By M. Scott Morris
MEMPHIS – A daydream works for one person, and maybe two on rare occasions.
A vision is altogether different, and that’s what Tupelo native Todd Richardson had.
He’d traveled around, living in Berkley, California, for a time, then moving the family to The Netherlands, before becoming an associate professor of art history at the University of Memphis.
During trips through Europe, he saw different cities dealing with the same problem.
“Essentially, there are a lot of these old industrial buildings that had been abandoned,” Richardson said during a phone interview. “When they were built, they were outside of town, but the towns caught up to them.”
In some cases, those declining buildings were being transformed into apartments, retail centers and more. The lost and forgotten were finding new life in the modern age.
Let’s get back to Memphis, a city on the banks of the Mississippi River that attracted the attention of the then-thriving Sears, Roebuck & Co. in the early 20th century. Over a few years, the company built 10 distribution facilities around the country.
“It was a time when they had a lot of resources,” said Richardson, a 41-year-old alumnus of Tupelo High School and the University of Mississippi. “They were beautiful Art Deco buildings.”
They were each 1.5 million square feet, the same as the Chrysler Building in New York. Richardson said he’s found the best comparison to get the scale across to people is to imagine 25 football fields.
As competition grew, Sears’ business model had to change. The distribution centers became expensive to maintain, and all 10 had been deserted by the early 1990s.
“Within five years, all the buildings around it were abandoned,” Richardson said of the Memphis site.
Here was an American problem that looked very much like the European problem he’d seen.
“When it was built in 1927, everything happened downtown and this building was two miles away,” he said. “Now, most people would consider the building to be in town. It’s in the middle of the city off I-240, between Poplar and North Parkway.”
Richardson would’ve kept a daydream to himself, or shared it with his wife, but this was a vision, and a vision needs partners – lots and lots of partners.
A core group kicked things into gear in 2010, and their first goal was to build a cadre of believers, which they’d need for their second goal, to raise several busloads of money.
“The biggest challenge early on was getting people to see beyond what they were seeing,” he said. “It wasn’t enough to just put in a development team. It’s about remodeling a building, and it’s also about building a community.”
His background is in art, which might seem like a weird place to start, but here’s where his art history background came into play. During the Renaissance, art and place went together, so why couldn’t that work in the 21st century?
The Crosstown Development team invited rock bands, classical performers, jazz musicians, gospel singers and more. Sculptors and other artists displayed their work, and dance teams strutted their stuff.
“It was to bring people back to the neighborhood to rethink what the building could be,” said Richardson, adding that events drew people from all races and all rungs on the socioeconomic ladder.
Fun is fun, community is community, and money will always be money.
But the Memphis team had help when talking to potential investors. Five of the 10 abandoned Sears buildings have experienced or are undergoing rebirths.
“This building is exactly like the building in Minnesota. It had been redeveloped. It’s called Midtown Exchange,” he said. “We were able to take people to that building and show them what the vision would be.”
The idea that even supporters sometimes called crazy hit its big threshold in December, when $200 million in financing was secured from a mixture of philanthropic, private, city, state and federal sources. Tupelo’s BancorpSouth and Renasant Bank are among the investors.
The official groundbreaking party was Feb. 21, and the goal is to open in 2017. Sixteen tenants have already signed 10-year leases.
The team is calling it a “vertical urban village” that will include healthcare facilities, a charter high school, a contemporary art gallery, commercial offices, a grocery store, a fitness center and apartments.
Everything’s meant to fit within the project’s motto, “Better together,” in the hopes that such varied tenants will bring quality-of-life dividends for the people who live and work at Crosstown.
“It’s all about a walkable, bike-able, pedestrian community,” he said.
That’s the vision, and Richardson is wrapped up in it with a bunch of other people. He had been splitting his time between the University of Memphis and the project, but his bosses are now allowing him to focus on bringing Crosstown to completion.
“It’s definitely a lifetime project,” he said, “but the current situation is for the next five years.”
But he expects his association to continue beyond that.
“My family and I will move in there when it’s ready,” he said.
Of course, Richardson and the rest of the tenants will pay rent; the project was always intended to make money.
When profits come, they’ll go toward the building’s long-term upkeep, and a portion will be dedicated to areas around Crosstown in the form of small-business startup grants and facade renovation efforts.
The continuing goal is to expand the “Better together” philosophy.
“Success is not a groundbreaking. Success is not even opening doors,” Richardson said. “Success is 10 years from now, when the building is vibrant and active, and tenants want to renew their leases.”