Thursday, September 28, 2006

Corrections, Amplifications

As New Orleans reopens the Super Dome, downtown Memphis can take heart.

Posted By on Thu, Sep 28, 2006 at 4:00 AM

Who knows more about mistakes than newspapers? We try to keep them out of our stories, but they get in anyway. So we swallow our pride and acknowledge them openly or in the dark and dusty corners of our journalistic closets.

Downtown Memphis would be improved by a similar policy, starting with the Main Street Mall, which should bring back cars to share the street with pedestrians and trolleys. Developer Henry Turley, smitten with one of his frequent brainstorms, wants to do this on the blocks between Union and Gayoso, and he's right.

The big hole in the ground between Main Street and Peabody Place was supposed to be a parking garage, but the developer (not Turley) backed out. Who needs a parking garage if it's hard to drive to? There has been an unwritten change in policy on the mall anyway. At least 20 cars and trucks are usually parked on the so-called Demonstration Project blocks south of Union. Not all of them, it is safe to suggest, belong to workmen. The cops look the other way and often drive along the mall themselves.

It was probably a mistake to take cars off what was then called the Mid-America Mall in the 1970s, but, like so many other downtown projects that didn't pan out, it seemed like a good idea at the time. For a lot of reasons, including the car ban, retailers ranging from small businesses to Goldsmith's department store suffered. The trolley, even after the disruption of construction ended, couldn't bring them back. It's fine for tourists with time on their hands but impractical for anyone else.

Today, downtown is a different animal, more of a residential neighborhood and entertainment district than a business center. Tinkering with traffic worked when Madison and Monroe were transformed from one-way streets into two-ways. Not all of Main Street could accommodate cars, but part of it could. The fact is that Americans buy expensive cars, are willing to pay $3 a gallon to put gas in them, and like to drive them as close to their destination as possible.

A lot of downtown's other shortcomings can be fixed. The trolley schedule could be adjusted to coexist with cars if MATA's board would simply spend a few days and nights riding the cars when they are empty or crowded, depending on the season and schedule of events. It was not a mistake to put in a trolley system, because it allowed Memphis to rebuild the mall and spruce up downtown with federal money. But it is hardheaded to stick to an obsolete vision and schedule.

The Pyramid was a good idea when it was envisioned in 1987, less so when it was finished in 1990, and a white elephant once FedExForum opened in 2004. The city and county have no choice but to admit their mistakes and cut whatever deal they can with Bass Pro or someone else. FedExForum was a good idea, but the price of everything -- from Bryant "Big Country" Reeves to nosebleed seats to bottled water -- was a mistake. To their credit, the Grizzlies didn't waste time trying to fix it. Building a garage wasn't a mistake, but lying about its purpose was, and covering it up will be a bigger one.

Mud Island River Park was a good idea 30 years ago but stumbled shortly after it opened in 1981. Letting Sidney Shlenker tear down the playground was a mistake, but not rebuilding it after so many years is another one. Expanding Tom Lee Park along Riverside Drive without putting in more trees and facilities for everyday activities was a mistake, but blowing $27 million on Beale Street Landing with a parking garage, steamboat landing, and concrete islands probably won't fix it. Just look at Mud Island.

Letting the U.S. Post Office hold on to that handsome old customs building and courthouse on Front Street long after it had outlived its original purpose was a mistake. Booting the P.O. and peddling the property to the University of Memphis Law School was better late than never.

Make no misteak, Memphis isn't Iraq or New Orleans. Downtown can be fixed.

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