Sunday, November 08, 2009

Downtown's Case Against City Hall For Abandonment

At a time when cities were making investments to improve their downtowns, City of Memphis put our downtown up for adoption.

More accurately, City Hall left downtown like a waif in a basket on the doorstep of the Center City Commission.

There was no note and no money. There was only the directive for the city-county agency to assume the responsibility for the future of 80 blocks that are common ground for every citizen of the region.

Unfunded Mandate

It was a stunning act of civic neglect, especially considering that in the 8-10 years since that mandate, Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton hardly let a day go by that he didn’t hold up the “downtown renaissance” as the proudest achievement of his 17 years in office. There were times that his descriptions were flourished to such a point that it was hard to imagine that he ever walked in downtown Memphis.

Over the past six years, as he boasted about his legacy for downtown, sidewalks were crumbling, streetscapes were haphazard, urban design was sloppy, maintenance was nonexistent, alleys were deteriorating and vibrancy was as scarce as a retail store on Main Street. And yet, the $1 billion city government dumped responsibilities for downtown on an agency whose annual budget is about 0.6% - six-tenths of one percent – of one of its parent governments.

Faced with such a daunting challenge, Center City Commission has been able to fund about $6 million in capital improvements in an 80-block area by leveraging the extension of tax freezes, an option that has been all but taken away by Shelby County Board of Commissioners and as a result, it offers little potential as a source for more bonds for improvements.

City Beautiful

That only leaves $113.4 million in improvements that were needed years ago – in demolition of deteriorated sidewalks and alleys; construction of new curbs, gutters, sidewalks and ADA compliant access ramps at street corners; and new lighting, street trees, trees grates, trash cans and benches. Utility upgrades are also needed (and we can only hope that someday city government does understand that its large “gray tombstones” of utility boxes scattered all over downtown are constant reminders of its civic disregard for aesthetics).

The lack of improvements to the downtown infrastructure stands in stark contrast to the big project mentality perpetuated by city government. While we have been strong advocates for Autozone Park, FedExForum and Beale Street Landing, it is disingenuous for City Hall to act as if isolated spots of excellence are the same as making sure that the entire fabric of downtown is of the highest possible quality.

The reality is that several billion dollars of development have been set on top of a collapsing foundation. It’s absurd to think that infrastructure investments that benefit the entire city should be borne by a small downtown agency whose funding comes largely from a special tax on downtown businesses.

Frayed Welcome Mat

And yet, this is precisely what the city’s decision to abandon downtown’s infrastructure suggested. At the precise time that city elected officials were delivering uplifting rhetoric about the importance of downtown to the overall economic health of the region, to attracting and retaining talent and to its role as “welcome mat” to Memphis, it was engaged in a financial sleight of hand that largely set downtown adrift.

To top it off, city government subsequently abandoned its responsibility for landscaping and maintenance downtown, shoving that to the Center City Commission, which also pays about $200,000 a year to beef up security because Memphis Police Department won’t do it.

It’s a strange testament to chasm between the rhetoric about downtown and the reality of downtown.

These days, few people remember the time when both Memphis and Shelby County Governments provided yearly operational funding for Center City Commission and backed it up with yearly CIP funds.

Getting The Policy Right

It was sound public policy then. It would be sound public policy now, so hopefully, the new Wharton Administration will reevaluate the failed Herenton policies on downtown and develop a serious plan of action to fix the many things that are broken in the public realm.

It’s time for a new look at funding for downtown improvements and to develop a comprehensive plan to bring the area up to a presentable level of infrastructure, particularly streetscape and ending the discordant signage and lack of standards that characterize it.

These problems are main reasons why vibrancy in downtown Memphis is as much a distant dream as an Ikea on South Main. It’s why we favored limited vehicular traffic back on Main Street. Clearly, what we’re doing now isn’t working, and doing the same thing and expecting different results is delusional.

Serious Advocacy

Unfortunately, an 18-member task force didn’t end up recommending an experiment in cars on the mall, but it did make recommendations that were equally important to Main Street, notably turning the trolley from a postcard photo for tourists into a reliable, serious mode of transportation; better maintenance of the mall and more serious anti-neglect enforcement.

There was the regular filler “feel good” material, like “advocating for Main Street” and “collaborative marketing and promotion among downtown businesses.” And yet, it’s hard to escape the idea that what downtown needs right now is a Greek chorus and an army of activists demanding change in policies and attitude when it comes to its needs.

In this regard, there are some neighborhoods in Memphis that have shown how to get public sector action and it’s time for an effective downtown coalition that can exercise the clout and mobilize the political influence to get City Hall attention to the needs of downtown and the results of more than a decade of neglect.

Hit Teams

More the point, our city does not have a commitment to quality public realm. And it shows. Here’s the thing: if asked to show someone Memphis’ model public realm, we ought to be able to take them downtown. But at this point, we have merely hints of what could be. If nothing else, public realm is the perfect first priority for all of us who work and live downtown to write our elected officials about.

To this end, we have a proposal. We think that the Center City Commission should invite teams – architects, residents, urbanists, young professionals and others – that would survey downtown and send in recommendations to Center City Commission.

After all, we walk the streets. We know downtown block by block. We know every special spot and every ugly wart. We know every unsightly sign put up by MATA, we know every landscaping mistake and we know every place trash accumulates.

Why not appoint us as special hit squads that’ll issues reports on the state of downtown and recommendations for improving things? We would demand downtown improvements, a design ethos and for regular reports that could be shared with elected officials on what has to be done for the city’s core to be healthier and more competitive.


Anonymous said...

Charette! Charette!
Just one more community planning meeting by the concerned citizenry
using plenty of trash paper overlays and Sound Planning principles may just turn the tide!

Hip Hip Hooray!

Midtowner said...

OK, I'm confused about Main Street.

Have we not heard, repeatedly that cars are evil and people should walk, bike, and use public transit?

The Main Street Mall is the ultimate in this philosophy. Law enforcement, emergency, and delivery are the only vehicles allowed on the Mall. Are the planners of "Smart Growth" ready to throw in the towel and admit that cars are not only necessary but proper? If you can't make it work on a small street of a street, then how can you make it work on a larger scale?

Ironically, I like the Mall without traffic. I don't think allowing cars will been a boon to any businesses there. After all, the Mall was a reaction to the lack of business in the first place when cars were allowed on Main St.

I've also been on the Trolley stuck in a traffic jam on South Main. I'm just concerned that opening up the whole of Main Street to traffic will only compound the problem.

As for the Trolley, you need to change the attitude of everyone involved from businesses to the drivers. A visitor to our city wasn't informed of the trolley and stumbled on it by accident.

I was only the Trolley once when the driver stopped short of the North Terminal to go into a restaurant to get a sandwich ... with people on the Trolley!

Michael said...

And lets not forget: City Hall abandoned the riverfront parks, too. First to CCC, then yanked them back and handed them over to a so-called public-private partnership, where they have languished while the developers behind the scheme tried to figure out ways to exploit the area for skyscrapers and condos. Ten years, nothing accomplished. Time to shut the whole scam down for good. Let the employees go find new jobs working for the developers directly.

Chuck said...

Dear Smart:

While we are not familiar with the exact allocation of Memphis' tax dollars, we have observed the neglect by the city of areas thought to be someone else's responsibility. The fairgrounds and riverfront come to mind, but the greatest neglect is toward low income neighborhoods that qualify for national government grants.

For example, we remember some years ago when a street sweeper was purchased by the Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) using a national government grant for low income neighborhoods. After a 3-year amortization period allowed under the grant, we saw this same street sweeper (with HCD logo) operating in east Memphis, which is not exactly low income.


[midtowner and you are correct about the poor management of the trolley system]

Michael said...

And also let's not forget that the first big idea from that "public-private partnership" was to create a NEW downtown right on the river - COMPETING with the old one. RDC deserves at least some of the blame for putting the 10-year stall on downtown. Who in their right minds would invest in the old (real) downtown when City-blessed plans were on the table to make the old downtown moot?

Anonymous said...

And let's not forget perhaps the main reason the Herenton administration seemed to largely abandon downtown: It was because actively supporting and championing downtown had become a political liability.

There was pressure from City Council members and others for the Herenton administration to devote more attention and money to neighborhoods away from downtown. Herenton ultimately buckled to that pressure.

To turn the tide, Mayor Wharton must pull off a mild sea-change in attitudes and perceptions among both the general public and City Council members. Here's hoping that Wharton is up to the task.

Zippy the giver said...

Boy do YOU have the wrong idea!
No Ikea on South Main?

Forget appointees and committees, the citizens need to swell up their nads and overpower the government.
They would, but, downtown, there aren't any.
Why? Because there is no walkability ANYWHERE IN MEMPHIS, because it's UNSAFE to walk to the frikkin grocery store!
No kidding, there's your benchmark.
Can you walk to the grocery store, the cleaners, laundromat, drugstore, office supply place, and the bank?
The answer is a big fat NO.
Midtowner is right, cars won't help, but ACTUAL walkability will, I don't like to smell horsecrap when I walk around, especially if there is no avoiding it, I, like may others won't go there anymore.

I saw a streetsweeper today, first time it wasn;'t the day before an election, maybe there's hope.
Mr Herenton should have stuck to his vision if he actually had one instead of "bowing to pressure" and if it caused him to lose office then so be it, it would have been better.

Zippy the giver said...

PS, it isn't the "perception" that needs a change, it's the REALITY!

Aaron said...

"Because there is no walkability ANYWHERE IN MEMPHIS"

In our neighbhorhood you can (and we do daily) walk to the public school, the coffee shop, the cleaners, University, Zoo, Overton Park and the grocery store. You should visit it sometime.

Louise said...

I agree totally with you, Midtowner and Chuck about the trolley. I've always said, just add 50 cents or a dollar to every night's hotel/motel charge and make the trolley free or at most two bits. I can't tell you the amount of times over the years that I have had to explain the fare to visitors or the times colleagues and I have paid their exact change fares. Do something.

Also, there is a downtown east of Main Street. Let's start figuring out what to do with the area between Main and Danny Thomas from Auction to Union. Stop turning our backs on those wonderful structures, vacant parcels and under utilized spaces and find a way to make them viable again.

Anonymous said...


It's not that cars are necessary for Main Street's revitalization, but on-street parking is a staple on many of America's great streets. Considering the low density of downtown it would be encourgaing for people to drive downtown, park their cars get out and walk, shop, and eat.

The difference between the vibrant South Main Arts District and the Northern End is simple. On-street parking, through traffic, and open businesses.

Pedestrian friendly areas can also include cars. When downtown becomes a high density market then we can talk about removing parking. Besides we have yet to develop an alernative method to get downtown other than the trolley. Until we devlop an efficient passenger rail or rapid bus transit cars will continue to be apart of our lives

Anonymous said...

Wait, are cars not necessary for the revitalization of N. Main, or are they the key relevant difference between a vibrant south and dormant north? can't be both. And if on street parking really is a key component of a vibrant city street, someone better tell that to the guy who designed and just recently cut off traffic to Times Square.
And I am not sure if South Main can fairly be categorized as "vibrant." Its not dead, but vibrant is a stretch. Seems to me that once we reach a point where South Main and Front, for example, are truly "vibrant" all the time, not just on trolley night, we can start worrying about changing north main, which has the benefit of being pretty unique. The issue is paying customers; the city just doesn't have enough. Until it does there won't be enough businesses to fill downtown no matter where you let cars travel and park.
To the larger point of the original post, until the sidewalks aren't crumbling all over downtown and until downtown is no longer pot marked with empty decaying storefronts, cars on the mall are the least of our problems.

Zippy the giver said...

Aaron that's not downtown. Before you decide to take your chances, take a look at the stats for whatever area you are in.
OK, I will concede that there are places you can walk, but, you might want to see how other cities do it before bragging an the three block wide safety strip in your neighb, I remember it was only a few months back in that same area that car-jackings were happening a LOT. I used to live walking distance from you.

Aaron said...

Zip; indeed our area has our share of crime and we too have been personally affected by it. But by and large, the day to day quality of living in that area is outstanding.

I guess it comes down to what a person values in a community and whether those values outweigh the the negatives such as our crime/safety problem. Our value system was more inline with living in Midtown for others it may be somewhere else.

Unfortunately we must live with the crime but with more people moving into the area that are actively committed to taking the crime seriously, things will and are improving.

Zippy the giver said...

We'll see about that.
I'd like to be able to make the statement that the majority of Memphis isn't a high crime zone, but, that would be denial.
I hear you loud and clear, but, seriously, don't laugh too much, but:
What you're saying is akin to being in a fair sized life boat, wanting to take a dip, but there are sharks everywhere around, except this little bitty spot a few feet away, and also like you tell people, hey, you can swim here, there's no sharks right over there in that 4 foot area, why aren't you going for it?
But that's not downtown and this is about downtown.
There will be no substitute for directly and efficiently dealing with this permanently. Put in a Kroger with a different security company than the gangster run intimidation squad they have within walking distance and a drycleaner, bank, office supplies, pharmacy and you already have restaurants, but a neighb ain't a neighb without support services and it ain't a walkable neighb if you can't actually expect without doubt that you can actually walk to all those support areas safely every time.

Zippy the giver said...

PS: If there was going to be an IKEA on Main, it would be put on North Main, near the river, and I mean RIGHT ON IT when I say "near".

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