Monday, March 26, 2007

Fault Lines Threaten Riverfront Potential

It seems likely that this week’s visit by Project for Public Spaces (PPS) will be a missed opportunity.

We were hopeful when we heard that the New York City-based organization would be coming to Memphis at the invitation of Friends for our Riverfront with the purpose of encouraging consensus and communication.

Based on the way it talks about the Memphis riverfront on its website, it seems to have made up its mind before it even gets here.

That’s too bad, because there’s much that’s said by PPS about great waterfronts that we all should agree with.


For example, there are its insights that riverfronts must be multi-dimensional, active, welcoming to development and home to a diversity of activities. There are its images of the great waterfronts of the world, which more often than not show waterfronts alive with activities, such as markets and buildings that bring people to the water’s edge to eat and shop, use regional transit centers and enjoy corporate-sponsored programming.

Then, too, statements by PPS that “mistakes” on riverfronts occur when riverfronts are too passive, when they are not multi-purpose destinations and when they don’t have intrinsic vibrancy also resonate with us.

However, while espousing multi-dimensional riverfronts, Project for Public Spaces seems to be projecting a singularly one-dimensional approach to the Memphis riverfront. PPS says that its process is “intended to build the local capacity to help those (RDC) plans, or any plans, succeed from a public spaces perspective. The current plans, and usually any plans at this stage, are lacking in vision in this regard.”

Making Contact

In light of this comment, plus others about “working collaboratively,” it’s discouraging that the organization neglected to contact the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC) which is responsible for maintaining the riverfront and its parks and is keeper of the vision created in the last public process. To its credit, the RDC contacted Project for Public Spaces.

Friends of Our Riverfront has a singular point of view, and most members are thoughtful, sincere people concerned about their city. What we need in Memphis is more citizen involvement, not less, so we are loath to criticize any citizen-based advocacy, and we won’t. Like many grassroots organizations that we’ve all been part of, there are always a few members whose over-the-top rhetoric derails opportunities for serious discussions that could ultimately eliminate divisiveness on these issues.

Unfortunately, Project for Public Spaces, at least as shown by its website, seems to have relied too much on that point of view. The result: the unfortunate “War on the Waterfront” headline on a website article featuring the Memphis riverfront.

Factual Quicksand

Filled with “they’re wrong, we’re right” rhetoric, the article contributes nothing to public collaborative visioning. While professing that it can be the neutral party to bring the broader community into a process, PPS presents a brief case study of Memphis that badly mangles the facts.

It erroneously calls the RDC a quasi-public agency, it falsely claims that the RDC’s premise is that development alone can animate the riverfront, it asserts dubiously that the RDC has “far less transparency” than the Memphis Park Commission and it adopts the now familiar – if hyperbolic – refrain that the “chief objective” of the RDC is to erect a “huge wall between downtown and the river.”

Such a simplistic reading of such a complex public issue belies the national reputation that PPS has developed as a leader in consensus-building and in bringing a calming effect to contentious issues.

The Question

In the same article, a critic of the RDC says that it “has gotten very quiet,” suggesting how deeply the hostility for the RDC runs for some critics of the nonprofit agency. We don’t know, but perhaps the RDC has decided that it will not criticize citizen involvement, even if directed at opposing its decisions, but the RDC rarely, if ever, gets the benefit of a doubt in these discussions.

Project for Public Spaces says it will “engage the broader community in shaping Placemaking strategy for the city’s key decisions. The basic question on everyone’s lips will be: How can the waterfront attract people and connect neighborhoods to their public spaces?”

Actually, as people who have lived and worked a block from the riverfront for 30 years, the question on our lips is: How can we add attractors to the riverfront that produce a vibrant, lively waterfront that pulls people to the river banks and sends the message that Memphis is a dynamic and progressive city that attracts and retains talent?

No Simple Answers

That’s why the ultimate solution isn’t just about parks and green space, but about restaurants, shops and new development that can usher in an enlivened downtown turning to face the river. It seems increasingly clear that moribund Main Street can’t achieve this goal, and because of it, our best chance of reenergizing Memphis’ downtown and repositioning our national image is a riverfront known for its vitality.

It’s worth remembering that to create its vision for the future, the RDC brought in the internationally-known urban design firm of Cooper, Robertson & Partners. While some people have complained that PPS has a tendency toward demeaning and diminishing the value of architects and urban designers, we don’t believe that is true. We are certain that PPS recognizes the contributions made by a firm whose work includes Fordham, Harvard and Yale Universities, Baltimore Inner Harbor, Battery Park City Esplanade, Boston Seaport, Chula Vista, Hudson Yards, Potomac Yard, Sarasota Cultural Park, Lower Manhattan Streetscape, Henry Moore Sculpture Garden, Museum Park Miami, Disney Monorail Station, and plans for several new towns including WaterColor, WindMark Beach, Bay Meadows, Celebration and The Woodlands.

Cooper Robertson’s plan was designed to “make a seamless connection between city and river through creation of a river-oriented public realm,” and surely, that’s a shared objective on which we all can agree.

A Higher Bar

The work by Cooper Robertson involved a series of public meetings attended by more than 1,000 people, and changes were made, and are still being made, as a result of citizens’ opinions.

In addition, we hope PPS will review plans for the much-needed Beale Street Landing, whose design came from an unprecedented international design competition that sent the message that Memphis has a new commitment to being the best. There’s few things as important as Beale Street Landing in realizing the potential of the river’s edge as a vibrant, dynamic, animated place. Once and for all, we would have a sense of arrival at the nexus between our legendary music street and our legendary river, and we could explode stereotypes of a slow-moving, lethargic riverfront and city.

We wish that all of our local projects had similar national aspirations and had the level of talent brought to bear on them. In recent years, the value of having bold goals and engaging the best available talent has never been clearer; look no further than Autozone Park and FedEx Forum.

Common Ground

We know there are critics of PPS elsewhere that complain that it’s never met a master plan or design that it’s liked or a public process that it says it couldn't do better, but PPS is in the public process/visioning business, and rightfully emphasizes its organizational expertise. Hopefully, it will reach out in a way during its visit that makes a contribution to our city moving ahead in realizing the potential of our riverfront.

The good news is that there is widespread interest and commitment to the riverfront from all quarters. If such widespread interest could be translated into productive communications, perhaps an objective third party could be successful in mediating a shared vision to unify our community.

At this point, it doesn’t look possible for Project for Public Spaces to play that role, but nonetheless, it’s a goal still worth pursuing by all of us.


gatesofmemphis said...

Great post.

The RDC should participate in Saturday's PPS event. It's only $20! It seems like a great opportunity to mend fences, both sides, no matter who broke the fence.

I'm not a member of FfoR, although I do have one of those "Whose Riverfront Is It?" bumper stickers. On the other hand, I'm not a member of RDC (can you be a member?), but I do like the Tom Lee Memorial and the Mud Island turnabout. I must say, however, that the aborted land bridge/lake seemed a world-class stinker -- it reminded me of those bland fake lakes that they create next to suburban apartment complexes. Maybe it was brilliant, but it didn't sound that way. (by the way, the RDC doesn't appear to do a very good job of persuading).

I definitely cherish FfoR's activism. Their kind of dissent and alternative visions are critical to Memphis' emerging from its lethargy and isolation.

gatesofmemphis said...

Yes, Mr. Lendermon might as well have been twirling his mustache when he talked about using Kelo-esque condemnation after Kelo was handed down.

I mean, it seems pretty politically clueless given the furor that erupted from the entire political spectrum after Kelo. And that's on top of the already strong local opposition.

Persuasion not coercion.

Anonymous said...

I have problems with the RDC, but my biggest problems are with people like Bob who attack anyone who doesn't agree with him. FfoR often exhibits the same behavior that it criticizes RDC for - rigid, thinks it knows everything, warps the facts, and attacks anyone who has a different opinion. Bob's a great example.

Smart City Consulting said...

OK, let's set some ground rules since this issue clearly evokes a lot of emotion.

We've deleted the last post for its attack on the president of Friends of our Riverfront, and we're going to delete any that cross the line that we are now going to enforce.

It's the mark of a city's maturity that it can discuss issues without demonizing the other side, and maybe, just maybe, this issue gives us a chance to prove that Memphis has matured to this level.

We can disagree without attacking each other's integrity or motives, so let's stick to the issues and leave the personalities alone.

Smart City Consulting said...

Gates of Memphis:

As usual, you get it. We have the opportunity right now to create a consensus and a shared vision for the future, and as you put it, it's about mending fences, no matter who broke the fence in the first place. We can keep lobbing grenades back and forth at each other and fight battles long since past, or we can resolve to do what it best for our spirit of community, not to mention the community itself.

By the way, when we talked in our last comment about indicators of a city's maturity, the Gates of Memphis blog is the model of what we are talking about - thoughtful, calm, modulated and always provocative. Just read the latest post about urban design to get an idea of how this is done.

Anonymous said...

While I'm always a little wary of organizations with some ties to the government, I think the RDC has a lot of good ideas that shouldn't be discarded with its bad ones.
While I think the land bridge idea was ill-conceived, I think we should all support Beale Street Landing, which would bring people close to the river and provide a natural ending point for our famous, tourist-filled street.
I talked with someone from the Friends for Our Riverfront and they will neither support or denounce the Beale Street Landing. I think they should push for that to be completed so that something will be done in our lifetime, and then fight the ideas they don't like.
Instead, I get the impression that anything RDC-related is BAD, no matter what it is.
At this point, I think we need to be DOING something because the riverfront has been dormant long enough.

Smart City Consulting said...

Bob: The boat landing was one of about a half dozen practical reasons for Beale Street Landing, but nothing is more important than the simple need to animate and give the riverfront a sense of arrival. We are a half block from the river and watch as visitors walk back up toward Main Street shaking their heads because their expectations aren't met. One referred to the "dead zone" recently and another said it was pretty pathetic that you can't even buy a coke there.

We like the design of Beale Street Landing and think the international design competitive produced something truly distinctive and with impact. Some opposition to it seems to be to all things that emanate from the RDC, but if the Landing is built, it will be like Autozone Park. There will be people lining up swearing that they were for it all along.

Smart City Consulting said...

Bob: By the way, the problem isn't about your telling it like it is. It's the tendency to villify every one else's motives if they disagree with you. We love discussing the merits or lack thereof of different policies or projects. We just seem to waste so much energy in Memphis personalizing issues in a way so that we can demonize and objectify people on other sides of issues. Most of us, regardless of what side of the issue we're on, care deeply about this city, and we know from our work in other cities that these strategies do produce results.

Anonymous said...

Just because the boat owner wants things to remain the same doesn't mean he's right. I mean, have ridden on one of those riverboats? The parking is horrible. Your car is parked on an incline towards the river. Also, it's not very ADA compliant. It's very hard for an older person or someone who has trouble walking to get to the boat from their car.
The Beale Street Landing is an attractive way to get to the river. It also is much easier to get to the river, which means people are more likely to do it.
I respect what the boat captain has done, but he doesn't have a monopoly on the river.

Anonymous said...

Also, I agree with the Smart City contributor in that people tend to take the attitude of "My way is right and you're ignorant for not seeing it that way."
I think the Landing is a good idea. The Friends for our Riverfront doesn't publicly say it doesn't need to be built. They disagreed with the land bridge, same as I did, but i'm just trying to show not all their ideas are bad.

Ethan said...

Tom Jones misreported several fundamental assumptions of this entry. We (Project for Public Spaces) had given him the below information in e-mails well before he posted this entry.

“We have been in touch with RDC and will be meeting with them before the workshop.

The article that mentions Memphis was intended to be a profile of community groups that have been set up to resist waterfront developments. In each case, the group has been trying to transform itself from merely opposing a plan to offering constructive ideas.

The workshop is thought to be a training and idea generating exercise to build capacity to participate more constructively in the continuing evolution of the waterfront. We are aware of the negative and probably unproductive relationships and hope that our presence and this exercise can yield some more positive and collaborative discourse.”

We told him in a latter e-mail that:

“Given the relationships that we had heard about, we did not think that the RDC would even meet with us. We intended to contact them, but did not expect them to participate.“

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