It seems like an appropriate time to reprise a post from October 16, 2015 in light of recent announcements by FedEx, Indigo Ag, and others and the acceleration of progress that has accompanied the leadership of Jennifer Oswalt at the Downtown Memphis Commission:

It may be that after more than a decade of hyperbole, downtown Memphis may be poised to deserve it.

There are a number of initiatives and projects under way that will fundamentally reshape downtown.  While they are largely bi-coastal – on the south and north ends of downtown – they are significant and major investments in its future.  With luck, in time, the energy they create will turn into momentum that can improve what’s in between.

Paul Morris has done a great deal to breathe life into downtown, and as the Morris era turns into the Patterson era with Terence Patterson at the helm, maybe terms like renaissance will finally make sense in the downtown boosterism.

Downtown Has What’s Important

This new era begins not only with some exciting projects, but among the 100 largest cities, downtown Memphis was #38 in population growth from 2000-2010 at 22%.  Unlike many downtowns, however, our population growth skews older, and as a result, we’ve not really benefitted from the national migration of young talented people to downtowns.

As our friend Joe Cortright at City Observatory has shown in his groundbreaking research, 25-34 year-olds shows a profound preference for living within three miles of the CBD – 51%.   It was 10% in 1980, 12% in 1990, and 32% in 2000.  Unquestionably, downtown Memphis has what this demographic is seeking – density, diversity, interesting options, bikeable, walkable, and transit-served – but we remain to see the influx recorded in other places.

In that way, downtown has an interesting balancing act.  Downtown needs more young people and the population growth from it to attract jobs (just like the jobs that followed talent in jobs sprawl, fast-growing firms follow knowledge workers downtown).  While downtown needs to recruit young entrepreneurs and startups, it also has the opportunity to figure out a way to make better use of all the Boomer talent living downtown and to determine some innovative ways that it can drive growth and progress.

It’s Worth The Fight

Back to the major projects, it’s good to see that the boards of the Downtown Commission have turned their attention – and incentives – to transformative projects.  It’s a smart strategic decision, and with apartment occupancy approaching 95%, it seems like there’s enough market demand that incentives aren’t still needed for these projects while the Commission focuses on the toughest challenge of all – attracting offices and companies back downtown.

The strategic priorities for downtown established in the early years of the old Center City Commission in the mid-1970s was for it to be the regional center for finance, culture, government, and commerce.  Both Shelby County and City of Memphis agreed to the priorities and for a time, they fought any threat to these foundational priorities.  But, after awhile, everyone took their eyes off the ball, and even government was moving agencies and departments eastward.

As we have said before, sadly, for many years, no one was willing to fight for downtown as major law offices, major banks, and large companies moved eastward.  That changed under Mr. Morris’ leadership and hopefully, the Downtown Memphis Commission will double down on it during the Patterson years.

It’s The Smart Location

The national average for MSA jobs within three miles of the CBD is 23%.  Here, downtown has 12.4%, the lowest by far of the four major cities in Tennessee.

Across the U.S., the Central Business District is again attracting major companies or expanding existing ones.  (It’s a good time to say a deep thank you to AutoZone.)  There’s Bridgestone in Nashville, Omnicare in Cincinnati, Cirrus Logic in Austin, Zappos in Las Vegas, and MindMixer in Kansas City.   While we are not part of the full-throated cheerleaders for tax freezes, there is no package of incentives that aren’t justified if we could get a major corporate headquarters downtown.

In its Smart Location Database, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set out the five factors accelerating vibrant communities – density, diversity, design, distance to transit, and destination accessibility.  As our friend Jeff Speck wrote in his book, Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, anything that improves walkability improves vibrancy.   Those would make useful cornerstones for the work of the Downtown Memphis Commission.

Upgraded Public Spaces

Dynamic downtowns also have high-functioning public spaces and attention to detail and design.  We don’t have enough of these, and this should be a priority for Downtown Memphis Commission.  Downtown’s parks are underused and cry out for innovation solutions and programming to create reasons for people to come downtown, and in addition, improvements should be more intense and have a point of view.

Often, our intentions are good with projects like RiverFit in Tom Lee Park or plans for the bluffs behind the University of Memphis Law school, but we spread out equipment or outdoor furniture over too large of an area so they lack impact.  Every downtown park should have a reason to exist rather than being passive places that don’t invite us in for a peak experience.

We need Downtown Memphis Commission to drive this long overdue discussion about the use, personality, and purpose of each park and other public spaces, and it should not abdicate this role to any other agency.

Meanwhile, arts and culture – as proven on South Main – can be powerful vehicles for enlivening downtown and create a sense of place.  It’s why the new leadership at Downtown Memphis Commission should do whatever it can to move Memphis Art Park ahead, because it offers a unique opportunity to transform the moribund Cossitt Library into a hub of vibrancy.

Design Matters

As for design, downtown has already been subjected to too much suburban design, and it should reject these prototypes at all cost.  They result in reduced density, too much surface parking, and simply bad design that feels out of place.  We should be way past the time that we feel that downtown has to accept anything it is offered.  Emphasis on good design would prove it.

There is now too little sense of an urban palette but rather a hodgepodge of ideas from an assortment of city agencies doing their own thing.  There are the trolley signs that are eyesores, there are barriers of newspaper stands, there are various signs that have no rhyme or reason in their graphic design, there are poles in the middle of sidewalks, there are benches in riverfront parks facing away from the river, there is landscaping dwarfed in oversized containers, there are ugly garbage receptacles, utility boxes scattered all over downtown blocking sidewalks and serving as an ugly reminders of MLGW’s disregard for aesthetics, and just a general lack of the kind of design that could heighten downtown’s special sense of place.

Mr. Morris gets kudos for finally getting Main Street into good shape again after more than a decade of neglect by city government.  As a result, its embarrassing lack of maintenance and broken pavers and grates are things of the past.

It was a big step forward, and we hope the new leadership keeps it going with more attention to streetscapes, because they send a clear message about what we think about our downtown.   Over the years, trees have been cut off at sidewalk level and never replaced and as a general rule, we need to five more emphasis on incentives for streetscape improvements.

It’s Up To Us

Speaking of better design and better public spaces, Downtown Memphis Commission should develop a plan to remove the ugly garages that are remnants from the days when the riverfront was considered irrelevant.  We know that change won’t come quickly, but we need a different vision for the future for these irreplaceable places with magnificent vistas of our riverfront.

Finally, downtown Memphis should be a showplace for public art.  We have the long-held dream of George Segal-like sculptures of the heroes of Memphis history and the giants of Memphis music.  They would become must-have photographs for tourists and residents – sitting on a bench overlooking the river with Furry Lewis, B. B. King, or Justin Timberlake.  We need to make public art ubiquitous downtown so it can create surprising treats in the downtown experience.

No neighborhood in Memphis has more passionate advocates than downtown, and there is the rich opportunity to engage them more directly into plans for the future, but also, in acting as advocates to Memphis and Shelby County Governments for more funding and as a sources of ideas for improving the experience, the environment, and trouble shooters to ensure that downtown is as special as it deserves to be.

Hopefully, years from now, we will look back on the Morris years as the beginning of a new era for downtown and that it was propelled forward by the ambitious, aggressive leadership of the Patterson era.  We could well be on the brink of a time of exciting progress, but it takes all of us to make it happen.


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