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.

Digging Disaster

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.

Public Opinion

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.


Naomi Van Tol said...

Thank you for getting the word out on this ill-advised proposal to dig a detention basin in the Greensward. This is a symptom of a larger problem -- there is no law that protects our public parkland from mistreatment by our government officials.

As you point out, "trust us" is not an adequate response to citizen concerns.

When the Memphis Zoo bulldozed four acres of old growth forest in Overton Park last year, they followed the "correct" planning process and coordinated with OPD. This entire process was done in a bureaucratic vacuum so airtight that citizens did not know about the plan until the forest was being cut.

When faced with a public outcry, Zoo leaders and OPD planners responded by refusing to discuss their decisions with the public. What did anyone gain by that?

Our decision-makers need to become more transparent in how they deal with the citizens they serve. In this case, we were pleased with the responsiveness shown by Hugh Teaford, the City engineer in charge of the project, who emailed us the project maps within a day of our request.

One small correction to your post: I said that Overton Park as a whole (342 acres) makes up more than 10% of the total park acreage managed by the City (3,219 acres).

Martha Kelly said...

Thank you for helping spread the word about this looming disaster. What the city is not saying is that the bottom of the bowl (as deep as a two story building) is much lower than Lick Creek, so there's no way this water will drain off in a few hours. It will sit there and fester and breed mosquitoes in a quantity previously unknown in Midtown.

As anyone who is downtown near the harbor knows, when there's a heavy rain, the storm drains empty into the harbor. Rainwater sounds harmless enough, but it carries with it all the trash from the streets, chemicals from the lawns, and oil and other refuse from the asphalt. The smell is terrible, and the litter is appalling. This is what would empty into the center of our park and sit there making a fetid stew for weeks. The water and trash will be a health hazard, the mosquitoes will bring a West Nile explosion, and the depth of the bowl will be a security risk, allowing people to lurk unseen and prey on park users. On top of all of that, we will have lost the only large field available for picnics, frisbee, dog walking, kite flying, music playing, and other unorganized fun.

Anonymous said...

More stupidity from the worst and most inept governmental entity in the United States, the City of Memphis. If it has been "in the works" for three years, then why in the hell are we the public only finding out about it just now?

Anonymous said...

I totally agree that the powers that be need to do a better job of involving citizens in the planning process. The Memphis approach is totally old school.

I also agree that the current proposal is unacceptable. The city can't even seem to keep the grass mowed regularly in the park. Does anyone really believe that they going to send someone to clean up all the plastic bottles and dead rats that will accumulate on the greensward after the stormwater has been drained off?

Having said all that, I do think we need to be sensitive to the flooding issues that VECA and Belleair residents have faced for years. A poster to other forums has suggested placing retention basins beneath the Overton Square parking lot, Turner Dairy's lot, and the fields at Snowden and Evergreen. I think this is a great idea, though it will probably be expensive.

Mary Wilder said...

I live in Vollintine Evergreen and I want share my perspective. Lick Creek was a natural stream now a culverted and chanelized storm water drainage system. Streams are what they are. All rain water wants to go to the lowest point… the nearest creek bed. Midtown was built in the 1920s and at that point the City started to use Lick Creek as a storm water drainage system. Lick Creek is at capacity under the increased urbanization of Midtown. Memphis departments of Storm Water, Sewer Maintenance and City Engineering must start looking at means to SLOW the storm water going into Lick Creek to reduce flooding and CLEAN the water of urban pollutants.
Other Cities have conducted extensive planning with communities and used the state of the art green technology to stop flooding and filter storm water. Ideas such as a series of smaller detention areas, allowing Lick Creek to flood its banks into the old forest “bottom land hardwood” (might kill the privet too), create a water hazard on the golf course, create French drains in our sidewalk medians, detention areas along the MLGW green spaces in VECA, Snowden field etc are workable and have been done in other cities. Lick Creek is a system and needs to be treated as such. We as citizens pay a Storm Water fee every month in our Utility Bill. The city has budgeted $20,857,000 for the Storm Water budget. We must call for a planning process with paid consulting hydrologists, environmental experts on storm water and flood prevention, and environmental engineers sensitive to our limited resources, such as Overton Park and the natural area of Lick Creek. I oppose the GIANT detention pond in Overton Park. I want Memphis to act like a grown up City join the 21swt Century and work with its neighborhoods and citizens to make good decisions that will work.

As an example Vollintine Evergreen refused “improvements” to Lick Creek in 1993. This is the work that was done on Lick Creek in Overton Park. 15 years later that concrete work in Overton is falling a part and the WPA stone work and natural bed in the Vollintine Evergreen part of Lick creek is still working. Lick Creek in VECA needs maintenance and the City can under an ARAP permit do the work. Old technology is new when it comes to a creek at capacity it is time to think green technology. Thank you. I love Lick Creek and I don’t want flooding. I know I can have both.
Mary Wilder Resident of VECA for 32 years

Anonymous said...

It would very expensive to design drainage infrastructure to handle a rare event that may not reoccur in the next hundred years. For that kind of risk, one should just buy insurance.

We would prefer not to dig up Overton Park. Therefore, if it is agreed that some relief is urgently needed, ask the engineers to look at whether significant additional drainage capacity could be found by buying houses at strategic locations along the more constricted parts of Lick Creek and widening the drainage channel at those locations.

Zippy the giver said...

I can't believe I'm agreeing with Mary Wilder, but, she's right on target.

Anonymous said...

Its will be really green city ..after they bulldoze it to the ground.
thanks for sharing
Entertainment at one stop

Anonymous said...

to me one of the most important objetives that a government must to have, is the creation of new recreation areas to public use, with this more space to nature and fresh air.

Viagra Online said...

I'm agreed with Dakuro, is too important the creation of places to family fun, place in where nature can find a second option to grow, in others words create a artificial lung for the city.

Sharon Strock said...

In my opinion, it's best to keep that open space since it's where a lot of residents have fun and leisure. The plants in the park can already serve as a green way of handling stormwater. Don't you agree? I think City Engineering should look for a better place where they can place that stormwater collector. The best place would be somewhere far from that place of leisure. By employing good stormwater management practices, the residents near the facility and the residents near the park will all benefit from that.

pharmacy said...

This entire process was done in a bureaucratic vacuum so airtight that citizens did not know about the plan until the forest was being cut.
City of Memphis. If it has been "in the works" for three years, then why in the hell are we the public only finding out about it just no ?

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