Sunday, September 20, 2009

Art Park Paints A Better Picture Of Memphis

My morning commute delivers me many days to downtown Memphis from the Riverside Drive exit of I-40. It’s the antithesis of the experience that greets me two miles away south when I enter downtown from the other end of Riverside Drive off I-55.

There, the spectacular view of the river and downtown unfailingly lifts my spirit and evokes my pride in our city. Meanwhile, the other end of Riverside Drive is unwelcoming, shabby and depressing.

It is a rare day that I don’t drive onto Riverside from the north that I don’t think of the Memphis Art Park. Coupled with a skate park on Mud Island, it has the power to redefine a riverfront desperately in need of vibrancy and to shake off the pervasive feeling of lethargy that greets visitors.

Turning Around

Beale Street Landing is an important piece in the puzzle and will change things at the foot of Beale, but in its own way, Memphis Art Park’s opportunity to shake up the area between Union and Floyd Alley and Front and Riverside has equal, if not more, potential. After all, most visitors to Memphis end up in this area looking at the most photographed location in our city – the Mississippi River.

They look eagerly for something to do – even if it’s just to buy a Coke or ice cream and enjoy the view. Often, they’re looking for anything to pass the time while they wait for a riverfront trolley whose posted schedule is irrelevant. (Q: When will the next trolley arrive? A: When you see it coming.) The idea of eating lunch in a restaurant where they can view the river is as alien as the Riverfront Development Corporation and Friends of our Riverfront issuing joint press releases.

Visitors are looking for something interesting to do – an activity, something with the opportunity for a personal experience, something that offers them the feeling of doing something special or finding something unexpected in a city know for its creativity but that often works hard to keep it under wraps.

When Memphis decided to turn its back on the river, it did so with a vengeance. But that’s a common tale for cities on American rivers. Riverfronts were rowdy, dirty and commercial, so cities didn’t place much value on them as iconic landmarks or competitive platforms for the future. They were simply ignored.

The Wrong Message

But we know better now. So it’s nothing short of astounding that the northern entrance to Riverside remains as dismal today as it did 30 years ago.

Driving off I-40, we are greeted with chain link fences that do little except to send the message that this must be a city with a lot of crime and little design ethos. The chain link fence on the west lines a parking lot and the chain link fence on the east follows the trolley line (and makes visitor’s walk from the Welcome Center to the Mud Island tram circuitous and indirect).

If this entrance into downtown is anything, it is a juxtaposition, killing the chance for a strong first impression.

Across from the Tennessee Welcome Center is an austere, crumbling oatmeal-colored, bunker-like parking garage whose better days are long past, and a large motor home seems perpetually parked there. There’s brief respite passing between Confederate and Jefferson Davis Parks, and about the same time that Mud Island comes into view on the right, there’s promising work taking place on the left as the old Custom House is being converted into the University of Memphis law school (and thanks to the Hyde Family Foundations, the face to the river is being made greener and more attractive).


But the boost doesn’t last long. Immediately past it are the ignored rear of the old Cossitt Library, another godawful garage facing the river and a parking lot and more fencing behind the first station – all of which would be transformed by Memphis Art Park. Finally, at Union and Riverside, where you expect a breath-taking experience, the high ground – Wagner Place - is lined with commercial garbage dumpsters and hundreds of parking spaces where green space and seating overlooking the river would be gifts to downtown.

Greater momentum for elimination of the prevailing ugliness on this section of the riverfront should be a cause that all of us could rally around. For now, we’ll start with Memphis Art Park.

Its creator, John Kirkscey, reminds us about what’s best about Memphis: the ability of one person with a dream and an entrepreneurial and creative spirit to inspire others to rally around him. Already, the Center City Commission has expressed support for the Art Park, joining an awful lot of people who live and work downtown and who work and enjoy our arts and culture scene.

The $30 million project would transform the heart of the riverfront (which dearly needs it), and it would become the most visited, most vibrant place in a downtown (which dearly needs it). A few years ago, when CEOs for Cities asked corporate CEOs what they most wanted out of a city, they said vibrancy.

Something Better

Unfortunately, vibrancy in downtown Memphis is few and far between, pretty much centered in the area of Beale Street, and it generally cranks up about the time that many people are going down for the night. Memphis Art Park would become another important anchor of vibrancy as the fire station, the parking garage and the Cossitt Library became a beehive of creativity, contributing to a culture of creativity that cities need today to succeed.

There are places for emerging artists, musicians, dancers, actors and filmmakers who could be celebrated and enjoyed. In Mr. Kirkscey’s words, “Memphis Arts Park would be a cultural beacon on our city’s doorstep and announce that Memphis is a distinctive arts destination.”

His conceptual plans – fleshed out by David Schuermann and Joey Hagan of Architecture, Incorporated – call for rehabilitating the library into a multi-purpose arts facility, including studios, film rooms, music rooms, gallery/exhibition/event space and a community arts resource center. It would also have a sculpture garden overlooking the river.

Best of all, the Art Park reimagines the Monroe garage so that it has murals, lighting, colored scrims, a green rooftop park and art plaza and a pedestrian bluff walk. Finally, the fire station headquarters – which has been slated for replacement by City of Memphis Fire Services – would become a community cinema, a performance venue, gallery and event space and a plaza for outdoor events. There also would be a grand staircase and fountain at Union and Riverside.

Planning The Dream

Fortunately, Mr. Kirkscey and his advocates are remaining nimble so alternates are being considered and suggestions are being welcomed. Already, a number of local organizations have expressed their interest in being part of the project, and hopefully, local government and local philanthropies will join hands to jump start the project.

To his credit, Mr. Kirkscey is doing more than offering up a dream. He has developed a 60-page plan complete with design ideas, costing, architectural renderings, operational philosophy and examples of successful similar projects in other cities.

At this point, we need to admit that we have a personal bias in this issue. Our office is a half block from the river on Union and faces the moribund fire station and the concrete walls that meet the sidewalk beside it.

It would be so good that when visitors to Memphis walking down Union to the river ask us what they can do, we could point across the street to a lively, active art park that reflects the best of what our city has to offer.


Anonymous said...

I have to admit being slighly worried about the Arts Park's attractiveness being impacted by the various downtown outdoor residents that the city seems uninterested in dealing with, but overall this looks great. Let's face it, anything, well almost anything, is an improvement over what is there. Who wouldn't want to see an arts performance on the River? But what is the status of this plan? Is there any realistic chance of its being implemented ever, let alone anytime soon? Do the folks who have a say over the property (the decendents of whoever; cant remember their names, not enough coffee yet) back this? If not, isn't this dead in the water?

David said...

Compliments to Mr. Kirkscey and his vibrant imagination. What a wonderful idea, but with the city facing so many issues, I am afraid that this great concept will be ignored or placed on hold. It really is time to take the river off "hold" and use its grandeur as a backdrop to such an amazing concept as this.

Chuck said...

Dear Smart:

Mr. Kirkscey's plan should be blended with RDC plan and the latter should eliminate the office/residential towers.

We should have a community meeting with reps from RDC, CCC, all downtown associations, Friends for the Riverfront, and Memphis Metro (oops! Just dreaming here). I mean City Council and Shelby County Commission and of course the two mayors.

Before the meeting everyone should be required to exit I-40 into downtown from the east and west and reflect on what they see, like you did. They should be prepared to present their ideas in the meeting.


jford1983 said...

I agree. The north end of Riverside Drive is an unpleasant sight, let alone an eyesore, for those who travel down that roadway on a daily basis. This is definitely something that needs to be taken a closer look into under the next administration(s).

The general public should really be pushing for these kind of proposals in terms of creating a more vibrant riverfront, and is much better than what the RDC had originally proposed. One thing is for certain: no one likes to see crumbling parking decks and dilapidated infrastructure as their first impression of our riverfront, and hopefully this kind of thinking will stretch beyond the boundaries of the Promenade itself.

If you want something done, you have to fight for it, and public support for ideas like Mr. Kirkscey's are a must.

John said...

In response to anonymous: The Overton descendants do have a say over the property if any plans for the site violate the Promenade's public-use easement. If it honors it, they have no say. Memphis Art Park honors it. Note: the Promenade belongs to the public, not the heirs. In terms of status: the City, the CCC, the RDC, and a prominent foundation have expressed interest in seeing this happen, so it does have a realistic chance. Pray it happens!

Anonymous said...

It's about time someone implemented a plan that promotes the city and its residents' creativity. For too long, we have implemented plans that only promote certain people's financial interests. I hope to see the Arts Park happen. Assuming they are not already in the plan, I have two suggestions: (1) Adopt a marketable name, e.g., Vanguard Village, Rivertown, Artisan Alley, King Hill (after B.B, Elvis and Jerry the King lol). I think a name for the park would make it a destination rather than just an attraction (Beale Street, Graceland, etc.) The Arts Park, standing alone, could turn off those who aren't into the Arts, and it sounds like it will have so much more to offer; (2) Incorporate restaurants, bars and shops into the project. The artists need a place to sell their goods and the bar/restaurant scene will draw people to the performances. Moreover, the commercial aspect of the shops and eateries will entice the local bigwigs to get behind the idea. Good luck!

John Kirkscey said...

A cafe and coffee shop are included in the plans, but the public-use easement prevents too much commercial activity. The plans also include hosting a weekly artist market, akin to a farmers market, but for emerging artists. Other than annual festivals - which usually attract traveling artists or arts&crafts anyway - local artists (those not represented by galleries) don't have an established place to sell their art on a year-round basis. Memphis Art Park would provide just such a place where locals know its the place to go for emerging art.
p.s I appreciate all the comments.

Anonymous said...

>>>It would also have a sculpture garden overlooking the river.

A cautionary note regarding existing public art in Memphis: it's pretty hideous. The Martin Luther King memorial on the mall; that silver, I don't know, thing, in front of the Cannon Center; "the ruins" at the entrance to the library; just plain ... bad. Not every monument needs to be classical or Beaux Arts style, alas, but the Doughboy Statue or the Nathan Bedford Forrest statue or the monuments at Shiloh and Vicksburg are pretty good starting points when designing public art.

Public architeecture is the same: the Cannon Center, the new library (compare Nashville's new library), the government buildings on the mall. Dreary, dreary, 1950's style architecture all.

Public art that lasts and makes an impression is almost never modernist, which quickly becomes dated. Consider the entrance to Overton Park, Centennial Park in Nashville, Forest Park (St. Louis), City Park in New Orleans, and the monuments in them. Yes, I'm aware of the Millenial park in Chicago. But it's the classical or at least traditional style that impresses and remains in the memory and makes great public art and architecture. It never goes out of style.

Carol Elkins said...

I absolutely LOVE this project. It's a design that respects the continuation of the riverwalk. The connection at Riverside and Union enlivens an important intersection in the city that is currently just crap. The exterior “living walls” of the new garage are spectacular and would become a Memphis icon. And the community cinema/flexible-use performance venue and gallery/event space would be a destination point for visitors and Memphians alike.
Please make this project happen.

Chris the D said...

I have this long-held theory regarding river-side cities and their often languishing downtown spaces, based in large part on my own experiences of growing up in Memphis, which took a very long time to get it right regarding Beale St., and is still working on the waterfront concept.

Downtown urban landscapes in cities all across the United States were left in shambles when the working middle class began evacuating the city cores in favor of the suburban landscape, and it has taken decades for that trend to begin to reverse. As living locales retreated in ever-widening circles from city cores, and shopping centers became decentralized into suburban mall spreads, the very idea of "downtown" began to erode into an urban anachronism.

But in spite of the corrosive effects of this inexorable trend, most city downtowns could never entirely die, because --being at the center of the sprawl-- there was always, at the very least, constant cross-traffic occurring, providing business for gas stations, stop-n-go markets, and the like.

In a river town, however, when the city flees the center, the "center" is left behind, hugging its river banks like some flood-washed offal, and it takes some really insightful and thought out long-term planning to coax residents and businesses to reinhabit the emptied out downtown landscapes once again.

Having moved to California several decades ago, I've been pleasantly surprised to see how Memphis has actually pulled off its downtown revival, especially after the decades-long debacles I watched as I grew up there (city officials wasting huge loads of money and time on absurdly touristic ideas which could never work).

The city of Sacramento has very similar problems: an underused downtown, rich with early-century beautiful brick structures, blessed with a beautiful waterfront overlooking a mighty river (altho, of course not so mighty as the Mighty Mississipi), and an embarrassing history of throwing money at failed tourist-aimed attempts to revive its downtown. Sacramento should pay attention to Memphis, which has a thing or two to teach it, I'd say.

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