Housing USA, Memphis

8 min read

The ‘Vertical Urban Village’

Overall, Memphis is pretty old-school. As a city filled with rural migrants and defined by decades of slow growth, it maintains a dated and Southern feel. But after visiting one project recently completed within the city, I thought I was viewing the future. Just north of Midtown, on the edge of a poor neighborhood, a massive former warehouse has been retrofitted into a slick, functional indoor community that addresses almost every need residents might have in their daily lives. The project has thus been branded as a “vertical urban village”—or a self-contained city within a city—and its early success shows that this development style could spread.

The Crosstown Concourse is a 14-story, 1.2-million-square-foot project that spans across several acres. The building was erected in 1927 as a Sears, Roebuck & Company distribution center. The ground-level floor was a retail store, while the floors above were dedicated to packaging and shipping out various mail catalog orders then coming in from across the South. As Memphis—and certain aspects of the retail industry in general—declined, so too did the building. Sears closed the storefront portion in 1983, and left the place altogether ten years later. It sat empty for over two decades.

But during that vacancy period, a small group of artists opened a studio across the street. One day this group—led by Todd Richardson and McLean Wilson—discussed how they could turn that big adjacent empty structure into a facility that echoed their artistic vision. So they drew up a plan to make a “vertical urban village” that combined office, retail, residential and various other amenities inside one structure. The warehouse would also be peppered with artwork, bringing color and verve to what was then an eyesore.

In 2010, this group of artists formed a nonprofit, called Crosstown Arts, dedicated to redeveloping the building. Within seven years, their pie-in-the-sky vision has become an astonishing reality, opening in August of 2017.

Crosstown Arts attracted multiple project partners, wrote Wilson by email, “with 31 sources of financing including private money, philanthropy, bank debt, Historic Tax Credits, New Markets Tax Credits and monies from the City and County.” Major private financiers included SunTrust and Goldman Sachs Urban Investment Group. Some of the equity was, to McLean’s point, provided thanks to $56 million in New Markets Tax Credit allocation and $36.5 million in Historic Tax Credits allocation. Final project costs were $210 million.

One major renovation, according to Bianca Phillips, a communications coordinator for Crosstown Arts, was the cutting out of the concrete slab floors. Those slabs used to extend the length of the building, upheld by hundreds of rounded columns. The developers removed large swaths of these floors, creating three gigantic atriums at different points across the warehouse. But beyond that, there weren’t any significant structural or environmental problems to address, according to a 2010 feasibility study.

This restoration of Crosstown Concourse, which was originally built in 1927 in 180 days, occurred quickly again by today’s standards, and on opening day in 2017, attracted a crowd of 80,000. Since then, the project has far exceeded early expectations, becoming a bustling and near-complete community. According to a January report by accounting firm Novogradac & Co., “there are 65,000 square feet of retail (with 9,000 left to lease), 630,000 square feet of commercial office space (with 20,000 square feet left to lease) and 265 apartments, of which 254 are leased.” Once additional amenities are complete, Crosstown Concourse will attract an estimated 3,000 people through its doors each day.

Tour the Tower
Recently, I toured the facility, and the first thing that hit me about the building was its sheer size. The art deco structure looks mostly utilitarian on the outside, although certain finishes give the exterior a flourish, such as the 14-story tower that rises above the building’s general massing. After entering, the grand atriums give the project a palatial feel, marked by large columns, glass-window ceilings and abundant sunlight – kind of like an industrial chic version of Grand Central Station.

The ground level is dominated by retail, particularly of a niche variety. There are coffee shops, juice bars, art galleries, grass-fed burger bars and other regional businesses, as if this were Memphis’ personal take on Portlandia. Other services include a grocery store, a YMCA, a dentist, a brewery, a church and a small art museum. A lot of these amenities are bolstered by specific programs organized by Crosstown Arts, including an artist residency program, a teacher training program and a tutorial space for learning how to cook.

The floors right above the retail are dedicated to offices, which thus far have had a health industry orientation. Church Health, Methodist Healthcare and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital all have offices here. The top floors are for residential apartments. This portion of the building is cordoned off from the commotion below, and has its own internal atriums and common areas, serving as a micro-community within a micro-city.

Perhaps most crucial to Crosstown’s general vibe are the small touches. The balcony areas of every floor have some assortment of tables, couches, small libraries, even pinball machines – and people actually use them. Art can be found splashed throughout the otherwise grey concrete aesthetic, from the tasteful painted stairways to the murals on random spots. And Crosstown Arts hosts events on a near-daily basis, activating different parts of the facility.

You Never Need to Leave
Having all these amenities—whether for living, working or playing—in one building reduces the need for tenants to leave Crosstown’s confines. At least that has been the case for one resident, Mary Jo Karimnia, who works as a coordinator in Crosstown’s artist residency program. Karimnia previously raised her family near Germantown, an eastern sprawl suburb of Memphis. After becoming an empty nester, she moved with her husband into Crosstown Concourse.

On a typical day, she wakes up and takes the elevator down to the Crosstown Arts office. After work, she does whatever errands she needs to—buying groceries, working out, grabbing coffee—inside the building. For large bulk purchases, her husband makes weekly trips to Costco, since he still works in the suburbs. But she seldom leaves, nor does she own a personal car, instead Ubering whenever she must go somewhere.

“I have to make myself go out of the building sometimes,” said Karimnia, during an interview in her apartment.

Because so many other residents here live a similar existence, she has become intrigued with the kind of community life that Crosstown fosters. The clustering of uses leads to random bump-ins and cross-pollination of ideas. And the proximity to a poor neighborhood—along with the project’s mixed-income makeup—means that the people inside the building reflect Memphis’ wider black-and-white demographic makeup. Indeed, both races are heavily represented among those working, shopping and living inside Crosstown Concourse.

“The idea [of the project] is that we benefit as many people as possible,” said Karimnia. “And to try to make a whole building a welcoming place for everyone in the community. And I think we’re doing a pretty good job of that so far.”

The long-term test for Crosstown Concourse, which is still not even a year old, will come when it reaches full build-out. In the time leading up to then, there will be many amenities added, including a high school, a gymnasium, a 1,000-plus seat theater and a wine bar. This means far more people will traverse Crosstown’s hallways, shops and atriums. The question then becomes whether increased crowding and intensiveness diminishes the experience for residents, or whether they will want to continue living there. But so far the project is working, with starting rents, says Phillips, at $850 for a studio apartment, which is high for Memphis.

A Midwest Model
Assuming the building remains well-leased and economically-viable, this vertical urban village model may be applicable for other developers. The cities of the Midwest, which I just spent the last few months touring, have countless empty factories that match or exceed the size of Crosstown Concourse. These tall (and long) post-industrial properties are littered throughout Detroit, for example, and some there are even being readapted. The city’s famously-gargantuan Packard Plant, which closed in 1958, began its first phase of redevelopment last spring. In St. Louis, a large cluster of factories sit empty north of downtown, in an area known as the Bottle District.  Although developer Paul McKee hasn’t been able to find financing, the long-term vision is to make the area a mixed-use neighborhood.

Of course, restoring old factories and warehouses is expensive for taxpayers; incorporating them into vertical urban villages may be even more so. But at broader level, this vertical, multi-use model could apply to any tall building, subsidized or not. At a time when transportation and logistics continue to challenge our biggest cities, it would be convenient for urbanites to tackle their errands within the buildings they live. In most cities, this would be as simple as changing zoning laws, so that high-rise towers can contain multiple uses. Then we might see more projects that achieve the coherent inward community now found in Memphis’ Crosstown Concourse.

Story Contacts:
Mary Jo Karimnia
Residency Coordinator, Crosstown Arts

Bianca Phillips
Communications Coordinator, Crosstown Arts