Thursday, April 05, 2007

Playing Placemaker

Fred Kent pushes ideas over icons and gives Memphis a mixed review.

Memphis Flyer [link]
April 5, 2007
by John Branston

A visionary is someone with a healthy ego and big ideas who agrees with you.

In its never-ending efforts to better itself, Memphis has engaged at least a half-dozen consultants in the last few years to tell us what to do with our parks, downtown, Shelby Farms, waterfront, and bike paths. Whether any of them are visionaries depends on where you happen to be standing.

Want to tell Memphis what you think? Get in line. Recent visitors and their sponsors include city expert Ken Jackson (Urban Land Institute), park experts Alexander Garvin (Shelby Farms) and Charles Jordan (Friends for Our Riverfront), and waterfront experts Cooper, Robertson & Partners (Riverfront Development Corporation, or RDC).

Last week it was Fred Kent's turn to take a whack at the waterfront. A New Yorker most of his adult life (he organized Earth Day in 1970 when John Lindsay was mayor), Kent's Project for Public Spaces has turned Placemaking with a capital "P" into a brand of sorts. Sixty-something, easy-going, and casually dressed, Kent and his son Ethan, who is in the family business, log something like 150,000 miles a year compiling lists of places good and bad. Their big idea is that big ideas for city improvements are often wrong, especially if they're architectural monuments. The Kents think a lot of little ideas from a lot of "stake-holders" usually produces a better result. They call it the "power of 10," as in 10 destinations that each have 10 things to do

Not surprisingly, Fred Kent is no fan of The Pyramid or the proposed $27 million Beale Street Landing with its floating pods in the Mississippi River at Tom Lee Park.

"That will be one of the great design disasters that will haunt you for 20 years before you have the guts to take it out," he predicted. "And The Pyramid -- what a bad symbol for a city. I would tear it down. The only question is, will you do it 10 years from now or next year."

The Kents came to Memphis at the invitation of Friends for Our Riverfront and Memphis Heritage to tape a television interview and run one of their patented Placemaking workshops for about 140 people last Saturday. We split up into groups and headed via the trolley to seven downtown destinations, pencils and report cards in hand. It was Saturday morning, and the rain hadn't blown in yet. The COGIC funeral and the ballgame at AutoZone Park were far enough away that they didn't interfere. The downtown parks looked like they usually do -- generally well kept but lightly used except for the Kemet Jubilee parade that was winding down at Tom Lee Park.

"You guys are going to come up with all these amazing ideas," Kent said.

Well, maybe. At the cobblestones, my assigned destination, I trekked along the sidewalk on Riverside Drive and down the steps, averting a thrown-away sanitary napkin. I crossed the stones that group leader Susan Caldwell told us were once used to balance the loads in riverboats. A few cars were parked near the tour boats, and two powerboats and a kayak glided through the brown water of the harbor.

"It's not attractive to the eye," said Sybil McCrackin, from the Kemet parade.

That was the consensus of our group, too, when we summarized our scribbling at lunch. Short-term suggestions were to remove the utility poles, put in historic markers, eliminate parking, add a patch of grass, and put public art on the long gray wall beneath the sidewalk. Long-term ideas included a floating restaurant, Wi-Fi, paddleboats, and concession stands. As RDC president Benny Lendermon told me later, however, a floating restaurant failed several years ago, MudIsland is experimenting with boat rentals, and the Landmarks Commission objected to painting the wall.

"We wanted all of that," said Lendermon, who also played the game and met for an hour or so with the Kents. Beale Street Landing, the RDC's signature project, is still a go, but the underground parking garage has been scrapped.

There was much similarity to the seven groups' suggestions (see -- vendors, bathrooms, and street performers, which made me wish Flyer columnist Tim Sampson (All Mimes Must Die!) had been there. No one pledged the first $1,000, but the total bill wouldn't have approached $27 million.

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Sunday, April 01, 2007

Ideas for riverfront flow at workshop

Proposals include fountains, cafes, concessions, play area

The Commercial Appeal [link]
April 1, 2007
By Pamela Perkins

For anyone walking along the Mississippi River bluff in the stifling Memphis summer heat, just looking at a large body of water is not enough.

It would be nice to have public water fountains at parks that overlook the Mississippi River -- among other user-friendly touches at areas along Front Street and Riverside Drive, such as garbage cans, more cafes, food and beverage vendors and bicycle racks.

Those were the prevailing ideas at a "Placemaking" workshop led by New York-based Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit agency that helps make public areas more attractive. Its projects include Rockefeller Center in New York and Chapel Street in New Haven, Conn.

"They say, 'This is your space. How would you use it?'" said Virginia McLean, board president of the nonprofit Friends for Our Riverfront, which organized the workshop along with Rhodes College, the University of Memphis Mid-South Planning and Zoning Institute and Memphis Heritage.

The workshop's 135 participants included Downtown residents, planning students from the U of M and Rhodes, and Center City Commission officials. They divided into groups, and toured sites along the river, interviewing visitors.

Upon returning, they presented their findings, many of which included more landscaping, lighting and signs that explain the historic nature of sites such as the Cossitt Library, Confederate Park and Court Square.

The rusty fountain at Court Square should be working, one group suggested.

Cafes, concessions and more public events would do well at Confederate Park and Jefferson Davis Park, which also needs a play area for children, better seating and water fountains, they suggested.

Also, the cobblestone area on Riverside near Madison could be given a name as well as seating and signs.

"We're going to try to put it all together and get a report done," McLean said. The group eventually may present the report to city officials.

The Friends group has been wary of the city-owned Riverfront Development Corp's. plans, which it believes diminishes Downtown's character.

Dianne Dixon, a founding member of the RDC board who also attended the workshop, said what she heard at the workshop jibes with the Riverfront group's plans.

After the $27 million Beale Street Landing project is completed, the RDC wants to restore the cobblestone area in a "preservation manner," she said.

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Editorial: Mayors prime new jobs pump

The Commercial Appeal [Link]
April 1, 2007

Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton last week pledged $1.25 million in county funds for economic development in the 2008 fiscal year that begins July 1.

Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton says he will seek up to $1.5 million in city funds for the effort.

An economic development plan prepared for local government and business leaders makes a persuasive case that the mayors' investments, which are subject to County Commission and City Council approval, are not only sound but perhaps even urgent.

Local business leaders are also being prodded to devote more resources to the task of marketing Memphis to the world and sending our best and our brightest out on recruiting missions to sell the community to potential investors.

A draft of the plan obtained by The Commercial Appeal last week represents one part of a four-part series of strategic plans that also address crime, government efficiency and education-workforce development.

Because Memphis and Shelby County operate "the most under-funded economic development program" in the nation, we apparently have been lucky to get companies like Nucor and ServiceMaster to invest in the community, the report implies.

And while comparisons are often onerous, it may be somewhat instructive to note that while local governments were spending $350,000 on economic development here in 2006, Nashville was spending $3 million.

One of the plan's most useful elements may be its list of 15 disparate strategies for progress in Memphis that engage our attention from time to time but are rarely considered as parts of a coherent whole.

The list ranges from the creation of a national entrepreneurship "center of excellence" to internal and external marketing campaigns to tout the community's assets.

Benefits would flow, as well, from the development of a "seamless" linear park system linking Shelby Farms Park, the riverfront and other parkland via the Wolf River Greenway, Memphis Greenline and other green corridors.

Resolving the ticklish legal issues surrounding the riverfront promenade would be part of an overall plan to invigorate the city's Downtown and Mississippi riverfront. [Emphasis added]

Some of the newer ideas for economic development, such as enhancing the city's international role as an "aerotropolis" and expanding its biosciences industry, are given the prominent role they deserve, along with old standbys like tourism, the music industry and tax incentives.

The infrastructure exists to advance most of these strategies, although a cabinet-level, publicly funded city and county Office of Economic Development would make them easier to pursue.

At the heart of the report is a new five-year, $66 million plan that would attempt to take Memphis into the big leagues of economic development, where the game is played like a "hyper-competitive survival of the fittest in which the winners grow stronger and the losers find it increasingly more difficult to make headway in the race to compete."

Support for the ideas in the plan is easy to voice, and this one will be greeted with enthusiasm. The more difficult task is finding the money to fix the community's shortcomings and put it on a fast track to fortune.

While Wharton and Herenton tally up funding, it will be instructive to see who else wants to get on board.

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