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5 Star Stories: Crosstown Concourse -- a mecca in the heart of the Bluff City

Updated: Mar. 23, 2021 at 9:58 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - For decades it housed Memphis’ largest employer and was Tennessee’s largest commercial building. And according to some, it’s the beginning of Memphis’ identity as a crossroads for goods and services

“If Memphis is America’s distribution center it really starts with this building back in 1927 when that identity began to form,” claims Todd Richardson, the president of Crosstown Development Cooperative Association.

The building was the source of community pride that later became an empty behemoth of urban blight. That is until the Sears Crosstown building was transformed into the Crosstown Concourse which is this week’s 5 Star Story.

For almost 70 years, the Sears Crosstown building at the intersection of North Parkway and North Watkins Street served as the Sears & Roebuck distribution center for the Mid-South -- processing 45,000 orders a day for all of Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama and Louisiana.

It was a shopping and dining destination, a million and a half square feet, that’s 25 football fields, by the time all was said and done. But, then in 1993, it all stopped when Sears moved out and the building stood empty and decayed for nearly a quarter-century.

The Memphis Business Journal dubbed it “the Mount Everest of abandoned Memphis commercial properties,” -- a sad reminder of halcyon days gone by.

Enter 2009 and then-University of Memphis Art History professor Todd Richardson and a video artist friend with a dream.

“Chris Minor and I started Crosstown Arts, which at the time had kind of a two-fold mission of continuing to cultivate arts and music in Memphis but also to help facilitate a conversation around what could happen with this building,” explained Richardson.

The dream was a “vertical urban village” with plenty of space to shop, live, create and exhibit.

“Now people will say that Crosstown happened because Todd didn’t know it wasn’t possible and that is true because I look at the building as a great opportunity,” said Richardson. “Most people looked at it as a great obstacle or challenge.”

But the biggest obstacle for the duo was getting others to believe in the vision. Richardson said, that began to change, “and then over time, one thing led to another and dominoes kept falling and we got some great founding partners.”

By 2014, there were close to 40 founding tenants, along with $15 million from the Memphis City Council to help finance the renovation, which started the following year.

The newly re-named Crosstown Concourse opened for business in 2017 with arts and well-being as its central focus, also giving new life to numerous non-profits and health care agencies, like Church Health, which began at the corner of Peabody and Bellevue in an old midtown home. According to Chief Operating Officer, Jenny Bartlett-Prescott, “served us well, honestly, until we moved across town but we quickly outgrew that house and so grew to 13 different buildings across you know about a one-mile radius of that corner of Peabody and Bellevue.”

Since the move to Crosstown, Church Health is now able to house everything under one roof with roughly the same amount of square footage (easily 180,000 square feet) and allows Church Health to “be able to serve more people but also serve them better because we were interconnected and we can really deliver on this kind of innovative whole-person care that really -- this is our model of care we receive and deliver,” said Bartlett-Prescott.

Then, there are the living spaces called The Parcels, 265 apartments inside the Concourse that feature indoor patios, original brick walls and wood floors, as well as community gathering spaces. It’s home to native Memphian and Crosstown Arts Theater Director Jazmine Miller.

“I like to say that this place is just -- it’s like a greenhouse,” said Miller. “It’s like all of the good things of Memphis is sort of reflected in one place. It’s a neighborhood. My neighbors who live down the hall are just as much my neighbors as the folks who work at Curb Market, and the folks who work at French Truck Coffee, and my co-workers on the second floor. It’s like an ecosystem. You don’t really get that when you live in an apartment building.”

Also, a part of the 14-story ecosystem is 65,000 square feet of retail space honoring a communal and cultural spirit, like Global Cafe -- an international food hall that hosts immigrant/refugee food entrepreneurs cooking and selling dishes from their home countries.

Juan Vireamontes is the café's general manager and bartender.

“But essentially, the main core ingredients you’re gonna find back there is inclusion and acceptance and love,” said Vireamontes. “That’s all that we work with and that’s what we put in everything that we hand out to our guests. I think it’s undeniably phenomenal that we ended up in this building. And I don’t think the identity would be the same. The soul of the business wouldn’t be the same. The heart of the business wouldn’t be the same.”

On the first floor in the Central Atrium is WYXR 91.7 FM. A non-profit community radio station that’s a collaboration between Crosstown Concourse, the Daily Memphian and the University of Memphis.

Jared “Jay B.” Boyd, a multimedia journalist who primarily covered arts, entertainment and urban culture for the Daily Memphian is now the radio station’s general manager.

“We got 70 volunteers here of all ages of all styles of music of all interests and, you know, they reach many different parts of this Memphis community and beyond,” he said.

There’s even a public charter high school that focuses its roughly 300 students on project-based work with real-world challenges in brightly decorated, open spaces.

Biology and Environmental Science Teacher Nikki Wallace has been with the school since it welcomed its first students three years ago.

“So that’s why I love it here. We have the freedom to create and to do innovative projects and I can’t even tell you how many different people I’ve been able to work with from MIT to Stanford University who’ve given me a lot of help in guidance along the way,” explained Wallace.

The revitalized art deco historic structure which is now called a “creative cauldron” has bubbled over into the neighborhood that surrounds it, which has become a social and creative destination in its own right. For Richardson and Minor, the outcome is better than even they could have imagined.

“So for us the way this ended up, the way the people have taken ownership of it and done their own thing on their own time, on their own dime, just to be a part of it, far surpassed any of our expectations,” said Richardson. “For me, the most important thing is that it is open for everybody. It is a place where hospitality is at the core of our mission: nobody ever leaves Crosstown feeling less than.”

So far, Crosstown Concourse has won roughly 30 awards for its mixed-use design and is also Platinum LEED-certified as the largest historical adaptive reuse building in the world. And, in addition to its own grocery and pharmacy, the Concourse also has a brewery: the Crosstown Brewing Company and Tap Room.

By the way, the Crosstown building and neighborhood was named for the intersecting trolley tracks that used to be at Cleveland and Poplar Avenue.

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