Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Breaking The Code On Land Use And Corruption

It’s hard to imagine, but passage of the proposed Unified Development Code just got more important.

Yes, there’s the impact that the code could have in encouraging a walkable, sustainable community. But, more to the point, it could produce something even better – a more ethical, honest local government.

That’s because the most important benefit of the new code is that it would remove the source of so many problems in local government – the direct political influence that local legislators have over zoning and development and which some broker for financial favors.

Eliminate The Source

It is in depoliticizing this sullied process in Memphis and Shelby County that the proposed new code could be the most important most important reform of the system in 20 years, and in the wake of federal probes and constant reports about developer influence, a new code could kill off the problem at its food source.

As Jack Sammons and Myron Lowery on City Council and Mike Ritz on the County Board of Commissioners take the thankless jobs (at least in the eyes of many of their colleagues) of developing new ethics rules, we hope they’ll also spend some time figuring out what Council and Commission members need to do to get the new code passed. And without amendments that water down its impact on land use, correct the now-abused Planned Unit Developments (PUDs) process or improve the quality of decisions by letting professional planners make most of them.

For too long, the worst-kept secret in local government has been the shadowy relationships that some local legislators have with developers who dole out financial favors in return for dependable votes that frequently defy even a hint of subtlety.

Symptoms Of The Problem

The symptoms of the problem are equally obvious, and call for extreme action. There are 180 degree shifts in votes on PUD’s, zoning and annexation. There are strip clubs that never seem to file applications for building permits. There have been building permits issued after the fact for a homebuilder with political clout. There are plans for FedExForum that vanish from public offices. The Land Use Control Board is loaded up with developers and relatives of developers to the point that there is a grand total of one neighborhood representative on it. The Gray’s Creek sewer extension was developer welfare masquerading as enlighted growth policy. The plan for Germantown Parkway’s orderly development was never approved and it shows. Highway 385 will open on the eastern fringe of Shelby County with no masterplan for the area.

No, a new code won’t necessarily solve all of these problems, but it would send a powerful message that the times have changed and so must the culture and the old ways of doing business.

The proposed code is now reaching a crucial point in its development. It will soon be the subject of public hearings in preparation to be put on the agendas of the City Council and County Board of Commissioners for votes. It will quickly become apparent in these votes if the recent ethics controversies are producing any lasting change.

Putting Memphis On The Map

If local legislators approve the new code, their primary role is to approve the zoning districts map for the city and county. Once that map has been put in place, it’s then up to professional planners of the Office of Planning and Development to make decisions consistent with the overall map. For the first time in recent history, the public would not have to guess about future property uses.

In other words, land use issues would rest with the experts, and legislators can recover hours spent every month hearing and voting on zoning issues. This is particularly true for Memphis City Council, which, with the mayor’s urging, has come to see its primary responsibility as handling these zoning cases. While improving the integrity of the process with the new code is reason enough for supporting it, the added benefit of getting the Council to pay more attention to the many important issues that now seem to get second billing.

Soon, city and county governments will begin the hunt for someone to fill the vacant director of planning job in the Division of Planning and Development. While it’s hard enough to attract national caliber planners to Memphis because of its national reputation for developer-controlled sprawl and the burden of working for two governments, it will be next to impossible to get the caliber of planner that is needed here if the reform-minded code is voted down.

High Stakes

None of this will come easy. It is almost a certainty that developers will attempt to erode the impact of the proposed code, even to the point of suggesting that the green fields outside of Memphis shouldn’t have zoning at all. It’s precisely that “anything goes” attitude that has produced the sprawl that is unsustainable to the point that it threatens the solvency of Shelby County Government.

That’s why the stakes couldn’t be higher. The new code and a new director of planning could finally result in the changes that have long been needed to make sure that zoning and development decisions aren’t based on personal political considerations to the detriment of the coherent planning needed for the future of the community.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

A Wish For 2007: Less Truthiness

Another wish for 2007, this one from Dr. George Lord:

Getting to Truthiness Through Cherry Picking

Wikipedia, the source of modern neologisms, defines “cherry picking” as:
“In the literal case of harvesting cherries, or any other fruit, the picker would be expected to only select the ripest and healthiest fruits. An observer who only sees the selected fruit may thus wrongly conclude that most, or even all, of the fruit is in such good condition.

Thus, cherry picking is used metaphorically to indicate the act of pointing at individual cases which seem to confirm a particular position, while ignoring a significant portion of related cases that may contradict that position.”
It goes on to suggest that at times cherry picking is appropriate:
“When is cherry picking appropriate? When a person is assigned to advocate a particular position, then cherry picking is entirely appropriate. Lawyers in a criminal case are one such example, where it is assumed to be the responsibility of the opposing counsel to present any contrary data. However, when a person with a supposedly neutral position cherry picks, that is inappropriate. Examples would be journalists, scientists, and judges.”


Memphis and Memphians seem to be very adept at picking those cherries which present a negative view of the city. As one who regularly goes in and picks the stalls in which his horses reside, I think this might more accurately be called “horse apple picking” - choosing those statistics which serve to paint the smelliest picture of the community. In their heart, it appears that the attitude is “If anyone cannot do it, we can’t.” In other words, they seem to want to bash themselves and be bashed by others.

This is particularly perplexing to me as one who was in Memphis in the early eighties and has returned in the past year to a city which always held a soft spot in my heart. I like Memphis and I like most Memphians. While we have our share of problems, things look good compared to the 12 years I spent in Flint, Michigan.

I say all this to set up my complaint that there is a specific “cherry picked” statistic which has been driving me crazy since I returned: “Memphis has the highest infant mortality rate in the country.” This was repeated in the Commercial Appeal recently in an article on recently passed legislation to unearth the causes of infant mortality.

Please count me in as one who supports any research on infant mortality and ways to curb this tragedy. Over the years as I taught courses on Social Inequality at various universities around the country, I would frequently make the claim that if one wants a single indicator of the level of inequality in a country or community; one has only to look at the infant mortality rate. I believe that is still a fairly accurate statement.

Getting to the facts

The U.S is ranked 42nd on infant mortality among the 225 nations in the CIA database. If Shelby County were a nation, we would be ranked 82nd. While I won’t challenge the 1993 to 1998 data from which researchers claimed Memphis had the highest infant mortality rate (at 15.4 deaths per 1,000 live births), I will point out that much of what we know about infant mortality we know at the county level. It is at the county level that these statistics are most often reported. In 2004, the most recent year for which such statistics are available, Shelby County has the 18th highest infant mortality rate (12.8) of the 95 Tennessee counties. In fact nearby Tipton County is ranked 2nd, with 21.5 deaths per 1,000 live births.
None of these numbers are anything to be proud of.

However, there are many places with higher rates. Take Issaquena County in Mississippi, this delta county is just across the river from the northern most point of Louisiana. The region is well known to demographers and others who are trying to understand inequality; it is part of the “Black Belt,” that string of counties which was once the major home of the slave dominated plantation economy. The county had a 2004 Infant Mortality Rate of 71. This is of course a county where the per capita income for Black residents in 2000 was $6,813; just 54% of that for the same sub group in Memphis that year.

While I am pointing to the correlates of infant mortality, consider the following about Shelby County, in 2004: 52% of children are getting free and reduced lunches in the public schools (ranked 20th highest among TN counties), 19.6% of children are getting Families First Grants (ranked 1st among TN counties), 36% of children receive food stamps (11th among TN counties), and finally our per capita income was $35,237 (3rd highest in the state). While we have one of the highest per capita income levels in the state we also have very high rankings on indicators of poverty. In other words we have a very high level of inequality.

Finding the Causes

As CDC suggests in a 1999 report: “To develop effective strategies for the 21st century, studies of the underlying factors that contribute to morbidity and mortality should be conducted. These studies should include efforts to understand not only the biologic factors but also the social, economic, psychological, and environmental factors that contribute to maternal and infant deaths. A thorough review of the quality of health care and access to care for all women and infants is needed to avoid preventable mortality and morbidity and to develop public health programs that can eliminate racial/ethnic disparities in health. Preconception health services for all women of childbearing age, including healthy women who intend to become pregnant, and quality care during pregnancy, delivery, and the postpartum period are critical elements needed to improve maternal and infant outcomes.”

What is the Truth?

As Stephen Colbert suggests, we must be on the lookout for truthiness. “Truthiness is a satirical term popularized by Stephen Colbert in reference to the quality by which a person claims to know something intuitively, instinctively, or "from the gut" without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or actual facts (similar to the meaning of "bellyfeel", a Newspeak term from George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four).” Saying we are the worst community in the country regarding infant mortality seems to be but one more way of bashing Memphis without getting at the truthiness of the statement.

I truly believe in data and good data is truly important if we want to move forward. The strongest, most effective priorities and strategies for Memphis are forged in open discussion and deliberations and rooted in the facts. This is not necessarily intended for us to reach consensus, but to arrive at sufficient agreement to enable action that will contribute to the common good. As we enter the twenty-first century, citizens have fewer and fewer public arenas for deliberation and for exercising our civic commitment.

If Smart Cities will allow it I hope to come back from time to time with an occasional “golden horse apple” award. This effort will be to point to the “horse apple” picking which occurs as part of the public discourse in the community. The attempted response will be to put the “horse apple” in the context of the whole basket of fruit we call home. If we are lucky, I will contribute to the elimination of truthiness in our discussions.

Monday, January 29, 2007

My Wish For 2007

As food for thought for the new year, we’ve asked an array of people to give us their wish for 2007. The following is the second installment:

Shelby County Sheriff Mark Luttrell:

1. Better coordination of our resources to attack common problems in Shelby County. Crime is a seamless phenomenon in our community affecting equally Memphians and suburban county dwellers. The gangs, guns and drugs infecting the social fabric of Memphis also impacts citizens outside Memphis. It stands to reason that combining our efforts producing a force multiplier would better serve all our citizens. Our city council members and county commissioners are under constant pressure to hold down the tax rate and at the same time improve efficiency by eliminating duplication and waste. Those of us in elected and appointed executive positions must respect this and try as best we can to support these objectives through better collaboration. Crime can be progressively managed and reduced when law enforcement agencies work in partnership to tackle common problems. Seamless crime requires a seamless response.

2. A new county jail can better address the financial, crime and humanitarian needs of our community. Our present jail facility is inefficient, costly and does not meet the highest standards for both staff and inmates. Because of these deficiencies, we are wasting in excess of $20 million annually. Fortunately as a result of much hard work by our jail staff, we have
evolved in the past four years from one of the most dangerous jails in America to one of the best, achieving constitutional compliance and national accreditation. This is, however, an example that in order to save money for years to come a significant investment must be made on the front end. The result would be a facility that requires fewer staff working in a safer environment that meets constitutional standards at less cost. Sounds too good to be true? Not really. Many large urban communities have done this where progressive leadership and a visionary community resolve to address costly inefficiencies proactively.

Tim Sharp, Dean of Fine Arts, Rhodes College:

I would like for us as a region to get to the point where we can focus less on our own provincial concerns and become more interested in issues beyond our neighborhood and city. The world needs our input and participation, but as long as we are preoccupied exclusively with local concerns, our voice will not be a part of the broader conversation.

I lived in England for a year a couple of years back with my family. I became aware that the longer I was there, the more I was not thinking about the issues that constantly and regularly emerge in our area. That freedom allowed me to become more of a participant in global issues, which I believe was a good thing.

It is not that I believe we can be free to do this until we solve our local problems, but until we do so, we will be very narrow in our citizenship. So, for a wish, my wish is for us to move beyond ourselves locally.

Carissa Hussong, Executive Director, UrbanArt Commission:

I wish Memphis would stop trying to be something for everyone and focus instead on being the best at what it is. I am not sure if the lack of focus is based on equity or inferiority, probably both. Memphis will never have all of the amenities that other communities have, but what it does have can't be duplicated elsewhere. By trying to be something for everyone, we lose our perspective and squander limited resources. When we start focusing on being the best, we will find the opportunities that have always been sitting right in front of us and begin building the city we want to be.

Brad Leon, Memphis Director, Teach For America:

A few weeks ago the New York Times magazine ran an article entitled “What it Takes to Make a Student.” The article examined two contrasting paradigms of how to fix our urban public schools. One paradigm postulates that policy makers must tackle the challenges children face outside of the school (crime, poverty, inadequate housing, and health care); this world view suggested that children will never reach academic excellence until we’ve faced down and conquered these challenges. The second paradigm declares that educating children from low-income communities can be done through higher expectations, longer hours, and good old fashioned hard work. Though I believe that the proponents of the first paradigm are correct in their view that external variables can hold students back, I believe deeply in the second paradigm. My wish for 2007, then, is for excellence in our public schools here in Memphis. Since the debate over “excellence” in any endeavor is wrought with subjectivity I would like to take this opportunity to focus on three critical levers, the adoption of which I believe would fundamentally alter education in Memphis: A clear focus on ambitious goals, data analysis, and relentless pursuit of results.

The first and most important step in this process is a clear focus on results. Excellent schools have school-wide, class-specific, and individual academic goals that are aligned to the standards and are so ambitious that the achievement of said goals will put students on a different path in life. When I walk into a school I should know what the school is working towards and know that it is so ambitious as to inspire tears; when I walk into a classroom I should know what a teacher is working towards with his/her students; and when I talk to a student he/she should be able to tell me the goals for performance in class. These goals must be specific and measurable (e.g. every student in this class will reach 85% mastery of objectives/ every student will demonstrate 2 grade levels of growth in reading/ every student in this class will pass the AP exam with a 4 or 5) and must transcend the mediocrity codified in terms like “adequate yearly progress.” Students are entering a world that demands a higher level of skill and critical thought than at any time in history and our schools must respond by having a laser-like focus on the bottom line. Human beings respond to being challenged and as long as the challenge is truly ambitious, our children will respond.

Merely posting a goal on a wall is not enough; excellent schools are driven by data, and principals, teachers, and students know how close/far they are from the ambitious goals they set. Many schools currently look at data once at the end of a semester and once at the end of the year. These intervals are not sufficient to allow teachers time to adjust course to facts on the ground. A study entitled, “Why some Schools with Latino children beat the odds and others don’t” examined high-performing schools in low-income Latino communities and compared how they were different from low-performing schools with the same population. Though the researchers highlighted six different traits, one of their most salient findings was that the high-performing schools regularly analyzed data. Analyzing data allows teachers to focus their remediation on specific objectives, or skim material that students have already mastered. Assessing and analyzing data on material students have/have not mastered must become a weekly phenomenon. I know many people worry that schools focus too much time and attention on test-prep and that our schools have become stale as a result but so long as the tests are rigorous and align with the standards that students ought to know, we should demand to know where are students are currently performing. When I taught in New Orleans, my students couldn’t wait to get the results for their rubric aligned essays so they could chart their progress toward our goal of writing a level 4 essay (on a five-point rubric) or getting the results of their social studies test to see if they made 80% mastery on rigorous social studies objectives. I also looked forward to examining this data; I always felt a deeper sense of conviction when I saw the fruits of our collective labor. Being data-driven, then, has the added benefit of motivating students, teachers, and principals towards long-term goals.

Setting measurable and ambitious goals and assessing data will have little relevance, however, without a relentless pursuit of results. It is lamentable that education is one of the few professions where it has become acceptable, even mainstream to make excuses for poor performance. There are endless legitimate excuses for why our children are not succeeding: poor parenting, insufficient prerequisite skills, gangs, drugs, poverty, television, video games, laziness etc. These are absolutely factors that we should focus on and help find solutions to mitigate, yet once the door closes at an excellent school, everyone in the building is focused on the one thing they can control: progress towards academic results. Schools like KIPP, YES College Prep, and MACE champion this approach because they understand that the central front in our nation’s endless pursuit of equality of opportunity exists in the classroom. If there isn’t enough time in the day, an excellent school extends the day - the aforementioned schools run from 8:00am to 5:00pm Monday through Friday and from 9:00am – 1:00pm on Saturday; if a particular student is in danger of missing his goals, an excellent school will tap into whatever resources they can find to access tutors; if a teacher is not performing, an excellent school will find someone who can. In essence, relentlessly pursuing results mean leadership and a no-excuses mentality. Our children will not be served by an avalanche of reasons why they cannot succeed, they will be served when we hold them to the same expectations that exist in wealthy prep schools. It is criminal to expect anything less.

I am hopeful that 2007 will see my wish come to fruition. Superintendent Johnson’s vision of “Every Day, Every Child, College Bound” is the appropriate context with which to have a discussion about education in Memphis City Schools. If our children do not have the skills to compete for a college education, it is likely that their economic and life prospects will be limited. Now is the time for the community to ask hard questions about how we’re making this ambitious vision a reality. I realize that not everyone shares my vision of excellent schools and that this vision is less than comprehensive, yet setting ambitious goals, regularly assessing data, and relentlessly pursuing results are necessary prerequisites that exist in far too few schools today. Despite our learned cynicism I believe we can achieve excellence in our city schools because of the inherent greatness of the human spirit. As President Kennedy once said, “Our problems are man-made, therefore they can be solved by man.” No truer sentiment was ever uttered - our capacities must be, and are, equal to this challenge.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

My Wish For Memphis In 2007

As food for thought for the new year, we’ve asked an array of people to give us their wish for 2007. The following is the first installment:

Gary Shorb, CEO, Methodist Healthcare:

For 2007, my hope is that we have a safer city. It will take a well coordinated, well led and community supported effort but we can and must do it!

Lee Warren, Senior Vice-President of Marketing, Center City Commission:

I wish our community leaders have an opportunity in 2007 to seek and review best practice solutions and results from other peer cities for the numerous challenges facing our city for possible implementation here. This is in no way to suggest that our own city problems can’t be solved by Memphians, because ultimately they can and they will be. However, sharing ideas with people in other cities will ultimately further raise our awareness, lift our profile, garner respect and in the end, help us attain what most progressive-minded citizens desire: to reside in a city known by residents and visitors alike as a world-class city, one that is a destination and one that offers an even greater quality of life.

Searching for best practice models to learn from and customize to address our most complex issues may indeed lead to an opening of eyes to help build consensus, generate results that further lift our good domestic and international profile, and propel Memphis to the forefront of progressive-thinking cities that proactively deal with the perennial obstacles of crime, poor education, low standards, poverty and a general disregard for civic-mindedness.

Barry Chase, President, Memphis Regional Planned Parenthood:

My wish for Memphis is a comprehensive sexuality education program in every school, public and private, starting no later than the third grade and continuing through the twelfth.

Teen pregnancy and single teen mothers continue the poverty cycle for themselves and their children. We must give young people the tools they need to lead healthy lives so they and their children can realize their full potential. By far the best opportunity to teach our society about the responsibility that comes with sexual activity is in school since most Memphis parents consider discussion of sex the third rail of parenting. As long as abstinence only is the mantra of our sex education, we will continue to have teen pregnancies. If we want to break the cycle, we have to face the realities that our children face every day in our sexually charged society.

Ruby Bright, Executive Director, Women’s Foundation of Greater Memphis:

My wish for Memphis 2007 is that the City and the County will find a common space to come together and address the crime crisis that we face at this time. The continued growth of crime diminishes our hope for a brighter future at all levels from education to community outreach for social change. Social justice seems to be a good common spot to begin addressing the matter. For those of us who are on the ground each day battling the community social service issues related to those most marginalized (women and children), we need to have the confidence that there is the basic level of security in place for all citizens.

Shelby County Commissioner Mike Carpenter:

Very difficult to name only one, so here are three briefly:

1. Reconsideration of Joint Board of Control -- The county needs to respond to our debt situation relatively quickly. While there are arguments to be made about the impact of development, additional fees, special school districts or consolidation, a joint board of control working in conjunction with the Needs Assessment Committee could set priorities for school construction, develop short-range and long-range plans and funding recommendations and manage school construction costs.

2. Governance and master plan for Shelby Farms -- A master plan can't be completed by the end of '07, but substantial progress can be made. More importantly, we can establish a governance structure to ensure the master plan is developed and implemented and begin gathering funding from both public and private sources. I believe we can have a governance structure agreed to by this fall, if not sooner. Having the right governance structure and the right people as a part of the structure is the most critical factor to ensuring Shelby Farms reaches its full potential.

3. A comprehensive, reasoned approach to reforming Juvenile Court -- Regardless of the second judge issue, there are problems that must be addressed for the sake of children and families affected by the system. As the issue becomes more contentious and racially charged we are getting further and further away from the critical issues of adequate legal representation, alternatives to incarceration, disproportionate minority contact, and organizational and operational issues that make the court confusing and often unfriendly. We know the problems, but an outside expert could tell us how to best fix them.

Andy Dolich, President of Business Operations, Memphis Grizzlies:

For all of its citizens to inject a daily dose of human DECENY in their interactions with each other.

Shelby County Commissioner Mike Ritz:

My wish has multiple parts. I wish for the County and City to find some more governmental operations to consolidate like the Housing Authorities and the Fire Departments. I wish for the City and County to have the patience to allow Bass Pro Shops to take the Pyramid off the taxpayers back. I wish for the County Commission to choose a jail solution which includes either a privately owned and operated jail or the repositioning of the Corrections Center into a Jail East by allowing the State of Tennessee to house their prisoners elsewhere. I also wish the County and City will adopt a Unified Development Code to update our land use regulations to encourage more livable communities in the City and the suburban county. Except for the consolidation matters which seem to go on forever, I believe these other wishes can all come true in 2007.

Dorothy Gunter Pugh, Founder and Artistic Director, Ballet Memphis:

I know that Memphis has so many challenges we all hope can be met and conquered. So my wish, which leads to another wish, is that more Memphians, particularly those who are in the fortunate positions of being able to "move and shake," would move like the dancers of Ballet Memphis move, and extend themselves as broadly and thoughtfully as possible. And the way choreographers move and shake, because they want to explore human possibilities, and reach beyond our boundaries and add to our experiences. If we all placed a high value on engaging in artistic experiences, we might understand more about working together to create really valuable opportunities for more people. We'd understand the rush that creative accomplishment at the most excellent level can give us. We could become what we used to be, and didn't know we were, a city where new, fantastic art for all people was made. But this time, we would appreciate it while it was alive in our midst....

Barbara Holden, Urban Child Institute:

As someone with a passionate commitment for the development of young children, I’m fortunate to be involved in a vitally important initiative to our city’s future – a collaborative effort to improve our community over the long term by improving the health and welfare of children prenatal to age 5.

The work happening at The Urban Child Institute is a strategically vital approach to improving quality of life in Shelby County in the future. By involving stakeholders in government, business, health care, education, child care and philanthropy, we are addressing corrosive social trends in our city that impact poverty, crime, education and quality of life outcomes. It’s the same battle that is taking shape in other large urban centers.

My hope for 2007 is that we enlighten and involve even more Shelby Countians into this effort, because the long-term prosperity of our community is at stake. We will not win the battle this year, but rather continue to make progress down a long, long road.

We know improvement is possible, and that young lives can be impacted in positive, lasting ways. As a society, we have invested relatively little in the cognitive and social development of our youngest children – even though we now know that 85 percent of brain development occurs before age 5 and that behaviors take shape in these earliest years. Instead, we spend much more on courts, incarceration, remedial education, welfare, substance abuse programs and other programs to address problems after the fact.

Science and long-term studies are clear – investing money on early child development by getting the most impoverished and at-risk children in positive, nurturing and academic environs saves money because those children emerge better prepared for life and make better life decisions. At-risk children involved in quality early child programs have better high school educational experiences, are more likely to go to college and earn a better living. They tend to stay clear of drugs and crime. The return on investment is immense – for every $1 spent on early child development we can eliminate $7 in later-life costs.

This is a long-term effort – but it is taking shape in Shelby County. Our ‘First Years Last a Lifetime’ public campaign and the work at The Urban Child Institute is considered a model by other large cities who share our same challenges.

My wish for 2007: get more Shelby County residents to understand that we must develop and nurture our youngest citizens because the generations ahead will determine our community’s quality of life.

Stephanie Gatewood, Memphis City Schools’ Board of Commissioners:

As a local leader in the great city of Memphis, I have yet one wish. This wish is very vast, so much that if we tackle this one issue, all other issues will fall in place.

The wish that I have is greater accountability for our communities as it relates to our youth development. Mentoring future leaders; providing economic development to neighborhoods. Our youth are reaching out to parents, community leaders, churches. What are they saying? They are pleading for us to help them! We must focus on reinventing the neighborhoods to provide them with activities to do after school, on spring break, during winter, and summer breaks. We must provide them with hope, a dream. Provide them with jobs after school, ensure that they have extra curricular activities after 3:00 If we sit back and let nothing happen, who are we to blame?

Research has indicated that an increase in teenage pregnancy, Juvenile crimes and, gang initiations occur most often between the hours of 3-6pm. Why? The primary reason is that children want to feel that they belong, (both children and adults.) How can we make a difference? By lobbying the council, the state legislature, the federal government to fully fund the neighbor imitative, one body cannot do it alone, it will take ALL stakeholders. From the students themselves, to the parents, the law enforcement, the community, the corporations, the churches, and the list goes on and on,

This is my wish for 2007. it is a reachable goal, if all of us would do more than our part, we can make it happen!! Remember… WE MUST LEAD BY EXAMPLE.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Promoting Civic Engagement: This Week on Smart City

There was a time not too long ago when colleges and universities thought of themselves as very separate from their host cities. But that's a dying notion and clear evidence of that is Campus Compact, a coalition of more than 1000 colleges and university presidents who promote civic engagement among students and faculty. To tell us about the work of Campus Compact, we have its president, Maureen Curley and Roger Mandle, president of the Rhode Island School of Design.

Promoting civic engagement in a very different way is Vicki Been. Vicki's work at the Furman Center for Real Estate and Public Policy is helping New Yorkers unravel the mysteries of real estate development proposed in that city so that they can influence what happens.

Smart City is a syndicated, weekly hour-long public radio talk show that takes an in-depth look at urban life: the people, places, ideas and trends that affect us all. Host Carol Coletta talks with national and international public policy experts, economists, business leaders, artists, developers, planners and others on the pulse of city life for a penetrating discussion on urban issues.

In Memphis, Smart City is broadcast on WKNO FM, 91.1, at 9 a.m. Sundays. It is also webcast and podcast at the Smart City website. For a listing of times in other cities and to sign up for a weekly newsletter, please click here.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

State Government Shortchanges Memphis Schools, Comptroller Says

Memphis City Schools got an early Valentine from the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office this week.

It came in the form of two reports that compliment the district’s reform efforts and make the case for more funding.

While state reports are about as common in Nashville as political fundraisers, these two may have more traction because they come from the highly-respected Comptroller of the Treasury John G. Morgan as part of his office’s study of districts that have failed to meet state standards for AYP (adequate yearly progress).

High Priorities

One report deals with the programs undertaken by Memphis City Schools to improve their high priority schools. The other one evaluates what Tennessee has done to improve the high priority schools in urban school districts.

While there’s plenty of interesting conclusions in the about 70 pages of reports, there’s probably nothing in the report that’s more welcome to the city district than this paragraph:

“The BEP (Basic Education Program) does not adequately fund the state’s urban districts in part because it understates the cost of educating at-risk students and English language learners. These deficiencies of the BEP force some districts to raise substantially more local funds for education.”
The report, State Approaches to Improving Tennessee’s High Priority Schools, points out that BEP accounts for 75 percent of state and local funds, but in the four urban districts, it’s “substantially less,” comprising less than 40 percent of total revenues in the four urban districts.

A Grade of F

“It should not be inferred that giving more state money to systems that fail to achieve performance standards would increase performance; however, low state support combined with inadequate BEP-generated funds for certain groups of students places additional financial burdens on systems with a disproportionate share of these students,” the reports adds.

The conclusion about the need for more money is given greater weight is strengthened in the report focusing on Memphis City Schools, saying that budgetary constraints are one of the three serious challenges facing the city district. “For the past three school years, MCS has operated with a significant budget shortfall and without any increase in its operating budget,” according to District Approaches to Improving Tennessee’s High-Priority Schools – Memphis City Schools.

Talk about a set-up for a concerted push for more funds for Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga in the next session of the Legislature. Hopefully, Memphis district leaders will lead the development of a joint assault on the Capital in pursuit of more funding from state government for the four urban districts.

Legislators are accustomed to the urban school districts pleading for more money, but rarely have the educators had the backing of a state agency itself. In fact, the Comptroller’s Office goes so far as to suggest that the General Assembly should consider “enhanced” funding.

Refreshingly Candid

The reports also fault state government for failing to fund new teacher programs, but holds up Memphis City Schools’ new teacher project as a model for Tennessee. All in all, the report on state actions is refreshingly blunt for a state agency and should be the wake-up call that the Department of Education needs.

Some other criticisms of DOE include:

· The state does not require frequent teacher evaluations
· Teacher retention continues to be a problem.
· The state’s tenure law appears to protect some poorly qualified teachers; firing an ineffective teacher remains an arduous process.
· The state – with one of the lowest graduation rates in the U.S. – does not adequately help districts with data nor does it have a comprehensive plan.
· The state should ensure that the results of an evaluation of tutoring made available by No Child Left Behind to students in low-performing schools are provided to parents. (Memphis has 20,886 eligible for services like tutoring, but only 2,278 participate.)

In its review of Memphis City Schools, the Comptroller’s Office says that since its last report in 2001, the district has placed major emphasis on district-wide reform, principal leadership, budgetary efficiencies, alternative sources of financial support, teacher recruitment and induction, truancy prevention and technology use.


The obstacles to its progress, according to the report, are concentrated poverty with 95 percent of the schools qualifying for Title 1 funds (federal money for high-poverty schools), high rates of student movement between schools and lack of budget increases.

The mobility statistics in particular are startling. The so-called student mobility rate for Memphis City Schools is 30 percent, up from 25 percent five years ago. However, the rate for the six high-priority schools is higher than that, with Oakhaven Middle/High School having a rate of 36 percent.

The constant movement of such a large number of its students creates serious hardships for the district as it tries to teach students, not to mention tracking them for its planning and for determining benchmarks like graduation rates.

Disciplinary Issues

Another interesting chart shows the percent change in disciplinary problems, compared to the previous two school years. Fighting and firearms problems were down 2% and 19% respectively, but all others were up by double digits – weapons possession (17%); gang-related (18%); bullying (13%); assaults to students (26%); battery against staff members (30%) and threats to staff (30%).

Under the heading of behavior problems, it was a mixed bag. Class cutting was up 18%, insubordination was up 8% and alcohol/drugs up 6%. Meanwhile, misconduct was down 31%, office referrals down 17% and dress code violations were down 18%. Finally, suspensions were down 5% and expulsions were up 27%. All in all, it gives the sense that the verdict is out on the district’s Blue Ribbon Plan that ended corporal punishment in favor of intervention and “win-win” discipline.

The report is required reading for anyone who wants a quick snapshot of Memphis City Schools and the programs that have been put in place, largely by Supt. Carol Johnson, to reverse the direction of the district. As a compendium of an array of strategies under way, it paints the picture of a district trying a variety of programs to deal with what the report says Dr. Johnson refers to as the “brutal facts” about the district’s need for improvement.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Fishing For Bass Pro Shops Lures Buffalo and Memphis

If Buffalo’s experience with Bass Pro Shops is any indication, Memphis may in time give up on the company’s grandiose plans for downtown Memphis and tear down The Pyramid.

For five years in Buffalo, the retailer dangled the lure of a 250,000 square foot superstore as the tenant for the old sports venue, the Memorial Auditorium, and time after time, as city and state leaders – including the mayor and the governor – tried to pull a deal together, Bass Pro Shops asked for more public incentives and more and more time.

Finally, after all the years of talk and ponderously slow negotiations, Bass Pro Shop has announced that it’s not longer interested in the use of the massive, empty building in downtown Buffalo. The proposal for a 250,000 square foot regional showplace was scaled back last week to a 100,000-125,000 square foot store, and the retailer now wants a waterfront site, where it would become the signature of the Central Wharf redevelopment project.

Toothless Ultimatums

Everything started to change on December 18 when city officials finally delivered a 30-day ultimatum to Bass Pro Shops to fish or cut bait. In the end, the company said it was concerned about the size and the cost of the Auditorium site. According to The Buffalo News, the original proposal called for $35 million in public money and $20 million from the company. Here, The Commercial Appeal reports that the 150,000 square foot store in The Pyramid will cost more than $100 million.

Despite the shift in plans, Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown is still asking for $21 million from the state – to now tear down the Auditorium where Bass Pro Shop was supposed to locate.

While economic development types with the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. are trying to put a pretty face on the change in direction, it is nonetheless an embarrassing black eye for the city. In chasing the fishing store as the panacea for its downtown turnaround, Buffalo has become the poster child for extravagant public incentives spent chasing a questionable project billed as the magic answer to its ills.

Salvaging Pride

While some still are still working hard to salvage a proposal in Buffalo, the thrill is gone. The Buffalo store – once touted in an exercise in civic hyperbole as a regional tourist destination – is now smaller than Bass Pro Shops' 140,000 square foot store in Toronto 98 miles away.

Proponents for the project nonetheless still toss out projections of more than two million visitors for the store, but are less clear about whether this actually creates significant net economic growth and whether the acres of asphalt that accompanies the Bass Pro Shops actually contributes to a more appealing downtown to all the visitors who aren’t buying fishing gear, not to mention the impact of the retailer as the symbol for downtown Buffalo.

Of course, all of this should be a cautionary tale for Memphis, where history is being replayed in startlingly similar detail. Blinded by the notion of millions of customers flocking to The Pyramid, we seem unwilling to ask the hard questions ignored in Buffalo - whether this is the smartest use of a building that will immediately come to symbolize Memphis’ ambition and self-image.

Five Years And Counting

We’re on record in favor of blowing up The Pyramid, and perhaps, based on Buffalo’s experience, that will be what we do five years from now when talks finally grind to a halt. Until then, we need to pay close attention to what’s going on in Buffalo.

There, Bass Pro Shops is now asking for a waterfront site that would block access to the river and mar the historic district’s image. Already, the Buffalo news media are asking tougher questions about the entire deal and why the city should continue with the large public subsidy and allow the store to pick its site.

Most of all, the Buffalo public has lost its patience with the store and its interest is fast following. With the clock on the 30-day ultimatum ticking, Buffalo citizens were told: “the talks are going very well now,” “we don’t want to interfere with the momentum we’ve got going,” “everyone is being as creative and flexible as possible,” and everyone is “putting in a good faith effort.”

Buying Fever

And yet, the whole nature of the deal changed, and city officials, determined to close a deal, seem reluctant to step back and ask if it’s really the deal they want or need.

It’s not the nature of government to admit that a mistake has been made. It’s also the nature of cities like Buffalo and Memphis – cursed with low self-esteem and self-confidence – to treat Bass Pro Shops like it is doing us a favor even considering us for a mega-store.

With the proliferation of these stores and speculation about a softening market, perhaps it’s time for cities being approached for incentives to drive these negotiations rather than waiting on the company whose tendency is to drag out negotiations, demand multi-million dollar public concessions and feel no compunction about its failure to follow through.


So, after the mayor’s deadline and the flurry of activity to meet it, what happened in Buffalo? Absolutely nothing.

The city blinked, but the lead negotiator happily declared that a deal is closer than ever. “The deadline is a non-issue,” he said. “We’re continuing to do serious work on this. We’re not going to stop because of the calendar.”

Actually, they’re not going to stop because as long as deadlines aren’t really deadlines and companies know it and as long as cities talk tough for public consumption and give in in private, the Bass Pro Shops in Buffalo – and possibly here – will materialize only when and if the company wants it.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Past Decisions Haunt County Government Today

Today, Shelby County Government is increasingly a prisoner of the past.

Or more specifically, it is are captive to poor decisions about public policies made as long ago as 30 years, policies that set county government off in directions that produced so many of the problems that handicap it today.

The expensive new plans for ambulances for the area outside Memphis (except for Bartlett) are just the latest example of the tug of war between political pressure and sound policy that dates back to the swearing in of the first county mayor in 1976.

The restructuring of Shelby County Government – approved by voters in 1974 – eliminated a three-headed administrative branch whose authority and responsibilities often blurred with the Chairman of the old Shelby County Quarterly Court, the legislative body of that time. The shift to a mayor was intended to streamline the administrative function by creating a chief executive officer and by setting up a more coherent organizational structure.

Hope Against Hope

The hope was that by giving the county’s chief executive officer the title of mayor and by having a divisional organization that mirrored Memphis city government, the voters would see the wisdom of consolidating the two large bureaucracies. It never happened.

While residents of our community were enduring jokes about having “two mayors,” the decision was no joke, because it moved county government out of the shadows and into a much more prominent role. In fact, impressed by the increased stature of the county mayor, ultimately, the heads of the executive branch in every one of Tennessee’s 95 counties were renamed mayor.

While the intent of the restructure was to modernize county government, one characteristic of the old rural-dominated government remained – an illogical attention and emphasis on the needs of the area outside of Memphis.

In the new, improved county government, this dominant rural perspective came from a time when most of Shelby County Government’s legislators – then called squires - came from the much more sparsely populated small towns and rural areas of Shelby County. In fact, it wasn’t until the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the county to elect its legislative body on the basis of “one man, one vote” did county government realign its election process, and in the process, the nation received a landmark legal decision that affected every public body in the U.S.

Rural Orientation

But even with the newly-constituted government, county government’s rural orientation morphed into an outward focus that resulted in special policies for the suburbs and small towns. This cultural tendency was fed by 25 years of county mayors whose political base lay outside of Memphis.

This played out in those early days of the new county government in policies like the one that stated that county government would fund 75 percent of the price of major roads within a municipality’s borders – that is, every municipality except Memphis.

But the problem ran deeper than road construction. More problematically, the new county government decided to deliver urban services to people living in the unincorporated areas and the smaller municipalities. In this way, county taxpayers – 75 percent of whom at the time living inside Memphis – were subsidizing the town governments who did not then fund schools, libraries, or ambulances, nor sometimes even police and fire protection as in the cases of Arlington and Lakeland.

Here’s the problem. It’s a fundamental principle of governmental philosophy that all of the services of the county, or regional, government should be available throughout the entire county. And yet, the new government created services that benefited only non-Memphians. (Years later, the state Supreme Court ruled that a special fee had to fund all of its costs of the fire department because it was not accessible by all citizens.)

A Preoccupation

For about 15 years, county government paid 100 percent of the costs of libraries – at least those located outside of Memphis. It also paid the total costs of ambulances in the same area.

It was in this preoccupation with the suburbs that the first seeds were sown for the sprawl that threatens the county’s financial health now.

Put in a sentence, if people who move out of Memphis want urban level services, they should pay for them – by being part of a city and paying the taxes that make them possible.

It’s a basic premise of government theory that got lost in the earliest days of Shelby County Government. Rather than providing a basic level of services, county government dished out urban services that eroded that the difference that should be implicit between municipal and county governments in the first place.

Fuel For Sprawl

As a result, there was no deep philosophical debate when the greenfields were targeted for the largely derivative development that became the standard in the sprawling suburbs there. Starting with Hickory Hill, county government was willing to subsidize a quality of housing that would require substantial reinvestment before the first mortgage was even paid off. In Hickory Hill, Shelby County built some of the first obscenely wide roads that would become its hallmark, fueling rapid development that created even more demands for fire, roads, bridges and schools.

All of this foreshadows the current controversy about ambulance response times. Theoretically, current county policy requires the incorporated cities to now pay for the actual costs of ambulance services there, but it has nonetheless been a sweetheart deal in which taxpayers from the rest of the county have paid for the decisions of those outside Memphis to move to suburban green pastures.

Because of it, smaller municipalities have never had a tax rate that reflected the true costs of their public services as they benefited from the welfare from county government. As we’ve written previously, the priority for our community should be for the tax rate of Memphis to be commensurate with the rates in Germantown and Collierville.

It makes no sense that Memphians have been required to subsidize the programs and services that were essentially investments in their own city’s decline.

Rationalizing Taxes

Memphis and Shelby County Governments cannot change the past, but they should at least begin to talk about ways to rationalize the tax rates in a way that recognizes the unfair burden paid in the past by Memphis taxpayers.

We know it’s unlikely to change in the near term, because it would require an unprecedented level of cooperation between governments and an attitude that would be revolutionary in its execution of a new alignment of government responsibilities.

In the meantime, we’ll continue to see media-propelled controversies about lags in response times by ambulances and the need for new schools without any understanding that what we really need to be headlining is the need for the fundamental restructuring of local government.

There is nothing that could yield an impact as important as rationalizing the responsibilities of local government and equalizing the tax burden. All it takes is leadership.

Friday, January 19, 2007

The Resilient City: This Week on Smart City

Resilience is a quality that is greatly underrated in successful cities. Our guests this week are making their own special contributions to understanding how to make cities resilient.

Sadhu Johnston is leading what may be the nation's best known municipal green program. Sadhu is the Commissioner of the City of Chicago Department of Environment where he manages a whole host of programs intended to restore and protect Chicago's natural resources. Prior to working for the City of Chicago, Sadhu served as the Executive Director of the Cleveland Green Building Coalition.

Also with us is Brett Parson, winner of the Harvard Innovations in Government Award, about his success in breaking the barriers between the police and the gay community in Washington, D.C. Brett heads the DC police Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit.

Smart City is a syndicated, weekly hour-long public radio talk show that takes an in-depth look at urban life: the people, places, ideas and trends that affect us all. Host Carol Coletta talks with national and international public policy experts, economists, business leaders, artists, developers, planners and others on the pulse of city life for a penetrating discussion on urban issues.

In Memphis, Smart City is broadcast on WKNO FM, 91.1, at 9 a.m. Sundays. It is also webcast and podcast at the Smart City website. For a listing of times in other cities and to sign up for a weekly newsletter, please click here.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Quarterbacking The Right Project

Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton is right.

A city with aspirations of greatness must invest in state-of-the-art facilities that contribute to our economic growth and quality of life.

And that’s what should place our attention on the airport. Not a football stadium.

Hyperreality Or Hyperbole

Already, the concept of Memphis International Airport as the heart of the U.S.’s first real aerotropolis is at risk of becoming an exercise in hyperbole, but the truth is that there’s no single piece of the regional infrastructure that deserves more serious study and a more detailed comprehensive plan for the future.

The aerotropolis is a planning concept invented and refined in Asia where huge, new international airports were treated as the “downtown” of a new city with major new development radiating out from the core. Here, Denver is probably the strongest U.S. example, because its new airport – on 34,500 acres of land - has attracted 25 percent of the Denver metro’s growth in recent years.

That said, the aerotropolis works best in Asia because there is such density of population, and in the U.S., as Denver shows, it runs the risk of becoming just another multi-billion dollar propulsion for sprawl. That’s why the last thing that Memphis probably needs right now is a new airport built in keeping with the Denver model – built in a greenfield location from downtown and connected by toll roads and light rail.


Memphis has been named one of a handful of U.S. cities with the potential to become an aerotropolis, and it’s been said that we have a rudimentary version already emerging. Within that context, some key questions are how do we create an aerotropolis using the existing airport as its center and how can it be created in a way that produces higher value for the neighborhoods and commercial corridors?

It’s no small matter for Memphis’ future. According to the 2006 Annual Report of the Memphis and Shelby County Airport Authority, MEM creates an annual economic impact of $21.7 billion with one in four jobs linked to it. If Memphis is to stake a claim as the U.S.’s leading aerotropolis – and to define it in a way that serves our overall city interests – it requires new thinking and serious planning to begin now.

That’s because we have to make sure that all of the conversation about the aerotropolis is more than just conversation. It has to be more than this year’s catchy concept. It has to be more than just a convenient way to reposition the airport. It has to be a “real” plan of action that most importantly addresses the unpleasant experience of Memphis International Airport when compared to its rivals and the ways to reinvigorate the adjacent neighborhoods.

A First Step

The renovated and reinvented rotunda of shopping and eating in Concourse B was a step in the right direction and a major improvement. But the same attention to improving the customer experience now needs to extend to the lobby which feels especially cramped and the concourses which, when compared to other airports, feel claustrophobic and dated.

The once striking impression made by the airport’s architecture has largely been obliterated by unattractive parking garages and expansive swaths of asphalt. While many cities have put money into beautifying the approach and the setting of the airport, Memphis’ commitment to efficient operations has always trumped quality of place and attractiveness.

Getting Memphis International Airport from its current state to a better customer experience as one of the nation’s best wouldn’t come cheap. But then again, a major new airport could cost $5-10 billion (the new Denver airport costs $5 billion), making it obvious that an investment in an airport upgrade would cost several times more than FedEx Forum, but it would still be much less than a new facility.

Not Just A Better Airport

If Memphis wants to build the equivalent of a new city – the aerotropolis – it couldn’t be more timely for the Whitehaven area whose decline seems to be picking up momentum in its inevitability. But success will require an alignment of interests, resources and priorities that would be historic in this city.

That’s why it has to be clear from the beginning that the aerotropolis isn’t a way to invest in a better airport, but a better urban community recreated around it.

It’s a tall order, but if you’ve wandered from the ghastly commercial corridors and driven into the neighborhoods, it’s no secret to you that the area has some appealing residential areas scattered on an undulating terrain. These are largely African-American, middle-class neighborhoods which have done a remarkable job of fighting for their lives in the midst of the commercial and retail decline.

That Hollow Feeling

Already, Memphis is competing for the dubious title of the most hollowed out U.S. city as the middle class moves to surrounding cities and counties. As homeowners vote with their feet, Memphis is now seeing the flight of the black middle class.

Aerotropolis aside, if there’s any section of Memphis where all of the city’s resources and all of its resolve should be on display for the world to see, it is Whitehaven. Until city and federal governments conspired to allow substandard housing and dozens of apartment complexes into the proud single-family areas, Whitehaven was the paragon of the American Dream (despite its unfortunate name). Those days 35 years ago are almost impossible to imagine these days.

So, before aerotropolis becomes just another buzzword, the interest of Memphis Regional Chamber and Memphis and Shelby County Airport Authority need to be backed up with the significant civic support that can make sure something happens. That begins in City Hall, and it’s lots more important than a new football stadium.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Public Transit As A Competitive Advantage

The following is a column written in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution by deputy editorial page editor Jay Bookman. We’ve changed the name of the city from Atlanta to Memphis, because if it’s a priority in Atlanta to have an efficient, modern public transit system, it’s an even greater one here:

As a sprawling Sun Belt city built around the automobile, metro Memphis — like Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, San Jose and similar places — is ill-suited for mass transit, and Memphis commuters would never park their cars to ride rail or buses.

That's the story, anyway, and it has taken such a hold at the state Department of Transportation and the Legislature that it threatens the major new investments in transit the region will need as it tries to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

As you look around the country, though, you see a narrative of a different sort taking hold in Memphis's sister Sun Belt cities. While metro Memphis dawdles, other regions are aggressively remaking themselves, adapting to changing times, trends and needs. It hasn't been easy, but they're overcoming obstacles and betting heavily that the future will differ from the past.

Just as Memphis used to do.

The Dallas-Fort Worth area, for example, is investing heavily in light rail, buses and commuter rail, and it's paying off. Dallas Area Rapid Transit reported a 10.5 percent increase in bus and rail ridership for the nine-month period ending in June, and ridership on a commuter rail line linking Dallas and Fort Worth increased by 14.7 percent in the first six months of 2006.

That success is breeding more interest. In the Fort Worth area, cities are scrambling for the right to host stations along a proposed Cotton Belt commuter rail line that would open in 2011; in fact, suburban cities that have reached the state's 8.25 percent sales tax cap are asking Texas legislators to lift that cap so that they too can raise the money to host a Cotton Belt station.

In 2003, voters in Houston — yes, Houston, the petroleum capital of the country — approved a $7.5 billion investment in light rail, bus rapid transit and commuter rail, and there too it's paying dividends. Ridership on Houston's MetroRail system has exceeded projections, and not by just a little bit — the system is already hitting ridership levels that had been projected for 2025, suggesting an enormous latent demand.

Houston is also counting on three new bus rapid transit lines — buses that travel on dedicated right of way. Those lines are being built with rail tracks embedded along the route, in preparation for the day when ridership levels justify converting those lines to light rail.

Nationwide, light-rail ridership rose 11.2 percent in the first six months of 2006, according to the American Public Transportation Association. That's an astounding jump considering how hard it can be to alter commuting patterns. In San Jose, Minneapolis, Philadelphia and San Diego, light-rail ridership rose by at least 17 percent.

In the Orlando area, the Florida Department of Transportation is designing a 61-mile, 16-station commuter rail line, and is encouraging cities along the route to maximize development potential by rezoning property surrounding those stations. Other projects are also in the works in Florida: FDOT is proposing an 85-mile commuter rail line from Jupiter to Miami, and local leaders are trying to organize a regional effort to finance their share of that project.

In those and other places, leaders understand that mass transit must be a part of any long-term transportation solution. They also understand that denser development patterns are necessary to make it work.

In many ways, in fact, the question of mass transit's viability is a chicken-and-egg question. Mass transit requires, well, a mass of people to be moved. It needs a certain amount of population density to be effective.

But as Dallas, Houston, Denver and other cities are discovering, transit can also create the density it needs to thrive.

According to a 2005 study by two University of North Texas researchers, more than $3.3 billion in new construction has been announced along Dallas light-rail lines since 1999.

A previous UNT study had documented that the value of residential properties near DART light-rail stations was rising considerably faster than similar properties elsewhere.

"For office buildings, the increase [in valuation] was 24.7 percent for the DART properties vs. 11.5 percent for the non-DART properties," the study determined. Metro Memphis may look back on these days at the dawn of the century as the era in which opportunity was missed.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Rationalizing Taxes Outranks Consolidating Governments

Police Director Godwin says “functional consolidation doesn’t work” and blows up the Metro DUI Unit, a joint operation of MPD and the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department.

While some suggest deep political motivations for his decision, the police director is nonetheless right. Functional consolidation – frequently a stand-in for full city-county government consolidation – generally muddies the water more than purifying it.

Functional consolidation is a regular feature of local political campaigns. Some candidates use it to neutralize a broader urge to merge while others use it to occupy a safe middle ground where they can support consolidation between city and county functions without the governments themselves.

Targeting Functions

No one ever opposes functional consolidation, so it is dependably trotted out during almost every election cycle. A favorite target for it is the merger of the city and county engineering offices - an idea first advanced in 1981 as the way to streamline the building process and eliminate duplication, and yet, the offices still remain separate today. So do the county trustee’s office and the city treasurer’s office, another merger option mentioned intermittently over the past 25 years.

Various experiments have been tried over the years – including several in law enforcement – but by and large, the promise of functional consolidation has never matched its reality. That’s because in the end, complete governmental consolidation puts in place clear lines of responsibility and accountability, Functional consolidation, on the other hand, generally does just the opposite, as departments serve two masters – both city and county government administrations. This produces conflicting priorities, warring political agendas and an operational tug of war that tend to erode decisiveness and effectiveness.

Over the years, MPD and the Sheriff’s Department have tried several consolidated programs – Metro Narcotics and Metro Aviation – and more recently, Metro Gang Unit and the Interstate Drug Interdiction Squad. The pitfalls of the programs are command and control issues and the inability to deploy manpower to priority problems. This is not meant to diminish the political considerations in which city law enforcement officials suggest that their county counterparts have little expertise and experience to offer and that their main interest is political visibility in fight against crime.

Selling Savings

On the same day that Director Godwin was dismissing functional consolidation, his boss, Mayor Willie W. Herenton was once again singing the praises of consolidating city and county governments. As he often does, he made his case on the basis of saving money although the history of successful consolidations suggests that budgets generally increase at least in the short-term as services are combined. In fact, consolidation advocates in other cities share an opinion on one thing – never sell consolidation on the basis of savings because they don’t materialize or are negligible.

In Memphis, consolidation is as much myth as fact. Conventional wisdom to the contrary, almost every major metro area operates, and competes, within a government structure just like ours. In fact, of the about 3,200 counties in the U.S., about one percent have consolidated governments. Only nine of the top 100 cities have merged in the past 100 years, and no community the size of ours has been consolidated since World War I.

If anything, consolidation has always been an anomaly in movements to make the public sector more efficient. For every consolidation that is approved at the voting booth, about three are rejected, and most of the cities that we measure ourselves against have two layers of government – with the exception of Nashville/Davidson County and Indianapolis Uni-Gov (which is the only consolidation mandated by a state legislature and it exempted law enforcement).

Government Simplicity

In fact, Memphis and Shelby County have one of the simplest governmental structures of any major region in the country. After its highly-publicized consolidation in Louisville/Jefferson County in 2000, the number of government units there dropped all the way from 92 to 91.

All of this does nothing to tarnish consolidation in the minds of some as the magic bullet to solve all of our local problems. Unfortunately, because we start out with consolidation as the answer, we rarely ask the right question, which is: what can be done to equalize the tax rate for Memphis so it is more in line with the ones paid by citizens of Germantown and Collierville?

Now, Memphians pay a disincentive to live inside the city limits. Over the past 15 years, Memphians have been forced to subsidize its own decline.

It’s done it by paying the lion’s share of the costs of new roads, bridges, parks and schools that fueled sprawl and enriched developers. In the process, the lure of new housing lured Memphians to buy substandard housing that required reinvestment before the mortgage was even paid off, hollowing out Memphis’ middle class and driving up the tax rate even more.

Paying More Than Their Share

It is a cruel cycle of tax unfairness that in the end devastates Memphis and its taxpayers. After paying a premium to remain loyal to their urban neighborhoods – where their infrastructure declined at the exact same time that they were paying for new parks, roads and schools in the suburbs – they deserve today a rational tax structure that eliminates the extra burden that they have too long had to bear.

For example, Memphians pay twice for the FedEx Forum, Autozone Park, the Health Department, Office of Planning and Development, Memphis City Schools and The Pyramid. That’s because Memphians pay 100 percent of the city’s funding, and then in addition, they pay about 60 percent of the county’s half. Then, to compound the inequity, Memphians pay 100 percent of assets like museums that are enjoyed by the entire region.

That’s why the ultimate goal for Memphis isn’t consolidation, but a lower tax rate for Memphians. It could be done by eliminating Memphis’ funding of city-county agencies and schools (after all, county government has a constitutional duty to provide schools and public health, not Memphis) and then shifting regional assets to the regional tax base – that of Shelby County.

Tax Equity

With these changes, the City of Memphis would scale down its array of services so they are more in keeping with those of the suburban cities. By shifting public services that are regional in nature to the regional government – Shelby County Government – Memphis could reduce its present $3.23 property tax rate to something more in line with Germantown’s $1.75 and Collierville’s $1.50.

While the lowered tax rate would make Memphis more attractive and competitive when compared to its suburban rivals, more to the point, the lower tax rate would be an exercise of fundamental fair play after the decades of Memphians subsidizing sprawl and paying for duplicative infrastructure.

In the end, there’s the real possibility that consolidation would be good for Memphis and Shelby County. But, a more rationalized tax structure would be even better.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Strategic Thinking For Cities: This Week On Smart City

As the New Year gets underway, we all turn our attention to the future. But for our guests this week, it is their job to think about the future and its implications for cities and for business.

Tara Lemmey is founder and CEO of LENS Ventures, a network of leading thinkers focused on strategic innovation. Tara is attempting to help urban leaders adopt the ways of venture capitalists to innovate their way to the future. She is a leading member of the Markle Taskforce on National Security in the Information Age, where she heads the technology committee.

Jody Turner is founder and CEO of Culture of Future where she tries to make trends from a fuzzy future clearer for companies like Nike, Starbucks and IDEO. Jody worked in graphic design for 25 years and transitioned into trend and design-based strategies.

Smart City is a syndicated, weekly hour-long public radio talk show that takes an in-depth look at urban life: the people, places, ideas and trends that affect us all. Host Carol Coletta talks with national and international public policy experts, economists, business leaders, artists, developers, planners and others on the pulse of city life for a penetrating discussion on urban issues.

In Memphis, Smart City is broadcast on WKNO FM, 91.1, at 9 a.m. Sundays. It is also webcast and podcast at the Smart City website. For a listing of times in other cities and to sign up for a weekly newsletter, please click here.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Walnut Grove Road Construction Sends The Wrong Message About Memphis

These are exciting days in U.S. cities as they embrace “green strategies” from retrofitting public buildings so they use renewable energy to green construction codes to the major expansion of parkland to the purchase of energy efficient government vehicles.

But, here, we can’t even get a bike lane on Walnut Grove Road entering Shelby Farms Park.

If there was ever a poster child for the public sector’s obsession with the automobile, this is it.

If there is a project that feeds the stereotypes of government as indifferent to the public’s opinion, lacking in vision, and gerrymandering the process to eliminate any options it doesn’t like, this is it.


It’s too bad, because this massive road and bridge construction project could have heralded a new spirit in Memphis traffic engineering, much as Shelby County Engineer Mike Oakes has used improvements to Houston Levee Road to launch a more thoughtful type of road design for county government.

As the Walnut Grove Road “improvement” project stands today, Memphis is setting itself up to be the laughing stock in the family of major cities that are gearing up to make it safer and easier for bikers to move around their communities.

There is a national movement under way in which bike friendliness is not just seen as the attitude of a progressive city, but it’s a fundamental part of the green ethos that is dividing cities into winners and losers. While we are still trying to cajole traffic engineers into even considering the needs of bikers, other cities are requiring bike lanes in every transportation project, they are building shower and storage facilities for cyclists, and they are passing pro-bicycling ordinances.

In a sign of the times, the number of cyclists has increased fourfold in only a decade in Portland, it’s doubled in San Francisco, and even cities in the hinterlands like Louisville and Minneapolis are adopting tactics to encourage bike riding as a means to bring activity to their downtowns and urban neighborhoods and to attract young, professional workers that every city covets these days.

Listening To What Matters

If you don’t think this matters, you haven’t listened to the best and the brightest recruited to Memphis as part of Teach for America and to work as postdoctoral research fellows at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. They speak in one voice, decrying the lack of alternative transportation and attention to bikers, signs for them of a major league city and a city looking to the future.

Despite what the engineers may think, this does actually factor into the equation about whether they will remain in Memphis or not, because it sends a message that Memphis is unfriendly to younger people, lethargic and stuck in time. Meanwhile, places like Chicago send a powerful message when it builds a $3 million downtown bike station (funded with federal funds and privately-operated) and becomes as magnet for young, highly-educated workers.

Even the Republican-dominated Congress recognized this, voting in 2005 to increase pedestrian and cycling funding by 35 percent – to $4.5 million. Even some Community Development Block Grant funds are allowed to be spent on “bicycle improvement projects.” Here, we get only lip service from MPO about alternative transportation options like biking and little else.

Progressive Cities

Progressive-minded cities are not only building miles and miles of bike paths, some are building bike boulevards where auto traffic is limited or nonexistent.

Somehow you think that if Phoenix – that paragon of sprawl and unplanned growth - can have more than 500 miles of dedicated bikeways, surely Memphis can get on board with the biking revolution.

But it’s not, and nothing makes the point more strongly than the Walnut Grove Road project. As we noted in our October 20, 2005, post, it’s all a bit too reminiscent of the Overton Park fiasco where traffic engineers were so hell-bent to do it their way that they ended up losing a federal lawsuit.

From the beginning of the Walnut Grove Road project, the city engineer’s office made no provisions for bike lanes, and when forced to consider them, it dragged its feet and seemed determined to conducts a process that would ratify what it had already decided. As an indication of the parallel universe that exists when it comes to road construction, consider the in a letter MPO to questions about this project. It cited the minutes of the November 17, 1994, design hearing for the road project.

Living In The Past

“Based on a review of the minutes, there were no concerns expressed by the public with regard to bicycle facilities,” the MPO said in a letter written December 27, 2006. In other words, the lack of bike lanes is our own fault, because no one thought to mention it 12 years ago when we had the chance.

If only we were clairvoyant enough in 1994 to predict the growing environmental consciousness, the need for alternative transportation, the suffocating public debt caused by sprawl and the growing groundswell of support for making Shelby Farms Park the centerpiece of a “green strategy” that would result in national prominence for Memphis.

Because we didn’t have this kind of foresight 12 years ago, it appears that in the future if we want to visit Shelby Farms Park, we’d better drive our cars. At this point, a bike rider pedaling east on Walnut Grove will have to take a two-mile detour to get into the park. It reminds us of those studies about city planners’ efforts to make pedestrians walk on specified sidewalks, but instead, people preferred the most direct routes, creating a path through the grass where a sidewalk eventually had to be placed.

Anyone in their right minds must know that bicyclists anxious to get into Shelby Farms Park aren’t going to weave all over the neighborhood when they can take the direct, quickest route into the park – along Walnut Grove Road. And when that first bicyclist is hit by a car, be ready for city government to blame the victim, despite the fact that for two and a half years, bicyclists and Shelby Farms Park Alliance officials have tried to get the city engineer to allow bikes and pedestrians to have their own paths to enter the park.

Engineering Out The Public

In early, 2005, City Engineer Wain Gaskins told the Friends of Shelby Farms that adding a bike path to the Walnut Grove bridge over Wolf River was impossible. After pressure from grassroots activists and help from Shelby County Government and Tennessee Department of Transportation, the city hired an engineering firm to design a bike path and reached agreement on a dedicated 10-foot bike path on the north side of the bridge. However, in August, Friends of Shelby Farms Park learned that the bike path would not continue west on Walnut Grove Road.

For about the next year, frustration built as a result of the feelings of manipulation, but finally, in July, 2005, TDOT and the city engineer’s office began a bike study for the area, and a bike and pedestrian committee was convened to advise the process. About the same time, Friends of Shelby Farms Park (now Shelby Farms Park Alliance) hired its own consultant to do an independent bike and pedestrian study.

The conclusion: Walnut Grove Road would be “openly hostile to bikers and pedestrians.” The report makes some simple, inexpensive changes to the road design to accommodate a bike lane.

In January, 2006, TDOT says that the construction schedule for Walnut Grove Road would not preclude adding a bike lane if the study indicates that it is possible. Three months later, in April, five alternative concepts for bike facilities are released, and bikers endorse the option for a bike lane.

Killing The Competition

In June, while the Bike and Pedestrian Committee was being assured that the bike lane would be explored further, curbs, gutters and sidewalks were constructed on Walnut Grove Road, immediately eliminating some major options for a bike lane. For some reason, although the road project is eight months ahead of schedule, it seemed imperative that the curbs, gutters and sidewalks be laid right then.

About the same time, the consultant for the Shelby County Parks Master Planning Committee, Alex Garvin, said that bike and pedestrian access into Shelby Farms Park is critical to the ultimate success of the park. After learning in September that Memphis had made a final decision on the bike lanes, park advocates met with the city engineer, the county engineer and a representative of TDOT to discuss bike and pedestrian options one more time.

A month later, on October 23, 2006, City of Memphis releases its preferred alternative. It excludes a bike lane on Walnut Grove Road, and ignores the suggestion that the traffic lanes could be narrowed to allow for it. At the same time, it is learned that the 10 feet wide multi-use path on the north side of the bridge will be 8.75 feet wide and may get narrower with construction of a retaining wall. Also, it’s learned that two light poles on the new Walnut Grove Road sidewalk will reduce it to a width that makes it impassable for bikes.

On November 8, a public meeting was scheduled in a location that seemed to have been selected for its inaccessibility, but 90 bike and pedestrian lane supporters attended to express their support for the lane entering the park. The response to their concerns came on December 7, when Memphis and TDOT issued its final report, and there was no bike lane into Shelby Farms Park.

Cynicism Becomes Reality

In the end, it’s hard for even the most cynical among us not to be surprised by the way the process unfolded. While it seemed to hold out the hope for solutions, all the while, the actual construction took options off the table and engineers returned to plans amazingly like the ones they started with.

Now, after two and a half years of seeking to have a voice in ensuring that Shelby Farms Park had pedestrian, handicapped, and bike access, the backers of a progressive design have refused to believe that you can’t fight City Hall. The question ultimately, however, is anyone in City Hall listening? If the past is the best predictor of the future, it’s hard to believe that anyone is.

Unfortunately, it’s an incredibly narrow view that seems institutionalized – the traffic engineer’s job is to build roads, not build communities; the traffic engineer’s job is to lay asphalt for cars, not build a network of alternative transportation options that could actually be the thread that binds together our city.

Streets For People

Meanwhile, these actions make us look more and more like a backwater city, as cities like Sacramento launch a “Complete Streets” campaign to redefine right-of-way as more democratic and not just the exclusive province of automobiles.

There, new bike lanes offer cyclists their own lanes, and money once spent on potholes now also pays for pedestrian, bike and handicap lanes. If there’s any question that a new day has dawned, Sacramento’s engineers have put up “Share the Road” signs with the logo of a bicycle reminding car drivers that they don’t own the roads any longer.

Best of all, Sacramento’s mayor won a vote for new transportation funding that included this simple statement: “Routine accommodation of bicycles and pedestrians shall be included in all transportation projects.”

That seems a day far, far away for us in Memphis, and apparently, you can only reach it by car.

Monday, January 08, 2007

The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly for 2006

Before 2006 gets too distant in the rear view mirror, we offer our take on it in the form of good news, our bad news and news that’s still up in the air:

Good News

· PILOT Changes – City Council approved changes in the blindly generous tax freeze program to make it more accountable and targeted. Now, if only county government will take action before the consultants’ report recommending the program’s overhaul yellows much more.

· Record News in ED – The “new look” Memphis Regional Chamber of Commerce successfully sealed the deal that doubled the number of Fortune 500 companies and brought more national presence to Memphis in companies like NuCor Steel. Meanwhile, it’s exploring timely questions like Memphis’ potential as an aerotropolis.

· Unified Development Code – The reform of the local building code moves ahead with purpose, promising a day when the process could be more nonpolitical with developer influence removed from routine planning decisions. With indictments of two City Councilmen, never has an opportunity to remove political influence looked as appealing.

· Incentives for Films – Memphis and Shelby County Film Commissioner Linn Sitler proved that she could compete with the big boys, wrangling $5 million in incentives for film production from the Tennessee Legislature and besting the University of Tennessee – which had eyes on the funds - in the process.

· Broad Street Charrette – The Office of Planning and Development- organized workshops created a new vision for the once thriving neighborhood and offered hope for the renewal of others. Coupled with the rewriting of a modern building code and criticism of the lackadaisical law enforcement and prosecution regarding strip clubs, the year heralded a burst of leadership by OPD.

· Living Wage – City Council showed courage in requiring a living wage for city vendors and companies seeking city business. For a legislative body that rarely gets anything but criticism, it was a welcome dose of constituent services in a city grappling with the cruel realities of the working poor.

· Annexation Delay – Capping off a year when City Council reformed policies from the living wage to tax freezes, its members wisely delayed an ill-advised annexation that would have created a façade of progress by masking declining population and property tax base. It’s time to deal effectively with city problems before taking more area into a city that is already one of the largest in land area in the U.S.

· Conservation Easement – With a wave of new faces brought about by term limits, the Shelby County Board of Commissioners is still looking for its rhythm, but with this issue at least, it showed consensus and wisdom in approving a long-term conservation easement to protect Shelby Farms Park.

· New U.S. Attorney – David Kustoff’s appointment as the federal government’s lead prosecutor in Memphis set a new tone in the office, and his reputation for fair-handed, clear-eyed decisions extinguished the politics that occasionally surfaced and raised public credibility with recent public indictments.

Bad News

· Spikes in Crime – Despite summits, rhetoric and reports, the violent crime rate in Memphis and the region shows no signs of relenting. All in all, there’s still the feeling that there’s no coherent, cohesive plan of action to attack a problem that is beginning to define Memphis nationally.

· Shelby County School Board – Unfortunately, the county district continues to exert too much prominence in a dual system where its needs should be dwarfed by the public priority set for Memphis City Schools. The county schools race-based decisions defy common sense, much less common decency.

· Digital Government – The absence of serious e-government and the digital shambles that pass for local government websites continue to be lost opportunities to make city and county governments more efficient, more transparent and more accountable.

· Lost in the Weeds – There is no structured public policy apparatus in local government to conduct research, identify practices that could have applications here or develop strategies to address emerging issues and trends.

· MPO is B-A-D – The arcane organization directing federal transportation projects and funding continues to waste opportunities to shift the emphasis from cars to people. It’s suburban-dominated decisions make the serious planning that is desperately needed here.

· Gay Pandering – The vote to define marriage as a union of man and woman once again gave Tennessee voters a chance to exorcise their worst demons and to waste money for a ballot initiative that will come to be seen for its narrow mindedness sooner rather than later.

Still Up In The Air

· School Funding Report – The latest report by the committee studying funding issues of city and county schools feels an awful lot like an discussion whose time has come and gone.

· Fairgrounds – Libertyland is gone, and hopefully, the Coliseum won’t be too far behind. The grand plans for the strategically important acreage are still unclear, but hopefully, they’ll come into focus this year, and it will be about New Urbanism, not new stadium.

· Riverfront – The Pyramid is dark and Beale Street Landing is still coming into focus, but the riverfront feels more like a movie set from the 1930s than the vibrant waterfront of a dynamic city. The RDC plans deserve a second look.

· Downtown Development – The residential market continues to flourish with little visible concern about market saturation, retail remains nonexistent, and the basics – cleanliness and safety – demand immediate attention so that reality catches up with the marketing.

· Indictments – The indictments of two City Council members don’t necessarily have to be bad. It could, as it did in Atlanta, usher in a new emphasis on ethics and transparency.

· Talent Strategies – Memphis has adopted the language of talent retention and attraction, and although it pioneered the research and the strategies involving the highly coveted 25-34 year-old demographic, Memphis lags behind other cities in developing a real plan.

· Finding Their Voice – The Democratic majority on the Shelby County Board of Commissioners seems to have wandered into the weeds on the issue of a second Juvenile Court judge, squandering a chance to put together the bipartisan cooperation that could make the legislative body the most influential elected body in this region.

· Bass Pro Shop – The much-vaunted savior for The Pyramid, the sports store extravaganza shows little signs of life without massive government subsidies like it has wrangled from other governments in other parts of the country.

· Airport – The renovation of the shopping/eating arcade is complete, but sooner or later, Memphis needs to deal with the question of what it can do to build an airport or renovate the one we have to make it more appealing and less claustrophobic.