassidy, Executive Editor

  The gargantuan Sears distribution center served the Mid-South from 1927 until 1993. A coalition of community groups devoted to the arts, education, health, and affordable housing rescued the 1.3 million-sf facility and turned it into what they call a “vertical urban village.”

The gargantuan Sears distribution center served the Mid-South from 1927 until 1993. A coalition of community groups devoted to the arts, education, health, and affordable housing rescued the 1.3 million-sf facility and turned it into what they call a “vertical urban village.”

For years following the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968, Memphis, the site of the horrific event, witnessed high crime, population loss, and the decline of its downtown.

Now, Memphians are feeling a fresh wind blowing off the Mississippi, invigorating them with the possibility of a much brighter future.

The trio of redevelopments presented here—Crosstown Concourse, Tennessee Brewery, and The Chisca on Main—is indicative of the 250 projects, valued at $13 billion (according to Cushman & Wakefield), that have reenergized Memphis in the last four years.

Local employers are stepping up. ServiceMaster is moving its headquarters and building a new 20,000-sf technology center downtown. FedEx has pledged $1 billion to modernize its Memphis SuperHub. Methodist University Hospital has a $275 million tower under construction. St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital recently announced plans for a $412 research center, part of its $1 billion downtown expansion.

Two years ago, Memphians overwhelmingly elected Democrat Jim Strickland, a self-described “take action” guy, as mayor. Strickland pledged to end Memphis’s practice of growth through annexation. Instead, he wants to “build up, not build out,” by “doubling down” on the city’s downtown core. He also wants to attract more young people to Memphis by creating incentives to construct more market-rate apartments. The mayor’s ultimate goal: to turn Memphis into an “It City” like Nashville or Denver.

Frank Ricks, FAIA, Co-founder and Principal of Looney Ricks Kiss (the designer or associate designer of the projects discussed here), supports Strickland’s vision, but thinks Memphis should fashion itself after a different It City—Austin, Texas, the fastest-growing big city in the U.S. In Ricks’s view, Memphis could be the Mid-South’s SXSE to Austin’s SXSW.

Memphis already has some key ingredients to accomplish this: a firmly established music scene—Beale Street, Graceland, STAX Museum of American Soul (a Looney Ricks Kiss project); a slew of hip new joints like Loflin Yards and Railgarten; craft brewers Wiseacre, High Cotton, Memphis Made, and Ghost River; whiskey-maker Old Dominic Distillery; the University of Memphis and colleges of every type; the NBA Memphis Grizzlies, a minor-league baseball team and AutoZone Park, and USL professional soccer on the way; a robust medical establishment, led by St. Jude’s, Baptist Memorial, and Methodist Le Bonheur; and a raft of big-name employers like FedEx, ServiceMaster, AutoZone, and International Paper.

As the city anticipates its bicentennial in 2019, the question remains: Can Memphis become America’s next It City?

Ricks and his team aren’t waiting for an answer. They’re busy saving yet another relic, the long-abandoned Hickman Medical Arts Building, which they’re turning into 41 apartments and offices. “The Commonwealth,” as it will be known, opens this fall.

Onward and upward!

  lightwells bring the outside into the residential sections of Crosstown Concourse. Apartments are spread out on the top four floors throughout the horizontal structure to give residents the best view. McGinn Photography.

lightwells bring the outside into the residential sections of Crosstown Concourse. Apartments are spread out on the top four floors throughout the horizontal structure to give residents the best view. McGinn Photography.

CROSSTOWN CROSSROADS: THE ‘VERTICAL URBAN VILLAGE’

Constructed in phases starting in 1927, the Sears distribution center and store in Memphis supplied the Mid-South with everything from Craftsman crosscut saws to donkeys—think Amazon before Jeff Bezos was even born. At 1.3 million sf, the 10-story Art Deco structure rivaled Manhattan’s Chrysler Building in size.

Sears closed the facility in 1993. In 2007, a local philanthropist bought it for $3 million with the intent—ultimately unsuccessful—to relocate a local college to the building. Then, in 2010, with the recession in full swing, two of the least likely developers one could imagine approached the owner about using the building for their startup arts organization, Crosstown Arts.

Todd Richardson, PhD, Associate Professor of art history at the University of Memphis, and video artist Chris Miner had never built anything, but somehow they convinced the owner to fund a six-month feasibility study. They toured several older buildings that had been converted into arts centers, like MASS MoCA in Massachusetts. They held more than 200 community meetings over a three-year period. From this emerged a vision of developing a “vertical urban village” for the arts, education, and health, along with a residential component.

The breakthrough came in 2011 when Richardson met Scott Morris, a family physician, minister, and founder of Church Health, which provides virtually free healthcare services to Memphis’s poor. “Dr. Morris asked me what our vision was, and when I told him about the urban village, his eyes lit up,” recalled Richardson. “He said, ‘I’ve got 14 locations scattered all over Memphis. I need 150,000 square feet to consolidate everything—have you got it?’ And I said, Yeah, no problem.”

Six founding partners—Crosstown Arts, Church Health, St. Jude’s, ALSAC (St. Jude’s charitable foundation), Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, and Memphis Teacher Residency (the local version of Teach for America)—united under the banner “Better Together.” McLean T. Wilson, Principal at local hospitality developer Kemmons Wilson, Inc., came in to co-lead the project with Richardson. “We had 30 assumptions that we went in with, and one by one, we were able to accomplish all of them,” said Richardson.

Crosstown Concourse opened a year ago. The construction statistics are staggering: 22,500 tons of concrete, 5,500 tons of rebar excavated; 365 miles of tuck pointing completed; 7 miles of new HVAC piping, 5 miles of ductwork, 32 miles of sprinkler piping installed; 1,200 tons of steel, 3,200 new windows. More than 400 workers were on the job on any given day; 138 designers worked on it. The $200 million to fund the project came from 32 sources.

  Crossroads Concourse has become the new serendipitous meeting place for Memphians. Contractor Grinder, Taber & Grinder cut through 10 floors of concrete and steel in the Sears distribution center to create this space and two other 10-story atriums. McGinn Photography.

Crossroads Concourse has become the new serendipitous meeting place for Memphians. Contractor Grinder, Taber & Grinder cut through 10 floors of concrete and steel in the Sears distribution center to create this space and two other 10-story atriums. McGinn Photography.

Much of local contractor Grinder, Taber & Grinder’s work involved gouging out three magnificent 10-story, public atriums that also serve as performance spaces. A separate four-story atrium and four light wells brighten the apartment neighborhoods, which were spread out on levels 7-10.

Of the 265 apartments—studios and one-, two-, and three-bedroom units—115 are market rate ($899 to $2,484/month), 53 are designated affordable.  St. Jude’s has 20 units for its PhD residents, 20 for families of patients. Memphis Teacher Residency uses 42 apartments. Crosstown Arts provides 13 resident artists with apartments, free studio space, and dining privileges for three months.

Crosstown Concourse recently won the grand prize in the Congress for New Urbanism Charter Awards. It is the world’s largest historic preservation project to earn LEED Platinum (Core & Shell v2009). Coming to the “urban village” this month is an “XQ Super School” (funded by Steve Jobs’s widow). A 450-seat black-box theater and outdoor swimming pool (serving the charter school and the Church Health YMCA in the building) are nearing completion.

Three thousand people visit Crosstown every day; it’s the city’s new crossroads. During a recent tour, Frank Ricks told me, “If I’m here for 45 minutes I’ll run into a bunch of people I wouldn’t ordinarily see that day.” We ran into four such persons in a half-hour.

PROJECT TEAM | CROSSTOWN CONCOURSE

OWNER Crosstown LLC  RESIDENTIAL ARCHITECT/HISTORIC PRESERVATION/SUSTAINABILITY Looney Ricks Kiss  CORE & SHELL ARCHITECTSLooney Ricks Kiss with Dialog and Spatial Affairs Bureau  RESIDENTIAL INTERIORS Looney Ricks Kiss; Carkuff Interiors  SE Structural Design Group  CE SR Consulting Engineers MEP/FPOGCB INC.  ENVELOPE RESTORATION WJE  GEOTECHNICAL CONSULTANT Professional Services Industries  SMOKE EVACUATION CONSULTANT Newcomb & Boyd  LIGHTING/ACOUSTINGS/DAYLIGHT MODELING Arup  LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT Hood Design Studio  GC Grinder, Taber & Grinder

Kristi Slipher