In our last blog post, we wrote: “Dynamic downtowns have high-functioning public spaces and attention to detail and design.”
Because that is true, it should come as no surprise that we believe the Studio Gang/Scape design of Tom Lee Park – one that transforms it from an ungrazed pasture into an actual park and a vibrant one at that – is the most spectacular plan for public space we’ve ever seen in Memphis.
It’s an opinion that should not come as a shock to anyone. After all, we’ve been blogging for almost 10 years about the way that the present park is an embarrassment and denies what it wants to be: a spectacular park doing justice to the most spectacular view on the Mississippi River.
It’s not as if it has not been an opinion shared by most Memphians who care about high-performing public space and believe that we should aspire to be nothing less than the best. Surely, we need look no farther than Shelby Farms Park – not to mention FedExForum, AutoZone Park, and Crosstown Concourse – to see how a commitment to outstanding design can unlock civic pride, inspire our aspirations, and catapult our national brand.
In cities of all sizes across the U.S., waterfronts are being remade and their ability to spark new development and jobs has been conclusively proven. That said, we don’t have to look to Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Portland, San Francisco, or Chicago for inspiration. We can find it in our sister Tennessee cities of Nashville and Chattanooga.
The East Tennessee city used its riverfront as the catalyst for new development, new investment, and a more prosperous downtown. The Brookings Institution in 2000 credited Chattanooga’s 21st Century Waterfront vision as the reason for the city’s turnaround from once being called America’s most polluted city into one celebrated for its beautiful riverfront. The city continues now, decades later, to make investments in the public space on its waterfront, which has become without question the most iconic image for Chattanooga.
Meanwhile, the Nashville 21st Century Waterfront project will eventually be 10 times larger than the existing park that has been built so far with the city moving with a momentum, decisiveness, and a commitment to excellence that have defined it in recent years.
And yet, both of these cities could only dream of the kind of riverfront that Memphis possesses – and has squandered for so long.
Memphis has been talking for almost a century – from Memphis’ first comprehensive plan in 1924 by legendary city planner Harland Bartholomew to three recommendations in this century that called for a new design for Tom Lee Park. Mr. Bartholomew said it well 95 years ago: “Today, the riverfront is not merely unattractive, but represents a flagrantly unprofitably use of the property…the riverfront could be transformed into a picture of combined commercial and recreational activities truly representative of the city’s character and unsurprised in attractiveness in any other city.” His plan was followed by at least 21 other plans, and that’s just since 1973.
Meanwhile, while we contemplated our navel, in only a decade, Nashville has moved from nothing to a green respite from country music and cowboy hats while Chattanooga expands its bold vision for its riverfront.
We say all this to make the point that Memphis cannot afford yet again to fail to make the most of its riverfront, and if there is any doubt on the potential, the importance, and the impact of this project, you need only visit the model of the design on display at Beale Street Landing. While the renderings previously released were persuasive, the model is conclusive. Put simply, this plan must be executed.
More than any of the riverfront projects we’ve seen in other cities, this design amplifies the site rather than overwhelms it, the design feels organic rather than an artificial overlay seen in other places, and the design represents a deft touch that magnifies the natural setting and ecology rather than the theme park overdesign seen in some of today’s park designs.
While there is much about the design that is appealing, if not captivating, the designers said their underlying approach was to draw inspiration from the river itself, and as a result, the design of the park was inspired by the river’s meanders, ecologies, pools, and currents, turning the barren landscape into a place offering individualized experiences with the park and personalized relationships with the river. The designers’ explanations about their planning principles and inspirations is convincing in its authenticity and in its sensitivity to who Memphis is.
Despite this unrivaled opportunity for an archetypal riverfront, Alan Crone, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland’s major domo, described a letter from the Metropolitan Hotel and Lodging Associated written to his boss that sounds like it was conclusions in search of a premise. Raising questions in a “sky is falling” tone, the Association appeared to suggest that two weeks of Memphis in May International Festival is enough for Memphis even when given a chance to make Tom Lee Park into a 365-day-a-year park with amplified vibrancy, energy, and economic impact.
Here’s the thing: I was the longest serving member of the Memphis in May board in its history, I was involved twice in helping develop plans to prevent its bankruptcy, and I am proud of how it rose from its humble origins to become a valued regional festival. It is a classic Memphis success story, one of grit and determination and one based on exploiting assets unique to what makes Memphis so special in the first place, notably barbecue and music.
It’s Just Logical
I remember meetings in the festival’s early days – held in the Chamber of Commerce headquarters until the Chamber moved out as it faced closing – when a biracial group of young Turks were frustrated with the elitism of the Memphis Cotton Carnival and decided to create an organization that would bring the races together, that would reposition Memphis’ image in a global economy, and that would reposition Memphis in the national mind. Today, we often forget that this audacious idea came as Beale Street was boarded up, the Peabody Hotel was closed, the Chamber of Commerce was near bankruptcy, and the economy was going only in one direction – down.
And yet, Memphis in May’s visionary founders like Lyman Aldrich, Tiffany Bingham, Harold Shaw, Mose Yvonne Hooks, and Joyce Blackmon and others decided to aim high and take fearless action with an unrelenting eye on the future. Come to think of it, that’s the same attitude we need now as we consider this historic opportunity to reboot Tom Lee Park.
It’s also why there’s no reason to expect a festival that has devoted itself to the success of the city would now fail to support a park plan does just that. Looking at the model of the transformed park, it’s clear that large swaths of the park have been set aside for festival stages, and some park lovers have said that if the Memphis River Parks Partnership had been single mindedly focused on just creating a great park, it could have put these areas to better use.
That said, an alliance between Memphis in May and Memphis River Parks Partnership is the logical course of action. Surely, looking over the model, most reasonable people would agree that there is a way for the festival to flourish within these gorgeous new surroundings and to be part of increasing the value to the public of this special place.
And looking at the dimensions of the large three spaces reserved for Memphis in May, it’s hard to imagine that there’s not enough space. Festival officials told us a few months ago that they can live with a park plan if it provided them with space for 25,000 at the music festival. Depending on whether you use 4.5 square feet or 9 square feet for each concertgoer, there is space for 26,191 to 55,999 people.
Giving Memphis in May a Worthy Place
While serving on the Memphis in May board, I was also the longest serving member of the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau executive committee, so I have a personal appreciation of the association representing the hotel and motel industry. These hoteliers are a data-driven group willing to take smart risks to expand their businesses and have even shut down much of a property while retooling it. Hopefully, they will come to see that a park that protects their May spike in occupancy but adds room nights in the other 11 and a half months is in their best interest – as well as in the best interests of downtown restaurants and retail.
Equally important, with FedEx Logistics, Indigo Ag, Servicemaster, and others moving downtown, a highly functionally, highly appealing Tom Lee Park is a competitive advantage in attracting and keeping the kinds of workers these companies need.
Hopefully, all of this is compelling enough for hoteliers to understand that what’s good for the city is also good for their industry and what’s good for the park is also good for Memphis in May. Tom Lee Park has remained essentially the same uninspiring place through the vicissitudes of 100 years, and surely, facing its third century, Memphis can leverage its renewed self-confidence and ambition to build the park as it is designed.
I have close friends on all sides of this issue, but in a community where we make too many decisions based on personalities rather than policies and on fear of change rather than confidence in our potential, it would be tragic if Memphis does not succeed in capitalizing on this opportunity, not only because of the loss to the city, but because of the loss to Memphis in May in gaining a place to stage the festival that is unlike any we’ve seen anywhere else.
I’ve attended music festivals in other cities that were held in fairgrounds, large open lots, or race tracks. They were the barest and bleakest public spaces – sort of like Tom Lee Park today – but here, Memphians and Memphis in May can do better and deserve better.
Rising to the Occasion
When we first blogged about the importance of turning Tom Lee Park into a park, it was described to us by architect Frank Ricks as a moonscape, and when there was a discussion about changing the alignment of Riverside Drive, he had drawn up a rough idea of how “rooms” could be added to the park to break up its monotony and create several unique experiences.
In 2013, in his recommendations to the City of Memphis, noted urban planner and author Jeff Speck did the same. He said that Memphis in May’s opposition to a previous ideas for improving Tom Lee Park was because they were not invited to participate in the planning, and that’s why city officials say they were intent on the festival being part of the current process. At the time, Mr. Speck said that based on his conversations with Memphis in May, there was no conflict between a better designed Tom Lee Park with “outdoor rooms” and the needs of Memphis in May.
Memphis has never been the kind of city that is comfortable with change, but if our community is to compete with other cities, we should consider changing our ways in order to change the trajectory of the city. In this way, for us, this project is about more than Tom Lee Park. It is about whether Memphis is ready to act on the momentum that is just picking up steam. It is also about making the kinds of investments that cities that we envy make regularly because the simple fact is that if we don’t invest in improving our quality of life, why should we expect anyone else to?
On a sunny spring day in May, 1925, the indominable and brave Tom Lee who against all odds saved the lives of 32 people when their steamer overturned near Memphis. A dramatic sculpture in the park pays tribute to the soft-spoken, uncommon man who became a national hero.
The courage and self-confidence Memphis needs to transform Tom Lee Park pales in comparison to anything he displayed that other day in May that should give us a reason to celebrate each year, but hopefully, we too will rise to the occasion.
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