Standing at the foot of Union Avenue, two couples from Indiana are surveying the Mississippi River when one of the men said: “I’ve been here four times for Elvis Week.  I absolutely love this city, but it doesn’t look much like it loves itself.  Memphis could use lots of TLC.”

Their conversation then covered littered downtown streets, “bombed out” neighborhoods they drove through from Graceland to the riverfront, the long walk to the Tennessee Welcome Center to see the Elvis statue, and the absence of any place to buy a sandwich on the riverfront.

While the kneejerk reaction of a local is to defend Memphis, it’s getting hard to argue with them.

After all, the riverwalk where they are standing is too narrow, it feels isolated because of the four lanes of traffic they had to cross to get there, and its view overlooks deteriorating cobblestones.

Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee was fond of saying that if you bought a gallon of milk in Memphis on your way to Little Rock on I-40, it would be buttermilk when you got there.  Such was the sorry state of the interstate back then.  The same can be said these days of patched up Riverside Drive and most streets into downtown, notably Union Avenue and South Main Street.

Design Problems Abound

If the Hoosiers had switched to the other side of the street, they would have encountered an obstacle course with traffic and riverwalk signs in the middle of the sidewalk as they walked north to the Tennessee Welcome Center, where the exhibits of the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau look like high school science fair projects with peeling labels and artless presentations.

To the south, the original architectural design of Beale Street Landing, notably the gentle, sloping roof that was its hallmark, has been devastated.  Poor design decisions have produced a grossly oversized elevator and a graceless observation deck replete with railings and garish warning signs added to the roof.  In addition, the seamless connection to Tom Lee Park envisioned in the beginning is now gone because of the new parking lot south of Beale Street Landing.

The park, like all of downtown and much of Memphis, is populated by “urban tombstones” – the large electrical transformers that Memphis Light, Gas & Water seems willing to put almost anywhere – in parks, on key street corners, on sidewalks, and in some of Memphis’ most photographed places.

Hopefully, the much-ballyhooed Main to Main project will bring downtown’s Main Street to an acceptable standard, but estimates for the $37 million project seem too low to get this done right and the primary focus seems to be on the pedestrian-bike boardwalk on Harahan Bridge.  The boardwalk’s design has been described by the Downtown Memphis Commission as a “sophisticated” mesh barrier, but unfortunately, the design seems more inspired by a WWF cage match than by great pedestrian bridge boardwalks in other cities.

Lack of Love

All of this makes an out-of-towner’s comment that Memphis “doesn’t look like it loves itself” seem right on target.

Cancerous blight makes it questionable if some Memphis neighborhoods can be saved.  On Main Street, trolley cars traverse a street that is an embarrassment, with too many broken gratings and patchwork plywood repairs to count.

The Unified Development Code, which took years to develop and promised a new and better future for neighborhoods, is being regularly dismantled and even overlay zoning districts are now irrelevant.  Recent proof is a carwash in the medical district, and in the University District, a McDonald’s at the corner of Highland and Southern flies in the face of the overlay district developed with the residents there.

In those heady days when the UDC was being written, so many people were excited to be setting new priorities for the future and talking about concepts like small corner radii, scale, light standards, transect, walkability, and street trees.  Those hopeful conversations today are merely distant memories as the UDC philosophy, not to mention its regulations, feel like a burst of imagination about the future ground down by the lack of ambition in the present.

A Main Marker

Simply put, one marker for a city that loves itself is in good urban design that at the least ties together a city with a cohesive sense of itself and that at its best produces an architectural pride and commitment that lift up a city and shape its pride and character through its insistence on architectural integrity, high-quality design, and quality control in execution.

It’s not that we don’t have examples of where this is done right.  We have AutoZone Park and FedExForum, and if anything, those stand apart not just by the final product but by their founding principles.  Where most Memphis projects (including Beale Street Landing) are about how cheaply they can be done, these two projects were about setting the design standards high and putting up the money to do it well.

Next: Building A City Rather Than Projects