Sunday, March 08, 2009
City Engineering Consistent, If Nothing Else
The #1 priority of the public, according to Sustainable Shelby, is for local government to create a great public realm for our community.
Memphis’ large parks are some of city government’s most elite services, according to the City of Memphis Poll.
Overton Park is a 342-acre monument to the late 19th century “Greater Memphis Movement,” when our city was the national leader of the Progressive Era with the design of Memphis’ landmark parks and parkways system.
So, in light of these facts, what does city engineering do?
It is proceeding on a plan that could permanently scar Overton Park, some of Memphis’ most precious common ground, its living room and home to some of its most prized cultural icons. In this way, City Engineering rivals Jack the Ripper’s ability to slash his victims, which, in our case, seems always to be our city’s quality of life.
The words of Jeff Speck, former National Endowment for the Arts director of design and co-author of Suburban Nation, ring in our ears. In his presentation in Memphis last year, he said: “Don’t leave the design of your city to highway engineers.”
Sometimes, we just can’t help asking yourself, “What in the hell are they thinking?” With an approval rating that hovers in the same atmosphere as George W. Bush, it would seem logical and reasonable that City Engineering would tread lightly on projects that have the potential of marring special public spaces. But such is not the philosophy of that division of city government.
It bruises the civic psyche with a dependable lack of sensitivity to the palpable feeling that traffic engineers are willing to trample over our ambitions to do something as ambitious as creating a world-class park at Shelby Farms or as seemingly simple as putting bike lanes in our neighborhoods.
At Least They’re Consistent
Of course, when it comes to Overton Park, this recent episode feeds into a history when traffic engineers treated this special parkland as “free land” where asphalt could be laid with impunity. That was until a grassroots movement fought to protect the park from an interstate running through it and won.
That same disregard seemed to play out when Engineering was essentially dragged into the process to design a road through Shelby Farms Park that was “context sensitive,” and even today, some park enthusiasts are unconvinced that the boulevard approved by the broad-based group convened by Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton will be built. Others think the garishly massive bridge entering Shelby Farms Park from the west more accurately reflects the attitude of City Engineering to the park, because of the bridge’s lack of consideration for bike and pedestrian access.
We’ve written regularly about the guilt-free attitude our public engineers (incredibly, we’re paying them to do these things to us) have about the devastating impact they have on our city’s livability. Worst of all, it comes just at the time when quality of life is the single most crucial factor in attracting and retaining young, college-educated talent.
To an outpouring of concern from Overton Park lovers and environmentalists, City Engineering essentially responds, “Trust us,” suggesting that the football-sized retention basin at Overton Park won’t be a problem at all. The fact that the opposition only intensified with this response indicates as much about the lack of confidence in City Engineering as about the love for our Central Park.
We All Know It
When City of Memphis bought Lea’s Woods, which would become Overton Park, it hired the same Kansas City firm that was designing the Louisiana Purchase World Fairgrounds in St. Louis in 1903. Based on Central Park in New York City, Overton Park was known for its open spaces, lakes, pavilion and drives when it opened in 1902.
One of those grand and special open spaces was the Greensward which City Engineering has now targeted for the expansive stormwater retention basin. City Engineering defends itself by saying that the project has been in the works for three years, which makes it interesting that it’s next to impossible to find anyone – including Citizens to Preserve Overton Park – who knew about it, much less asked their opinions and advice.
We all know the Greensward in Overton Park. We just may not know it by that name. It’s that glorious open space just across the street from the Memphis College of Art where we’ve all thrown Frisbees, played with our children, exercised our dogs, strolled with our significant others or just soaked up the always interesting people watching.
Overton Park represents 10% of the total parkland managed by the Division of Park Services, according to Naomi Van Tol, president of Citizens to Preserve Overton Park. Knowing the green ethos of Parks Director Cynthia Buchanan, it’s hard to imagine that she concurs in the misappropriation of a place where the spirit of community is strengthened and nurtured every day.
Ms. Van Tol said City Engineering’s plans call for the digging of a trench from Poplar Avenue northward across the golf course and Greensward in order to install a 4 x 6 box culvert. The engineers will then have a sloped detention basin that could lower the surface of the Greensward by about 20 feet and it would be filled by floodwater seven times a year. City Engineering is less clear about how many weeks a year it will be simply off limits, a mucky, unappealing mess.
It’s said that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it. The Greensward was saved three decades ago from an interstate through the park, and it needs us just as much today. As Obama online campaign guru Ben Self said in Memphis last week, there are now unprecedented digital tools that passionate people can use to self-organize. We think this is a perfect cause to test them out.
This greenspace is irreplaceable. The damage is irreparable. The need to oppose this project so City Engineering will look for a more appropriate place for this detention basin is reason enough for aggressive action.
Otherwise, in the future, when young families push their baby buggies across the Greensward, they will descend 18 feet to the bottom of the basin and then climb 18 feet out. Apparently, it’s an area that will be off limits to seniors out for exercise.
When Mayor Wharton rolled out his Sustainable Shelby recommendations last year, he said that six conclusions from the public were unmistakable:
1. There is strong sentiment for an emphasis on revitalization of neighborhoods.
2. People care deeply about the public realm, and they want to have parks, streets, and plazas that are special in their individuality.
3. There is unequivocal concern about protecting our natural environment – our parks and our green spaces.
4. There is strong support for greater emphasis on walkable neighborhoods and a bikable community.
5. There is an unmistakable call for better planning and more public input into the planning and development process.
6. The public wants government to quit talking about sustainability and lead by example with government fleets using alternative fuels, buildings built to green standards, and adaptive reuse of former public buildings.
Amazingly, City Engineering managed to violate all of them. And along with it, the public trust.