It feels like we’ve been here before, but this time, downtown Memphis has to make the most of it.
Despite decades of concerted attention and hundreds of millions of dollars in investments and waived taxes for downtown, vibrancy too often remains event-driven or isolated to Beale Street while much of Main Street is moribund and the riverfront continues to lack vitality.
We’ve all heard the hyperboles that get thrown around about downtown but the truth is that it lags when compared to the downtowns of comparable cities. The Clinton boom years that turned around so many downtowns passed us by, and so today, we often seem to be chasing ideas that other cities executed years ago.
We know that we’ve been here before. Peabody Place was to be the major brick in the rebuilding of downtown. AutoZone Park was going to be the thing that set downtown into high gear. FedExForum was the investment that was to transform downtown. Beale Street Landing was to be the domino that pushed other projects ahead. South Main’s revival was to become a virus that ran upstream and improved Main Street even to the largely desolate blocks at night between Poplar and Monroe.
And yet, we’re still hearing that downtown is making exciting progress, but just as often as not, we’re fighting to keep a building open, whether it’s One Commerce Square or Autozone Park, or fighting to ignore others like the Sterick Building, 100 North Main Building, and the old Police headquarters at 128 Adams that are cenotaphs to a downtown that no longer exists.
It’s About Places, Not Projects
While there are indeed important projects and signs of progress, we have failed to create momentum because we continue to be focused on project-building instead of placemaking. As a result, projects are siloed and the two drivers for successful downtowns – programming and connectivity – are routinely left unaddressed, leaving vast areas between projects that are devoid of energy and contribute to the feeling that downtown is disjointed and fragmented.
More than anything, downtown lacks the connective tissue that leads residents – and visitors – to explore and enjoy downtown. For example, imagine you’re a visitor standing at Beale Street Landing. There are no visual markers – much less wayfinding – that suggest where you should go next. There’s not something visibly obvious that is compelling enough that it pulls you toward the next interesting place and to the next and the next.
More than anything, this is why we can’t fail to capitalize on the Bass Pro effect. Already, the building is attracting glowing national media coverage, but more to the point, it is on track to attract more than two times the original projections. In the first two months since the building opened, there have been one million customers, which means that even if the crowds drop dramatically, it is within the realm of possibilities that it might attract five million people to downtown, or the same number that go to Beale Street (although Bass Pro Shops counts visitors while the Beale Street estimates come from tourism officials).
But just think of it, what does it mean to downtown to have two anchors – one in south downtown at Beale Street and another in north downtown at Bass Pro Shops – that are attracting 10 million people? How do we make the most of this and in ways that benefit downtown?
Creating Big City Parks
As for the Bass Pro effect, the opportunity for us is to find ways to entice millions of out-of-town visitors (the parking lot is a great place to play license plate bingo) to walk along the riverfront and up to Main Street.
In this regard, the shutdown of the trolleys could not have come at a worse time for downtown. At the exact moment when we could have coaxed, tempted, or cajoled hundreds of thousands of people at The Pyramid to hop on trolleys at the stop there and circulate through downtown and the riverfront, we lost that opportunity.
Imagine a customer to Bass Pro Shops. Standing outside the main entrance, there is little to pull in along the riverfront: Mississippi River Park (formerly Jefferson Davis Park) has nothing to attract residents, much less visitors, and looking from the Tennessee Visitors Center at the foot of Bass Pro Drive, there’s nothing to pull anyone up to Memphis Park (formerly Confederate Park) which continues to be home to a hodge podge of Confederate curios.
Then again, the general condition of the parks and the lackadaisical attention to having a value-added feature in each of them don’t inspire even the students at University of Memphis Law School to walk across the charming bridge that connects the school with the park to its north. One deterrent might be that there’s no Wi-Fi in the park although that should be a basic feature in all of downtown but starting with the parks would be a good beginning point.
Maximizing Every Opportunity
Next door to the law school, City of Memphis failed to pursue the potential of Memphis Art Park at the Cossitt Library, which would have been a major inducement to activate a key location and pull people along the riverfront to enjoy distinctive experiences in Memphis.
The riverfront parks are the responsibility of the Riverfront Development Corporation, and it’s not shown an inclination to imagine how these parks could be turned into something we would all be proud of. In addition, there are signs in the declining care of medians and landscaping that the RDC may be coping with budgetary pressures of its own. As a result, it seems a good time for City of Memphis to assume responsibility for considering what it would take for the parks should be to become attractors for downtown.
Come to think of it, in a recent meeting in City Hall to discuss the future of the Pinch District and the riverfront, it was said that a number of national developers are interested in investing in Memphis as a result of Bass Pro Shops, and that’s another opportunity that has to be optimized.
It’s Not Either-Or, It’s And
We understand the frustration of the Bus Riders Union in advocating for much-needed improvements in the customer experience on MATA’s buses. After all, for more decades than we can remember, MATA treated its customers as people who had no other choices but public transit – and it’s hard to imagine that the same level of service would have been delivered if the customers had been middle class.
We have often lamented over the years that the trolleys were postcard material but had little resemblance to a real transportation system, but now, because of Bass Pro Shops, MATA should resist an “either-or” approach when it comes to trolleys and buses. The answer is “and,” because the trolleys now have the potential to be a stimulus for economic development if it can successfully get Bass Pro Shops customers on board and entice them to visit downtown and the riverfront.
That said, most of the complaints of the Bus Riders Union deserve attention, particularly overcrowding, lack of air conditioning, and replacement of aging buses. We can appreciate, if not share, their lack of enthusiasm for the purchase of eight rubber-wheeled, trolley-like buses for $1.8 million. Until we move from trolley-like to trolleys again, it’s all stop gap and a band-aid which means there is no way to get usage back up to 125,000 people a month (it’s down to 35,000 a month now with the green buses).
Taking a 20-20 Look At Downtown
Speaking of luring people along the riverfront, the RDC has announced that it’s moving along with the $6 million restoration of the 150-year-old cobblestone (it cost $83,333 when it was built, equivalent to $2.4 million today) which was originally built with limestone quarried in Hardin County, Illinois, near the tiny port town of Cave-In-Rock.
Hopefully, the project will now move with all deliberate speed, and the RDC said it may be complete by next year. It’s been way too long in getting under way and the Great Memphis Landing today is visually disruptive to the riverfront and largely an eyesore. The project, according to the RDC, will have an overlook, historical markers, an easier-to-navigate sidewalk, and possibly a small boat ramp.
Unfortunately, at this point, it sounds like the project is seen largely as a historic project, and that perspective needs to be broadened. For example, the Landing should be activated, in keeping with the recommendations of author and urban planner Jeff Speck as a site for temporary sculpture exhibits, street fairs, markets, and anything else that brings street life to the edge. Along the way, it can find some innovative, interactive ways to use the restoration to shine a light into the early history of Memphis.
In other words, back to our main point, everything that is done in downtown these days should be seen through the lens of creating lures that encourage people to walk along the riverfront, to experience Memphis more fully, and to stay just a little longer.