It seems likely that this week’s visit by Project for Public Spaces (PPS) will be a missed opportunity.

We were hopeful when we heard that the New York City-based organization would be coming to Memphis at the invitation of Friends for our Riverfront with the purpose of encouraging consensus and communication.

Based on the way it talks about the Memphis riverfront on its website, it seems to have made up its mind before it even gets here.

That’s too bad, because there’s much that’s said by PPS about great waterfronts that we all should agree with.


For example, there are its insights that riverfronts must be multi-dimensional, active, welcoming to development and home to a diversity of activities. There are its images of the great waterfronts of the world, which more often than not show waterfronts alive with activities, such as markets and buildings that bring people to the water’s edge to eat and shop, use regional transit centers and enjoy corporate-sponsored programming.

Then, too, statements by PPS that “mistakes” on riverfronts occur when riverfronts are too passive, when they are not multi-purpose destinations and when they don’t have intrinsic vibrancy also resonate with us.

However, while espousing multi-dimensional riverfronts, Project for Public Spaces seems to be projecting a singularly one-dimensional approach to the Memphis riverfront. PPS says that its process is “intended to build the local capacity to help those (RDC) plans, or any plans, succeed from a public spaces perspective. The current plans, and usually any plans at this stage, are lacking in vision in this regard.”

Making Contact

In light of this comment, plus others about “working collaboratively,” it’s discouraging that the organization neglected to contact the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC) which is responsible for maintaining the riverfront and its parks and is keeper of the vision created in the last public process. To its credit, the RDC contacted Project for Public Spaces.

Friends of Our Riverfront has a singular point of view, and most members are thoughtful, sincere people concerned about their city. What we need in Memphis is more citizen involvement, not less, so we are loath to criticize any citizen-based advocacy, and we won’t. Like many grassroots organizations that we’ve all been part of, there are always a few members whose over-the-top rhetoric derails opportunities for serious discussions that could ultimately eliminate divisiveness on these issues.

Unfortunately, Project for Public Spaces, at least as shown by its website, seems to have relied too much on that point of view. The result: the unfortunate “War on the Waterfront” headline on a website article featuring the Memphis riverfront.

Factual Quicksand

Filled with “they’re wrong, we’re right” rhetoric, the article contributes nothing to public collaborative visioning. While professing that it can be the neutral party to bring the broader community into a process, PPS presents a brief case study of Memphis that badly mangles the facts.

It erroneously calls the RDC a quasi-public agency, it falsely claims that the RDC’s premise is that development alone can animate the riverfront, it asserts dubiously that the RDC has “far less transparency” than the Memphis Park Commission and it adopts the now familiar – if hyperbolic – refrain that the “chief objective” of the RDC is to erect a “huge wall between downtown and the river.”

Such a simplistic reading of such a complex public issue belies the national reputation that PPS has developed as a leader in consensus-building and in bringing a calming effect to contentious issues.

The Question

In the same article, a critic of the RDC says that it “has gotten very quiet,” suggesting how deeply the hostility for the RDC runs for some critics of the nonprofit agency. We don’t know, but perhaps the RDC has decided that it will not criticize citizen involvement, even if directed at opposing its decisions, but the RDC rarely, if ever, gets the benefit of a doubt in these discussions.

Project for Public Spaces says it will “engage the broader community in shaping Placemaking strategy for the city’s key decisions. The basic question on everyone’s lips will be: How can the waterfront attract people and connect neighborhoods to their public spaces?”

Actually, as people who have lived and worked a block from the riverfront for 30 years, the question on our lips is: How can we add attractors to the riverfront that produce a vibrant, lively waterfront that pulls people to the river banks and sends the message that Memphis is a dynamic and progressive city that attracts and retains talent?

No Simple Answers

That’s why the ultimate solution isn’t just about parks and green space, but about restaurants, shops and new development that can usher in an enlivened downtown turning to face the river. It seems increasingly clear that moribund Main Street can’t achieve this goal, and because of it, our best chance of reenergizing Memphis’ downtown and repositioning our national image is a riverfront known for its vitality.

It’s worth remembering that to create its vision for the future, the RDC brought in the internationally-known urban design firm of Cooper, Robertson & Partners. While some people have complained that PPS has a tendency toward demeaning and diminishing the value of architects and urban designers, we don’t believe that is true. We are certain that PPS recognizes the contributions made by a firm whose work includes Fordham, Harvard and Yale Universities, Baltimore Inner Harbor, Battery Park City Esplanade, Boston Seaport, Chula Vista, Hudson Yards, Potomac Yard, Sarasota Cultural Park, Lower Manhattan Streetscape, Henry Moore Sculpture Garden, Museum Park Miami, Disney Monorail Station, and plans for several new towns including WaterColor, WindMark Beach, Bay Meadows, Celebration and The Woodlands.

Cooper Robertson’s plan was designed to “make a seamless connection between city and river through creation of a river-oriented public realm,” and surely, that’s a shared objective on which we all can agree.

A Higher Bar

The work by Cooper Robertson involved a series of public meetings attended by more than 1,000 people, and changes were made, and are still being made, as a result of citizens’ opinions.

In addition, we hope PPS will review plans for the much-needed Beale Street Landing, whose design came from an unprecedented international design competition that sent the message that Memphis has a new commitment to being the best. There’s few things as important as Beale Street Landing in realizing the potential of the river’s edge as a vibrant, dynamic, animated place. Once and for all, we would have a sense of arrival at the nexus between our legendary music street and our legendary river, and we could explode stereotypes of a slow-moving, lethargic riverfront and city.

We wish that all of our local projects had similar national aspirations and had the level of talent brought to bear on them. In recent years, the value of having bold goals and engaging the best available talent has never been clearer; look no further than Autozone Park and FedEx Forum.

Common Ground

We know there are critics of PPS elsewhere that complain that it’s never met a master plan or design that it’s liked or a public process that it says it couldn’t do better, but PPS is in the public process/visioning business, and rightfully emphasizes its organizational expertise. Hopefully, it will reach out in a way during its visit that makes a contribution to our city moving ahead in realizing the potential of our riverfront.

The good news is that there is widespread interest and commitment to the riverfront from all quarters. If such widespread interest could be translated into productive communications, perhaps an objective third party could be successful in mediating a shared vision to unify our community.

At this point, it doesn’t look possible for Project for Public Spaces to play that role, but nonetheless, it’s a goal still worth pursuing by all of us.