Memphis and the Crosstown Concourse — An Interview with Todd Richardson

Stephen Assink

On February 21, 2015, Crosstown Concourse officially broke ground in Memphis, TN. Originally built in 1927 and known as the Sears Crosstown Building, it operated as a Sears store for over 60 years until becoming vacant in the 1990s. Thanks to the recent efforts of many people such as Todd Richardson, new energy and investment has been poured into its revitalization. In an interview with Thriving Cities, Todd, who has been at the forefront of the project, highlights his work and hopes for Crosstown Concourse.

Thriving Cities (TC): Todd, describe your initial interest and motivations in getting involved with a project like Crosstown Concourse?

Todd Richardson (TR): What initially peaked my interest was a simple conversation. “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?” It was 2009, and I had recently moved to Memphis to become a professor at the University of Memphis. While I love academia, it quickly became clear to me that I needed to get involved in the community in a more meaningful way. At the time, I didn’t know what that might look like. But as an art historian, I understood the power of art to engage minds and build community. At 1.5 million square feet, the Sears Crosstown distribution center is the largest commercial building in the city of Memphis—by a long shot. It’s bigger than 25 football fields, bigger than the Chrysler Building in New York. But in spite of its art-deco beauty and central location, it had been abandoned for almost 20 years. I was talking with the building’s owner. We said, “What if something amazing could happen at Sears Crosstown? And what if art were the catalyst?” That was enough to engage my research training, and I set out to determine whether anything like this had ever been done. Turns out, the power of art to spur community development has far surpassed my expectations.

TC: What have been the biggest challenges that you have faced?

TR: Our biggest challenge has been believability. It was 2010 when we started, the middle of the recession, and the project struck most people as a pipe dream. “Why not just tear it down?” was the most common response we received. And I get that. It’s difficult to see past what’s in front of you: a massive, blighted structure that’s been empty for 20 years. Over the next five years, our team had thousands of conversations with local stakeholders and potential tenants. We now have 17 leases. On one level, that’s a terrible batting average. But they are fantastic local organizations with incredible vision.

More to the point, they have committed to occupy more than half of the building’s rentable space. To be honest, it wasn’t until we closed financing in December 2014 that people began to risk a little hope. Other challenges have been scale and complexity. Combining retail, office, education, and residential in a single structure is incredibly complex—especially when you consider all the various (and often conflicting) codes, zoning, and operational needs. And financing. Despite having pre-leased 65% of the building, it took 30 different funding sources—private, philanthropic, and governmental—to reach our goal of $200 million. And all of those funders come with their own strings attached.

TC: How did you get community buy-in on such a massive project?

TR: One conversation at a time. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that there’s no shortcut to building meaningful support. It requires time, patience, and a willingness to deviate from preconceived plans. I can think of several instances when we were headed in one direction, then changed course after checking in with our community. It was hard. At the time, it felt like a detour. But the end results were better than anything we had previously imagined.

That’s also where Crosstown Arts comes in, the non-profit organization formed in 2010 to initiate the redevelopment. We established a presence in the neighborhood by organizing a series of hundreds of events over the past five years, such as concerts, exhibitions, tours, public lectures, classes, and block parties. Crosstown was a hub of activity until the early 80’s, but it had fallen off the mental map of most Memphians. The idea was to bring people back and show them what an amazing place it could be.

From the beginning, our motto has been to use “building” as both a noun and a verb. Obviously, the project is about renovating a building. But it’s also about building community. And that imperative has driven everything about the project, from architecture and design to our choice of tenants and our engagement with neighborhood stakeholders. Simply put: if the development is a commercial success, but the community around it remains poor and underserved, then we’ve failed.

TC: Crosstown Concourse’s website talks about how the design of the project aims to facilitate community. How so?

TR: Rather than look at the building simply as space to be filled, we saw it as an opportunity to create something new. By juxtaposing arts organizations with healthcare providers, schools and restaurants with residential and retail, we’re taking all the elements of a great neighborhood and stacking them vertically. Hence the term “vertical urban village.” It’s not just about co-locating. Founding tenants like St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Crosstown Arts, the Church Health Center, and Memphis Teacher Residency committed to the project because they truly believe they’ll be better together. Rather than operating in silos, they want to work together, sharing knowledge, resources, programming, and common spaces.

That aspiration presented some interesting design challenges. The reality is that, as humans, we gravitate to people who look like us and think like us, spaces that are familiar and comfortable. So our driving design question was how to create a built environment that generates opportunities for spontaneous interactions among diverse people and ideas. That led us to some pretty drastic moves; for instance, sacrificing more than 150,000 square feet of rentable space to build three atriums. These common spaces, which extend through all ten floors of the building, are designed to create shared experiences and unexpected interactions among our tenants and neighbors.

TC: What is the main thing that you have learned throughout this process?

TR: The story I keep coming back to is about a father and son who lived in the country. One night, the father asked his son to go get more wood for the fire. The son opened the door and shined his flashlight into the darkness. Then he turned to his father and said, “But, Dad, I can’t see the barn.” The father smiled and responded, “That’s okay. Shine your light and walk to the end of what you can see. Then shine your light again and walk to the end of what you can see. Shine it again and walk to the end of what you can see. And eventually, you’ll reach the barn.”

The boy is walking toward what’s in his mind’s eye, not what he sees before him. And that takes faith. It takes faith to step into the darkness and not be overcome by fear. For me, it’s a beautiful illustration of the creative process. And trusting that process has been a lesson our team has learned and relearned, again and again.

TC: What are your hopes and aspirations for Crosstown Concourse? Where do you see it 10 years from now?

TR: McLean Wilson, Co-Leader of the project, and I always say that success is not groundbreaking. Success is not even opening day. Success is ten years from now, when our tenants are renewing their leases, the vertical village is thriving, and the surrounding communities are vibrant. Because of the unique nature of this space, we have the opportunity to create a kind R&D lab for community building. And we want to take full advantage of that. We’re interested in trying out new ways to address some of society’s most pressing imbalances: things like educational attainment, income inequality, and access to health and wellness.

Dr. Todd Richardson is Co-Leader of Crosstown Concourse. Since 2010, he and McLean Wilson have led the effort to transform the historic, 1.5 million-square-foot Sears Crosstown building into a vertical urban village: a center for the cultivation of health and well-being. Due to open in 2017, the project recently received an Innovation Award from Memphis Business Journal and the 2015 John S. Wilder Rebuild Tennessee Award. An art historian by training, Richardson is an associate professor of European Renaissance Art at the University of Memphis and a co-founder of Crosstown Arts. He has lectured and published internationally on topics ranging from art and architecture to religion and politics. Click here to view his recent TEDx talk on the Concourse project: “The Dilemma of Discovery”