By Morgan O’Neal
When Todd Richardson, a University of Mississippi Class of 1995 alum from Tupelo, MS, co-founded Crosstown Arts in Memphis in 2010, the goal was to cultivate the city’s artistic community while fostering a vision for the redevelopment of the abandoned Sears building in the heart of the Crosstown neighborhood.
The challenge was to take a blighted building the size of 25 football fields and turn it into a welcoming “vertical village” that would be intentional about its diversity and development on every level.
Ten years later, Crosstown Concourse has become one of the most extraordinary adapted use projects in the country.
“Instead of thinking about the building as simply a space to be filled, we thought about it as an opportunity to create a whole new neighborhood,” Richardson said. “The things you would put in a traditional neighborhood horizontally — residential, healthcare, education, arts, entertainment, food — we just stacked on top of each other.”
Crosstown Concourse now houses art galleries, a grocery store, a dozen eateries, a community radio station, a public high school, beauty salons, offices, apartments and more. Prior to COVID-19, the complex drew in more than 3,000 people each day. While that number has dropped during the pandemic, it remains a hive of activity as residents and visitors continue to take advantage of its ample space for social distancing.
Retail only occupies 50,000-square-feet of the 1.5 million square foot building — a purposeful decision designed to draw out Crosstown’s residents and visitors to other retail businesses in the surrounding area.
“We didn’t want to put everything in the building, the building be successful, and then have nothing happened outside the building,” Richardson said. “We wanted it to be a spark that encouraged more development. We still have two buildings that are completely abandoned and blighted, but a lot of this stuff was completely empty that’s now occupied. Granted, we’ve been at it for three years — we opened in 2017 — so it’s still a work in progress.”
For the 20 years before Crosstown Arts was founded, the abandoned fortress loomed over an abandoned neighborhood. Two buildings across the street remain blighted, but several small business owners in the area say Crosstown has rejuvenated what was once a ghost town.
Shawn Kelly owns Glitter and Glamour, a women’s clothing store down the street from Crosstown celebrating 25 years of business. In the last three years, Kelly says Crosstown has been a real boon for her boutique.
“[The neighborhood] is more homey, more people are walking their dogs and stuff, eating and exercising all day long, where it didn’t used to be like that,” Kelly said. “Now that they know [Crosstown Concourse] is open and some people live in those apartments, they know that this area is open again. It revitalized the whole neighborhood.”
According to Caitlin Hassinger, Marketing Manager at Crosstown Concourse, Crosstown’s public spaces are what makes the property unlike any other.
“We like to call it ‘the park with a roof’,” Hassinger said. “That means it’s for everyone. So you can hang out here and study, bring your kids, bring your own coffee from home. We have our homeless population and sometimes they’ll come in and we get to know them. We have specific guidelines for our security that are very different from what you would find in the mall or a museum. We treat everyone respectfully, and that is completely unique.”
Matthew Martin owns Black Lodge, an 8,000-square-foot multi-purpose movie rental store with 15,000 films in their cinema library. The store opened in 1999 and relocated to the Crosstown neighborhood in 2019 when Martin met Chris Miner, a co-founder of Crosstown Arts.
“We ended up cutting a deal with the owner of this property and Crosstown agreed to work on the master lease with us, and they were very good about all of those elements. Certainly, it helped when [Crosstown] came on board to turn this street into something a little more visible,” Martin said.
Martin noted that while local businesses are struggling amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the relationship between Crosstown and the surrounding businesses is generally good. He said Crosstown often reaches out for feedback and seems energetic about connecting with the neighborhood.
“The hope was, at least that’s what they claimed, was that they were trying to avoid [gentrifying the neighborhood],” Martin said. “They were hoping to empower local businesses, not replace them in the neighborhood, and for the most part I would say that’s true.”
Local business owners say they frequent Crosstown for lunch or to use the FedEx office.
Nick Riley, owner of the vintage clothing store Bad Timing which opened in December of 2019, says there’s no question that Crosstown is changing the neighborhood.
“It’s probably a safer street to walk down now,” Riley said. “On the other hand, it’s more expensive to live here. So, it’s good and bad. It is what it is. People bought buildings and raised the price.”
Richardson says the project meant not only building a community from scratch but also building a stronger Memphis. What’s more, all of the profit generated by the building goes back into the building and the surrounding community.
“You’ve got downtown, you’ve got the Medical District, you’ve got Midtown…this was kind of the last area to knit together a really strong center city of Memphis,” Richardson said. “And so, for us, it was about that as a goal — and then how do you use the building to improve the neighborhood.”
It’s been three years since Crosstown opened its doors again, and Richardson says tending to the entire community is a daily challenge — one his team is determined to meet.
“Parcel” apartment residents are members of a Crosstown Redevelopment Cooperative Association, which he leads. When the pandemic forced the temporary closure of retail tenants, Richardson transformed the Concourse’s valet service into an in-house food delivery service so that the restaurants didn’t have to pay exorbitant fees to third-party providers when they re-opened.
The seemingly utopian urban village’s mission can be summed up by the historic sign marking the free parking garage: What once read “SEARS” now reads “YOURS.”
According to Richardson, at night the ‘Y’ blinks on and off. “So what’s ‘YOURS’ is ‘OURS,’ and ‘OURS’ is ‘YOURS.’”