Yes, I’m serious
I was at Miami’s South Beach recently and caught myself marveling at the same three things over and over again. Okay, I marveled at quite a few things. But three design features kept appearing again and again. South Beach is great because it is the perfect scale, offers extraordinary public access and celebrates its history with a fun twist.
Most people would recognize this. I am not exactly breaking new ground here. But this afternoon, I was touring around Downtown Memphis and realized some striking similarities.
South Beach is successful because, first and foremost, it has an awesome beach. Many Memphians have experienced a beach, usually behind a condo property in the panhandle of Florida. I think we’d all agree that South Beach is a different animal.
One of the things that make it different is that it is completely accessible while still being supported by urban amenities. The beach is treated like a central park. The east side of Ocean Drive looks across walking paths, gathering spots and obviously the beach on the Atlantic Ocean. The west side of Ocean Drive is lined with hotels, apartments, restaurants and retailers. The area is bookended with taller buildings. But every bit of it is inviting. The area screams come on in and walk around.
If you have ever stood in the riverfront park just west of Island Drive, you have experienced something similar. Henry Turley could have pushed Harbor Town right up to the high-water mark and put the main drag through the center of the development. But that would have limited enjoyment of the public space with river views to those who could buy a 40 foot strip of it. Instead, neighbors can walk to it and visitors can drive to it because it is open and accessible to everyone.
Much of our riverfront is like this and most of our in-town parks are as well. Kinelworth separates Overton Park from homes lining the west side of the street, for instance. This may seem like a silly thing to be excited about. But I believe that this balance between developing private real estate while maintaining public access to amenities, in the end, makes both projects more valuable.
Preservation with a Twist
The Delano and the Fontainebleau hotels are the poster children for the Miami scene. They have reinvented themselves as the hottest see and be seen spots around. And they have done this by adding to the historic character of their properties, not destroying it.
Along Ocean Drive, this can be seen again and again. The iconic Colony and Boulevard hotels have modernized their rooms and their lobbies. But they celebrate their history through restored signage, architectural lighting and sidewalk cafes. The 1930s era Clevelander Hotel built a pool in the 1950s. In any other city this place would have been bulldozed by 1985. Instead, the pool that is practically on the sidewalk has become one of the most exciting spectacles on the beach with newly designed bars placed anywhere you may need a drink.
Now I know the Peabody lobby and the Madison rooftop and Beale Street don’t exactly compare in this scenario. But when you think how you felt discovering Itta Bena or what it took to meld the historic flavor with modern touches at the Majestic or the grandeur of Court Square Center hopefully you get the picture. Historic preservation doesn’t have to be stuffy. Sometimes it can be celebrated and even pushed to a new limit. Memphians get that.
Café Ole’s deck is not historically correct, for instance. But Cooper-Young has been transformed by putting new twists on old buildings. Memphians have preserved great amounts of our history by reinventing what we do with the buildings that once housed it.
Most of South Beach consists of three, five, seven story buildings. They line the sidewalk. It is not too crowded but never lonely. The scale is perfect to make people comfortable 24-hours a day.
The buildings are treated appropriately. Awnings to create an anchor. A bit of architectural detail, even though minimal in this art-deco land. Doors that are where doors are supposed to be. The architecture never overwhelms and at the same time never disappoints.
Memphis has a history with this. When people speak of the Downtown renaissance, they aren’t thinking about high rises seen from miles away. They aren’t thinking about the parking lots that are so out of place in a city. They are thinking about how they feel walking down South Main where the tallest building is three stories. They are imagining living at the apartments behind the ballpark. They are comfortable because the scale is right much of the time.
Newly evolving areas like Broad Street understand this. There is economic value in a comfortable urban scale. Why else would new malls be built to resemble historic Main Streets and Town Squares… because the scale creates value.
South Beach’s scale, eye to historic detail and preservation of public access are major ingredients in its success. Memphians would do well to recognize this and spend a little more time celebrating our propensity toward it.