A Million Square Feet of Opportunity

Anina TweedJune 5, 20160 Comments

What does a “vertical urban village” look like? How can the arts anchor and catalyze a mixed-use project? How could developing a historic building revitalize an entire neighborhood? These are the questions that kept Crosstown Arts up at night as they undertook what some thought to be impossible: redeveloping an old Sears, Roebuck & Co distribution center into a vibrant facility where the arts, education, health and affordable housing could all interrelate.

Once a hub of commerce, the Sears building in Memphis’ Crosstown neighborhood had laid vacant for over 17 years. Sitting amid one of the city’s most ethnically diverse and economically-challenged neighborhoods, the empty building became a symbol of resident’s hopes for how the community could evolve. In 2010, Crosstown Arts formed as a 501(c)3 to give shape to these dreams; their mission was to redevelop the abandoned Sears Crosstown building using arts and culture as a catalyst for change. Today, the one-million square foot project will be the largest historic, adaptive re-use project in Tennessee and a successful example of creative placemaking in action.

Imagining a Vertical Village: Creative Placemaking in Action

Since its inception, the Crosstown Concourse project has not just been about renovating a building, but also about building community. In 2012, Crosstown secured commitments from their first eight Founding Tenants who will lease approximately 600,000 square feet of the historic property once construction is complete. It was no small coincidence that these Founding Tenants came from the community’s anchor industries: the arts, education and healthcare. From that moment on, Crosstown Arts launched a series of events to engage the community in envisioning the future of the project, resulting in a design and vision for the building that truly encompasses community needs.

Since its inception, the Crosstown project has not just been about renovating a building, but also about building community.

Crosstown’s community-driven design revolves around the desire to create a space composed of all the essentials for a thriving community. To do so, it pursues several goals: promoting health and well-being; fostering curiosity, discovery, and imagination; creating a sense of interconnection and exchange; and remaining sustainable. These goals will be achieved through a purposeful design that provides space for a large range of uses from a health clinic, to a school, to affordable housing. The facility includes plans to incorporate unique sustainable features such as stack ventilation and radiant surface cooling. The design will also feature a network of event spaces that will encourage visitors and residents to interact in meaningful and new ways. With porous edges on all sides and punctuated by event spaces, Crosstown Concourse will allow for a free flow of everyday neighborhood life. Above all, this vertical urban village will act as its own eco-system where people can live, work, learn, and create just like they would in a well-functioning neighborhood.

Financing the Impossible

On February 21st, 2015, Crosstown and its many partners broke ground for the new Crosstown Concourse. According to Memphis Mayor A C Wharton, Jr., “On a project like this, there aren’t many greenlights.” So what made financing the Crosstown Concourse possible? To make it work, it took a good dose of Memphis-style grit and creativity, weaving together money from private, philanthropic, city, county, state and federal funding sources. The willingness of many funders to pool resources and commit to Crosstown’s grand vision allowed them to piece together $200 million needed to finance the new mixed-use facility.

Amidst the complexity of finances, New Markets Tax Credits (NMTC) were an important piece in making the project a reality. LIIF provided $10 million in NMTCs as part of a total $56 million NMTC transaction. The NMTC transaction along with other sources of equity and flexible capital, including Historic Tax Credits and debt from the City of Memphis, allowed the developer to lease space at the project at below market rates to a variety of education, health and community-based organizations.  Without the equity and flexible capital derived from these sources, the project would not have been able to provide the affordable rents needed to attract such a broad group of tenants. The project’s successful financing lead new CDFI Fund director Annie Donovan to affirm, “Crosstown is an example of how the CDFI Fund’s programs attract investments where they are needed most.”

A Way Forward for Memphis

Once completed, the economic and social impact of Crosstown Concourse will be staggering. It’s estimated to: create 1,000 construction jobs generating $36 million in wages and 800 permanent jobs generating $50 million in wages; have 3,000 people coming in and out of its doors per day; create 262 units of new affordable housing; support 125,000 healthcare patient visits per year; and provide space to serve 2,500 students and teachers per year.

We should not build a city for our eyes, it should be built for the eyes of generations to come.

The completed project will consist of commercial, retail and mixed-income uses including: a charter high school for arts and sciences, healthcare clinics, teacher residency and graduate urban education program, wellness and fitness center, art exhibition space/shared art making facilities, a comprehensive cancer treatment center and healthcare offices for administration. In addition, the redevelopment will include 262 residential units, of which 20% will be made affordable for low-income households.

Crosstown is not just an emblem of Memphians hope for their city, but also a significant future driver of revitalization for its surrounding community. Above all, the project is a testament to the fact that large, complex redevelopment can not only be successful, but driven by community input. As Memphis Mayor A C Wharton, Jr. stated in reference to Crosstown’s vision, “We should not build a city for our eyes, it should be built for the eyes of generations to come.” Crosstown Concourse is indeed an example of the way forward for Memphis and a model for creative placemaking initiatives around the country.

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