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.


Anonymous said...

The airport is too noisy now. We don't need it made bigger. Memphis is lost anyway

johnnyutah said...

Great article. Most of the Smart City posts are right on. So how do we parlay this into action? The idea that Herenton is invincible is Commercial Appeal BS. There are are number of people of all races here that know WW lacks vision and any capacity to motivate, and he's basically been asleep for the last 14 years judging by his accomplishments.

Figure out how to translate the Smart City intelligence into action with getting the right leaders elected, motivating the apathetic memphis electorate and we'll all join in. Just tell us how. Look at the Thaddeus Matthews movement when he tried to impeach WW. Nobody has seen the memphis electorate that excited since Crump pushed for 100% voter participation.

gatesofmemphis said...

I haven't traveled a ton in the past year but I have arrived and departed Newark and LAX. MEM compares very favorably visually and spatially with those airports. Frankly it compares favorably with all the other airports I've ever flown to and from (all domestic). The main lobbies at MEM are very light and open. The visual approach to the airport, with the 3 buildings at the top of the ridge is still one of the best I've seen. And the interior is well-maintained. If there's a depressing quality to the airport it's the fact that there aren't more people and that, at least when I've been there, not many flights happening. It creates a ghost town feel that a new car smell will hide only briefly.

Like the Liberty Bowl, what visitors experience visually (and otherwise) on their way to and from is the much bigger problem than the airport itself.

mike said...

I was surprised to read this until I remembered y'all support the light rail proposal, too, which will link downtown with the airport. (Not FedEx, though.)

Carol Coletta said...

I travel every week, and I want to say emphatically that MEM compares generally favorably once you get inside security, but the airport approach (pitiful, Third World), the parking (which completely marred the beautiful, award-winning building designed by Roy Harrover), the ticket lobby (with its inane signs), and baggage claim (with its forelorn soft drink machines standing in the middle of the floor space -- totally third class)leave room for a lot of improvement.

That's to say nothing of the $40 cab ride to downtown -- with no options other than car rental.

Trust me. We need a lot of improvements.

gatesofmemphis said...

I thought you were arguing for a new airport. Improvements, yes! Always! (including knocking down, or sinking that parking garage).

When we do the renovations or improvements or modernizations, let's not ignore then mutilate Harrover's design.

mike said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
mike said...

(I deleted my previous post because of some intemperate language. This is the remodelled version.)

That's to say nothing of the $40 cab ride to downtown -- with no options other than car rental.

Hmmm... a revealing thought. The 2 and 32 busses run right to the airport! And they take you downtown to the North Terminal which is only a quick trolley ride to your home on South Main!

Do you not avail yourself of public transportation? For a group that encourages public trnasportation so much it's striking it didn't even occur to you here.

It's not that MATA is so bad you can't use it, but that it's so inconvenient it actively discourages use. Which is the point folks like me have been making all along.

Public transportation as a core method of moving people about a city may be a swell idea on paper but in the actual, real world it falls very short of meaningful utility. So much so that a public transportation activist such as yourself can simply forget it (or, even worse, ignore it) as a transportation option.

So I would ask Ms Coletta the same question I asked the SMC blogger in another post: Trolley excepted, just how often do you use the MATA bus system?

Smart City Consulting said...

Mike: Actually, Carol doesn't own a car, so she relies heavily on public transit in Memphis, and in other cities, we are dependent on it. That's how we know how important it is and how miserable it is here. It doesn't much matter when the buses are going anywhere, because the schedule is not dependable and the experience is always below par when compared to most other cities.

Smart City Consulting said...

The shame of the airport is that the Harrover design has been obscured over the years by some poor decisions on lots and asphalt. To demonstrate my personal connection to that design, way back when I was in high school, I took a date to the opening of the gorgeous new Memphis International Airport, which was the icon for the city at that time. It should be again.

mike said...

With respect, I'm a tad skeptical since, when talking about getting around, she complains about rental cars and taxis but makes no mention of busses. Not even to add a complaint about them.

I still suspect that, when moving beyond the downtown area, Ms Coletta relies much more on rental cars and rides with the people she's with or meeting, than catching a bus to meet people around town.

But that's just me.