Thursday, April 5, 2007

Playing Placemaker

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

Posted by on Thu, Apr 5, 2007 at 4:00 AM

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 (seewww.friendsforourriverfront.org) -- 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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