Sunday, July 31, 2005

In Case the Latest Pyramid Scheme Fails, Here's Another

As a late but satisfied reader of Erik Larson's "The Devil in the White City" about the great Chicago World's Fair, I came across the following passage this morning...

"The exposition promised to surpass the Paris exposition on every level -- every level, that is, except one, and that persistent deficit troubled [Daniel] Burnham. The fair still had nothing planned that would equal, let alone eclipse, the Eiffel Tower...

"A competition held by the [Chicago] Tribune brought a wave of implausible proposals...

"J.B. McComber, representing the Chicago-Tower Spiral-Spring Ascension and Toboggan Transportation Company, proposed a tower with a height of 8,947 feet, nearly nine times the height of the Eiffel Tower with a base one thousand feet in diameter sunk two thousand feet into the earth. Elevated rails would lead from the top of the tower all the way to New York, Boston, Baltimore, and other cities. Visitors ready to conclude their visit to the fair and daring enough to ride elevators to the top would then toboggan all the way back home. 'As the cost of the tower and its slides is of secondary importance,' McComber noted, 'I do not mention it here, but will furnish figures upon application.'"

Fortunately, Chicago had Daniel Burnham in charge. Larson writes, "Everyone was thinking in terms of towers, but Burnham, for one, did not think a tower was the best approach. Eiffel had done it first and best. More than merely tall, his tower was grace frozen in iron, as much an evocation of the spirit of the age as Chartres had been in its time. To build a tower would be to follow Eiffel into territory he already had conquered for France."

Friday, July 29, 2005

A Memphis Welcome Begins At The Airport

The chairman of the Memphis and Shelby County Airport Authority is quoted in the Memphis Flyer as saying that Memphis without FedEx is Shreveport. Well, music heritage, an MSA twice as large, a more vibrant business base and innate authenticity aside, Shreveport’s airport at least knows how to welcome its guests.

If you doubt it, just take a look at the “M” that was supposed to extend a flowery welcome to guests to our city as they enter the airport connector to I-240. It was modeled after the ever-popular photo op at East Parkway and Madison -- the “M” of beautiful flowers that magically appear every year to brighten our environment and our attitude.

Instead, the “M” at the airport is a weedy eyesore that would be better off bulldozed, because it sends the subconscious signal to every visitor that we are a city whose reality fails to match its resonance.

This is because when we visit a city, there is an intuitive city that is just as powerful as the actual one. It begins to be formed subconsciously long before we form conscious attitudes.

It’s built on things like whether the airport is like a mall and could be located anywhere; whether the drive out of the airport is landscaped and appealing; on whether a city has graphically appealing and helpful signage; on the cleanliness of the streets; on whether flowers and trees are planted on the interstate; on whether public spaces are well-maintained; on whether details of design are addressed in a careful way; and whether public art by local artists gives insight about what kind of city it is.

It is inarguable that the airport is a powerful force in forming the Intuitive Memphis. It’s also inarguable about the impact that its “M” has on these attitudes.

When you think of how airports can create positive, unconscious opinions, think Austin. The Intuitive Austin is immediately positive because of the impact of its airport. There is Austin music played by Austin performers; there are Austin eateries and shops; there are Austin medallions above the water fountains and Austin public art; and there are gift stores selling Austin City Limits’ music and South-by-Southwest memorabilia. In other words, there’s no doubt that you’ve landed in Austin, and from your first step inside the airport, the city begins sending messages on the kind of city it is.

It’s almost impossible to be objective enough about your own hometown to see it in this intuitive way. But try, because it gives you a whole new view of the intuitive city that we offer to our visitors. But if you want it to begin with a positive feeling, you better avoid the airport.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

When The Church Endorses Hate...

In the end, the Edgar Ray Killen verdict was nothing if not a case of justice delayed, justice denied. Four decades passed before he was finally convicted of his lead role in the hate-filled murders of three heroic civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi, four decades in which he was able to live his life as he pleased after cutting short the lives of Andrew Goodman, Michael Shwerner and James Chaney.

As a journalism lab project at the University of Memphis in 1969, I decided to go to Philadelphia to write an article about the townspeople. I wasn’t even inside its city limits before I knew all I needed to know about them. The sign at the city limits proclaimed: Nigger, Don’t Let the Sun Set on You in Philadelphia. It was erected by the God-fearing members of the local Ku Klux Klan. If it was capable of making my white skin crawl, I could not even imagine the palpable fear that African-Americans there must endure every day.

During my day there, the people of Philadelphia dragged out all the old excuses: the civil rights movement was the work of Communists, blacks in Mississippi didn’t really want to vote because they knew they weren’t up to the responsibility and the white race had to protect itself from mongrelization of the races.

Of course, these attitudes weren’t confined to Philadelphia. After all, as a high school student in Collierville in 1965, I had seen an elderly African-American man slapped across the face and knocked off the sidewalk on the town square, because he had the audacity not to step out of a white man’s way.

But even in a South of such ugly truths, Philadelphia always held a special place. Its racism had an even more pitiless and ruthless edge to it.

Looking back, it’s often hard to comprehend today that the brutality of the culture then was as Southern as the sweet smell of magnolias in the summer. Fading away with these memories is the fact that so many people felt that they were being given permission to hate, because their preachers told them they could. After all, the Bible sanctioned segregation and God wanted the races kept apart. As I recall one sermon, it had mostly to do with what we all were supposed to know -- God is a white man, and therefore, he quite naturally has a special love for white people.

So, following the verdict, while some of the talking heads on television news shows found it strange that Killen could be a preacher, albeit a part-time one, in truth, it was not strange at all. In those days, it was a rarity to find a preacher in the Deep South who was willing to stand up and speak the true meaning of Christ’s words. (In this regard, we were fortunate in Memphis to have several preachers and rabbis who did stand up. And forcefully.)

In the wake of the long-awaited guilty verdict for Killen, there was a kind of self-congratulatory commentary about how evil he was and how this type of behavior and treatment of minorities are not allowed excused in America today, pointing out correctly that the Christian gospel is one of justice and love. Preachers, they said, don’t use the Bible any more to ratify discrimination, encourage the dehumanization of minorities and give permission to their congregations to marginalize their neighbors.

I couldn’t help but wonder if my gay friends would agree. Somehow, the lessons of those days aren’t as powerful and clear when it comes to guaranteeing full rights to homosexuals today.

Dr. King often said that the Constitution didn’t say that all people, except black people, are endowed with inalienable rights. It’s almost possible today to hear his voice saying the same about gays. He would have no patience either with African-American ministers who once saw equal rights so clearly as God-given, but today, proclaim that homosexuality is a “white man’s disease” and condemn gays as instruments of Satan.

Fortunately, there are still men and women of the cloth who speak out for dignity for all people. As Rev. Frank McRae – a civil rights leader in the Sixties – said recently: “If God has the wisdom to make someone gay, who am I to argue with that?”

God help us if it takes 40 more years to realize that bigotry is always wrong, even when a minister tries to tell you otherwise.

(Dedicated to Brandon Tidwell for representing Memphis so positively on national media this week while explaining that there is no contradiction between being a devout Christian and gay.)

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

A Greenprint Is Our Most Important Statement About Memphis' Future

“Greenprints,” as Will Rogers of the Trust for Public Land said on Smart City, is a smart growth strategy emphasizing land conservation to improve quality of life, clean air and water, offer more recreational opportunities, improve personal health and contribute to the economy.

He says that greenprinting is a voluntary approach designed to steer growth toward existing infrastructure and away from sensitive water and land resources. The traditional approach, in his mind, has been piecemeal and reactive, often lacking a larger conservation and growth vision. Greenprinting puts plans for open space front and center in the same way that it does roads, schools, and public works projects. Greenprinting says we care more about greenspace than asphalt.

Few cities have what Memphis has. It has parks that are signature parks, each in their own right. Shelby Farms Park. Wolf River Greenway. Overton Park. Riverfront development. Riverside Park.

Separate, they are just isolated projects and plans, but together, they become a “green strategy” that is all about place-making. It’s not about projects any longer, but about vision. It’s about visualizing the big picture, rather than isolated parts. It's about sending a national message about being progressive and bold.

Memphis has done it before. A century ago.

According to the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, “The Memphis Park and Parkway system resulted from the vision of new civic capitalists who emerged in the wake of the yellow fever epidemics of the 1870s. In 1895, these well-educated, well-traveled, and prosperous capitalists established the Greater Memphis Movement (GMM), a loose organization devoted to the promotion of a progressive civic agenda that included…construction of a system of parks and connecting boulevards to unite the new city with the old.”

The planning invokes the revered name of Olmstead, but here, it was John Olmstead, son of the world-famous Frederick Law Olmstead Sr., landscape architect for Central Park in New York City and Biltmore in Asheville. His son, John Olmstead, designed an alignment of a proposed parkway in Memphis to connect two park sites, one on Riverside (Cow Island) and another on an old farm tract known as Lea’s Woods.

The Wilderberger Farm on Cow Island Road became Riverside Park and Lea’s Woods became Overton Park. In addition, Memphis redesigned and developed three of the four original 1819 city public squares, the design of new small urban parks and the design of a parkway that would connect these parks and spur development.

Memphis should do it again.

The opportunity to tie the projects that are now under way into a cohesive vision of Memphis’ future gives us the chance to make a national statement about our city. As Peter Harnik of National Trust for Public Land said while in Memphis to speak about the potential of Shelby Farms Park, Memphis needs to package all of its individual projects into a “greenprint” that leverages all of them into a statement about the way we see our future and our investment in outdoor recreation and healthy communities.

As the New York Times said in an editorial, parks are a city’s lungs and make it a better place to live. City Parks Alliance says parks are the social fabric for a city. And yet, parks are often the first to have their budgets cut and the last to have them replaced.

The public is saying that it doesn’t like the results. In the last Memphis poll, where parks are usually a chart-topper, positive perceptions of large parks dropped from 92 per cent in 1998 to 83 per cent in 2004. Meanwhile, positive perceptions of neighborhood parks dropped from 86 percent in 2001 to a troubling 69 percent in 2004.

The need for is clear. The work on greenprinting needs to begin now. Memphians are crying out for better parks. It seems like the perfect time to create a revival of the city parks movement that Memphis led in the late 19th century.

Just as parkland helped catapult Memphis onto the national stage a century ago, it can do so again today. It's never been more needed.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Compromising To Honor The Real Heroes of Memphis

Maybe the Sons of the Confederacy are right. Taking the names of their heroes off Memphis parks is rewriting history. Instead of rewriting history, maybe we just need to write it right.

To do this, there is already precedent for our simple compromise – add the names of African-American civil rights heroes to the names of the Confederate loyalists.

Let’s add the names of real heroes like nationally prominent Memphian Ida B. Wells, fearless anti-lynching crusader, suffragist, women's rights advocate, journalist, and speaker. Or Joseph Harris, the first African-American to own property in Shelby County, in 1834 (after first buying his wife and baby daughter). Or Ed Shaw, a target of the Ku Klux Klan in 1868, elected to the City Council in 1873 and served as wharfmaster in 1874, making him the highest paid official at the time.

Hear us out.

There once was Ashburn Park overlooking the Mississippi River from its promenade at the south end of downtown. We forget for whom Ashburn Park was named, but when it came time to honor The Commercial Appeal’s historical columnist Paul Coppock, his name was simply appended to the Ashburn name and life went on.

From where we sit, we dearly love the sound of Forrest-Wells Park. Or Davis-Harris Park. Or Confederate-Shaw Park.

And best of all, we can even add statues of these heroes to counterbalance the bust of Jefferson Davis or the grave sculpture of Nathan Bedford Forrest in the parks bearing their names.

The names of the Confederacy’s beloved remain, but are balanced with the names of heroes cut from the most gallant cloth of all.

These were not men and women who were fighting to defend their property. They were property.

These were not men and women fighting for their beloved heritage. They were forbidden to even whisper about their real heritage.

These were not men and women of privilege. All they wanted was the privilege to be free.

It’s hard to understand why the defenders of these parks’ present names are so hardened that they cannot hear the deafening message that these true Southern heroes deliver to us today. These are Memphians with meaning, Memphians driven by a simple dream for America to live up to its founding creed.

They deserve to have their names on these parks, because they are the people who deserve to be remembered, honored and revered by us as a city.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Parks Are Renamed Every Day...Except When They Are Named For The Old South

Sometimes, listening to the defenders of our Confederate-named parks, you get the feeling that the future of Western civilization itself is at stake. It’s as if Memphis was a bastion of Southern gentility like Richmond or Atlanta. It’s all revisionist history of the crassest kind. It’s time to get real.

Memphis’ main historical claim to Civil War fame was that its citizens seemed to go in whatever direction the wind was blowing at the time, especially when it was blowing off a Union ironclad in the Mississippi River. After all, the honor of fighting for the Old South only ran deep enough for the Battle of Memphis to last a couple of hours. The city promptly surrendered and Union commanders hoisted their flag over the Courthouse. There is the story that speaks to the attitude of the people toward the battle; it is said that they took their breakfasts, sat on the riverbluffs and enjoyed the action.

All of this makes the impassioned advocates for Southern pride almost laughable in their rhetorical excess. In his letter to the editor of The Commercial Appeal, Lee Millar writes that “we need to preserve and protect our history – everybody’s history – and not try to cover it up.”

Can he really mean it? “Our” history is one of enslaved black families sold in Memphis as blithely as the cotton that they picked in sales that gave Auction Street its name, the carnal rights that many landowners had to the bodies of women they owned, and families torn apart and given names as foreign to them as the world they had been brought to.

Somehow, to the defenders of the Old South, all of these realities are of less importance than the notion of Southern nobility on the battlefield. They act like the names of public property – streets and parks – are sacrosanct and that renaming these parks is somehow about changing history. Of course, it begs the question of what these parks were called before they were renamed to honor Jefferson Davis, Nathan Bedford Forrest and the Confederacy.

This isn’t about destroying history. No history took place in these parks. They weren’t battlefields. They weren't scenes of great historical events. They were simply given these names as a show of defiance in the wake of a lost war to defend an economy built on the backs of slave labor. If we are serious about defending our history, let’s just go back to whatever the founders of Memphis called these areas when they laid out the city in the early 1800’s.

Mr. Millar contends that these Civil War parks “should be enhanced and promoted, not destroyed” and suggests that we should promote them as part of our tourism marketing. Why not? Let’s see if we can dress up some black folks in period costumes and parade them up and down the parks. Maybe we can even order them around and slap them on occasion for failing to get off the sidewalks fast enough. Maybe we can even recreate General Forrest’s Ku Klux Klan raids that exacted a price from blacks and sympathetic whites for failing to tow the line as he saw it.

If Mr. Millar’s comments aren’t enough, then there is Tom Williams, whose noblesse oblige causes him to drive in from Germantown to tell Memphians what to do about their parks. “I tell you this is going to divide the races more than anything that ever happened here in the last 30 years,” he tells the media in a tone that would seem to indicate that he would have thought the same thing when Mayor Herenton was elected as Memphis’ first black mayor. Perhaps if Mr. Williams feels so strongly about honoring the Confederacy, he should go back to Germantown and urge his own elected officials to change the names of the parks there.

On one thing, Mr. Williams is right. Walter Bailey is skewing history. He has to skew it to get it back to the middle after 140 years of honoring Jefferson Davis, Nathan Bedford Forrest and the Confederacy in the names of these parks.

At the end of the day, the major, sad lesson of this emotional debate is how close to the surface are the simmering resentment and racial hostility still held by some citizens of our community. Code words triumph and reason is fleeting. Somehow, the proud sons of the Confederacy can only identify with their own feelings. Only their opinions matter. The rest of us – more than 75 percent of Memphians who care about uniting the city and about eliminating the needless offensive imagery of these parks – should simply be ignored.

It’s amazing that some of these people will even drive on Union Avenue to get downtown...or on Washington, Adams, Monroe and Madison Avenues, named for the founders of the country the Confederacy wanted to repudiate and destroy.

They say history is written by the victors. It’s time for these people to realize it.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Industrial Development Board Needs Retooling

When it comes to term limits, we suggested earlier this month (see July 8 blog) that city and county boards and commissions – where members have served for as long as 25 years - should be included. Based on the performance of the Memphis and Shelby County Industrial Development Board, it can’t happen too soon for its nine members.

This week, they gave away $1.75 million in taxes to get 348 jobs for yet another distribution center and a drink coaster maker. Most exciting of all is the announcement that the company sells coasters to a list of Fortune 500 clients, including Anheuser Busch, Outback Steakhouse, and Kodak. I guess the IDB believes that if we can’t attract these corporations themselves, we can at least be excited that drink coasters made here are sitting on boardroom conference tables around the U.S.

Sometimes it’s like the board is saying, to heck with the global battle for knowledge workers, we’re sticking with a strategy to see if Memphis can compete with Bangladesh for cheap workers. The weakness in this approach was shown in the recent decision by International Paper to close its call center in Memphis and move it to Krackow, Poland. And yes, the IDB gave away taxes to get the call center here, at least briefly.

Hopefully, the IDB will soon realize that selling Memphis at a discount is not only a poor sales position for our city, but we can’t get cheap enough to win in the battle with third world nations for low-wage, low-skill jobs.

A Chamber executive explains that Memphis will “continue to be viable (as a call center). For one thing, Memphis is in the Central Time Zone, which makes call times easier, especially in the U.S.” We’re not experts in time zones, but we think Krackow is outside of the Central Time Zone. Feeling the sting of fresh questions about its policies from The Commercial Appeal and others, the IDB is working hard to justify the taxes that have been waived – which now total $45 million in county taxes alone.

Long-time member Chris Saenger praised this week’s tax freezes, because they will be located in a depressed section of Memphis. “It’s an area of town that needs business big time,” he said. However, such statements are interpreted as evidence of a plantation mentality by residents of these areas, who hear the message that they don’t deserve to earn the salaries that could come with a more targeted approach to economic development.

As questions mount, look for the big guns to come out to defend the IDB matrix that is used to calculate the amount of the tax breaks for which each company qualifies. Already, some people are complaining that the city’s desire to require companies to participate in Mayor Herenton’s Second Chance program for ex-felons is unfair. While applicants should have been told in advance about this criteria, it actually makes good sense for local government to set public policy objectives for companies whose taxes are being waived.

Meanwhile, in an effort to send the message that it is makes companies tow the line, the IDB has notified 13 businesses that they may lose their PILOT’s if they don’t meet the target hiring levels to which they committed when their tax freezes were granted. However, it is a self-reporting process and the IDB doesn’t send people out to the companies to verify what it is being told.

To indicate its sensitivity to concerns of City Council members and County Commissioners, the IDB could begin by revisiting its matrix – the Payment-In-Lieu-Tax (PILOT) Incentives Eligibility and Consideration form that can be seen on the IDB website. Perhaps, it is time to shift an emphasis on construction, because a $40 million building now gets the same number of points as 250 jobs for our citizens. In addition, setting income thresholds for companies to hit to get a tax freeze would increase public support for the tax freeze program. Now, a company can pay salaries that are only 70 percent of the per capita income for Shelby County and still get points for a tax freeze. And it’s time to resurrect a suggestion from about six years ago to eliminate tax freezes on distribution facilities and instead focus incentives on targeted industries (as most other major cities and counties do).

The spotlight on capital investments goes back to the early years of Memphis 2005, and it is the reason that each new year brings the press conference that we’ve broken last year’s investment numbers. Mentioned almost as an aside is the number of jobs created, and the average salary of these jobs is never mentioned.

While Memphis seems focused on the old economy, our competitors are looking ahead. This week, Kansas City unveiled a proposal to give incentives for “creative industries,” Memphis and Shelby County Film Commissioner Linn Sitler begs for incentives that allow her to compete with New Orleans and Austin, and a number of cities are taking strong action to attract and retain 25-34 year old professionals who will fuel the Knowledge Economy. Meanwhile, the IDB seems stuck in time, executing the same old policies as if economic development has not been revolutionized by the global economy in recent years.

But the times are changing. Hopefully, the IDB can hear the calls for change, and rather than defending past policies and questionable strategies, it finally turns its attention to ways for Memphis to compete in the brave new world of international business.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Memphis Makes You Feel So Good

I did something today that I've never done before in my 35 years of working downtown. I felt "cool."

About 2:30 this afternoon, fighting a losing battle with a big-time case of writer's block, I grabbed up the stake of papers that was the source of my aggravation, and I decided maybe a change of scenery would help.

With file in hand, I walked to Beale Street. Actually to Blues City Cafe on Beale Street. There, I commanded a table facing the door. After ordering my drink (soft) and my plate of catfish, I returned my attention to the papers, which I spread all over the table.

There was the persistent backbeat of Memphis soul and Sun music, as fresh today as it was decades ago when it was recorded. It was the spark. Suddenly, the words began to flow. I stayed there for about 90 minutes and by then, I had all that I needed, and in addition, I had struck up conversations with a number of tourists who were interested in knowing what I was doing and for my advice on what to see since I was a "real" Memphian.

It was a uniquely Memphis moment. Sitting on Beale Street, listening to the music inspired by it, watching the waves of tourists, listening to the music inspired by it, and generally, feeling lucky to be in a city where only four blocks from our office, we can be part of a place where Memphis' authenticity was invented.

It was with a satisfying feeling that I strolled...slowly...back to the office, but with a resolve to try this again. Soon.

My "Dear John" Letter to Northwest Airlines

Dear N.W.A.:

It’s not you. It’s me.

I thought I would never have to write this letter, but I’ve changed. My needs are different, and although I thought I could deal with it, I can’t.

You were there when I needed you, but over the years, we’ve grown apart. You haven’t seemed as concerned about my needs as you were about yourself, and I admit that my mind has wandered.

Once, I had hoped that we could stay together, but in the past two weeks, it’s so clear we can’t make our relationship work. More and more, I found that I just can’t afford you, but I stayed with you, clinging to memories of happier times.

Yes, the credit card receipts in my pockets gave me away. In Nashville, my direct flight to Cleveland cost $140. If I stayed with you, you wanted $410. (And the Nashville flight even gets me peanuts and a soft drink.) I saved enough with my 210-mile drive to pay for my three days in a Cleveland hotel.

I’ve tried to overlook the fact that you take me for granted. I’ve watched my friends stray, and I told myself this was a one-time thing. Now, I’m not so sure.

At least we’ve got our memories -- the first flight to Amsterdam and the first-class treatment to Tokyo, but they seem so long ago. It just isn’t enough for me any more.

I hope that we can stay friends.



PS: I feel cheap. And that’s the best part.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

A Hopeful View of Memphis and Shelby County's Future

A report by consultants writing Memphis/Shelby County’s new Unified Development Code is “must reading” for anyone who believes that it isn’t too late for our community to control sprawl, invest in the urban core and save county government from bankruptcy.

The nationally recognized team of planners which is preparing the code have set out ambitious goals:

· to create walkable communities
· to break down barriers for inner city redevelopment
· to encourage compact development on the urban fringe
· to incorporate new, workable mixed use zoning districts that blend commercial and residential uses
· to improve the appearance and accessibility of neighborhood commercial districts
· to provide new roadway design standards that offer reduced street widths in neighborhoods and with improved connectivity
· to encourage street interconnection
· to eliminate the two-acre subdivisions on septic systems, which disguise the need for urban services
· to require a master plan for all commercial planned developments and subdivisions
· to incorporate subdivision standards that are reflective of the entire community, not just suburban areas
· to strengthen the urban fabric
· to allow for new and unique employment arrangements
· to provide an avenue for innovative design

The existing Zoning Ordinance for Memphis and Shelby County was adopted in 1980 and the Subdivision Regulations were adopted in 1986. The consultants say they “have become outdated, fragmented and very difficult to understand or even use.” In addition, the city and county governments keep separate versions of each amended ordinance. Shelby County’s ordinance is generally up-to-date and on-line, while City of Memphis’ updates have been sporadic over the years and nonexistent since 2002.

Existing regulations, according to the consultants, reflect a desire to “suburbanize” the city and county with larger lot sizes than existing lots and with development standards that reflect an automobile-dominated society.

In chapters headed “Building Communities, Not Subdivisions,” “Developing Rules Specific to Older Areas,” “Protecting Residential Character,” “Strengthening Commercial Districts,” “Encouraging Mixed Used Development,” “Promoting Redevelopment and Reuse,” “Enhancing Transportation Options,” “Retaining Industry and Attracting Jobs,” “Expanding Environmentally
Responsive Zoning” and “Making Development Decisions Predictable, Fair and Cost Effective,” the report meticulously analyzes the problems with existing development patterns and the zoning regulations that act as their enabler.

The report is filled with provocative and exciting propositions:

· Many of Memphis/Shelby County’s new suburban subdivisions are models of efficiency from an engineering perspective, maximizing the number of lots created from the least amount of land. However, these subdivisions often do as little as is required to protect the natural environment of the site, to encourage pedestrian opportunities, and to provide parks and open space for future residents…This unfortunately has a tendency to lead to “cookie cutter” subdivisions as developers attempt to maximize profits and land use efficiency. The best to design a pattern of lots with little consideration for the natural features of the site.

· In Memphis/Shelby County, standard suburban street design is characterized by a hierarchical, tree-like pattern that proceeds from cul-de-sacs and local streets to collectors to wide arterials. The use of streets in residential areas for inter-community and through-traffic is minimized by limiting access—constructing few perimeter intersections, reducing interconnections between streets and by using an excessive number of cul-de-sacs in the development. Alternative street design standards should be developed that allow for an interconnected network of streets and sidewalks to disperse vehicular trips and to make human-powered modes of travel practical, safe and attractive for short trips.

· Generally, planners discourage alleys in standard suburban residential areas. However, alleys give neighborhood planners design flexibility by permitting narrow lots with fewer driveways on local streets. Fewer driveways also mean more affordable, smaller home sites and more space for on-street parking, especially if the homeowners use the alleys for their own vehicular access. Alleys provide space for underground or unattractive overhead utilities while freeing streets for trees and other plantings.

· These “possible uses” of the street, instead of “reasonably expected uses,” lead to a worst case scenario, an excessively wide street, and probably higher travel speeds. Alternative street widths should be developed that are determined using the projected volumes and types of all the users of the street, including pedestrians.

· Curb radii should match expected vehicle type, turning radius, and speed to help ensure in-lane turning movements. In order to accommodate the right-hand turning movements of larger vehicles, no matter what their frequency of street use, suburban streets typically have minimums intersection curb radii of 30 to 40 feet…effectively increasing the width of the street, the pedestrian crossing time, and the exposure of pedestrians to vehicles.

· Life cycle housing is defined as the opportunity to provide a person’s housing needs for their entire lifetime within a single neighborhood or area…larger homes for families; apartments, condominiums or townhouses for the retiree population; and assisted living facilities for the elderly.

· Open spaces, parks, plazas, playgrounds, and clubhouses enhance the community experience. They provide gathering spaces and focal points for the community.

· Parking is often the “Achilles heel” of infill and redevelopment. The City should reduce parking requirements for infill and redevelopment projects that are mixed use or close to transit facilities.

· Memphis and Shelby County have identified a number of local scenic roadway corridors in need of protection. These beautiful, tree-lined roadways are a vibrant part of the heritage of the county and should be protected from road widening and other improvements that would negate their character. Existing large trees along these roadways deserve special protection.

· Parking structures that reach to the street are usually an eyesore – designers often try to hide them behind greenery, but they are inherently massive and often just concrete. When feasible, the city/county should require all future structured parking to incorporate uses on the ground floor.

· Conventional zoning is essentially about keeping things apart, but in order to create healthy neighborhoods, towns, and cities, zoning must work to integrate different aspects of daily life. With proper urban form, a greater integration of building uses can become natural and comfortable.

· Warehouse and distribution is most likely the area’s strongest economic asset. However, the zoning regulations fail to accommodate such uses effectively. Memphis/Shelby County should consider developing a warehouse/distribution district that is tailored to logistic and warehouse-related industries…(to) more effectively control modern land uses.

· If the objective of a tree ordinance is to preserve trees in new developments, then the exemption for tree harvesting is a tremendous loophole. It provides a means of making money while clearing the site and avoiding the preservation of trees. A better approach is to issue a permit that locks the property into protection based on current aerial photography. The developer would be required to provide data on trees and the number of acres cleared as a means of determining the amount of replacement vegetation required.

These are but a few of the refreshing comments in the 63-page report that can be read at Mayor Herenton deserves credit for launching this process four years ago, and Mayor Wharton deserves equal praise, after he took office, for pushing it ahead in the name of smart growth. The risk to the regulations is that the philosophy behind them will be watered down as they move to approval.

This Unified Development Code offers a rich opportunity to set Memphis/Shelby County on a different course of development – a course more esthetically appealing, more balanced on urban and suburban possibilities and financially sustainable. But, for it to pass, elected officials will need to hear from citizens who support it and urge its passage.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

A Letter To The Editor of The Commercial Appeal

Wendi Thomas writes that we need day care van drivers who do their job.

Here's an alternative: We don't need day care van drivers at all. We need day care close to home, and let parents be responsible for getting their children to and from day care.

How did we decide that putting young children on vans was ever necessary? How did we decide to spend public money on massive busing for 3 and 4 year olds?

Why don't we quit trying to solve a problem that need not exist?

A Flower on the Cliff

There is the classic Buddhist parable, told in several variations, that goes something like this:

There is a man running through the jungle, fleeing from a tiger. It is clear that it is only a matter of time before the tiger prevails, because although the man is out of his grasp, he is tiring. Clearly, it is just a matter of time before he is caught.

And just as he thinks things can't get worse, they do. Running as fast as he can to save his life, he comes to a steep cliff. With the tiger coming up on the rear and no escape in front of him, he jumps. As he falls, he grabs a vine that cascades from the top of the cliff to just below him. Above, the tiger watches over him, daring him to climb back up. Just then, the vine starts pulling away from the sides of the cliff, and it begins to come out of the ground at the top of the cliff.

It is at that moment that the man faces the inevitable -- he has no options that will keep him alive. And at that precise moment, he notices a flower blooming on the sheer cliff just next to him. It is the most beautiful flower that he’s ever seen.

Like so many Buddhist lessons, the story is filled with meaning on many levels, but in times when patience is tested and nothing is going right, two lessons always seem pertinent -- live completely in the moment and find and revel in the beauty around you.

Sitting in the Denver airport on an unbearable layover and facing a day of travel problems, it seems that the parable is no match for this time and place with its chaos, the uncaring and abrupt airport employees at the gate, and the overall frustration that is a companion to air travel.

I am thinking about how this parable has absolutely no meaning in this airport as a woman walks her dog through the terminal as if she is in Central Park, plastic bag in hand, cleaning up after her dog in the middle of the concourse carpet, seemingly oblivious to how strange her behavior is. The United Airlines gate employee calls security to frisk an older man and inspect his luggage, because he has the temerity to complain about the newest delay. I am contemplating the choice of the world’s most expensive turkey sandwich or the world’s smallest quesadilla.

Then we hear it -- a violin playing a simple, basic melody that lilts through the waiting areas. It is played by a 12–year–old boy who had been patiently waiting on his flight, lovingly cradling an instrument case in his lap. Opening the case, he had taken out his violin and stepped out into the concourse to play for the people rushing by him.

The expression on his face is serene. His love for playing his violin is obvious, but equally obvious is his joy in playing it for people who need a melody in their lives at that moment. He plays for about 20 minutes, until his mother tells him that their flight is boarding.

It is the most beautiful violin music that we have ever heard.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Reappraisal Adds Up To Taxpayer Confusion and Higher Tax Bills

Many politicians secretly love reappraisal. It is a time of complicated assessment equations, mind-boggling financial and legal nuances, public confusion about the processes, and, despite rhetoric to the contrary, windfalls for government.

The windfalls of course are not supposed to happen. State law espouses the proposition that there will be none, but the reality is something altogether different. The latest example came in last week’s setting of the tax rate by Shelby County Government.

The Wharton Administration twisted arms hard for the county tax rate to “remain” at $4.04 inside Memphis and $4.09 outside Memphis, and the explanations were so technical and confusing that it would have made Karl Rove proud. One television station even reported that the county voted not to increase its tax rate this year.

Here’s the Cliff’s Notes version of what happens in reappraisal years: all property in Shelby County is reappraised, resulting in an increase in the tax base (this year, the increase averaged about seven percent); state law requires that the tax rate be rolled back so that the total revenue collected does not exceed the total revenue in the previous year and the new tax rate will be set on that amount; local government works with the state comptroller’s office to agree on a new, lower certified rate; and the government must adopt the new certified rate before it can vote on any tax rate increases.

Here’s what the public never hears about. There are ways in the process for a government, if it is skillful in its negotiations with the Tennessee Board of Equalization, to “bury” millions of dollars. The first chance is in setting the rolled back tax rate. The second chance is in negotiating the allowance that is given to offset successful appeals of reappraisals. As announced by the Wharton Administration, this new certified amount (with appeals allowance) is $3.90. Some county financial officials say off the record that the “real” number is closer to $3.72, and if this is the case, the administration did a masterful job of convincing state officials to accept a higher amount, thereby, capturing millions of dollars in new tax revenues.

The administration then convinced the state that 16 cents in the tax rate was needed as the “appeals rate” although historically the amount of appeals is less. With the $3.90 tax rate that it negotiated with the state as the new certified rate, Shelby County Government then voted 8-4 for a 14-cent tax hike.

In a news release, the Administration said the 14-cent increase allows county government to give $20 million more to schools, $20 million to its debt management plan, and $2 million for interest payments. This statement in itself indicates the windfall in the budgets, keeping in mind that each penny of property tax produces about $1.5 million in revenues. In other words, a 14-cent tax increase would translate into about $21 million in revenues, leaving $21 million more that was obviously captured somewhere else along the way. In addition to this amount, a financial administrator said in an email to us that there is likely upwards of $10 million more that was absorbed into the budget to pay for general government costs.

All in all, the vote was a bold stroke for Mayor Wharton, who has now effectively staked his lofty approval ratings on the public forgetting the tax increases by next year’s elections. “It’s not an increase in the sense that when you change your rate, everybody goes up, not merely those whose property values increased as a result of reappraisal,” the mayor was quoted as saying in The Commercial Appeal. It was probably a quote that his aides would like to take back, but clearly, Mayor Wharton is serving notice that he is prepared to defend the climbing tax burden over the past three years.

At the same time, what remained unsaid during the budget debate was deafening. County administration officials said in an email justifying its position that it has a moral obligation to fund education, public health and public safety, suggesting general fund expenditures are down, employment is down, and better operational management are up. But, this begs the question of why county government doesn’t deal as forcefully with the source of the problem – sprawl – rather than its symptoms – budget meltdown. The strongest indication that Shelby County is serious about getting its budgetary house in order will be when it adopts smart growth as its #1 priority.

Meanwhile, the budget makes no mention of changes in policies about tax freezes, which now take $45 million off the table before the board of commissioners even has a chance to look at a budget proposal. The same tough attitude that Mayor Wharton took on the tax increase would serve him well if he would now address sprawl and the entitlement philosophy of tax freezes.

Unfortunately, although Shelby County showed shrewdness in infusing tens of millions of dollars of new revenues into its budgets, it did not reconsider some programs that have already taken a direct hit. For example, only two and a half cents of the property tax rate would have resurrected our once fine city/county library system. About one-half of one cent would have restored full funding for arts and culture, and about the same amount would have restored the money taken from local social and human services agencies last year. Just a penny would be a godsend for Shelby Farms Parks in a year when parks were deemed a “retail” service and dispensable. One penny would even have funded the mayor’s pet literacy program, the “imagination library” (which some members of his administration say is the new name for the Memphis and Shelby County library system after it was dismantled by county government).

It was a gutsy play by Mayor Wharton and his Administration. However, at the end of the day, voters will judge the success of Shelby County Government in one way -- the size of their tax bills. It will be interesting to see how all of this plays out next year, as tax bills for the increases come due just a few months before the county elections.

Hopefully, with some of the budget pressures taken off the Wharton Administration, it can turn its attention to what got the mayor elected – his vision of the future. During his campaign for mayor, this is what defined Wharton. He was seen as the visionary candidate. With a debt that is more than $1.7 billion, if you like the Administration’s numbers, or more than $2.2 billion, if you use the amount in the county trustee’s reports, it is reasonable that the Administration kept its eye on the fiscal ball, but between now and the election, there’s hope that attention will be spent on resuscitating the vision that he had for Shelby County when he ran for office and taking some steps to make it happen.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Stuck Inside Of Cleveland With The Memphis Blues Again

I got homesick today for Memphis. So I took the RTA down to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in downtown Cleveland.

It would be a gross oversimplification to say, as many do, that this museum "lost" this museum and it should be in Memphis. There is a mythology that feeds the notion that somehow this was our museum, but we let it get away. Truthfully, Cleveland was chosen for the museum for the most non-melodic of reasons – hiring of internationally famous architect I.M. Pei and a financing plan that allowed a construction cost of almost $100 million.

In a way, the decision in favor of Cleveland was instructive of the oldest lesson of the music business. Music walks. Money talks. But equally important, Memphis was mired in its deepest feelings of unworthiness. We had the heritage and the cachet, but could not imagine that we were really good enough to be home to such a global attraction. We thought too small. We dreamed even smaller. But smallest of all was the amount of money we were willing to spend on the museum. It was the same feelings that led us to build a bargain basement arena shaped like a pyramid on the riverbank. We just didn’t deserve any better.

Arlo Guthrie, the thoughtful Massachusetts troubadour, once said in Memphis that we must be proud that music recorded here is heard all over the world, it is instantly recognizable and it has changed the lives of millions. He also told how he had been surprised at an outdoor music concert when tens of thousands of Eastern Europeans joined in singing a song by “the great American folk singer Elvis Presley.” Once banned by Communist governments, these rock and roll songs were more than music. They were sung openly as a badge of new freedoms.

All of this occurred to me as I walked through the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and its ubiquitous exhibits and commentary about Memphis and the revolutionary music made here by a litany of artists who now hog the list of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees.

It gives you a sense of pride on two levels. One, it is indeed exciting to come from a city whose music means so much to the entire world. Two, it is good to live in a new Memphis which honors the outsiders who created this music and pays tribute to their legacy in ways far superior to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Civic pride aside, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and the Memphis Rock ‘n Soul Museum do better jobs of celebrating music generally and our music specifically. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame seems built as an exhibition hall of music memorabilia. The exhibits come first, the music second. As a result, the place is a cacophony with so much music blaring from so many directions, it is impossible to enjoy any of it. (This may be why its attendance projections have come up short and staff has been cut back.)

In fact, about halfway through, a visit to the Advil dispenser is a much-needed detour. It underscored the central truth about what a good job the Memphis museums have done in honoring our music traditions. Our museums are about the music, and both made sure that you enjoy the songs to their fullest. Stax's “sound stations” are a breakthrough that the Hall of Fame should replicate immediately. A trip to Stax is much more enjoyable than the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and at the Rock ‘n Soul Museum, the music has always been the star of the attraction with the exhibits cast in a supporting role. And that’s the way it should be. In Cleveland, you leave the Hall of Fame exhausted by the sensory overload, and in Memphis, you leave reenergized and upbeat. In a sense, nothing better represents the heart of Memphis Music in the first place.

If you haven’t been to the Stax Museum of American Soul or the Rock ‘n Soul Museums, do yourself a favor and go soon. It’s closer than Cleveland, and at the end of the day, both are far superior experiences than the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Chamber Needs Half-time Talk By Coach Cal

Coach Cal needs to tell the Memphis Regional Chamber about the dangers of "bulletin board motivation" for your opponents. As the University of Memphis head basketball coach, Calipari has warned his team that smart players don't make comments that can come back to haunt you by motivating the opposing team.

Surely, last week's presentation by the Chamber's consultants has already made its way into the clipping files of recruiters in cities competing with Memphis for business recruitment. Our consultants gave a litany of what's wrong with the Memphis region after short listing what is right. In fact, one consultant somberly concluded that Memphis' challenges far outweigh its strengths.

The list included:
* a shortage of skilled workers
* a largely rural area
* a weak office base
* the lack of a research-focused university
* the lack of regional cooperation
* insufficient funding for higher education

And if that wasn't enough, they even trotted out Memphis' Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse -- high crime, racial divisiveness, high taxes and a struggling education system.

It was enough to make you wonder why any of us stay here.

Special emphasis was made about our poor school system, although such complaints are also commonplace in Austin, San Francisco and Boston and yet they prosper. The bigger problem for us is that we are not a talent magnet like those cities, where in-migration of new workers offsets the problems of their schools. To our knowledge, no consultant mentioned the need for strategies to attract the young, mobile professionals who are the gold standards for the Knowledge Economy. Sadly, Memphis pioneered this research, but has never seriously acted on it.

While it a classic tactic of Chambers everywhere to create a crisis as the basis to launch a new fund-raising campaign, we live in a virtual world where these negative assessments of what's wrong with Memphis are immediately available at any point on the globe. And it's a safe bet that a prospect considering Memphis has already been shown these comments by our competitors.

More to the point, after spending decades talking about ways to improve the Memphis self-image and working to improve it, the Chamber's comments made you want to pack your bags. The rhetoric and list of challenges were eerily reminiscent of Memphis 2005 and the Governor's Alliance on Regional Excellence -- both centerpiece Chamber programs over the past 10 years. It was as if time had stood still. We were again in the mid-1990's, and the millions of dollars in public and private money had never been spent to deal with these very same problems.

For our money, even a speech about how winners never quit and quitters never win would have been better, or even, we respect our opponents and take it one game at a time. At least then, we wouldn't give opponents the ammunition to load their guns to shoot at us or demoralize our own people. Somebody should just ask Coach Cal how it's done.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Every City Needs More Bill Freemans

Bill Freeman was buried yesterday. Somehow the world seems less fun.

Bill was a retired Air Force colonel, with a booming voice that could keep you in rapt attention if he was merely reciting the alphabet. It was a voice that could fill a room, but it was no match for Bill himself. He had presence, spirit, warmth and joy that made him a magnet for people looking to have a good time.

He was one of those rare people who not only survived the intrigues of military politics, but came through it with absolutely no guile. He was the kind of warrior who gives the military its good name and a friend his special value – the kind of person who went into the foxhole with you. And you never had to check to see if he was still there.

If he was your friend, he was your friend. He would be there whether you were at the peak of your power or whether you were on food stamps. He had strong beliefs, but he did not use them to judge others. He had a strong faith, but he did not use it as a weapon to beat you up. He was the best kind of believer – the kind who understands that you bear witness every day in how you treat other people.

Bill treated people to the best that he had to give. There were stories of his days supervising Air Force One and the reel-to-reel tapes that he personally recorded so JFK would have music on-board, tapes that he kept with him after the President was killed. There was his time in Asia when he walked into a helicopter hangar to find that the crew had the helicopter hovering inside the building while they attempted to change its tires. There were his hijinks as a youngsters, and the pranks involving outhouses could bring “tears to a glass eye,” as his college frat brother and former Shelby County Mayor Bill Morris would say. Nothing, absolutely nothing, meant more to him than the University of Memphis, and he faithfully followed teams anytime it was possible.

He knew exotic places and had tasted sophisticated ways of living, but there was only one place where he wanted to be – home in Shelby County. He returned to command the old Defense Depot, and upon his retirement, he joined the Morris Administration, where he was a popular and oft-requested stand-in for the mayor. In fact, Cotton Carnival krewes called months early to make sure he could attend their receptions and kick off the festivities in style. As Mayor Morris once joked: “They don’t even ask for me anymore, unless they need a representative for Bill, because he can’t make it.”

He worked in the mayor’s office and was promoted to head up the division of corrections, where his ability to motivate the 1,000-people there tapped into his skills as a military leader. He was loved by everyone there, and it was a blow when the mayor that succeeded Mayor Morris told Bill that someone with professional corrections experience was needed. In his classic style, he submitted his resignation and never uttered a critical word publicly about it. (It’s worth noting that the “professional corrections officer” appointed to replace him ultimately had to be fired for a variety of reasons, including the bleak morale that he created. It took years for the corrections center to get back to the level that it was when Bill was in charge.)

The later years of his life were cruel, but he would always summon the strength for a conversation about the old days or to ask how each member of my family was doing – by name. He particularly loved to talk about “the university,” and when my older daughter went to work at the University of Memphis in alumni affairs, to Bill, it was if a parish priest had been summoned to work in the Vatican. He always called my daughters “his girls,” and he would faithfully show up for graduations as a welcome member of the family. And there was never any question whose voice would ricochet off the walls when one of my daughters walked across the stage to get their diplomas.

Even as his health failed, he would still show up on our backsteps at Christmas, holding onto a ham and a sheepish grin. He would sit in the rocker and we’d catch up, and if one of my daughters happened to be home, it became one of the holiday’s most special occasions. With Bill, it always felt like you were picking up a conversation from the previous day, when in fact months could have passed.

Bill loved nothing more deeply, outside of his family, than the rich soil of the Mid-South. And now they are one. I can’t imagine anything that would have made him happier.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Even A Winning Vote Loses In Billboard Wars

It’s a glimpse of Memphis as it could have been. The spur that connects I-40 to Highway 51 (Thomas Street) is a 1.2 mile green escape from the billboards that dominate Memphis’ expressways.

On the other hand, Bill Morris Parkway (Tennessee 385) doesn’t offer as much nature, but it also doesn’t have a single billboard on it (if you overlook the one erected by Shelby County Government for the Mike Rose Soccer Center), thanks to a state law that was slipped through the Tennessee Legislature, apparently under cover of darkness when billboard lobbyists were asleep.

While the cluttered expressway is bad enough, most of Memphis’ 3,300 billboards are in inner city neighborhoods, not on the expressways. It has been estimated that there are 10 times more billboards in neighborhoods than on interstate highways. Studies in Baltimore showed that three out of four billboards were in minority neighborhoods, and of that number, 75 percent advertised alcohol or tobacco products.

Billboard wars have become commonplace in cities across the U.S., as the three national billboard companies fight with a resolve normally reserved for Wal-Mart. Memphis has had its own skirmishes, but the billboard industry has always emerged victorious, watering down reform language or finding the gray area in every law. The symbol of the sense of invincibility exuded by the industry has been the images of cut trees on public right-of-ways.

A few months ago, it was possible to think that the times are changing. With local ownership largely a thing of the past, for the first time, the political climate seemed to be swinging against the industry. The new zoning law passed in 1999 was intended to eventually reduce the number of billboards in Memphis. Under the law, any inner city billboard that is removed cannot be replaced. (One key City Council member argues that billboards that are blown down or knocked down in “acts of God” should be allowed to be replaced.) The surprising development is that Clear Channel, one of the two major billboard companies, supported the law that would winnow down the number of billboards.

Its competitor, Adworks, took the issue to the Memphis and Shelby County Board of Adjustment, and the members sided with Clear Channel in a vote of 4-2. Only in the arcane world of zoning would victory in the vote actually have been a defeat for its position. That’s because the Board of Adjustment bylaws require five affirmative votes, not just a majority. Adworks position prevailed, and later this month, a City Council committee chaired by Councilman Rickey Peete will consider what to do next. Initial comments by Councilman Peete indicate that his interest in a compromise that would still, over time, reduce the number of billboards.

His leadership could not be more urgent, because in light of the Board of Adjustment’s ruling, we run the risk of billboards springing up like mushrooms all over Memphis.

Neighborhood groups have not been as vocal as expected, which is surprising, especially in light of research in Pittsburgh that showed that property values rose 255 percent when nearby billboards, called “litter on a stick,” were removed. Other cities like San Diego, Houston, Little Rock and Jacksonville have shown that it can be done. Five states have even prohibited billboards on their highways altogether. While billboard supporters say the boards serve the interests of travelers, these states - Vermont, Maine, Hawaii, Alaska and Rhode Island – which depend heavily on tourism - have seen their tourism industry grow after the ban.

Billboard removal can make a difference. Just take the short drive off I-40 toward Millington.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Lessons from Vancouver

Vancouver co-director of planning Larry Beasley was my guest today on "Smart City." Vancouver is regularly named as one of North America's most appealing cities. I wanted to know why, so I asked Larry.

According to Larry, Vancouver's transformation began with Expo '86 when Vancouver began re-thinking how cities are developed. The city decided not to build freeways to facilitate the suburban commute, to declare the inner city a place to live, to encourage density, to pay careful attention to how buildings meet the street, to protect view corridors with tall but skinny buildings and to make the city about quality of life rather than economic development.

Vancouver's strategy has paid off in many ways. Ten percent of citizens actually walk to work. The density has allowed the city to build what Larry calls a "spontaneous culture" that has spawned an ideas-based economy. The density also supports a rich public life and quality amenitites.

The underlying theme of Vancouver's planning strategy is to bring out the competitive advantages of the urban lifestyle in preference to a suburban lifestyle. What are those advantages? Larry says they include the recapture of time formerly spent commuting to spend with family, the comfort of having friends within walking distance, the convenience of shopping and a healthy lifestyle built around walking.

Most striking about our conversation was this: Vancouver made clear choices about what kind of city it wanted to be and understood that to achieve that vision meant having the courage to say no to freeways and other developments that would undercut its vision.

If only all our cities had such a clear vision and the courage to say no.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Can Memphis Take Inspiration from New York City?

Yesterday, I took a walk around the core of downtown, the part of downtown most visitors see. Walking up and down Union, Monroe and Madison between Front and Third, I saw very few people on the street, new (and old) vacancies, and a disregard for the public realm that is beyond belief. MATA's trolley extension has left Main Street an abomination, and the new sidewalks are, in at least one case, too narrow to walk on.

As I headed home, I thought about the Memphis that reflects a fading Mid-South legacy, the Memphis songmakers and writers take inspiration from is the same Memphis that makes talented, energetic people question their future here.

It anyone paying attention? Does anyone care? Could someone please get a sense of urgency?

One thing that gives me hope is the conversation I had Friday with Fred Siegel, author of the terrific new book on former New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani, "Prince of the City." He reminded me that in 1992, New York was considered ungovernable. Even three-quarters of then-Mayor David Dinkins' supporters believed New York would get worse over the long term. Then along comes Rudy Guiliani.

Thirteen years -- from 1992 till now -- is a blink of an eye in the life of a city. So any city can be turned around. Including this one.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Time For Attention To Public Board Membership

If term limits are an idea whose time has come, perhaps a good place to start would be the members of the more than 150 public boards in Memphis and Shelby County.

Media attention regarding terms limits concentrates on elected officials, particularly those in Shelby County Government who were limited to eight years in office by a public referendum about 12 years ago that delivered a resounding mandate. The argument for term limits is that no one should become entrenched because they stifle new leadership, and that cities benefit from new ideas and new energy for the mayor and board of commissioners.

Meanwhile, the members of most boards turn over about as frequently as the U.S. Supreme Court justices. There are members of city boards who pre-date Mayor Herenton, and county boards are filled with people who have been there through multiple mayors. For example, the head of the Agricenter Commission has not changed since it was created 24 years ago, back when Mayor Morris was in only the third year of his 16 years in office, before Jim Rout’s eight years in office and before Mayor Wharton’s three years.

Even the most highly-coveted boards, like the Memphis and Shelby County Airport Authority and Memphis Light, Gas & Water Division board, sometimes have the feel of an exclusive club, where members are appointed and reappointed until they simply get tired of serving. Sometimes it feels some members of the Airport Authority were appointed in the days of the bi-plane.

Shelby County Government’s policy is that even when a board member’s term ends, that person continues to serve until a replacement is appointed. There are some people whose terms have been expired for a decade before another appointment was made. The policy had the added benefit of silencing the board of commissioners when it attempted to enforce the terms for boards. No action was taken by the administration, so the members remained in place, because no replacement had been named.

City of Memphis Government has been more dutiful in keeping its boards current, but it has the same tendency for people to serve extended periods. While the willingness of any citizen to serve on a board is admirable, the injection of new blood is vital to the basic concept of democracy. In the end, the ultimate goal of boards is intended to engage more citizens in the business of their government, but this doesn’t happen when membership stagnates.

Also, there is the often overlooked problem caused by the coziness that comes to exist between the boards – designed to serve as a check and balance – and the services they are appointed to direct. An example is the Agricenter Commission and Agricenter International, where the public board members cede authority to the private nonprofit board that they are supposed to be monitoring. As a result, Agricenter International, despite having 1,000 acres of public land under its control, has never been called on by the Agricenter Commission to justify the abandonment of its founding mission or to justify why it’s in the public best interest for this valuable real estate to be controlled by the organization.

Various public boards exert significant influence over certain government policies and services, and at the least, it’s time for all membership to be brought current and for broader representation, especially of young adults and women, to be made a priority

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Budget Cuts Could Sever Financial Vein for Memphis

Whatever your political persuasion, as Memphians, you should be closely watching the budget moving through the U.S. Congress. It could spell big problems for our city.

The political dynamics of the Capitol have been shifting from cities to states in the past six years or so, and as a result, the financial lifelines that have been so critical for cities are now being treated as disposable, if not the cities themselves.

So far, areas which have been targeted for proposed budget cuts are housing, Medicaid, environment, community development and education. These just happen to be areas that are critical to Memphis. Cuts proposed would be 6 percent now, but would increase to 14 percent in five years. That’s a total of $212 billion in reductions. These have always been lumped as “discretionary” spending and never has the term seemed so apt.

While some in Washington have held up spending cuts to the Department of Agriculture as proof that there are no sacred cows, they don't mention that 70 percent of the $10 billion in cuts are proposed by reducing the number of families qualifying for food stamps.

As Neal Peirce wrote recently, we are beginning an era of seriously curtailed housing assistance, less food for the needy, less job training, less student aid, less environmental protection and less medical care.

Urban interests won a battle when it kept CBDG (Community Development Block Grants) from being moved from HUD. However, it may end up a Pyrrhic victory, because it remains on the chopping block for cuts. Meanwhile, there have been proposals to cut 250,00 vouchers in Section 8 housing in the coming fiscal year and 800,000 within four years.

Funding for Hope VI programs remains on the butcher block, an annual target for the White House. This program has been pivotal to key Memphis projects undertaken by Robert Lipscomb, director of housing and community development and Memphis Housing Authority, such as Uptown and Lamar Terrace. These funds actually save public money by attracting private money that has been leveraged for Memphis’ most spectacular neighborhood redevelopment programs.

Oh, yes, in case you are wondering, defense spending will rise $185 billion over five years, not counting the cost of the war in Iraq.

With Tennessee’s senior senator as majority leader, there isn’t a better time to notify Senator Frist that the final budget must not abandon the needs of cities, which are after all the economic engines for our entire national economy.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Preserving Trees Demands A Comprehensive Approach

Trees are the lungs of the city. That’s why the bulldozing of 150 acres of trees in Cordova by an uncaring developer is the equivalent of a pulmonary embolism for Memphis and Shelby County.

The United States Forest Service says that one tree, over its 50-year lifetime, generates $31,250 worth of oxygen; $62,000 worth of air pollution control; recycles $37,500 worth of water; and controls $31,250 worth of soil erosion. If there were just 100 trees on each acre in Cordova, this slash and burn development style cost the community $469 million worth of oxygen; $930 million in air pollution control; $562.5 million worth of water recycling; and $469 million in soil erosion.

The Commercial Appeal is right that trees should be protected, but the answer to protecting the trees of Shelby County is more complex than just “fixing” the tree ordinance. In truth, the 150 acres of felled trees in Cordova are symptoms. The problem itself is the need to rewrite subdivision regulations to make developments more livable in the first place.

It’s worth remembering why then-Commissioner Buck Wellford never got his strong tree ordinance passed. Instead, he got lip service from the Rout Administration, which promised support but always placed the needs of developers ahead of the needs of the families living in their disposable developments.

When Commissioner Wellford seemed to be making some headway in getting a tough tree ordinance passed, the Rout Administration feigned support by setting up a committee to consider what to do. The harbinger of the future was that this assignment was not given to the staff of the Office of Planning and Development, which strongly favored Mr. Wellford’s efforts, but to the Division of Public Works, which has traditionally had a cozy relationship with development interests.

The Public Works director called together a committee to work on the ordinance, and in the end, the ordinance was actually written by two developers and a developer’s lawyer. As a result, while a tree ordinance was passed in 2001, it was nothing more than window dressing to calm the public outcry about clear cutting. In fact, it was intentionally written with enough loopholes that a truck could be driven through them (and a logging truck at that).

In other words, today’s tree ordinance works exactly as intended. It gives the façade of environmental sensitivity, while placing no real constraints on developers. Especially problematic is the language about “equivalent alternative.” It means that a tree cut down that has 10 inches or greater DBH (diameter at breast height) can be replaced by four 2 ½ inch trees. It doesn’t matter if the original tree was in fact 50 inches or 12 inches; all the developer has to do is plant four 2 ½ inch trees. And most of the time they are given exceptions even for this requirement because of the size of the lots. If that wasn’t enough, the exemption for tree harvesting is a tremendous loophole, because a developer can actually make money clearing the site and avoiding the preservation of trees.

The solution to clear cutting is not rewriting the tree ordinance. It is in the rewriting of the subdivision regulations, keeping in mind that street design, drainage, grading and lot size are as important in saving trees as taking the chain saws out of the hands of developers. The existing problem is not just the ineffectual tree ordinance, but an overall attitude that is seen in asinine engineering requirements that require straight roads, absurdly large turning radii, unimaginative drainage solutions, and more.

As long as the code allows 3,000 to 4,000 square foot lots in these “planned developments,” the ultimate oxymoron, there is absolutely no way to save trees. Planned development ought to be what it says, and as long as developers write ordinances, politically influence enforcement and have multiple bites of the zoning apple as part of the process, things are unlikely to improve for the area’s trees.

Fortunately, development of the Unified Development Code, set in motion by Mayor Herenton in 2001 and given momentum by Mayor Wharton once he took office, is under way. There has not been a comprehensive development code prepared for Memphis and Shelby County in 25 years, and the last one was a policy plan.

This one is being led by Duncan Association of Austin, Texas, and fortunately under the aegis of the Office of Planning and Development. Already, it appears to have the potential to be a model for the rest of the U.S. Early on, it set “environmentally responsive zoning” as a top priority. Early writings of the planning team emphasize the conservation benefits of tree preservation in stabilizing soil, controlling water pollution, conserving energy, preserving and fostering air quality, abating visual and noise pollution and providing natural habitat for wildlife. Equally important, the planners say, trees provide psychological and aesthetic benefits that are often overlooked.

A key recommendation already: protect more trees. Among the strategies:
 implement a tree replacement rate that increases with the size of the tree removed
 establish specific levels of protection for forested areas, require a tree survey and eliminate the exemption for tree harvesting
 develop a heritage tree program to protect trees of exceptional size or significance
 adopt tree maintenance standards
 implement provisions to protect saved trees during construction.

Duncan Associates and their colleagues put it directly: “Tree protection can encourage or discourage tree preservation. The current regulations encourage cookie cutter development to achieve the permitted density. Thus, any resource of tree protection can lead to loss of density. A loss of density is an economic disincentive to protect trees.”

That’s a statement that speaks to the wisdom of addressing tree protection in the context of the overall development code. It’s also a statement on which to build a code that produces the kind of green neighborhoods and quality developments that Shelby County wants and deserves.

Friday, July 01, 2005

It's Time To Really Do Something To Protect Trees

The familiar journalism aphorism is that a dog biting a man is not news, but a man biting a dog is. With that in mind, you could almost argue that Rusty Hyneman mowing down a forest in Cordova isn’t really news at all. It’s really a dog bites man story; there’s nothing unexpected about it.

It’s actually more akin to the old parable about the man who picks up the snake and protects it in his coat after the viper promises not to bite him. The punch line, as you know, was that the snake bites the man any way, and the man complains and asks why. The response: what did you expect; you knew I’m a snake.

What did we expect? We knew Rusty Hyneman is one of those developers given free rein to do anything he wants in Shelby County. His name has become synonymous with the callous disregard that we’ve come to expect in the land of disposable neighborhoods, where forests are leveled so the builder can plant one lone tree in the front yards of row after row of houses that look like a strong wind might blow them away.

The repeated leveling of forests over the years has shown the value (or lack thereof) that these kinds of developers place on the quality of the environment, quality of life and quality of community that we want in this county. There is rarely concern about the kind of county we are creating, the overriding concern is for the most money that can be rung out of every development, public be damned.

This is the attitude that has brought us Germantown Road, the squandered opportunity for Cordova to be a special section of Memphis and the sprawl that pushes the county budget toward bankruptcy. How many times do the news media have to report on the cavalier clearing of trees before elected officials reflect the fury felt by the public?

For years, former Shelby County Board of Commissioner Buck Wellford fought valiantly for a strong, effective tree ordinance to bring an end to this "anything goes" kind of development mentality, but every time, his proposed resolutions were watered down or simply allowed to languish. He met with the mayor at that time, who promised to help, but as soon Commissioner Wellford left his office, he made sure the developers’ interests were not undercut. In fact, in the end, the developers and their lawyers actually ended up writing the final one themselves. Mr. Wellford came into office advocating a tree ordinance, and unfortunately, years later, he left, still pleading for one that actually saved trees. He knew that tree preservation is more than smart growth. It's just plain smart, period.

A key part of the problem is that Shelby County has treated the tree ordinance as the end-all, be-all, when it must be an interlocking part of a unified development code. (More on that in a blog next week.) Something needs to be done in a meaningful way to protect trees.

It’s time. It’s time for someone in the Wharton Administration to pick up the phone and call Mr. Wellford and ask for his file on tree ordinances. It's also time to ask what lessons he learned, so this time, developers can't be given a veto over legislation that the public wants. It’s time for the public sector to be as outraged as the public it represents. It’s time for a victory that is actual and symbolic – in passing a resolution to save trees and in sending the message that the days when developers could do anything they wanted are finally over.

Now that’s a man bites dog story worth printing.