Crosstown Change

Posted on April 28, 2015



While driving down North Parkway in the last twenty years, one might have admired the green lawns and old Victorian houses along the tree-lined and winding road. On the corner of North Cleveland Street, however, stands an enormous concrete structure, seemingly out of place. This building seems distinct among its surroundings—a slab of leaden concrete with shattered windows and a rusty stairwell dangling on its side, all of which rest on an even drearier asphalt lot that is gated by a tall fence with barbwire protruding from the top. This structure is the Sears Building.
Built in 1927 as part of Sears’ nationwide expansion to attract more customers, the Sears building became one of Memphis’ iconic images. The construction of the Sears building occurred at a monumentally quick pace, taking only 180 days, with work crews operating 24 hours a day six days a week. By the end of opening day, nearly a quarter of Memphis’ population had taken a tour.

The building became a hotspot, as many Memphians either shopped at or worked in the building. However, as time went on and manufacturing advancements were made, the building was used less frequently. The retail store that occupied the lower floors for the better half a century closed its doors on September 30, 1983, while the catalog distribution center closed in 1993 due to the decline of mail order business.

Yet, after more than two decades of closure, the Sears building has officially started renovation. Just last month on February 21st, the official groundbreaking took place. The mayors of both Memphis and Shelby County gave speeches, and a new name was announced— Crosstown Concourse.

The Crosstown area is one of the most historical and diverse places in Memphis. For over thirty years, Catholic charities used the Crosstown area as a place for refugees from across the world to settle. The name of the area originated in accordance to the construction of the Sears building. In 1927, Mayor Rowlett Paine allocated $100,000 to construct a new trolley line along Cleveland/Watkins Street. This busy pedestrian crossing, combined with the one on Popular Avenue, inspired the name “Crosstown”.

In regard to the structure of the building, the first floor will consist of restaurants and retail stores; floors two through six will contain art galleries and studios, graduate programs in education, a charter high school, health clinics, a fitness facility, and commercial office space. Nearly three hundred apartments will occupy floors seven through ten. With such an assortment of occupants, a community and neighborhood will be stacked within these ten floors.
There are a number of tenants that have already claimed space within the tower. Some of these are St. Jude’s Children Research Hospital, Church Health Center, Crosstown Arts, Gsetalt Community Schools, Rhodes College, Christian Brothers University, and Memphis Teacher Residency.

These tenants, along with the approximated 3,000 people coming in and out every day, will help generate additional growth along Cleveland St. and in the Crosstown neighborhood.

The overall direct and indirect economic impact of the Sears Crosstown building is projected at $330 million. There are 1,000 construction jobs coming from the renovations, with $36 million in wages and then 800 new permanent jobs when renovations are complete with $50 million in wages. The development also exceeded its goal of awarding 25% of construction jobs to minority and female-owned business enterprises.

The initial groundbreaking for this project marks the beginning of a long and inspiring story to come. The real challenge comes in revitalizing the Crosstown neighborhood and creating a community that will last decades. The renovations of the Crosstown Concourse building have started to cement this change.
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