Sears Sale?

The Sears Crosstown building is on the block

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news feature By John Branston

The Midtown monster is back.

At least as far as the planning office and public hearing stage. And that's as much of a life-sign as the massive Sears Crosstown building, opened in 1927, has shown in years.

Sears Crosstown is Midtown's biggest building and biggest eyesore -- 1.36 million square feet of empty space enclosed in dirty yellowish brick, broken windows, rusting fire escapes, and general neglect. It sits just south of the intersection of North Watkins and North Parkway, with a 200-foot tower tall enough to block out the afternoon sun for a piece of the neighboring Evergreen Historic District.

Too big and expensive to tear down and too old to attract serious interest as a retail store, Sears Crosstown is an 80-year-old orphan. Now that might -- underline might -- change.

The building is supposed to be sold in December, and a public hearing is scheduled for December 8th at City Hall on a redevelopment plan that includes retail, commercial, office, and residential space. An application was filed with the Memphis and Shelby County Office of Planning and Development (OPD) on October 26th. OPD will make a recommendation on December 2nd. The identity of the purported buyer, like the identity of the current owner, is vague.

Sears closed the last vestiges of its retail, catalog shopping, and warehouse operations in 1990. In 2000, Sears sold the property to Memtech LLC for $1.25 million. Beyond its incorporation in Delaware and its name, which evoked images of Memphis and technology, Memtech was an unknown quantity.

Memphis architect Guy Payne, who is working with the prospective new owners, said Memtech's living and breathing face was "a lady out of New York." Payne said the would-be new owners, who go by the name DBS LLC 2, include a local and an out-of-towner who are laying low until the sale closes.

"They're not going to tear it down," Payne said. "They will keep everything."

As a first step, Payne said the new owners plan to repair the broken windows, remove the rusty fire escapes, and seal the building off from the vagrants and thieves who have ransacked it over the years. Sears sits on 19 acres and includes a tower that is the tallest building between downtown and Clark Tower in East Memphis; an 11-story warehouse with a two-story addition; and a parking garage. The top of the tower includes an executive office (reputed to be quite plush by old-timers who have seen it) and a red, 75,000-gallon water tank that supplied a sprinkler system.

No one would propose building such a massive building today next to a neighborhood where new houses must conform to historic guidelines, but Sears Crosstown -- especially the tower section -- has its fans among preservationists. It was recently named one of the 10 most endangered historic buildings in Tennessee by the Tennessee Preservation Trust.

Bill Bullock, president of the Evergreen Historic District Association, notified his board last week that an application for redevelopment of the property has been filed.

"I spoke with Guy [Payne], and while specific details like which big-box anchors are being considered were not available to us, I was generally pleased with the outcome of our conversation," he said. He recommends that the Evergreen association support the redevelopment.

The prototype for possible renovation of Sears Crosstown is a similar Sears building in Boston near Fenway Park, which was renovated to include a movie theater, retail, and housing. The Memphis application includes before-and-after photographs of the atrium of Boston's Landmark Center.

Midtown is not exactly Boston, and North Watkins is a far cry from Fenway Park. Talk is cheap when it comes to Sears Crosstown or a long-rumored Target in Midtown. Without knowing any more about the prospective new owners and their financing and track record, the Land Use Control Board and Midtown neighbors are acting on faith and hope.

The Land Use Control Board makes recommendations to the Memphis City Council and Shelby County Commission, which have the final say. OPD planner Mary Baker said it is not unusual for the staff to have to act on incomplete information about prospective developers.

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