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.”
While the kneejerk reaction of a local is to defend Memphis, it’s hard to stand with them at one of Memphis’ most visited spots and argue about it. After all, the Riverwalk where they are standing is too narrow and it feels isolated because of the four lanes of traffic they had to cross to get there.
If they had switched to the other side of Riverside Drive, they would have been forced to navigate an obstacle course with traffic and Riverwalk signs in the middle of the sidewalk on the way to the Tennessee Welcome Center, where the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau’s exhibits look like high school science fair projects.
To the south, the original architectural design of Beale Street Landing, with its gentle, sloping roof, has been devastated. Poor design decisions are seen in a grossly oversized elevator, a graceless observation deck replete with railings and garish warning signs, and a parking lot that obliterates the seamless connection to Tom Lee Park. The park, like all of downtown and much of Memphis, is populated by “urban tombstones” — the large electrical transformers that Memphis Light, Gas and Water seems willing to put almost anywhere: in parks, on key street corners, and in some of Memphis’ most photographed places.
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. The same can be said these days about patched up Riverside Drive and most streets into downtown. Meanwhile, the much-ballyhooed Main to Main project is supposed to eliminate the embarrassing condition of Main Street, which is littered with broken gratings and patchwork plywood repairs, but most of the attention is on the Harahan Bridge boardwalk instead.
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. The latest proof is the McDonald’s at the corner of Highland and Southern, which flies in the face of the overlay district developed with the residents of the University District.
Simply put, one marker for a city that loves itself is good urban design. At the least, it can provide a city’s sense of itself, and at its best, it produces an architectural pride and commitment that lift up a city and shape its identity and character through an insistence on architectural integrity, high-quality design, and quality control in execution.
It’s not that we don’t know what urban design looks like when it’s done right. We have AutoZone Park and FedExForum, and if anything, they stand apart because rather than being about how cheaply they could be done, they were about setting national design standards.
Too many projects here look like they are the results of a focus group of attorneys and engineers in which the former talks only about liability and the latter rarely talks about design. It succeeds in producing a project but fails in creating a place. Other cities are working to demonstrate that design matters in a number of ways. Some have design studios that vet every investment to ensure that the city’s design principles and values are being met. Some have a city architect that performs this function, some have architects assigned to several city departments, and others use a nonprofit organization like a design center or an architectural advisory committee.
Many of these cities are moving from good to great, but before that transition began, they declared that good was not enough and they deserved more. By focusing on smart urban design, they understand that when done well, it establishes a distinct visual image and identity — sense of place — and embody the urban design principles that improve the quality of life — livability.
It’s hard to argue with the Indiana Elvis fan who said that Memphis needs some tender loving care. Then again, perhaps, even more than that, Memphis needs to adopt Elvis’ famous motto with its signature lightning bolt: TCB. Right now, as much as anything, we need to be taking care of business.
This article appears in the October 2013 issue of Memphis Magazine