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Abandoned Art Deco warehouse becomes vibrant vertical village in Memphis

A repurposed 1927 Sears facility reimagined as a 21st century vision of urban life

A view of Crosstown Concourse in Memphis.
Photo by Jamie Harmon

Roughly three miles east of downtown Memphis, Tennessee, a new village has come to life. The reinvention of a former Sears mail-order distribution facility, a hulking Art Deco structure that’s sat vacant for decades, not only revitalizes the area, but due to its design and philosophy on urbanism, creates a new one, a bold attempt to build a more welcoming vision of the neighborhood.

Urban planner and design architect Alan Boniface, principal of DIALOG, the design firm that devised the new look for the Crosstown Concourse project, says the aim was to create an “incubator to experience life in different ways,” a vessel for interaction that reimagines an old industrial building as a vertical neighborhood.

Instead of transforming the former 1.5 million-square-foot workspace into a tech hub or luxury downtown residential development, the plan focused on gathering what supporters call urban magnets, while sculpting the huge space into a place that encourages interactions.

Developed in part with local groups such as the Crosstown Collaborative and local architect of record LRK, the building now includes a vibrant web of neighbors and commerce much more multifaceted that a typical multi-use development, including small businesses, non-profits, artists, doctors and dentists, even Crosstown High School, all of whom draw students, workers and residents who bump into each other on the new circulation paths and large staircases that slice through the middle of the building.

Atrium

Outside the revitalized structure, it’s hard to comprehend the scale of change inside. A $200 million reconstruction project that spanned three years and required multiple funding sources, the redevelopment of the 90-year-old facility, the Crosstown Concourse, was done in part with historic tax credits, meaning the integrity of the exterior needed to be respected. Replacing the grout on the exterior took two-and-a-half years, more than 3,200 window sections were added—more windows than the White House and US Capitol combined—and 10 million pounds of metal was removed from within the aged building.

Boniface says that part of the inspiration for the facility’s new layout came from old Western towns. Formed with blocks of dense buildings, with businesses on the ground floor and residences above, these examples of walkable urbanism allowed someone to find everything they needed in a short walk. Boniface and others wanted residents of Crosstown to have the same access and level of interaction. That’s one of the reasons why the building’s directory has become so multi-faceted: within this facility, it’s possible to visit a cancer treatment center, see a show at a 500-seat performance theatre, meet a friend at an open-air garden, and then go home to your apartment.

The Crosstown Concourse project, where 3,000 people will live and work every day, is one of a handful of urban design and redevelopment projects happening in Memphis, including a potential redesign of the city’s riverfront and the EPIcenter startup initiative, focusing on redeveloping the city’s core. Boniface feels the opening late last month, with the building already at 98 percent occupancy, suggested this vision, and other like it, are working thus far.