It’s hard to remember when we’ve seen two more hopeful headlines:
One yesterday said: “Shelby County Commission rejects Wal-Mart Supercenter.”
A day earlier, there was another: “Riverfront plaza to replace lot.”
Is it possible that the sustainability movement in our community is now officially under way in Memphis and Shelby County? Perhaps, for once, we won’t be on the back end of a trend, but that we will in fact have the chance to shape and define this one as it continues to unfold nationally.
Most of all, it said to us that the outpouring of interest in the greening of Memphis was no aberration. More than 1,000 people turned out on a brisk winter night to support the Greening Greater Memphis manifesto about 18 months ago, calling for a heightened awareness about sustainable issues and for public support for a green necklace of outdoor recreation that includes the Shelby Farms Park transformation, the Memphis Greenline rails-to-trail project, Wolf River Greenways connecting the eastern border of Shelby County to downtown Memphis and a reinvigorated riverfront.
It’s beginning to look like Greening Greater Memphis was a precursor to an emerging ethos that is coming into full bloom now. There seem to be sustainability projects all around us, and the Sustainable Shelby project launched by Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton issued its about 150 draft strategies to the 130 members of its seven committees.
There’s no more appropriate prelude to those strategies being considered than the 10-3 vote by the Shelby County Board of Commissioners to block plans for one of those godawful 152,000 square foot Wal-Mart supercenters.
There are so many reasons to celebrate.
One, there are few single buildings more unsustainable than Wal-Mart’s big boxes. They often fuel sprawl, they are often fatal blows to locally-owned businesses, their employee policies are questionable and their relationships with suppliers borders on extortion.
Two, this vote is a watershed victory for professional public planners, whose opinions have been roundly ignored and their recommendations routinely reversed by a Land Use Control Board essentially owned by the development industry. This case followed a familiar pattern: the city-county planning staff recommended disapproval, the Land Use Control Board ignored them and approved it, and it was forwarded to the county legislative body for the expected rubber stamp.
But, those days are fading fast. Broke and retrenching, Shelby County Government can no longer blindly approve any scheme proposed by politically-connected developers, but better still, this Board of Commissioners seems disinclined to continue the 30-year old policies that pushed county government to the brink of bankruptcy, policies that glibly mimicked propaganda that sprawl was a force for economic growth.
Overhauling The Board
Third, this vote to disapprove the Wal-Mart came as a result of a relentless and highly effective neighborhood campaign that should become a template for other similar efforts. Led by Brian Stephens, who has become a leading and effective voice for the interests of neighborhoods, citizens banded together to demand that their opinions were heard for a change. Perhaps, finally, county officials will understand that these same people deserve serious representation on the Land Use Control Board, where the gifted Emily Trenholm is a reliable, but lone, advocate for neighborhoods that work.
Hopefully, someone will finally call for an overhaul of the Land Use Control Board’s membership, and that the unwritten rule that you have to be in development, be related to someone in development or work for someone in development to get serious consideration for membership is overturned.
The most graphic evidence of the damage done by the delivery of this important city-county board into the hands of developers is this: prior to the take-over, about 15% of the professional planners’ recommendations on planned developments were reversed by the Land Use Control Board. That compared to an 85% reversal rate of the planners’ recommendations once developers had a stranglehold on the board.
The Right Trends
Finally, the argument by Wal-Mart proponents – whether mouthed by the handful of commissioners voting for the project or the company’s attorney – that the supercenter would create $1 million to $1.4 million in sales tax revenues is nothing short of specious. Surely, no one really believes that the Wal-Mart is really creating new incremental growth. It merely shifts spending from one location or store to another. It does nothing to create new net sales tax revenues for county government.
Here’s the bottom line: we always are quick to criticize commissioners when they do something wrong, so this time, all of us should give them kudos for taking this stand for planning and against sprawl.
The other headline that excited us was about the conversion of the parking lots behind the former downtown post office and custom house into greenspace. We can’t remember any other time that parking downtown has been traded for a green plaza, and we hope it becomes a trend.
We wrote last week about the elegant idea of the Memphis Art Park and connecting the greenspace behind the future University of Memphis Law School to the promenade behind the downtown library and to the Art Park would create a dynamic place from one that’s now dreary and dead.
The $2 million plaza project behind the old post office is a refreshing reimagination of a place where cars were unfortunately given priority over people. Hopefully, it will result in a fresh look at how our city literally faces its most precious natural resource – the Mississippi River.
To get a sense of this dismal relationship between city and river, take a drive on Riverside Drive from Jefferson to Beale. Given the opportunity to magnify and amplify the spectacular views of the river, instead, the back of the post office was used for a parking lot; the garage at the southwest corner of Monroe and Front was built flush against the trolley tracks, offering flat, concrete walls fronting the riverfront; the main fire station used this precious overlook for its parking lot surrounding by a chain link fence; and then there are the parking lots and the dumpsters that punctuate the space between the trolley tracks and the buildings facing the river.
The Brutal Facts
There’s no better opportunity for beautifying the riverfront than in converting these poorly maintained parking spaces into a green plaza leading to Beale Street Landing. More to the point, it’s time for a real plan to improve the vistas of the river and to turn downtown around so that it faces the riverfront.
This greater interest in green space and the greater emphasis on sustainability obviously could not have come at a better time. We often write here about how Memphis generally finishes in the bottom 5-10 cities in most key economic indicators, and just to show how consistent we are, Memphis finished # 46 in recent rankings by SustainLane.com of the most sustainable cities among the largest 50.
Categories that dragged down our ratings were planning and land use (#46), green building (#50), local food and agriculture (#47), green economy (#50), city community (#42). Thank God for water quality, which got us a #6 ranking.
The report concluded that Memphis is “living for today,” but it added that Memphis “has a great foundation on which to build a movement so that the city may endure well into the future.”
Perhaps, the first big steps in that movement were made in the last two days.