Design: Memphis deserves better

What looks good to one person may not appeal to another. Some people like yellow; others, purple. Those are not points to argue about. But when we plan new buildings that will be standing for years, we owe it to ourselves to follow some basic design concepts and to try to imaginatively create spaces that are authentic and appropriate. The RDC plan fails the test.

It’s pretty much common philosophy among planners and architects today that efforts to invigorate a city, must be based on that city’s unique strengths, and that any plan should respect and preserve the city’s history and natural environment.

...a beautiful City, nobly situated on a commanding bluff overlooking the river.
- Mark Twain, 1883

Mark Twain described Memphis as "a beautiful City, nobly situated on a commanding bluff overlooking the river." Most Memphians would agree that the Mississippi River is our city’s greatest natural resource and the Riverbluff, with its magnificent vistas, our most unique feature.

So you would think, we would capitalize on those strengths when we plan for our riverfront –- that we would want to protect, not obstruct, our magnificent open vista; encourage the preservation and adaptive reuse of our historic buildings; stimulate the vibrancy of our harbor for navigators and naturalists; and celebrate, not homogenize, our uniqueness.

Several riverfront plans in the ‘80s did just that.

But the current RDC plan fails the test and instead proposes allowing private developers to build high-rise apartments, hotels, offices, shops, and restaurants on the most strategically located section of our public riverfront. It proposes exchanging our right to a green riverbluff for a paved walkway and shops in private buildings.
Click picture to enlarge
The massive new building projects proposed for the Public Promenade and "Land Bridge" are urban sprawl in the most destructive sense.
Urban sprawl - Click picture to enlarge
An RDC artist's conception of the future waterfront (looking south). Urban sprawl on the land bridge (foreground) replaces the present Mud Island River Park. Source: RDC

The proposed buildings have nothing to do with Memphis. They look like something that fell from New York in the ‘80s and landed in Memphis by mistake. Creating a fake downtown, an Anywhere, USA, as Richard Florida author of The Rise of the Creative Class says, “is a sure way to kill its attractiveness."

12 or 40 stories high, it really doesn’t matter. The scale of these buildings will dwarf the smaller historic buildings to both their south and east.

Front Street looking north (click picture to enlarge)
In our artist's conception, you are standing on Front Street at Union, looking north. The proposed buildings tower over the historic Cotton Row on your right (east).

And panoramic views from taller buildings will be gone, too. Replacing the 2-3 story parking garages now on the Bluff with high rises will only compound past mistakes and further separate the River from downtown.

People like human spaces – we feel good there. Nobody really wants to walk around a vast parking lot or along a major thoroughfare. If you’ve walked down the street next to skyscrapers, you know how empty, dark, and dreary it can feel. Built on the western edge of downtown, the new high-rises will cast the rest of downtown in shadows, both physically and economically.

How it ought to be (click picture to enlarge)
This is how Front Street could look. Drawings by Jack R. Tucker Associates, Architects.

We need private commercial development downtown, but not on the Public Promenade. There’s plenty of vacant space available nearby, in fact right across the street. The current downtown, Class A office, vacancy rate is more than 22%, and that doesn’t include buildings like the Sterick which are totally vacant.

Revitalize the Public Promenade as the great urban park it was meant to be; encourage new development a couple of blocks to the east; support the current Renaissance downtown; and we can have the best of both worlds.

Building a new downtown on the land bridge, Mud Island, and the Promenade would only cannibalize our city's rebirth.

NEXT: Economics: A Pyramid of new debt.