In 1993, when retailer Sears, Roebuck closed its mail-order catalogue business, it also shuttered distribution plants around the country, including one in Memphis that just sat abandoned. A quarter of a century later, the 1.3 million-square-foot facility has been transformed into the Crosstown Concourse, an innovative mixed-use property designed by the local firm Looney Ricks Kiss (LRK) in collaboration with the Vancouver office of DIALOG.
The project, completed last year, was the brainchild of artist Christopher Miner and University of Memphis art history professor Todd Richardson. Crosstown Concourse is home to a health center, arts and education groups, a high school, and 265 apartments.
When LRK principals Tony Pellicciotti and Frank Ricks first visited the site, the building was in serious disrepair. Since the closure of the distribution center, no money had been spent on upkeep, but the 1920s building itself was in solid shape. Its all-concrete frame had been designed to support live loads of 250 to 300 pounds per square foot. A 1960s steel-column-supported addition suffered though, in large part due to thieves who undermined the structure in search of copper flashing. Because of its significant mass, the center was too expensive to demolish, but the right redevelopment formula proved elusive until Richardson and Miner stepped up to form Crosstown Arts.
Crosstown Arts has been the driving force behind Crosstown Concourse since around 2007. Steered by Miner and Richardson’s vision, the project gathered steam by attracting a diverse set of like-minded organizations. The client group grew to include a local real-estate family, an interior designer, a retired Coast Guard captain turned architect, and a retired architect turned real-estate developer.
One of the challenges of a project on this scale is how to populate it. More importantly, Pellicciotti notes, the team wanted to maintain the surrounding neighborhood without turning their back on its businesses and residents.
Such a large structure couldn’t rely on the typical development model of ground-floor retail with residences above. Instead, the financial strategy dedicated the first six floors to mixed-use programming, with dwellings starting on the seventh floor. The architects devised a scheme that resembles a vertically stacked village, with planned intermingling to renew the existing community. Eight founding tenants—including the Church Health Center and the Memphis branch of the YMCA—spurred the project onward and take up nearly half of the building. Crosstown Concourse also houses programs for institutions like St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and Teach for America.
With that momentum, the Crosstown Concourse team was able to finance the nearly $200 million project cost through more than 30 sources that were a blend of private equity and bank loans, historic and new market tax credits, and local government funds for streetscape and utility improvement among them. And the project also earned the support of the people who would encounter it daily, through community-building arts workshops.
LRK dealt with the scale of the building in part by creating atria throughout the volume, each with its own character, recycling 54 million pounds of concrete in the process. Residential zones on the upper floors benefit from daylit internal porches that reference a common Memphis housing-stock feature.
LEED certification was not a project goal at the outset. Retaining the Sears building garnered significant credit toward certification, and incorporating daylighting strategies and recycling concrete put the team well on its way toward achieving not just LEED but LEED Platinum status. Using established best practices and technologies made up the balance, as did the building’s size. Pellicciotti cites the significant thermal mass of the building as “an incredible asset in managing energy efficiency,” contributing to consumption that is 40 percent below the ASHRAE baseline.
As cities grapple with the respective futures of their industrial pasts, they would do well to look at Crosstown Concourse. For this development, the vision was strong and swayed a diverse group of prospective tenants to get on board. From an environmental standpoint, the transformation of the Sears building into a successful venture like Crosstown Concourse turned a white elephant into green one.