by Jon W. Sparks
In a recent meeting of the Downtown Memphis Commission’s Design Review Board, Chairman Ray Brown issued a warning: “If we don’t start getting serious about how we are going to attract people back to this city, this city is going to die. And one of those ways is the quality of the public realm and public art.”
His work on the Design Review Board involves review and approval of projects that have been given incentives by the DMC. (For a list of projects, see Page 32).
Brown is principal of Ray Brown Urban Design, a practice that focuses on how people engage with cities. For years, he has called for a more focused and consistent approach to the way that Memphis grows and develops.
Inside Memphis Business: Where is Memphis winning and where is it failing?
Ray Brown: If you look at cities that are the places that people love to go to and love to live in, they all have a sense of design for the delight of the people in them. They’re aesthetically pleasing, beautiful in some cases. The design is about beauty. The design is also about function and how things work. Successful cities pay attention to how things work, as well as how beautiful they are, and such cities have a degree of civility, of conviviality. People have places to sit and talk and engage with each other and good public squares and streets that are interesting to be on and walk along and that you can engage with other people on.
Memphis has some places that have been specifically and carefully designed to create those conditions that make for that kind of delight and that kind of civic engagement. Overton Square has that kind of ambiance that allows all of that to happen.
On the other hand, you have Poplar Avenue, which is about as suburbanized as a city street can be. It’s a high-speed traffic area and doesn’t pretend to be anything else. For most of its length, it’s unwalkable, or very difficult to walk. For most of its length, the buildings don’t engage with the street. They’re set back behind parking lots, and so you have little for a pedestrian to look at or be entertained by or engaged by, and it’s a dehumanized environment.
A good chunk of Union Avenue has turned into the same sort of thing. I have a couple of photographs I’ve taken that show utility poles in the middle of a four-and-a-half-foot sidewalk. Well, who can walk along the sidewalk with a utility pole smack dab in the middle of it, let alone try to negotiate that with a wheelchair?
Memphis has got such a great history and such a great spirit and yet we seem to have a difficult time communicating that in our public realm. A lot of that is because we don’t have a lot of money to spend, but a lot of it is that we haven’t made a priority out of creating a lovable city and out of loving the city and making the city a place that people can feel comfortable and welcome in.
If you don’t make the city a place where people want to be, we’ll end up continuing to lose more people than we gain. The people we call the talented people, by which I mean they have some college attainment, those people that we need, and who, by virtue of their skills and abilities, can choose to live wherever they wish, will go elsewhere, and they do in some numbers. We’re getting more of those young people, but we’re losing a lot of middle-class families as well.
We haven’t paid enough attention to the public realm. That’s something that seems to get left to the tail end of development and thinking, as we pursue whatever we pursue in the name of progress and more jobs and more economic development, but at what cost? At the cost of making a city that’s lovable.
Our corridors — Union, Poplar, Summer Avenue — those are the places that show, unfortunately, where our priorities lie. There are bright spots. People of Midtown put up quite a fuss about the new Kroger on Union Avenue, and as a result, they got a store that does engage the street, to a degree. It’s a lot better than it would have been, if people hadn’t risen up and said, “Listen, we want something better than the norm.”
IMB: What solutions could the city pursue?
RB: The biggest thing the Design Review Board had an impact on was Bass Pro. Their original intention was to put up four giant oval signs, one on each façade of the Pyramid. We asked them politely to reconsider. As a result, we have the one sign on the one façade that is a much better way to do it.
[On a larger scale] I’m waiting to see the outcome of the Memphis 3.0 process [the strategic plan being put together now to guide the city’s planning and development due to be in place by the city’s bicentennial in 2019]. I’m hoping that it will promote better design thinking, not just Downtown, but throughout the city. I’m hoping that it will result in a process that creates design guidelines, if not standards, something that will guide developers and architects and store owners and building owners and anybody else who is in the business of dealing with the public realm, and the city itself.
It takes creative people to look at best practices in other places and say, this is what we want Memphis to look like, to feel like. This is our vision for Memphis. That public policy would influence MLGW and the way they do things, so they don’t put poles in the middle of the sidewalk. It would influence traffic engineering, so that not every street turns into an expressway. It would influence everything that’s done in the public realm, by the city and by the private sector.
IMB: This issue of Inside Memphis Business takes a look at three areas of downtown development: ServiceMaster moving into Peabody Place, South Main, and St. Jude’s expansion. How is ServiceMaster doing?
RB: The ServiceMaster project is delightful. I think they’ve really done a terrific job taking a building that essentially was a big closed blank box and turning it into something that has life and vitality and openness.
It’s a quality design that they’ve done, given that they had an existing building to work with that really wasn’t an office building at all. They’ve given it a new purpose and a new life. It remains to be seen what they’re going to do around it with the sidewalks and so forth, but given what they’ve done to the building, I can imagine that they will help enliven and animate the sidewalks in a way that will be an asset to pedestrians who are walking in the area, and certainly an asset to the surrounding businesses. That’s the function part of design. It’s putting the right thing in the right place so that it can add to the synergy of what’s there.
IMB: How about the growth around South Main?
RB: South Main is having growing pains. I don’t think anybody knew just how popular that area was going to be for young people who wanted the downtown lifestyle and experience, and for empty-nesters, as well. Henry Turley went in there years ago and created some lofts and everybody thought he was crazy and was going to lose his shirt. Then the lofts kind of kicked off that whole South Main revolution.
Then the Tennessee Brewery stood vacant and everybody kept saying it’s too expensive, you can’t do anything with it, it’s in too bad a shape, but Billy Orgel came in and is turning it into this great place to live.
That success kind of overwhelmed, in my view, the quality of what’s being built now. It’s not up to the same standard of what was being done because the economy is different, and in order to make the numbers work, to make any kind of profit, developers are having to find less expensive ways to build the products that they’re building, and I sometimes think that we’re moving a little too fast.
We really need to ask ourselves, in 20 years or 30 years or 40 years, what is this place going to look like? Looking at it today, a lot of what’s going up around the train station, for example is, in my view, kind of suburbanized and not at the same standard that some of Henry’s earlier work has been, and I understand it. It’s a question of economics. But at the same time, it doesn’t rise to the level that I think is lasting quality in an urban way. You could practically pick that up and move it to the suburbs and it wouldn’t look out of place at all. In my view, that’s not the most appropriate way to develop in the city.
Civic life takes place in between the buildings, so the buildings have to frame and form the public realm, and create a public realm people enjoy being in. The buildings are almost backdrop to that, and if the buildings aren’t sensitive to that, and if the developer is not sensitive to the importance of creating a public realm, well, mistakes get made. Unfortunately, they last a long, long time. Decades.
IMB: How about the effect of the St. Jude expansion on nearby neighborhoods?
RB: I think the jury’s out on that. I would dearly love to see The Pinch redeveloped. St. Jude is going to be a tremendous force for good in that whole area around the campus, not only The Pinch but also the lower Uptown area, and the area to the east of campus.
The [city/county] Pinch plan floating out there is awfully ambitious. I don’t think that it’s going to happen in that form, but something’s going to happen. If they’re able to get even a quarter of what it is that they’re proposing for the retail and residential development, that would spur a lot of other private development.
I do think that St. Jude has a clear understanding of the difference between good urban development and poor urban development. They have a clear understanding of what a good public realm is, and the importance of having that to having a good, attractive city that will bring the people they want to bring to St. Jude. So I have high hopes for what they do.
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