Center City Commission President Paul Morris said that a “real city” would not let a collapsed building block the downtown trolley for more than two months.
His comment has been called intemperate, impolite, and impolitic. We simply call it the truth.
It’s high time that we had a downtown advocate that is willing to speak the truth and it’s an emerging trait for Mr. Morris. For too long, larded with political personalities and hyperbolic rhetoric, the Center City Commission has played nice and had a track record of going along to get along.
Clearly, Mr. Morris’s recent comments about the “real city” and his criticisms of the Wharton Administration’s plan to “monetize” parking meters have sent a message: He plans to tell it like it is. That, as much as anything, is exactly what we need. We’re pleased most of all that we haven’t even heard him trot out that old canard, “downtown renaissance,” that has been a mainstay of downtown hyperbole for years in the face of all evidence to the contrary.
Saying It Straight
There are many of us who would prefer to gloss over the truth in our zeal to be positive and to contribute to a more upbeat narrative for Memphis. Mr. Morris, with the programs and plans of his city-county agency, is not negligent in addressing his responsibility to feed the new attitude and momentum in Memphis, and his comments about downtown are not heretical in that context.
It is precisely the new attitude and momentum that should make all of us impatient and confident that we can change things and that business as usual is unacceptable. Mr. Morris called out a problem but the two months of road and trolley closure are the symptom. The source problem is the lack of urgency that has become commonplace when it comes to downtown.
Contrary to the conventional wisdom, if downtown is getting preferential treatment and gets too much money, you sure can’t tell it from its overall condition. That’s why we were encouraged in January when Memphis Mayor A C Wharton instructed his Chief Administrative Officer George Little to convene meetings to address maintenance and other problems.
All of us downtown watched as trolley construction proceeded years ago as if we were in a third world nation. There seemed to be no coordination with any downtown businesses or agencies and seemingly no deadlines and schedules that meant anything, and as a result, the construction hammered the nail in the coffin for several businesses the trolley professed to serve.
The Absolute Defense
This time, arguably Memphis’ best hotel, The Madison Hotel, is hidden behind barriers and detours. We can only hope that its national reputation can protect it from suffering the fate of other businesses whose customers’ paths were obstructed.
The Commercial Appeal described the scene with complete accuracy: “The street is sealed off by a haphazard, hasty mash-up of plywood planks, metal fencing, plastic orange netting and yellow caution tape – giving off the appearance of half crime scene, half construction site.”
Mr. Morris said that the roadblock is “embarrassing,” and that’s precisely the right word to describe it. There may be some who think he should watch what he says, but working under the legal theory that truth is the absolute defense, there’s no jury that will convict him.
We don’t share every opinion with Mr. Morris nor do we have to do so to respect his approach to his job. We don’t have his depth of conviction that fixing downtown’s infrastructure is our #1 priority. We question if there is really a straight line between better sidewalks and the vibrancy that downtown needs so badly and that should be the yardstick for success for everything that is done downtown.
What downtown needs as badly as vibrancy is someone to tell it like it is and to be an unwavering champion willing to shake things up. To that end, he should be commended for hiring attorney Steve Barlow to attack the downtown blight that characterizes as many as 150 properties. Mr. Barlow has proven to be a powerful force for good in the Medical Center by using the option of civil litigation (under the Neighborhood Preservation Act of 2007) to force absentee and neglectful owners to sell, improve, renovate, or demolish their eyesores.
Here’s what we wrote a year ago ab0ut the time Mr. Morris was hired:
“ It’s no wonder that with four decades of experience in the downtown core, we’ve never seen it as poorly maintained and more in need of desperate attention than right now. We can only imagine what it would look like if there hadn’t been so many people talking so much about the ‘downtown renaissance.’
“Too often, the people we expect to articulate and fight for a defining principle or a critical issue seem to go along to get along. It’s inexplicable why this is such a core part of our civic DNA. It’s as if there is never anything important enough for some leaders to drive a stake in the ground and tell it like it is. Instead, we soft peddle the overwhelmingly negative impacts on downtown and perpetuate the myth that the local economy is strong and positioned for the future. It’s a curious attitude of laissez faire, because any honest reading of key economic indicators most often puts Memphis in the bottom of the city rankings.
Courage to Say the Truth
“Unfortunately, in the case of the bank move eastward a couple of years ago, The Commercial Appeal became a co-conspirator in misleading the public with the editorial, “SunTrust move’s no death blow.” Around the same time, The Commercial Appeal perpetuated the self-delusion: “Downtown Memphis office market gains momentum.” Contrary to the editorial, it was indeed time to panic, or at least display some sense of urgency. We’ve watched anchor business after anchor business exit downtown without as much as a forceful word of protest from elected officials and downtown development leaders.
“If downtown is in the midst of a renaissance, it’s hard to tell it at what was once called the hottest corner in downtown – Union at Main – where all four corners are typically vacant. If downtown is in the midst of a renaissance, it’s hard to tell it by the Peabody Place development on Main Street, where not one original tenant is left on the block.
“It would be a sign of our civic maturity if, in the face of a decision by another business to abandon downtown, someone in a key position of leadership would tell it like it is – it is indeed a serious blow not only to downtown but to the entire city by eroding our tax base, attacking the vibrancy so desperately needed to sell our city and removing an important magnet for young talent.
“A few years ago, a national columnist revisited Memphis after an absence of 10 years or so. His reaction: ‘Downtown Memphis is in real trouble, and I’m not sure it’s going to make it.’ That’s why we begin by being honest. We owe it to ourselves. The real question is who has the courage to do it?”
That’s what is most encouraging of all about Mr. Morris. Maybe, just maybe, he is the answer to that question.
I’m surprised that he has not been blasted by all of the urban planning cheerleaders of Memphis. He’s correct, smart cities, and great cities don’t behave like he states – why ? simple..Memphis is not a ‘real city’ in that sense, and there is ample evidence that it’s certainly not ‘great’ either.
The guy is freekin correct, and everybody knows it ! get “real” is exactly right
As a sidenote, I had to laugh out loud at any suggestion that The Madison is some sort of stellar hotel ! maybe it was intended as a joking comment- want to see super hotels in a dynamic city, go to Atlanta for example in Buckhead or even downtown. Besides, The Madison also serves garbage food in their so-called upscale restaurant..and the rooms are sort of smallish really. Talk to me when Memphis gets a Ritz Carlton (Atlanta has two), or a Four Seasons, or a Loews, or even a lousy Grand Hyatt…not to mention the ultra The Mansion !
What does Memphis have ?? a freekin oldazz Peabody ??>>
But I can’t take too much credit, because I regret implying Memphis is not a “real city.” I love Memphis, especially Downtown. My wife and I could live anywhere we wanted, and we have both lived elsewhere (D.C., New York, Nashville), but we choose to live here, in Downtown Memphis. There is so much that is great about Memphis and our Downtown, which has improved dramatically from its bottom in the 1980s. I love living in our Downtown neighborhood, walking to the Farmer’s Market, taking a trolley ride to the Peanut Shop with our two-year-old, going to Redbirds or Grizz games or seeing a show at the Orpheum. I love walking the Main Street Mall at lunch, seeing friends, stopping for coffee and conversation at Bluff City Coffee, and eating at the Little Tea Shop or Majestic Grille. There is such a great community and community spirit in Downtown Memphis.
alpha-retta is just flat wrong in his/her overly pessimistic and cynical assessment of Memphis, and I regret being cited in support of such a negative attitude.
It’s because I love Memphis and Downtown that I get so frustrated and angry with property owners who don’t maintain their properties, leading to situations like the closing of Madison. And unfortunately our Main Street Mall is in horible disrepair too. But the City under Wharton is making solid progress, creating positive momentum with a customer-service, responsive attitude. I agree 100% with SCM when you say,
“It is precisely the new attitude and momentum that should make all of us impatient and confident that we can change things and that business as usual is unacceptable. Mr. Morris called out a problem that would justify the label, Podunk city, but the two months of road and trolley closure are the symptom. The source problem is the lack of urgency that has become commonplace when it comes to downtown.”
We have suffered too long from a lack of urgency, an inferiority complex, and an attitude that is tolerant of some of the intolerable conditions that exist in Memphis, including Downtown. We should work to change that culture and increase our expectations. We should “keep it real.” But keeping it real applies equally to not being overly jaded in our assessment of our City.
We can celebrate our Downtown successes without blind boosterism. We don’t have to sweep our problems under the rug while we celebrate the facts that in the past year we landed Pinnacle Airlines, ServiceMaster by Stratos and Le Bonheur’s offices of Community Outreach, all along the Main Street Mall; the City’s bike patrol and CCC’s security efforts have dramatically reduced our aggresive panhandling problem and illegal parking on Main Street Mall; The U of M Law School and the College Of Art’s Grad School each moved Downtown; apartment occupancy Downtown is well above 90% and developers are building more apartments in the core right now; over 23,000 people and growing enjoy living Downtown; etc. For more facts, see our annual report, including the last page, which cites a few of our remaining challenges: http://www.downtownmemphis.com/documents/ccc_yearend_2010.pdf
If you want to see what’s great about working in Downtown Memphis, check out this short video:
“We have suffered too long from a lack of urgency, an inferiority complex, and an attitude that is tolerant of some of the intolerable conditions that exist in Memphis, including Downtown. We should work to change that culture and increase our expectations.”
Very well said Paul. Make a plaque with that statement.
The lack of urgency IS a major issue with Memphis and it really starts to wear people down, especially those trying to improve the city. I am completely worn out from the skate park advocacy tenure. To think that the city had the CIP funds for the public skate park go through three budget cycles before it gained traction is a real personal source of frustration. To think we have a $400K master plan for the Mud Island River park and yet now it sits waiting for an advocate or champion to put that plan into action. Really it’s much simpler to just move away to a city where the sense of urgency in is not only present but fuels the execution of projects.
As with you, I am a big advocate and fan of our beloved City and I am encouraged to see our current administration empowering grass roots efforts.
If I had any more grass-roots energy left in me, I would start pushing for a water park for our city. With how hot it gets in the South it’s a shame that our family has to drive to the other majors Southern cities to cool off. I push for it but without that sense of urgency, it would probably take 10 years to happen. We keep a lot more people here in the summer instead having the annual ‘heat-induced’ mass-exodus occur.
Keep up the great work Paul.
“”Really it’s much simpler to just move away to a city where the sense of urgency in is not only present but fuels the execution of projects.””
no kidding, it IS simpler because there are a ton of cities in the nation that don’t suffer from this sort of mentality, and THEY are moving forward at a good speed.
Where do you think moving to ? Memphis, TN if given a real alternative ? hell no. The city is losing population to a crappy state like Mississippi that even has an income tax ! (Now please don’t come on here and say stuff like Mississippi is a GREAT state in which to live, or I’ll have to upchuck, okay ?)
Lots of people who I’ve spoken with have actually said if they could perhaps have the same professional post in another city, they would take it in a heartbeat (many still enjoy very much their jobs here, but not really outside of that. I mean WHAT is the draw in Memphis ? what’s the idea of destination ? Yes, there’s UT, Fedex, and other corporate interests, but so what ? so do many many other cities in the nation ! Is it the entertainment ? no…Sports ? not really…the culture ? not really….the educational system ?? not at all….the diversity and social harmony ?? hell no…the beaches ? lol the cuisine ? hell no the bustling Downtown Life ? no….the transportation ? no the social tolerance ? no…the bbq ? yes Elvis ? yes
No, Paul Morris, you were simply caught telling the truth about Downtown Memphis, and Memphis TN in general. There is no need to apologize for what seems obvious to a bunch of us from other cities. Of course Memphis has made some real strides ! but LOOK how long it takes and has taken ! If you want to wait for Mmephis to take years to come around, then I’ll say to any newcomer that you’ve found your ideal place to live.. if you don’t want to waste your years, or you don’t find some particular joy in constantly confronting indifference, intrangiencies, fear, racism, slow-motion, insular and parochial behavior….then move to many other cities that don’t have as MUCH of these sorts of characteristice. There are way too many choices that are available it seems
“or you don’t find some particular joy in constantly confronting indifference, intrangiencies, fear, racism, slow-motion, insular and parochial behavior”
this from someone with a sordid track record on this blog of denigrating gay people and efforts to guarantee equality for them. Shekel, the gay-hating rabbinical Marine Corp chaplain.
Here’s the thing: There is no conflict in being completely honest about achievement downtown and being completely honest in what needs to be done. The sad part is that we know that we have to nag to get anything done and for this Southern city to act like a real city, one with the right agenda, priorities, and determination to do things differently. We think Memphis is a great city, but it’s not a real city until it gets the basics right, because that’s what real cities do best.
Aaron: You’re so right. One of the things that discourages us the most is watching how the lack of urgency and the pushback for new ideas grinds down some of the young people whose ideas we desperately need to conceive of new ways to improve our city. We know at least half dozen people who have left after shaking their heads at the lack of interest in new voices and new ideas, and that’s the saddest statistic of all for us.
Paul: Thanks for the articulate response. We admire the willingness to play cheerleader and outspoken advocate for improvement. We need both.
PS: It’s worth saying again that we should all be pleased that the Wharton Administration seems to “get” it when it comes to downtown. After a decade of the former mayor talking about how downtown had been transformed and did nothing to improve it, it’s particularly encouraging that downtown is getting personal attention from the powers-that-be.
all of the urban planning cheerleaders of Memphis.
because one is on vacation in Destin and the other was at a funeral.
who on earth would go on vacation in Destin FL or any other part of Florida in the summertime ?? you go to Florida in the early fall/winter , and leave by spring to go on holiday maybe in the mountains or upstate NY or Canada or maybe northern California in the terribly hot hot summer !
but come to think of it, many Memphians do go to Destin every and each stupid SUMMER like it’s a mecca for some unknown reason, as if their cars don’t work to experience any other great locations to see and experience in this great nation. It must be some sort of yearly HABIT lol and certainly doesn’t do anything to broaden their knowledge when they hop in a CAR every year for years and years and go to the same stupid location in Florida ! I never understood such lack of vision and narrow interest…..wait….yes I do ! it’s just like why Downtown takes so long to develop and grow intelligently !!
Shekel, you need serious mental help. Don’t delay.
Memphis is not a “real city”. All this time it seems we have simply existed as a figment of someone’s imagination.
Poor alpha-retta/anon/sheckel/ Tommy Volinchak-
so many personalities, yet such limited time and grammatic skill. Never fear, the Flyer board misses you and truly relished hanging your latest composition out to dry on their site. Your ignorance fueled anger is a entertaining here at SCM as it is in your latest attempt at formulating some kind of coherent critique of the bike lanes initiative.
Some people in Memphis are pretty narrow in thinking that everybody who dissents on many topics about Memphis must be really ONE GUY, or ONE PERSON.
That shows you how really really stupid ‘conventional wisdom’ can get ! but that’s Memphis in a nutshell.
So every truthful voice or even negative feedback must emanate from ONE GUY….so the idiots and sycophants assume it’s only ONE voice ! in this case a guy named Tommy Volinchak.
I’m not Tommy V, nor do I know him !
What a bunch of clowns ! wake up Memphis, everybody does not have the same opinions about Memphis ! but that scares the hell out of some of you, for really unknown reasons.
Every resident does not walk lockstep in some sort of blind stupor when it comes to Memphis. Get used to it.
Nobody shold be that dumb…even in Memphis.
I assure you, you don’t have a clue who I am, or what MY name is….and it’s NOT TOMMY VOLINCHAK.
The important point, is that it doesn’t matter what MY name is, or what YOUR name is , in a free society (even if it’s dumb-butt West TN).
Nobody has to ask self-annointed ‘leaders of thought’ any permission to express an opinion.
What the hell is wrong with some of you in Memphis, TN anyway ??
whew….amazing crap ! but that’s why Memphis can’t get out of its own way, and probably will not succeed for the next 35-40 years.
Negative feedback is all good and well and needed for improving the city but the same negative feedback repeated numerous times gets a bit tiring to read. I am all for hearing your feedback, whoever you are, but it would just be refreshing to hear some construction creative ideas that balance out the negative critique.
Amazing how someone who sometimes says they live here, and at other times comes across as not being here still spends so much time at this website posting irrelevant posts with opinions they say apply to the entire population. That type of stereotyping is old news and shows how “how really really stupid” that individual can get. Apparently the fact that some people here are successfully creating and following through on plans to improve this city that scares the hell out of one of you, for really unknown reasons”.
Really, this guy is hilarious. have gone back and read through their posts under all their names and they have yet to add to any post or conversation and just repeat the same stupid comment over and over. Talk about “dumb-butt West TN”- this guy must be the poster child for the label! And talk about “self anointed”- notice the pattern of them elevating their own opinion as if it deserves more consideration than others? They think their opinion should not be critiqued or questioned but everyone else is wrong b/c they said so. Guess their mirror is broken or they are too – “What the hell is wrong with some of you” wherever you are. In a f4ree society it shouldn’t matter where anyone lives. Some of these people may not even live in Memphis. Perhaps such a thought is to confusing for such a small mind to come up with.
Guess that was why they were kicked off the Flyer website.
Liar, liar. btw, idiot, people go to Destin from a lot of cities (not just Memphis, they come from Nashville, Atlanta, etc.) in the summer, b/c that’s when their kids are out of school, moron. Personally, I vacation in a resort town in the Wasatch Mountains out west. But then, I don’t get in my CAR to DRIVE there either, I fly on a PLANE in the SUMMER…..your schtick is worn out, Ukranian.
er, the rest of the United States’ schools are generally out in summer TOO, but you don’t see a plethora of people from other states flocking to FLORIDA in the freekin summertime ! besides many people don’t have ‘kids in school’ or they are grown, right ?? everybody that goes to Destin every freekin year DON’T have their ‘kids’ in tow…ALSO people in MEMPHIS tend to go to the SAME PLACE (Destin) every year..that’s the point, the morons don’t seek to go anywhere else or venture out of their own comfort zone- it’s the same ole same ole every year ! they tend NOT to point their cars in any other direction in the US for a another less boring 8 house car ride ! It’s like a yearly HABIT or ‘duty’ lol…..which is, by definition, narrow,,and that’s what many Memphians ARE : NARROW
btw, here’s a novel concept for other Memphians:
Have you ever heard that some people live in just more than a singular location ?? LOL
Nobody in today’s economy ‘must’ live in Memphis alone !
Some people actually do have more than one residence.
LOL..whew…what idiotic thought
er, YES, moron, a PLETHORA of people from other states DO go to FLORIDA in the SUMMERTIME, but that’s just like YOU shekel, to make BROAD generalizations about large numbers of PEOPLE you don’t even know. Talk about NARROW….what a maroon.
I am going to ramble, but I have not posted in some time…
Mr. Morris and SCM- thank you for the “telling it like it is” tone of this post. I too was baffled by the recent and continued closure of Madison Avenue due to the building collapse and what that actually said about downtown and its place within the city’s collective consciousness. This entire post and conversation lends itself to a recurring theme that has been visited here at SCM before. That is, what is the future of downtown? We must have a vibrant urban space in order to socially and economically compete on the national and international scene. One of the questions, among many others, is an honest analysis of the downtown neighborhood’s potential to serve as both an employment center and residential neighborhood. While the area’s residential potential is by no means guaranteed, precedent has been established with extremely healthy occupancy rates (varying between 95% and 99% over the past decade) and some of the highest rental rates per square foot in the region. The employment potential is there, but it has not been aggressively pursued due in part to a lack of a true champion as Mr. Morris and SCM discussed.
A vibrant neighborhood is characterized by active street life, high ground floor occupancy levels and almost constant renovation and competition for highly visible corners and locations. It is distractingly easy, when looking at older photographs of downtown Memphis characterized by crowded streets and sidewalks, neon canyons and trolleys queued to the horizon, to believe that we can return to that era or at least re-infuse downtown with that level of activity and civic importance. However, each conversion of a once magnificent office building into a new residential high-rise diminishes that potential a little more. What now serves as an apartment for one or two individuals once served as an office space for 10. That is a reduction of 8 potential customers, pedestrians and transit users per apartment. This in and of itself does not diminish downtown’s potential. However that potential is reduced in absence of ever taller buildings and higher density developments. One of my primary concerns is that even if every inch of our existing building stock downtown was fully occupied along the ratio of residential to office space found in the market now, we would still not be able to achieve a healthy, vibrant downtown neighborhood. We must go taller. We must become more dense. It’s easy to say, but can be difficult to achieve. Has anyone here ever questioned why new infill development tends top out at 4-5 levels? The architects, contractors and planners reading this know why. That is because 4-5 floors is the limit to what we term “stick frame” (wood frame) construction. This type of construction is relatively cheap to build allowing for lower rents and/or high return. Most buildings beyond this point will require the inclusion of steel or concrete structural elements which increases the cost of construction dramatically. The local market’s ability to support the costs associated with taller products has not been sufficiently proven and one would be hard pressed to find a financially institution willing to test a market in this economic climate. To achieve density we must develop a market that is attractive to developers to construct taller buildings and higher density development. It would do us well to keep in mind that while cycles can reinforce continued decline, they can also work towards achieving ever greater levels of development and success. To help develop that market, we must have a champion that demands a renovated public realm, efficient transit to serve the neighborhood and can recruit employers to participate in a neighborhood that will allow them to attract the types of employees that will enable them to succeed in their own practices. All easy to type, but difficult to implement.
…as for the Florida debate, the comment “ALSO people in MEMPHIS tend to go to the SAME PLACE (Destin) every year” seems to be the most narrow comment found on this page thus far. I find it hard to believe that anyone here, least of all this one author, knows the travel habits of the entire city. It would be like saying everyone in Jersey goes down the shore on Labor Day. Sure some do, but just as many go elsewhere or simply do not travel at all.
people in Memphis are probably some of the LEAST traveled that I have ever been around- most that I’ve met don’t ever travel out of W TN
I’ve met a ton of Memphians that have never been to NASHVILE !! , the capital of the State ! not to mention the grownups who have never seen the Statue of Liberty, or the White House.
but seriously, if you go to Destin in the summertime, you are guaranteed to see numerous auto tags from Shelby County, TN…also, you are likely to see a bunch of people you already know from Memphis…and that’s hardly an overstatement..lol…..not what I would call a ‘vacation’ or seeing something ‘new’ in that sense
but really though, the vast majority of residents of Memphis do not ‘vacate’ Memphis very much – I have found that while living in places like Atlanta, Dallas, and Miami, people travel a great deal- for vacation and for many other reasons.
The majority population of Memphis TN is not very mobile at all…by comparison- while even living in Nashville for a period, I found that my friends, ext-family and professional associates traveled more..but they NEVER flocked to Destin as a yearly ‘destination’ of choice (as they do in Memphis)..I wouldn’t either, there are too many, new places to experience
…for someone who does not venture to Destin during the summer much, you seem to know a great deal about who spends their time there during that period.
…as for Nashville, why would I venture to Nashville? I would be just as inclined to spend time in Knoxville seeing as it serves as the home to the TVA. While I am the first to admit that I believe travel does add to the depth of experience one can draw from in making decisions, it by no means is a prerequisite to being a highly informed and intelligent individual. The whole concept is very elitist.
for readers that doubt the truth about Memphians habits:
sorta dated, but there are many many more current validations ! it is what it is !
just google where Memphians vacation, and you won’t read about a lot of variety
there are essentially two ways to reaally learn
one is to ‘travel’..it broadens most people…lol
another is to ‘travel with your mind’ (read education)
The majority population of Memphis, TN is not accomplished very much in either one. The majority population in Memphis is plainly undereducated to say the least ! that’s fairly easy to agree with, unless oen is BLIND and DEAF
Where I have ventured, and currently travel, or live or anything else should not be of greaat concern to another poster…not really….not unless you think someone has to ‘pass muster’ by YOU….which, is insane…lol
btw, I go LOTS of places, and certainly not glued to Memphis (or anywhere else)
Is that odd in your head ??
Like I wrote earlier, seek professional help…quickly.
Weisenhiest, is that you? Looks an awful like your writing.
Urbanut 10:10: Thanks so much for such a well-reasoned, logical, literate point of view. It was informative and we appreciate your taking the time to write it.