dollar signs tornadoSometimes it seems almost impossible to overstate our city’s ability to tap into its rich vein of unworthiness to produce public policy that’s the civic equivalent of fool’s gold.

As a result, we often end up trying to select from a group of bad options or the familiar feeling that we have been painted into a corner. 

We think of that today with the future of Overton Square in question as a result of an indifferent grocery chain.  We think of the latest run on the public’s bank to give away tax money to Smith & Nephew for changing its Memphis address.  We think of the foreclosed Horizon condominium monstrosity that mars the southern front door to downtown.  

And like so much in Memphis, the source and effects of poor public policy stem from real estate that masquerades as economic development. 

Walk the Walk 

At Overton Square, Univest/Fisher Capital may be new to Memphis but its officials have learned quickly how to deliver the “all or nothing” rhetoric that so dependably sends the public sector scampering to do whatever the developer wants. 

Univest/Fisher Capital boasts on its website that its “expertise in this area (real estate) has allowed us to look creatively at a broad range of real estate development and exchange deals, culminating in numerous successful ventures during our history.”  

If the company’s plans and attitude at Overton Square are emblematic of these creative looks at development, it should feel more at home on Germantown Parkway.  In keeping with the syllogism that we have all heard before, Univest/Fisher Capital suggests that the only logical options for this pivotal site in midtown are a suburban-oriented project design, the status quo and the leveling of all buildings on the site. 

At least that’s the word delivered by Sooner Development, the firm hired by Univest/Fisher Capital to develop the site.  Its website said it “has the experience and resources to handle matters of any size or level of complexity.”  Apparently, bringing an urban sensibility to Overton Square is just too, too complex.

 Giving Us Just a Little Something 

Curiously, the commercial real estate agent handling the project said that nothing can be done with the current buildings because he’s practically begged for tenants for years.  Remarkably, he acts as if tenants will come easily to new buildings although he seems to be describing a market problem more than a architectural one. 

The only way to tell that these are out-of-town developers, and not Memphis developers, is that so far they haven’t said that they’ll go to North Mississippi if they don’t get what they want. 

Here’s the thing: we’re not asking for a lot.  

We don’t want lay down in front of the bulldozers if preservation of the existing buildings makes no economic sense, but it’s hard to support an owner and developer who display so little sensitivity for context.  From day one, the company has shown the sensitivity of Don Rickles.
Paying for Love 

All we’d like is a design plan that actually acknowledges its urban location and urban sensibilities.  That said, we’re not expecting to get it, and if we don’t, we hope city government will tie its support to a design that aims at creating a neighborhood rather than a project.  So much of the aesthetic problems in our city come from a fixation on project-building rather than place-making. 

More to the point, it seems that what’s missing from this conversation is a plan – a real plan – for the area and exploring its connectivity with other redevelopment projects.  It was an opportunity that was missed back when Playhouse on the Square was considering the site for its new theater, but better late than never. 

We don’t mean to say that only out-of-towners treat us cavalierly.  Smith & Nephew Inc. is the latest to take advantage of our compulsion to pay companies to love us, and there is no stronger evidence of our lack of self-worth than the never-ending flow of tax waivers to businesses. 

And while tax freeze policy ranks as one of the least supported public policies in the city-funded Memphis Poll and other local polling, public officials remain hypnotized by the justifications by developers and the unaware of the lack of checks and balances to make sure these tax freezes are wisely invested or even needed. 

Waving Taxes Good-bye 

It’s just hard to imagine that Smith & Nephew would really make a decision on the relocation of its headquarters – from one part of Memphis to another – on the basis of $6.2 million in waived taxes over 15 years.  After all, in that same period of time, total revenues for Smith & Nephew are expected to be $60 billion.  In other words, the freeze represents one-hundredth of one percent of the total revenues. 

Again, no real plan.  

Although the research is clear that quality of place is what drives business relocations and expansions, our economic development officials remain stuck on tax freezes, primarily because it’s easier than doing the hard work of creating the kind of city that can compete in today’s highly complex economy.  

It’s clear how overly dependent our economic development officials are on waiving taxes.  In fact, we are unaware of any city our size in the U.S. that has given as many tax freezes as we have.  

The Wrong Message 

Next time we are wondering why CEOs across the U.S. don’t appreciate us, it just might be because we tell them they shouldn’t.  After all, with our hundreds and hundreds of tax freezes, we send the clear message that we don’t measure up and that we don’t deserve business investments on our own merits. 

Finally, we come to the architectural symbol of our lack of self-worth – the Horizon condos at 717 Riverside.   The 16-story project has defaulted on its $58.6 million loan and it now stands mute as a symbol of the lack of any meaningful design standards and urbanist commitment in Memphis. 

Put simply, the building is ugly and the parking garage is uglier – to the point that if Sheriff Mark Luttrell needs a new jail, this only already looks like one, particularly in the dismal siting of the garage. 

A Center City Commission official said that the foreclosure of the condo building was a “direct line” between the Great Recession and the fate of the project.  Of course, the Great Recession had nothing to do with a system with no safeguards against such abysmal architecture. 

An Easy Mark 

It’s the most onerous example of the way that so much of downtown’s prime real estate has been given over to projects and houses that have more of a suburban sensibility than connecting with the downtown identity. 

In the end, we can come up with ambitious strategic plans and innovative new projects, but until we can inspire more self-confidence and higher self-worth, we are firing on two cylinders.  And worst of all, we are ripe for the taking.