Eyesore Cured in Memphis

A 14-story art deco high-rise is being transformed into a mixed-use vertical urban village.

📅   Mon August 17, 2015 - Southeast Edition
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Originally constructed as a Sears mail-order processing warehouse and retail store, the historic Crosstown Concourse building is undergoing a dramatic renovation in downtown Memphis, Tenn.
Originally constructed as a Sears mail-order processing warehouse and retail store, the historic Crosstown Concourse building is undergoing a dramatic renovation in downtown Memphis, Tenn.
Originally constructed as a Sears mail-order processing warehouse and retail store, the historic Crosstown Concourse building is undergoing a dramatic renovation in downtown Memphis, Tenn. So far, workers have removed more than 44 million lbs. (19.9 million kg) of concrete from the site and recycled more than 11 million lbs. (4.9 million kg) of rebar/scrap metal. The $200 million project will include 60,000 sq. ft. (5,574 sq m) of retail on the first floor, including restaurants, a coffee shop, a pharmacy and a small grocery. Considered an eyesore and primed for demolition just a few years ago, the 14-story, 1.5 million sq. ft. (139,354 sq m) art deco high-rise is being transformed into a mixed-use vertical urban village.

Originally constructed as a Sears mail-order processing warehouse and retail store, the historic Crosstown Concourse building is undergoing a dramatic renovation in downtown Memphis, Tenn. Considered an eyesore and primed for demolition just a few years ago, the 14-story, 1.5 million sq. ft. (139,354 sq m) art deco high-rise is being transformed into a mixed-use vertical urban village that will feature apartments, arts, dining, retail, education, office, health care and wellness components and green spaces.

“We are currently more than five months into the construction schedule,” said Matt Futrell, senior project manager of Grinder, Taber & Grinder Inc. of Memphis. “The bulk demolition phase is complete, and we’re focused on the building envelope restoration phase of work, such as masonry repairs, new roofing systems and new windows.

“Many items are complete, but there are a few key efforts to note. Steel catwalk structures for new atria skylights have been placed on the roof, new reinforced concrete walls at the highest roof of the main tower — more than 190 ft. (57.9 m) in the air — have been formed and poured, approximately 85 percent of exterior masonry mortar joints have been cut out and tuck-pointed, new cooling towers are set and the central plant is well on its way to completion.”

The $200 million project will include 60,000 sq. ft. (5,574 sq m) of retail on the first floor, including restaurants, a coffee shop, a pharmacy and a small grocery. A total of 600,000 sq. ft. (55,741 sq m) of commercial/office space will be available on floors two through six, including a 60,000 sq. ft. fitness center, teaching kitchen, health care clinics, art gallery and shared art-making labs, a high school, technology training center and traditional office space.

Plans also call for 270 loft-style apartments on floors seven through ten, including studios and one, two and three-bedroom units. Clients already committed to the project include Church Health Center, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Memphis Teacher Residency, Crosstown Arts, Christian Brothers University, Southern College of Optometry, Goodwill Excel Center and Crosstown Back Institute.

Futrell said although the process is now complete, one of the most difficult tasks on this project was removing concrete slabs and associated concrete columns in preparation for the new atria light wells. New construction generally has fewer variables, whereas renovations require very thorough analysis of existing conditions, as part of the detailed due diligence period at the start of the project.

“Historic structures take on a different mentality, not only from the public’s perception of the project, but also the ways in which the daily workforce go about handling the job,” said Futrell. “If properly articulated to the general work force, the level of pride generated by simply being a part of the effort can greatly influence the demeanor and work ethic on site. Additionally, with historic projects comes the various layers of compliance and funding sources that otherwise you would not ordinarily see on a conventional project.”

Equipment required for the project includes a 275-ton (249 t) triple 9 crawler crane, rubber tire cranes, lifts, excavators, bulldozers, skid steers, dump trucks, concrete pump trucks, concrete breakers and a wide variety of hand tools. Some of the main materials being used during the renovation include concrete, masonry and mortar, steel, wood, glass, aluminum and drywall.

Futrell said one of the most challenging parts of the project involves work flow sequencing and keeping everyone focused on common goals. “There are constant lists for me personally, paired with staying focused on the big picture, while allowing my talented team the flexibility to do what they do best.”

Weather also is a concern for Futrell and his crew.

“We have to strip the entire site of the existing surfaces, as well as install various exterior foundations at certain times during the progression of the project. Any rain or other inclement weather that hits us while we are in that vulnerable state will certainly have an adverse effect on our productivity.”

The building façade yields approximately 360 mi. (579 km) of masonry joints that will require restoration. There’s currently more than 2,000 ft. (609 m) of swing stage scaffolding placed on the building for the exterior restoration. The core and shell upgrade can be generally summarized as replacing all MEPF building infrastructure, new elevators, a new roof, new windows and interior finishes within the limits of the common areas on floors one through six. This is paired with the complete build-out of the residential apartments.

According to Futrell, work on the garage also was delicate due to the historical value of the site.

“The garage scope is to go through it with a fine-toothed comb to try and make it match original construction, including slab repairs, replacement lighting, new paint, etc. This structure is also on the historic registry, so it is of paramount importance that all components mimic that of the original in similar fashion to the building portion of the project.”

Designed by Nimmons & Co. and completed in 1927, the Sears Crosstown Building was at the time the largest building in Memphis at 650,000 sq. ft. (60,386 sq m), constructed in only 180 days. The regional distribution center included a soda fountain, luncheonette, employee cafeteria and in-house hospital. The building became vacant in the early 1990s, after Sears closed many of the buildings it had erected in the 1920s.

According to Todd Richardson, co-leader of Crosstown Development, “for most of the last century, Crosstown neighborhood was a fresh-faced suburb, a place where young families sought to carve out their slice of the American Dream. But beginning in the 1980s, Memphis’ population, and its purchasing power, began to shift east. These days, Crosstown has fallen on hard times, with some of the highest poverty and unemployment rates in the city.

Back in 2010, Richardson and Christopher Miner started Crosstown Arts with a simple goal in mind.

“We wanted to bring people back to the neighborhood and show them what an amazing place it could be,” said Richardson. “And the way we did that was through art. We established a presence in the neighborhood, and organized a series of community events, including concerts, exhibitions, tours, public lectures, classes and block parties.

“Obviously, the project is about renovating a building. But it’s also about building community — restoring this neighborhood to its former greatness and helping the people who live here lead healthy, fulfilled lives. 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.”

When the two started the project, Richardson said it struck most people as a pipe dream.

“It was the middle of the recession, and the most common response we got was ’Why not just tear it down?’ And I get that. It can be difficult to see past what’s standing 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 neighborhood stakeholders and potential tenants. And if there’s one thing we’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.”

Richardson explained the most obvious difference is size. “When it opens in 2017, Crosstown Concourse will comprise 1.1 million square feet of space, about the size of the Chrysler Building in New York City. As you can imagine, that kind of scale generates an incredible amount of complexity, especially when you consider all the various, and often conflicting codes, zoning and operational needs of our various tenants.

“It also affords us an incredible opportunity. By juxtaposing arts organizations with healthcare providers, schools and restaurants with residential and retail, we’re creating a “vertical urban village” — essentially, all the elements of a vibrant neighborhood, stacked vertically under in a single structure. The hope is that through creative collisions and collaborations, Crosstown Concourse will generate the kinds of ideas that will keep Memphis relevant in the 21st-century, and that we can begin to develop solutions to some of society’s most pressing imbalances.”

Richardson said tearing down the historic structure would have been a giant step backward.

“If Memphis is America’s distribution center, a key piece of that history is the Sears Crosstown Distribution Center, which connects us with other major U.S. cities where other distribution centers are located, such as Seattle, Minneapolis and Boston. It’s a historic, art deco gem. If Sears Crosstown had been demolished — and certainly, there were lots of people in Memphis who wanted that — it would have been a missed opportunity to create the unique vertical urban village experience that is the vision for redevelopment.”

Crosstown’s other great virtue is its location, according to Richardson. It’s in the center of the urban core, just outside of downtown, but close enough that it benefits from good population density and easy access to numerous amenities. “Because of its location, Crosstown has the potential to become a vibrant, walkable, affordable place to live,” said Richardson.

Richardson also said that aiming for LEED certification is extremely important to those involved in the high-profile project.

“From the beginning, sustainability has been one of our big themes — not in any narrow sense, but holistically. It’s crucial that our community be able to sustain themselves in terms of their bodies, their finances, their emotions and the world around them. Part of that means taking care of the environment, so that future generations can continue to enjoy this building, this city and this landscape. Although LEED isn’t perfect, we think it’s a good jumping-off point for an ongoing conversation about environmental sustainability. It’s a way for us to signal that we’re serious about taking care of the place where we live.”

The renovation includes more than 30 different funding sources, including private, philanthropic and governmental. Crosstown Concourse was able to secure more than $50 million in new market and historic tax credits. Putting the money to good use was crucial.

“In its first life, Sears Crosstown was all about consumer goods such as floor lamps, lawnmowers and washing machines,” said Richardson. “Now we have to take a building that was all about stuff, and make it about people — helping people move forward into better health, better jobs and better education. That created some interesting design challenges. One was building shared spaces where our tenants and community partners could interact. Another was bringing natural light into the building’s dense interior.

“As it happened, the answer to both questions arrived in the form of three atriums that extend through all ten stories of Crosstown Concourse. Building them meant sacrificing over 200,000 square feet of rentable space. But we think it’s worth it, as a way to create shared experiences among our tenants and neighbors, not to mention the beautiful light.”

So far, workers have removed more than 44 million lbs. (19.9 million kg) of concrete from the site and recycled more than 11 million lbs. (4.9 million kg) of rebar/scrap metal. Before they’re finished, more than 400,000 individual bricks and more than 3,200 window sections will be replaced and more than 1,200 tons (1,088 t) of new steel will be installed. Richardson said watching the transformation has been nothing short of amazing.

“In the beginning, there were traces of the building’s first life. The stairways were littered with old invoices for Sears catalog orders, and there was a giant copper fuse box for the elevators. Last week, we found a hidden gem. On a concrete column, underneath some peeling plaster, there was a message from the original construction team, the guys who built Sears Crosstown back in 1927. It was stenciled in black spray paint. It said, simply, ’this schedule must be kept’. Some days I think we should take that for our motto.”

Reaction from the community has been positive.

“When we heard the weather forecast for our groundbreaking celebration, we figured maybe 300 people would show up. 400, we thought, would be a dream. Because realistically, how many people would show up for freezing rain, 25-mile-per-hour winds, and temperatures in the mid-30s?

“Imagine our surprise when over 1,200 of Crosstown’s biggest fans squeezed under a gigantic circus tent to celebrate with us. There were food trucks and live music. We gave out passports and t-shirts. We even melted a few radiators and used the molten iron to make art. More than anything, we were overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from our friends and neighbors. Truly, we couldn’t do it without them.”