I worked in downtown Memphis for 45 years and it is my favorite place in Shelby County.
I have seen it when it was a vibrant place spilling over with workers crowding Main Street at lunchtime, I saw it transition from a street to a pedestrian mall, I have watched it struggles, and I have celebrated its revitalization.
Because of that context, it pains me to see its current condition. Main Street is treated as a parking lot in violation of Memphis law. Its cleanliness is sporadic, its streetscape haphazard, the pride of place by government entities charged with its maintenance has vanished.
It doesn’t have to be this way. It shouldn’t be that way. All it takes is a leader who will say enough is enough and make sure Main Street gets the TLC it deserves.
Without it, it’s hard to imagine how we’ll coax workers back from their home offices and to recruit the new businesses to fill vacant offices and whose workers can prevent restaurants from closing.
Ignoring the Basics
It’s a tough time for downtown because of the confluence of market trends, worker issues, and the post-pandemic impact that lingers on. Paying no attention to the principle that downtown should be Memphis’ most special place sends a troubling message: if downtown isn’t being cared for, what does it say about the attention being given to neighborhoods all over Memphis?
If downtown isn’t brilliant at the basics, where should we look to see how that principle is executed?
If Downtown Memphis Commission can’t solve these problems, is there another public agency who can?
Downtown Memphis Commission is rightly dedicated to the redevelopment of vacant buildings and focused on other development issues. It’s also to be commended for being the first PILOT-granting agency in Shelby County that took a look at its incentives policies and made some necessary changes.
Here’s the thing: the Downtown Memphis Commission proudly urges us to “experience downtown,” but today, that experience has a lot lacking. As Memphis moves toward a mayoral election, the state of downtown should be a major issue to be discussed and candidates should speak to how they will correct its current shameful conditions.
Broken Windows Theory
Yes, development of real estate is important, but downtown businesses pay almost $4 million a year in a special assessment and expect to have a clean, safe, and attractive downtown in return. Many of these business leaders now complain that they are not getting the return on investment that was promised way back when the special fee on their businesses was approved.
For those of us of a certain age, downtown was an exciting place to work and play. Today, it can be demoralizing. Cars parking illegally up and down Main Street is tantamount to saying nobody cares, and arguably evidence of the broken window theory.
That theory contends that signs of disorder and apathy can encourage more misbehavior. That’s why illegal parking matters. It sends the message that anything goes on Main Street. Why bother obeying city laws?
Former Downtown Memphis Commission president said it well in 2010 when he took the helm of the downtown development agency. “First and foremost, we need to make downtown a more attractive environment to be. If we can get the infrastructure in better repair, if we can keep the streets vibrant with activity, if we can attract restaurants and other amenities for office tenants, then office tenants will want to move downtown. Being downtown provides a community atmosphere that the suburbs can never provide.
“Data from other cities has shown that if you have a vibrant Downtown, you can help turn the whole city around. I think the most efficient and effective way to turn the economy around in Memphis is to focus a lot of our efforts on Downtown because to become a city of choice and to attract and retain talent, best practices from other cities say you have to have a vibrant Downtown to accomplish either one of those goals.”
He was right and in his five years running Downtown Memphis Commission, he created some innovative ways to accomplish these goals. When he left the agency, downtown looked better than it had in decades. That’s why it so sad to see its condition today because so much of what was accomplished in those years are merely becoming memories at this point.
It was a time when Mr. Morris convinced City Hall to allow Downtown Memphis Commission to write parking tickets. Illegal parking subsided quickly, but after someone filed a lawsuit, City Hall took back its citation books. There is arguably another legal way to allow the Commission to write these tickets but none of these conversations appear to be happening.
Another conversation that doesn’t appear to be happening is the one about the agreement that set out the responsibilities of city agencies joined in their commitment to keep downtown in good condition.
It was signed by Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr., Mr. Morris, and the president of Memphis Area Transit Authority Will Hudson. It was effective January 1, 2013, and it set out responsibilities for effective maintenance of Main Street.
The agreement said that its purpose was based on the “parties’ common intent to have a Main Street Mall that is well-maintained and enhances Memphis as a City of Choice.”
The agreement had no end date, and City Hall sources said it appears it is still in effect today. After all, the MOU says: “This MOU shall remain in effect until terminated in writing by any party, upon ninety (90) days prior written notice to all parties, provided that it shall otherwise remain in effect until perpetuity.” No one can produce such a letter.
Here’s the agreement that needs a champion/leader who will make sure it’s followed:
MEMORANDUM OF UNDERSTANDING
CITY OF MEMPHIS,
DOWNTOWN MEMPHIS COMMISSION,
MEMPHIS AREA TRANSIT AUTHORITY
RESPONSIBILITIES FOR MAINTENANCE
ON MAIN STREET MALL
EFFECTIVE JANUARY 1, 2013
MEMORANDUM OF UNDERSTANDING AMONG THE CITY OF MEMPHIS, DOWNTOWN MEMPHIS COMMISSION, AND MEMPHIS AREA TRANSIT AUTHORITY CONCERNING THE RESPONSIBILITIES OF ALL PARTIES IN THE MAINTENANCE OF THE MAIN STREET MALL
WHEREAS, the City of Memphis (“City”), the Downtown Memphis Commission (“DMC”), and the Memphis Area Transit Authority (“MATA”) agree that to enhance Memphis as a City of Choice it will take all to work together to improve and maintain Main Street Mall.
WHEREAS, Main Street Mall is defined as the public property consisting of Main Street from Exchange Avenue on the north to Peabody Place on the south, Court Square Park, and Civic Center Plaza.
WHEREAS, the City, DMC, and MATA agree that to accomplish the goal of enhancing Memphis as a City of Choice, each entity shall be solely responsible for certain maintenance and improvements on the Main Street Mall.
WHEREAS, all parties agree that this Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) sets forth the parties’ common understanding of each party’s roles and responsibilities in the maintenance of Main Street Mall.
NOW, THEREFORE, in consideration of the parties’ common intent to have a Main Street Mall that is well maintained and enhances Memphis as a City of Choice, the parties acknowledge as follows:
The City of Memphis General Services Division shall be responsible for:
- General maintenance of all Trees located on and within the Main Street Mall.
- Maintenance of all Tree Grates, including, but not limited to “Good” Tree Grates and “Broken/Missing” Tree Grates located on and within the Main Street Mall.
- Maintenance of all the Benches located on and within the Main Street Mall.
- Maintenance of the Light Poles outside the trolley line located on and within the Main Street Mall.
- Maintenance of all the City Hall Drainage matters located at or around City Hall.
- Maintenance of all the Pavers located outside the MATA Trolley Line right-of-way of twenty-two (22) foot six-inches wide located on and within the Main Street Mall. Missing or damaged Pavers will be replaced with appropriate and safe materials.
- Maintenance of all the Water Fountains located on and within the Main Street Mall.
- Maintenance of all the Bollards located on and within the Main Street Mall.
- Maintenance of all publicly owned light bulbs, except those located at Trolley stops.
The Downtown Memphis Commission shall be responsible for:
- Maintenance of all the Planters, and the plants in the Planters, located on and within the Main Street Mall, including the hanging planter baskets at MATA Trolley Stations.
- The exterior of the Electrical Kiosk Boxes located on and within the Main Street Mall.
- Maintenance of all the Wayfinding Signage located on and within the Main Street Mall.
- Maintenance of all the Media Corrals/Magazine Racks located on and within the Main Street Mall.
- Regulating and permitting activity on the Main Street Mall, including events, temporary parking, vendors, banners, private signage, and outdoor patios.
- Providing enhanced landscaping services beyond the City’s basic services for the Lawns located at Court Square and along the Main Street Mall, excluding Civic Center Plaza.
- Supplementing the police bike patrols with private security patrols, which will work in close coordination with the police to support the police.
- Supplementing the police enforcing the ordinance prohibiting parking or driving on the Main Street Mall without a permit, by issuing citations to illegal parkers on the Main Street Mall.
The City of Memphis Public Works Division shall be responsible for:
- Maintenance of all the public Trash Cans located on and within the Main Street Mall, except for the public Trash Cans located at MATA Trolley Stations located on and within the Main Street Mall.
- Regularly emptying the public Trash Cans located on and within the Main Street Mall so that they do not overflow with trash.
- General cleaning the Main Street Mall and public infrastructure on and within the Main Street Mall.
- Maintenance of all the Drainage Grates located on and within the Main Street Mall.
- Maintenance of all the Lawns located on and within the Main Street Mall.
The Memphis Area Transit Authority shall be responsible for:
- Maintenance of all the Pavers and Tracks within their Trolley Line right-of-way of twenty-two (22) foot six-inches wide located on and within the Main Street Mall.
- Maintenance of all the Catenary Poles and associated overhead wires related to powering the trolley system located on and within the Main Street Mall.
- Maintenance of all signage located at their Trolley Stations located on and within the Main Street Mall.
- Maintenance of all the public Trash Cans located at their Trolley Stations located on and within the Main Street Mall.
- Maintenance of the Trolley Stations including Clock Tower located in the Civic Center Plaza on and within the Main Street Mall.
The Downtown Neighborhood Association, Owners, City of Memphis and Downtown Memphis Commission will all share in the responsibility for:
- Maintenance of the hodgepodge of Bicycle Racks located
on and within the Main Street Mall depending on the location and ownership of each.
The City of Memphis Engineering Division through UrbanArt shall be responsible for:
- Maintenance of all the Sculptures and Public Art located on and within the Main Street Mall.
- Maintenance of all the Regulatory Signage located on and within the Main Street Mall.
The City of Memphis Police Services Division shall be responsible for:
- Public safety on the Main Street Mall and shall regularly employ bike patrols on the Main Street Mall to deter crime and enhance the sense of security.
- Enforcing the ordinance prohibiting parking or driving on the Main Street Mall without a permit.
This MOU shall remain in effect until terminated in writing by any party, upon ninety (90) days prior written notice to all parties, provided that it shall otherwise remain in effect until perpetuity.
Neither the City of Memphis, Downtown Memphis Commission, nor Memphis Area Transit Authority shall have any liability as to the maintenance of any numerated provision which they are not specifically provided to maintain, and the parties to the extent permitted by law hereby agree to indemnify and hold harmless each other as to the specific responsibilities set forth for the parties to maintain.
This MOU may not be altered or amended except by mutual consent of the parties hereto evidenced by a written instrument.
Notice given under this MOU shall be in writing and shall be delivered to the persons whose names and business addresses appear below or to such other persons and or designee as any party shall have notified the other, by hand delivery or by e-mail or by certified mail, return receipt requested. Notice shall be deemed effective when received.
If to City of Memphis: A C Wharton, Jr. Mayor
City Hall, Suite 700
125 North Main Street
Memphis, Tennessee 38103
If to Downtown Memphis Commission: Paul Morris, President
114 North Main Street
Memphis, Tennessee 38103
If to Memphis Area Transit Authority William Hudson, President
1370 Levee Road
This MOU may be executed in multiple counterparts, which together shall constitute one original.
This MOU shall be subject to annual budget approvals by the City of Memphis, Downtown Memphis Commission and Memphis Area Transit Authority.
IN WITNESS WHEREOF, the City of Memphis, the Downtown Memphis Commission and the Memphis Area Transit Authority have executed this MOU, effective as of January 1, 2013.