News

02.13.2011

towering vision: project would remake sears crosstown into memphis arts village

As published by Tom Bailey Jr. of the Commercial Appeal.

A coalition in art and real estate has quietly been laying the groundwork for more than a year to turn the Sears Crosstown building into an arts-centric urban village.

The still-fluid plan is to establish an artists' residency program, studios, exhibition and performance space in parts of the 1.4 million-square-foot building at Watkins and North Parkway.

The big idea: People gravitate to art and artists, and will fill the rest of the 84-year-old landmark with their offices, stores, schools, apartments, condos, hotels and nonprofit organizations.

The rough estimate to renovate is $200 million.

The driving force is Crosstown Arts, the nonprofit group collaborating with the building's owners.

The 10-month-old organization now wants the public to help shape the vision.

Crosstown Arts will soon take its ideas to the community with public meetings and even tours of the historic landmark.

Crosstown Arts has been open about its mission to create an artists' community and residency program, but until now, not so public about the intended location.

However, its leaders have held scores of individual meetings with potential space-users and stakeholders.

Their vision is to revive the Art Deco building -- closed since 1993 -- and in doing so the distressed Crosstown neighborhood as well.

For example, one conceptual site plan for the 16-acre site shows a zeal for making the development porous. A traffic circle, green space, walking/biking trails, and new entrances reach out to neighbors.

Local owners going by "Crosstown LLC" bought the building for $3.5 million in 2007 from out-of-town investors.

Andy Cates represents the owners and volunteered the due-diligence work that paved the way for the purchase.

While he's not an owner, Cates is something of a change agent, having helped bring the NBA to Memphis and led development of Soulsville USA.

Cates describes the owners as "civic investors" motivated not by profit, but to bring Crosstown back to life.

Their first attempt, in 2007, to redevelop Sears Crosstown would have involved a collegiate-level educational institution and businesses.

"Then the world blew up," Cates said, referring to the recession.

Nothing happened until fall 2009, when Cates got a call from a friend, Todd Richardson.

He's a 37-year-old art history professor at the University of Memphis. His focus is Renaissance art.

The former Idlewild Presbyterian youth minister had seen other former industrial spaces revived by art and commerce while working on degrees at Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., and Universiteit Leiden in The Netherlands.

When he returned to Memphis to teach at the U of M, Sears Crosstown still stood empty and still inspired Richardson. "Not just the enormity of the building, but it's in the middle of the neighborhood," he said.

The thought occurred to him in August 2009: What if the Sears building could be transformed, too?

"At that point, it was pretty naive," Richardson said. "Who could wrap their mind around a million square feet?"

Richardson and another friend, video artist Christopher Miner, had already been working on a plan to develop an artist residency in the area.

"We combined our ideas," Richardson said. "... It represented this opportunity to create a lot of synergy."

Mayor A C Wharton said he embraces the project. "This is not merely some private persons' vision and dream," he said. "This is something our city would like to see. ... This is a dream of the city."

Wharton said he believes the project is do-able even though it "requires a stretch of the imagination."

"The individuals who are backing this did not become successful because they were timid or because they were dumb, quite frankly. They became successful because they were bold, imaginative and brilliant," Wharton said.

"When you have individuals willing to use those traits that brought them success in their private affairs and say, 'I'm willing to put my name in the public arena,' I have to accept it and say, 'Let's do it.' "

Studying other cities

Richardson and Miner formed Crosstown Arts in May. They are co-directors.

Miner, 37, has art degrees from the University of Tennessee and Yale and is represented by the New York gallery Mitchell-Innes and Nash. He works full-time for Crosstown Arts in headquarters across Watkins from Sears Crosstown.

Richardson is assistant professor of art history at the U of M and the art department's assistant chairman. He expresses gratitude that the university supports such "engaged scholarship" as well as research and teaching.

Their Crosstown Arts president and chairman is Doug Carpenter, principal of doug carpenter & associates, an advertising and public relations firm.

Carpenter recalled Richardson approaching him with the Sears Crosstown idea early last year and saying, "'I'm not interested in having to spend my time convincing people about this. I want people who get it and understand it picking it up and running with it,' " Carpenter recalled. "It sounded too compelling not to be involved."

Carpenter had already helped the Salvation Army raise $25 million for its Kroc Center, worked in the Memphis NBA-pursuit campaign, worked on the Soulsville revitalization project, and helped assemble a group to buy The Racquet Club to keep the professional tennis tournament in Memphis.

He, Richardson and Miner have made trips around the country the past year studying how cities redeveloped huge Sears buildings nearly identical to Sears Crosstown.

In Seattle, the building is the Starbucks headquarters.

In Boston, the Landmark Center holds national retailers and other tenants.

In Minneapolis, the Midtown Exchange is mixed use, too, but is anchored by the headquarters for Allina Hospitals & Clinics.

In Dallas, South Side on Lamar holds apartments, shops and restaurants.

But redevelopment in some other cities has languished or failed. Two attempts to adapt Atlanta's 2-million-square-foot structure have faltered. And the building in Philadelphia was imploded in 1994 for a Home Depot.

The strategy to save the Memphis building from a similar fate uses art in three ways:

The residency program will provide free room and meals to artists who'd come from across the nation, the world and the city.

Sponsorships, grants, fund-raising and other sources would provide the funding.

Recruiting should be easy.

"There are always way more qualified applications than space for them," said Caitlin Strokosch, executive director of the Alliance of Artists Communities based in Providence, R.I. Crosstown Arts has joined the alliance.

"That area around Memphis is really underdeveloped in providing opportunities for artists-in-residency programs,'' she said.

Residencies generally last two weeks to three months.

While Minneapolis-based ArtSpace is considering building perhaps 50 work/ space units in Memphis -- probably in the South Main District -- those are more permanent living quarters.

Artists residency is temporary and more programmed. Artists are often expected to give back by mentoring other artists or interacting with the community.

The cross-pollination of ideas among artists in such programs stirs creativity, Miner said, adding, "They are basically feeding off each other.''

Exhibition space has great potential because of the vast spaces and 18-foot-tall ceilings.

The rooms are a huge advantage for large-scale artwork, Miner said.

A key part of Crosstown's gallery concept is offering high-quality exhibition space to local artists. "As a local artist, you are given the same attention and credibility as an internationally known artist," Miner said.

And shared art-making facilities would be offered to all types of artists.

An art school student upon graduation often loses access to the school's computer lab, printmaking studio, wood-working shop, ceramic shop and other resources.

"We'd build these art-making labs that would involve a digital lab and wood shop and a print-making studio and all the stuff," Miner said.

Local artists could join the facility to use it.

Cost of some memberships might be sponsored while others might be based on the artist's income, he said.

Miner stressed that the concepts are still a work in progress, adding, "We're in discovery mode.''

'Unbelievably sound'

Structurally, the Sears Crosstown building is "unbelievably sound," said Tony Bologna, a development consultant whose portfolio includes an all-star list of renovations, restorations and new-urban neighborhoods, including Harbor Town, South Bluffs, Shrine Building, Cotton Exchange, Brinkley Plaza, Paperworks and One Memphis Place.

The warehouse's poured-in-place concrete floors and columns were built for 300 pounds per square foot of load. No function now imagined for the building would challenge its strength.

Asbestos? "Nothing major," Bologna said. "The building is wide open. What you see is what you get."

Any need to bolster the building against earthquakes would be "one of the many issues that will be analyzed as the project moves forward," he said.

One certain challenge is the windows. They comprise perhaps 75 percent of the building's sides. They create nice light-filled spaces, but aren't weather tight.

Bologna's studying the building like a 3D jigsaw puzzle. He's figuring what has the most logical chance of financial success, what uses work where, what types of tenants should be next to each other.

The building stands in the middle of asphalt. That will change, Bologna said, because the property must integrate with surrounding houses and small businesses.

"It needs to be respectful of the neighborhood," he said.

The early concept drawings show: The vast parking lot now dominating the southeast corner being converted to green space and performance or outdoor exhibit space; traffic on Watkins being allowed to ease onto the site via a traffic circle; and the V&E Greenline extended across North Parkway to connect to the grounds.

Cost of the redevelopment would be in the $200 million range, Bologna said.

Funding might include sources like public/private partnerships, conventional loans, tax freezes and tax-increment financing and New Market Tax Credits.

Local ownership

The previous New York owners viewed the building as a cheap asset, to be traded for profit, Cates said. By contrast, he said, the civic-minded local owners want to re-energize Crosstown.

What they don't want is to be identified. "It's not what they do," Cates said. "It's not the point of the mission. ... Also, it's immaterial."

The local owners have already resolved several problems, including some anti-neglect and security issues.

Cates expresses resolve in his belief in Richardson's idea to base redevelopment on art. It's a "clear path" and "logical," Cates said.

"And you've got a very talented person who's not only charged up and motivated but also very bright and doing the right research and doing the right community-foundation to get it done.

"If the community does not buy into and support it, it's not going to happen," Cates said.

Ask Cates how much money is being spent, and his response is general: "A lot."

Prospective tenants

Filling more than 1 million square feet will take a variety of users.

One enthusiastic prospect is the Memphis Teachers Residency (MTR) program. The AmeriCorps-affiliated program would love to house scores of young teachers and MTR's headquarters in the building, director David Montague said.

The Memphis music industry is in "total support" of the development plans, said Dean Deyo, president of the Memphis Music Foundation. He envisions musicians participating in the artist residency program, using the facility to rehearse and perform, and traveling musicians spending the night there.

"How wonderful would it be for a musician to go from the seventh floor (apartment) downstairs and play and then take the elevator to his room?" Deyo said.

The Memphis College of Art expects to become involved, particularly on behalf of alumni who need incubator and studio space with access to art-making facilities, said Kim Williams, vice president of college advancement.

Rhodes College also wants to participate, said Russ Wigginton, vice president for college relations. He sees both Rhodes students and faculty volunteering there or using the place as a learning lab.

Memphis photographer Amie Vanderford told Miner she could use studio space and a darkroom.

Vanderford figures that with all the other artists there, she'll also get something money can't rent: Inspiration.

Besides, Vanderford has always liked the building.

"My grandmother worked there 20 years," she said.

A new Crosstown Arts website invites Memphis area residents to learn about and get involved in the Sears project. Go to crosstownmemphis.com.

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