Saturday, April 07, 2007

Riverfront Workshop Falls Short Of Charrette Standards

We can’t say we were surprised when recent reports indicated that the recent Project for Public Spaces workshop about the riverfront was essentially a non-event.

If you follow the work of PPS, it was all as predictable as Chris Douglas-Roberts in a clutch game.

It had all the markings of a PPS event. Fred Kent found yet another landmark architectural project to criticize, PPS ran a process that by now is rote and powered by a vocabulary whose appeal rests in pithy jargon and in the end, PPS left town with little to show for any of it.


We don't mean to be unkind. It's just always disconcerting when consultants parachute into cities as instant experts in less than a day and have the brashness to expound on projects that were the products of the same kind of processes that Mr. Ken says cities need most (and with world-class talent to boot).

As colleagues in other cities had predicted to us, Mr. Kent would hate Beale Street Landing. We actually told them they were wrong, because in emails with PPS, we were told by the organization that it was coming here to build bridges and advance plans. This wasn’t about taking stands on existing plans, we were told, but about creating a conversation about the riverfront’s future.

Well, we were wrong, and we feel misled. Mr. Kent had barely unpacked his luggage before he referred to Beale Street Landing as “one of the great design disasters that will haunt you…” So much for building bridges.

Carving Out A Niche

We had been warned that PPS has a cultural disdain for architects and urban designers, so it’s made a name for itself attacking their projects. While we share the organization’s belief that cities are too obsessed with big project answers to their problems, we do, at the same time, recognize that these kinds of projects do sometimes have a place and contribute to placemaking.

Over its 30-year history, PPS has carved out a distinctive niche for itself. It’s now often used by cities as evidence of their commitment to citizen involvement. It’s as if they bring in PPS so they can check the box of citizen input. Often, in the end, it is the architects and urban designers that produce the “real” plans.

It’s too bad, because back in the day, PPS was one of the first organizations that understood the importance of placemaking. Over the years, its principles and concepts have been embraced – after all, Mr. Kent based his philosophy on that brilliant urban visionary William H. Whyte - so there’s the distinct feeling that the group has morphed from those beginnings to the present where its relevance is less defined and its focus is on process.


Sometimes, these days, it’s hard to escape the feeling that PPS frequently comes into a city and lights a fire so it can be hired to put it out.

That’s certainly not to say that citizen-centered processes aren’t important. In fact, one of the best in the nation was conducted here less than a year ago – the Winchester Park/Intown Charrette organized by the UrbanArt Commission.

It was a communitywide design process, but in addition to regular citizens like us, there were 12 Knight Program fellows who came here to conduct the meeting and inform the proceedings. These were people with specific, proven expertise in planning, community development, housing, real estate development, arts management, architecture and transportation. There were also grad students and faculty from the Suburb and Town Design Program at the University of Miami School of Architecture to help staff the process.

Making Placemaking Happen

At the helm were two people with unquestionable expertise at thinking creatively about community and then converting ideas into reality – Charles Bohl and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. These are people who not only talk about placemaking - walkable communities, diverse neighborhoods and cities well-connected by parks, alternate transportation, sensitive road designs and neighborhood shopping - they make them happen.

If we’re looking for a model citizen engagement process, the Winchester Park/Intown Charrette set the standard for this city. Best of all, the experts helping the process weren’t 24-hour experts, because they spent a week here listening to people, walking neighborhoods, talking about the future and creating recommendations.

In the end, it was broadly attended -- citizen activists, government, philanthropists and leaders of nonprofit organizations. It was a process that recognized the value of architects and urban planners, but also included an “introduction to basic principles of good design” so every one was on a level playing field.

It was an impressive showing, because it proved that there is a way to convene a process that is welcoming to every one and innovative and contributes to a broader understanding of how community is built. In the end, that’s the opportunity that was missed with the PPS workshop.


Anonymous said...

I was a little disappointed in the workshop. It didn't really seem to lead anywhere. It was like, "Hey, this project sucks, see ya later."

LeftWingCracker said...

Now wait a minute, is it wrong to point out that SCC may have a vested interest here?

Come on now, I expect better than this...

Smart City Consulting said...


And what vested interest could that be? That one of us worked with the RDC (as we point out on our website) several years ago, and she's on leave from this firm and doesn't write the posts.

What we have problems with is the ad hominem attacks based on speculations and conspiracies that would make McCarthy proud. We are all shaped by our experiences as volunteers and as professionals.

I think some are missing the main point here. Bloggers are columnists, and like all columnists, these are our opinions. The opinions on our blog are formed mainly from conversations with people we respect and by voluteering with organizations we like. Are we supposed to disclose all of this as some kind of vested interest? And it's sort of comical that Bob would be such an advocate for that since he's still hiding in the shadows cloaked by his anonymity.

We were talking with a couple of other bloggers Friday, and we all have a similar frustration that stems from a small minority who would rather play games learned in high school than have a reasonable discussion that could actually have some impact.

And we don't retract our comment: he just makes us tired. Because he's really not interested in discussion, but just wants to fight. On balance, we think we've been much more measured and diplomatic in our commentary than he deserves.

Carol said...

Carol Coletta here. Just want to speak up on a couple of points. Although I helped get the RDC started, I haven't worked as a paid consultant for the organization for years. In fact, as Tom keeps pointing out, I've been on leave for 2 years from Smart City Consulting while I work from Chicago as president and CEO of CEOs for Cities.

But do I have a vested interest? You bet. In 1976, I bought an old cotton classing building at 41-43 Union with a group of colleagues and have lived there ever since. I raised a daughter there, and I consider it my home.

I have always joked that I have a panoramic view of the Fire Station at Union and Front. In other words, I live directly across from the Promenade. I know every inch of the Promenade property, as well as the river banks below it. I've walked it at every hour of the day during every season.

My support for the Cooper Robertson plan for the Promenade is based on my belief that it is the best thing for Memphis, for the riverfront and for my home at 41 Union.

There are those I admire deeply who disagree with the idea of mixed-use development on the Promenade. But my experience with riverfronts and with downtowns across this country and the world tells me that mixed-use for the Promenade is the very best re-use. Even PPS said the Promenade must have multiple "attractors." That's what mixed use is all about.

The idea that buildings on the west side of Front Street would separate downtown from the river is puzzling. Where does that line of separation begin? Main Street? the east side of Front Street? If not at those locations, then why the west side of Front? I just don't understand the reasoning there.

The drawings that Friends use to show the proposed development on the Promenade have always been grossly misleading, and I believe they have led many Memphians to misunderstand the proposed plans.

There are legitimate things to argue over and steward carefully. The materials, the specs on the pedestrian walkway, the first floor uses facing Front and the river, the lighting, 24-hour access (remember the arguments with property owners on the bluff?) -- these are all details that good citizen stewards should watch over and insist on being the best.

The arguments and proposals have been very muddled. I think the fundamental argument is turning the Promenade into one big park vs turning the Promenade into a mix of uses including parks and pedestrian promenades with parking buried underneath, using revenues from commercial uses to support the public improvements.

If that's the argument, someone ought to make that clear. And if that's the argument, someone needs to make the case for (a) why a 5 block park in the middle of downtown Memphis is the most desirable use and (b) how you support its building and operation.

One final point: Project for Public Spaces contends that Chicago's Millennium Park is a "disaster." Trust me. My office and my new Chicago home are 2 blocks away. If Millennium Park is a disaster, I can only wish Memphis had 100 comparable disasters.

If, on the other hand, you are a Millennium Park fan, please, do not suggest that Memphis build a Millennium Park. You have to understand its context (next to a thriving Michigan Ave), Chicago's corporate and philanthropic community (huge and generous), and the economics of Chicago's downtown parking and BIDs to understand why it works in Chicago and why it wouldn't in downtown Memphis.

Whatever we do on Front Street, it ought to be special and it ought to be distinctively Memphis

Smart City Consulting said...

As we've mentioned before, if you want to read the only blog that Carol Coletta is writing, it's at

Anonymous said...

I teach at U of M, and I read you because you have a vested interest - trying to make this city better. Keep it up, and we'll keep reading.

gatesofmemphis said...

several things:

1. Mr. Kent made his comments about Beale Street Landing and the Pyramid in an interview, not in the workshop. He did not prejudice the workshop process with anything like that.

2. I don't know how you can say, at this point, that the Winchester Park Charrette was one of the best in the nation, or use that charrette to criticize the PPS workshop's production to-date. I'm not saying the Winchester Park charrette won't be or will be the best, it just seems way too early to judge. I don't think anything tangible or even virtual has appeared about Winchester Park since the charrette's final report. I have great hopes for Winchester Park, it has a lot of beautiful ideas, but the leaders of that process, if it's in movement, need to be much more vocal about the movement. A year of silence is a long quiet time.

3. The Winchester Park charrette, the Broad Avenue charrette, the PPS workshop and processes like them are complementary, not competitive. The greatest danger of one is a danger for them all -- that little or nothing will happen, breeding cynicism about progressive planning processes in a city that really needs them.

Conversely, the tangible success of one will energize and create new opportunities for others.

Smart City Consulting said...

For me, it's about bringing in the intellectual capital that is needed for these kinds of discussions. That's what was lacking in the PPS format - it's the different between opinion and urban design fact. It's the difference in going for the headlines and going for suggestions that have resonance. It's also about structuring a process in a way that it actually has some chance for success, even if it takes awhile for the political hurdles to be cleared, which often is perceived as silence. We'll find out about the charrette report for you.

Anonymous said...

It always seems that people who hate the RDC can sure dish it out, but they never can take it.

gatesofmemphis said...

We should bring in any resources that can help and we can find, but if we need Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and her caliber (which was a very special event), we're not going to have many discussions. Memphis decays faster than that.

Anyway, I'm not trying to pit the Winchester Park Charrette against the PPS workshop. I just don't think you can use the former as a cudgel against the latter because the charrette's success is still unknown (as is the PPS workshop's).

By the way, since they are working on the process, including the political hurdles, why aren't they publicly communicating that? For instance, what political hurdles are they hurdling? The transparency of such a process would benefit anyone wrestling with the implementation of charrettes.

Ethan said...

I was very disappointed to read Tom Jones’s entry here. I trust that he has some good intentions, but it is quite clear that he is grossly misinformed in his criticisms and is very directly undermining the potential of Memphis waterfront and many of his own stated goals.

Tom did not attend the workshop that he is writing about, and the thrust of his criticisms have very little relation to the goals of the trip or the work of PPS. There was actually not one negative thing spoken about RDC at the workshop and PPS did not comment on any of the RDC’s plans.

Based on what I have read on this blog entry and others, I think Tom would have greatly liked the workshop and agreed that the goals of the trip were reached to the extent possible.

Tom was made aware of these goals in e-mails to him before our visit, but his articles seemed to assert other expectations, accusing us of intending to “come in with answers.”

In an e-mail to him, I told him that “The focus of this visit is to train the public, FfoR and any one else that wants to come to the workshop in how to participate constructively, proactively, and creatively in a Placemaking process while generating some ideas that might actually be welcomed by the RDC.”

We agree that to do a “charrette” or plan, as Tom asserts, would have been inappropriate and ineffective. FfoR has no authority or capacity to carry something like this though anyway. Thre will be a report based on the ideas that came out of the workshop and our own observations. We are optimistic that many of the ideas in this report will be welcomed by the RDC and we hope that Tom Jones appreciates them and comments on them as well.

In an interview after the workshop, we did feel a responsibility to discourage Memphis from making a large mistake by going through with Beale Street Landing. Unfortunately, while perhaps well intended as a much needed riverfront destination, Beale Street Landing’s expensive, rigid, design elements will likely preclude this section of the waterfront from becoming a place the Memphis residents will take ownership over or use on a regular basis. We know this pattern all too well, as we get a great deal of work coming in to fix these kinds of designs. We had told RDC that we would have to do this, in what I think was a very constructive and positive meeting with them.

Carol, From the tone of these blog entries, it is very clear that you are no longer working with Smart City Consulting. Also, PPS has never claimed that Millennium Park is a “disaster”, in fact, just the opposite; we just have some constructive criticism for how it could be better. The director of the park is a friend of ours, and we were just in Chicago, where most everyone we spoke with seemed to agree with and appreciate our criticism.

None of these criticisms of PPS are reflective of anything we have heard before. If there are ways the workshop or anything else about our participation could have been better, we would love to hear it.

I am left with some serious questions for Tom Jones. What are you trying to accomplish by writing this? Why did you twice directly ignore the stated purposes of our trip? What good could possibly come of a defamatory screed like this?

I can’t imagine how this kind of writing helps your cause or that off your city. It seems extremely irresponsible and disingenuous to discourage people from coming to an event like this and, without out experiencing in, disparage the productivity and potential outcomes.

We feel the event was a big step towards a more positive and constructive dialogue in Memphis. I think many of the people that participated in the workshop will be much more effective and positive going forward. I hope you will join them.

Best wishes,


P.S. If these comments make you regret writing this entry, I invite you to delete the whole thing.

Smart City Consulting said...


I have not referred to the overall substance of your emails, since to me, they seemed to contain some contradictions and shifting sands of justification. I opted not to include them, because I had visions of your dashing them off in airport lounges, and I didn't think it was fair to use them, because they probably weren't as well-crafted as you would have wanted.

This post was written after talking to people who attended and to people involved in inviting PPS in the first place. (By the way, Virginia McLean invited me to attend, but because of a personal family reason that I explained to her, I could not.)

In a phrase, as I told you previously, I think that PPS "blew it" from the beginning with the posturing on your website.

We disagree strongly with your assertions about Beale Street Landing. If you feel that you had a responsibility to voice your opinions about the project, we similarly feel that we have a responsibility to state ours.

As citizens in this city, we feel that we have the right to speak our mind on this and other issues that are important to us, as well as speak our minds about the workshop. It was my understanding that you welcomed and encouraged citizen engagement wherever you work, so I would have thought that would include us here. We seek to be provocative and thought-provoking, and on balance, I actually thought the posts were much calmer than they could have been, based on some of the reports that came to us.

As I'm sure you know, a blog is a personal commentary, so I apologize if its content offends you, but it is what it is - the author's view on the state of things. In this way, it is no different than the role of a newspaper columnist. It's our take on the world. It's certainly not the only take, and as I hope you've discovered, there are plenty of great blogs in Memphis that give the various sides to most civic discussions.

We continue to believe that there is common ground for the various interests here to reach an accord on so many issues involving the riverfront, and we had hoped that your organization could serve this purpose. It became clear from the tenor and tone of your advance work on your website that this wasn't going to happen, and it was not only a lost opportunity, but it did your organization harm as it relates to your pursuit of your stated mission.

In answer to your question of why I twice ignored the "stated purpose" of your trip, I weighed what you said in your email against what you said on your website, and they seemed to be in direct contradiction.

Also, as I have told you previously, not only did we not discourage people from attending the workshop, but we told everyone we knew to attend. And many of our friends tell us that they did. As we also said, we need more citizen involvement in this city, not less. If the attendance was not up to your expectations, please understand that it was not due to any discouragement on our part.

Finally, in all due respect, Ethan, for an organization with a lot of strong opinions about others, it seems that a thicker skin could prove helpful in your work.

All this said, we appreciate your taking the time to weigh in on this post and hope you'll continue to do so. And if you're writing this in an airport somewhere, have a safe flight.


Smart City Consulting said...

Gates: We didn't mean to suggest that the two processes were in some way conflicting or competitive. What we were suggesting that we need all the intellectual capital that we can bring to civic decisions and discussions, and it's not just about the process. More to the point, it's about widening the circle of advice that we are getting. In fact, that's how Smart City radio started in the first place - as the means to broaden horizons here and to illuminate what other cities are successfully doing. And, there are plenty of other national experts that are willing to come to Memphis - Alex Garvin for one is already here - and we need to get them here because they make important contributions to creating new perspectives on some seminal opportunities for our future.

Smart City Consulting said...


By the way, as for criticism of Chicago's Millennium Park, please refer to the August, 2005, issue of Making Places, in which your father included the park in his list of the World's Five Most Overrated Places.

Here's what Fred said in that article:

4. Millennium Park, Chicago
Already, the buzz for these overrated buildngs is fading, and many arbiters of urban trends predict that the Bilbao Effect will soon peter out... to be succeeded, they say, by the "Millennium Park Effect." The Architectural Review called Chicago's new Millennium Park "an ambitious fusion of art, architecture, and landscape," but this new addition to downtown has simply expanded the current obsession with high design to include parks.

Millennium Park's monuments are isolated among lifeless areas with little to do, like this plaza space facing the Art Institute of Chicago.

While it is exciting to see parks recognized as essential to the well-being of people and cities, so far Millennium Park belongs in the pantheon of Overrated Places. Like a Hollywood blockbuster, the park is okay as quick entertainment but doesn't provide a rich experience. Its attractions, including the enormous Cloud Gate sculpture and Frank Gehry's Pritzker Pavilion, seem to have been plopped down with little regard to the space in between. There is spectacle to behold, but not the variety of experience necessary for a truly great public space.

Smart City Consulting said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Let's be honest. I'm a supporter of Friends of our Riverfront, but the only new idea I had all day was why did we need these folks to come here to tell us what we already knew. It was all pretty lame and if we want to make a list of things we want, we sure didn't need them to do it.

Smart City Consulting said...


The short answer is that the UrbanArt Commission is waiting for the report, and since every one involved in the project did it gratis, it's one of those times when it pays to wait. (I guess the truth is that you don't have much choice.)

The post-charrette paper should arrive next week, and once that is received, UAC will begin to build a stewardship committee. A few of the 100 recommendations have already been completed, while others are in the works. Of course, most of them need champions, and getting all of the varied stakeholders on board will take some time, too.

We don't think the charrette organizers are pleased about the amount of time that has lapsed, but based on the interest level at the charrette and follow-up, they believe there is a lot of energy that was evident at the end of the charrette will be rekindled.

gatesofmemphis said...

That sounds great.

I hope the UAC makes the report public (as in web accessible) right away.

I have to think the more they publicize every part of this, the more likely enthusiasm levels will remain high -- even if it's saying "we're still waiting on the report". Since some of the recommendations have been achieved, they could publicize those. A blog for the charrette, with multiple authors coming from the stakeholders, would be great.