We’re not saying that a sound plan isn’t an instrumental tool in a successful public project. But it’s awfully hard to argue with the folks who say that Memphis leads the nation in the number of plans crowding the shelves that were never implemented.
Not to prejudge today’s announcement by the Center City Commission, but we thought of this again as we read the article about the latest plan being undertaken by that city-county agency – this time, it’s a strategic plan for downtown’s next five years. The fact that the news coverage quoted someone whose title was Center City Commission director of executive programs certainly indicated that some fresh thinking is called for.
It also reminded us of a strategic vision for the Center City Commission that formed about 15 years ago for the future of the downtown redevelopment body. At the time, it was at one of those critical crossroads when the survival of the agency was even in doubt, so it was a point when innovative thought was welcomed and fresh ideas formed. The agency was limping along, and some government and downtown development people began to talk about what the future of the agency should hold and what the Center City Commission should look like.
There was clear consensus. It should get back to basics. It should be private sector-driven. It should focus on fewer priorities. It should get out of the planning business. It should be lean and mean and entrepreneurial.
It should adopt a development mentality. It should measure success in putting together deals, not marketing brochures or studies. It should be less politicized and its board self-perpetuating. It should have a small focused on a few key priorities. It should look for a day when it could end tax freezes and lower the special assessment on downtown businesses.
At the time, one of downtown’s best thinkers put it this way: “We need to quit trying to do everything. We need to pick three priorities and go do them. We need to quit trying to do everything at once. Let’s do three things and when they are done, let’s chose three more and go do them.”
It didn’t seem bold at the time. It just seemed practical. However, things went a different way, leading to an agency that has a staff about three times larger and with two and a half times more politicians on its board.
That said, it’s encouraging that Center City Commission is willing to embark on a process that will consider the best role that it can play, what staff size contributes to the most innovative and entrepreneurial organization and what can produce the most dynamic results for downtown Memphis.
In fairness, the jibes about the agency’s penchant for plans are traced back to something that predates all of the current staff – the more than 20 volumes in its 1984 Center City Development Plan, which was supposed to be the seminal document guiding downtown’s future.
Costing about $500,000 (in 1984 dollars), it barely saw the light of day, largely because the consultants’ team led by Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates Inc. of Philadelphia was not seen as developer-friendly and too rooted in the history of downtown. The final plan – a fascinating compendium of recommendations for downtown’s future – became the poster child for the phrase, “one of those plans gathering dust on a shelf in government.”
It was a fate it did not deserve. It was a thoughtful, articulate plan that treated the heritage of downtown with respect while recommending ways to spark new vibrancy and vitality in the urban core, particularly by building on linkages between the center city and the river.
It was whispered derisively that the lead consultant, Denise Scott Brown, took an egg-headed approach (then again, she does have 10 honorary degrees and has written six books and so many articles that she doesn’t even bother handing out her complete bibliography. In the end, after months and months of public meetings and input, the plan was completed and promptly and quietly filed away.
The money set aside for the executive summary was poached and spent for yet another re-design of Court Square. No executive summary was ever written.
It was an unfortunate decision for Memphis, because with the 1990s came a wave of honors for Brown and her partner Robert Venturi that continues today. The litany of awards recognize them as some of the most influential forces in the past 50 years, and the Harvard University Press credited the pair with influencing architects around the globe.
Yet, in Memphis, the work by the firm was buried away unceremoniously and has never been mentioned again. And because of it, as Venturi and Scott Brown were honored repeatedly, Memphis denied itself the opportunity to tout its downtown’s connections to legends in their fields.
So, today, the announcement of yet another Center City Commission plan may spark its normal round of quips, but in downtown revitalization around the country, hope springs eternal. That’s especially true here. We’d be happy just with more cleanliness, better signage and fewer panhandlers.