Crosstown Collaboration

Arts, Retail, and Residential

photograph by Justin Fox Burks

The Crosstown Development Project made headlines in August when it announced its plan for renovating the Sears building, complete with commitments from nine heavy-hitting founding partners. But the hype behind improved healthcare facilities is just the tip of the iceberg for what will be happening in the development.

The concept Crosstown is implementing is a “vertical urban village,” i.e., a place that appeals to every aspect and need of the whole person — health, entertainment, retail, residential, and even arts. It’s a daunting task, no doubt, but you won’t find these developers worried.

Christopher Miner, co-director of Crosstown Arts, displays a genuine excitement when talking about the magnitude and impact that this project will have on the city. “It’s a symbol of what’s happened with this community,” Miner says. “The building is the supreme ideal place for all these things to happen, under one roof, with all these people together. We believe that all of these pieces are inherently good and beneficial and promising in and of themselves; so, they’re even better together.”

Crosstown Arts, a nonprofit dedicated to cultivating the Memphis arts community, is already fueling the creative fire behind this mammoth project through events, flexibility, and collaborative nature. It is a rare hybrid of organization and movement that doesn’t have to please investors or hit a certain number, it can just focus on energizing the arts scene, and business is good.

“People in Memphis kind of have an issue with territory and not knowing what their neighbor is doing,” says Kerry Hayes, public relations director for doug carpenter & associates, which represents the project. “The ‘cross’ in Crosstown is getting to see people — in disciplines that wouldn’t usually collaborate — work together. Things like that happening over and over again is what really makes this whole project just work.”

The focus on collaborations is key for Crosstown Arts. It continually looks for ways to foster interaction and enlarge the community. “I believe that outside influence is paramount to inspiration,” says Miner. “Music and literature are prevalent in the South, but, by comparison, visual art isn’t as easy to come by.”

To feed the need for regular exposure to outside influences, Crosstown Arts plans to establish an arts-residency program to ensure that artists of every medium have frequent opportunities to grow and enrich their craft. Similarly, it also plans to provide 24/7 art-making labs allowing Memphians access to expensive tools including wood- and metal-working shops, audio recording, lighting, digital software, and video equipment that most lose access to after undergrad and grad programs end.

Plans for the building, along with providing art for waiting rooms and offices, include performance venues and exhibit spaces that have the capability to showcase larger than average art installations, but Miner is quick to add, “We’re not just curating but collaborating.”

“The way you consume art or any media is changing,” Hayes says. “Everything is becoming social and participatory. This is where Crosstown Arts truly excels. While it does host and promote its own events such as MemFEAST and monthly Pecha Kucha nights, it also serves as an easy-access venue for artists. Whether it’s a group or an individual, straitlaced or off-the-wall, as long as you pique the interest of Miner and his team, the space is yours.”

“Whoever it is,” Miner adds, “just pitch us the idea for your show, and we’ll try to make it work.”

Its come-as-you-are vibe, “front porch aesthetic,” and ability to remove prohibitive factors, such as pesky bar sales, make it an ideal pairing for artists whether they’re just looking for a venue or a partnership. It also removes prohibitive factors for viewers by providing fun, interactive opportunities to do and attend.

“I try to live my life and run the organization the way you make an art project — you don’t always know where it’s gonna go sometimes, you just trust your instincts,” Miner says. “What we’re very committed to is that you would always see local and nonlocal work being shown, hopefully simultaneously. Which would be fun and amazing for the viewer to say, ‘Hey, this guy’s from Memphis and this guy over here’s from Japan.’” Crosstown Arts’ ability to corral talent and initiate exposure to each other’s lives provides tremendous creative potential.

Like the arts component, the retail and residential aspects of the project have a specific role to play. McLean Wilson, vice president of Kemmons Wilson, Inc., has experience with development, building, and management of hotels and communities, and his friendship with Todd Richardson, Crosstown project leader, made for a natural pairing. Wilson says that the concept of the vertical urban village is basically taking a thriving community block and flipping it on its side. Therefore, the retail and residential aspects play a vital role — each connects people to the urban hub.

The Sears Crosstown building was once the largest retail center in the city, and project leaders are confident that it will regain a similar reputation as a vibrant, creative hot spot. They want to enhance  the city and help the founding partners by creating opportunities for growth and innovation for each business.

While the actual designs and specifications aren’t finished just yet, Wilson explains the concept of what the ideal development would contain. “Retail is our interface to the public,” Wilson says. “Our goal is to fulfill and elevate the mission of each of the founding partners.”

Overall, this mission can be summed up as what defines a healthy community, and since this could have several definitions, the developers want the building to house every possible answer to that question. Whether it’s a market, a restaurant, or a clothing boutique, the purpose of each retail business needs to ultimately add to the existing elements for the project to be supremely successful.

Additionally, Wilson says he and the other developers aren’t merely relocating existing business but rather redeveloping by working with businesses to spark new creative visions. For example, they’d like to add a “production element” to a restaurant or retail store where customers can actually see the work being done — from cooking the food to making the clothes.

This type of creative energy is what the developers want to sustain by attracting residents with the same spirit. Since the building is only a short bike ride away from FedExForum, University of Memphis Law School, Rhodes College, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and downtown features, they anticipate attracting young doctors, artists, and students, but Wilson says that it will also be family-friendly. The energy around the neighborhood would attract a certain type of personality to live there rather than a specific age bracket and would offer a variety of floor plans and prices. Even with the proposed number of units being close to 200, these apartments are sure to rent fast. Wilson says, “Because of the location there’s a core community already established, but it will attract other vibrant, energetic people to be a part of the environment, too.”

He goes on to explain that while Memphis has a plethora of urban living opportunities, the Crosstown building provides the opportunity for young, bright minds to be in close proximity all the time. Developers want to create an environment in which happenstance conversation can lead to novel new partnerships. “There’s no limit to the creativity,” Wilson says.

An estimated 3,000 people will be in and out of the building every day; this provides the unique chance for Memphians to naturally encounter other creative individuals and collaborate, which will be beneficial for the city.

“There is a big focus on localism,” Wilson says. “We considered the whole of Memphis and want it to promote this sort of a ‘For Memphians, By Memphians’ energy.”

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