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.
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.
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.
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.
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.