Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Gentrify My Historic Neighborhood, Please

Posted By on Wed, Apr 24, 2013 at 6:29 PM

There seem to be some concerns about gentrifying Midtown if the Sears Crosstown project is completed.

I say we should be so lucky. Gentrification, a fancy word for raising property values and the quality of neighborhoods, is a good thing, not a bad thing. If the Crosstown planners who want to turn the Sears building into a vertical urban village can't understand that then I don't know why they're fooling with this monster.

My perspective on the Sears building comes, daily, from the front door of my house in the Evergreen Historic District three blocks from Sears, where the summer sun sets behind the tower. My wife and I bought our house in 1984, raised our children here, sent them to Snowden school down the street, and have welcomed and said good-bye to a succession of mostly exemplary neighbors. Friends who live in East Memphis or the suburbs or other cities say we live on a good street. We agree.

We paid $86,500 for the house. The county appraisal we got in March values it at $204,200, an average annual increase of 3 percent over 29 years in which we put on a few roofs and added a new garage, central air, and a bedroom-to-bathroom conversion. This compares to the nearly 9 percent annual return on the Dow Jones Industrial Average over the same period of time. If only . . .

Granted, I have taken pains to keep the county appraisal low because it means lower property taxes, and we don't plan on moving any time soon. On the other hand, this is a big chunk of our retirement plan, and if we did decide to move we would want to get top dollar.

One reason appraisals are all over the place in this part of Midtown is because of the notoriously uneven quality of the houses. There are a bunch of relatively new houses built on the old expressway corridor in the 1990s, several classic bungalows and four-squares that are 100 years old, and quite a few blighted wrecks. Some of them are occupied, some are not. A stone's throw from my place is a rental for college students. Some people would describe them as members of Richard Florida's creative class. The owners of the house, since 1989, own a small business in Midtown. They get rental income. The students are able bodied. But for whatever reason, nobody believes in house or yard maintenance. Every year, the neighbors have to notify code enforcement, which does what it can.

This is the story of Midtown. For every dump, there are four or five houses that are well kept, sometimes at great cost. A couple of fix-ups on our street were featured in the HGTV television program "Best Bang For Your Buck."
Bless 'em.

My friend Carol Coletta, a Memphian who studies and speaks about cities for a living, says "cheap cities are cheap for a reason." Memphis is a cheap city. Nashville isn't. We could use some Nashvillization in our neighborhoods. I am not at all sure that Midtown needs more housing on the scale the Crosstown planners envision. A case can be made that it needs less housing. There are good, 1999 houses with 1700 square feet of living space two blocks from Sears Crosstown on the market today for $118,000 and older houses selling for much less than that.

The neighborhoods around Sears Crosstown are affordable. They are not in any danger of becoming unaffordable due to gentrification. That is as wild an exaggeration as the fear-mongering stories about Kroger's at Poplar and Cleveland where many of us shop. Granted, 28 years ago there was a bombing at the old Kroger's across Poplar where Walgreen's is now, but, hey, stuff happens.

Seriously, rising property values, blight reduction, and increased home ownership are good things for neighborhoods and for Memphis at large. If this is gentrification, bring it on.

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Monday, April 22, 2013

Website Responses Favor Keeping Park Names

Posted By on Mon, Apr 22, 2013 at 6:12 PM

Hundreds of supporters of the original names of three downtown parks with Civil War themes overwhelmed all other choices in a web poll conducted by the city of Memphis.

The committee appointed to rename the three parks met Monday for 45 minutes but made no decisions. Members got handouts with the results of the web poll as well as a list of suggestions from the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce.

The former Nathan Bedford Forrest Park that triggered this exercise got 525 responses, with 481 of them favoring that name. Ida B. Wells was the second choice, with three votes, the same as Civil War Park.

The former Jefferson Davis Park also got 525 responses, including 484 in favor of that name. Confederate Park got 463 votes, with Confederate Memorial Park the runner-up with 7 votes.

Each of the parks also got a sprinkling of votes for such names as Consolidator Park, William C. Boyd's Folly Park, and Lost Cause Park.

The Chamber of Commerce recommended the names Rock N' Soul Park for Jefferson Davis Park, Tiger Park for Confederate Park, and Volunteer Park for Forrest Park.

Members of the committee complained that many of the responses to the web survey came from people who do not live in Memphis. Keith Norman said that factor, along with "the harsh tone may be some of the very reason why we are here." It is not clear how the home towns of the respondents were determined in the web survey. Unlike the public comments in an earlier meeting, respondents did not have to provide an address.

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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Two Views on Fixing Memphis: Spend More or Spend Less

Posted By on Wed, Apr 17, 2013 at 2:25 PM

"You cannot cut your way to prosperity." — Memphis Housing and Community Development Director Robert Lipscomb.

"Our high property taxes are one reason people are leaving our city." — Memphis City Councilman Jim Strickland.

These are the two main positions on the budget talks that will play out over the next several weeks. Keep them in mind and you will miss many a pearl and many a pain but you will "get it" for the most part.

Lipscomb is right. You can't do nothing and let Raleigh, Whitehaven, downtown, Midtown, the fairgrounds, Frayser, or Whitehaven deteriorate. You have to build on what's there, give comfort to the community groups and residents who stayed, nurture the anchors, connect the dots, tear down the blight or build something better.

Strickland is right. You can't raise Memphis property taxes that are already the highest in the state and lower than the surrounding suburbs that are growing at its expense. You have to turn the tide, hold the line, cut the fat, make the tough cuts in the sensitive areas. People of means will make a flight to quality and vote with their taillights.

Lipscomb is wrong. You can't save the malls. In the era of online shopping, even Wolfchase Galleria, Collierville's Carriage Crossing, and Oak Court Mall in East Memphis are fighting for crowds and business. You can't say yes to every council member and neighborhood group with a sad story in a city that is full of them. You can't say yes to a parking garage in Overton Square without saying yes to a parking garage in Cooper-Young, yes to Madison Avenue in Midtown without saying yes to Elvis Presley Boulevard in Whitehaven and Austin Peay Highway in Raleigh.

Strickland is wrong. The overall tax burden in Tennessee is one of the lowest in the nation because there is no income tax. Memphis property taxes are high but valuations are low. The property tax disproportionately hurts homeowners but the 9.25 percent sales tax disproportionately hurts poor people.

Lipscomb is right. If basic services decline there will be more flight. Public investments can be an incentive to private investments. See Uptown, or AutoZone Park or Bass Pro and the Pyramid.

Strickland is right. Public investments can be wasteful. There is no guarantee that private investors will appear, or that they will deliver the goods if they do appear. AutoZone Park is too big, Beale Street Landing is behind schedule, over budget, and even its defenders are criticizing its appearance. In the fourth month of the year it is supposed to open, Bass Pro is the quietest $200 million game-changer you ever saw, showing all the urgency of a man fishing on a lazy summer afternoon, making barely a ripple much less a splash.

And Mayor A C Wharton is right. As he said in his budget presentation Tuesday, "Sixty cents of every dollar the administration spends is for public safety, and three out of every four general fund employees works in public safety."

There are 3,032 employees in police services and 1,830 in fire services, for a total of 4,862 of the city's 6,290 employees. Add another 2,000 employees of the Shelby County Sheriff's Office, and that makes 6,862 people with salaries, benefits, and pensions in the broad category of "public safety" which is not exactly accurate when you're talking about, say, secretaries, but very effective when you're defending your budget to the city council and the county commission. You want to keep criminals off the streets and knock down house fires and rescue people from flooded homes and yet you say you want to cut budgets? Huh? Are you crazy? How dare you!

When I read or hear these public safety numbers I flash to two mental pictures: the daily emergency preparedness briefings for the Great Memphis Flood of 2011 and the overwhelming police response to the Ku Klux Klan rally downtown three weeks ago.

As it turned out, both non-events did not live up to their hype. Both mobilized the forces of public safety to prepare for the worst and put them on display in a sort of trade show for law enforcement. So many mobile command buses, amphibious vehicles, SUVs, Humvees, motorcycles, horses, patrol cars, chief cars, SWAT teams, weapons, shields, vests, computers, GPS systems, radios, laptops, smart phones, satellite trucks, all of it state-of-the-art or close to it because firepower, hardware, and communications technology keep getting bigger and better or smaller and better or faster and better or more powerful and better and who wants last year's model anyway when the guys on the other side of the mall or the law have this year's? Especially if you're the one getting mugged or robbed or your house is flooded or burning. Plus salaries and pensions and overtime. To protect a bigger coverage area while billing it to a smaller tax-paying population.

To summarize:

Can't close schools, they're the lifeblood of communities and our children are our future.

Can't let malls close, they're the lifeblood of our communities and as the mall goes so goes the neighborhood and besides it's already in the budget a year or two from now.

Can't cut public safety because it's public safety, stupid.

Welcome to another budget season.

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Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Wharton Presents $622 Million Proposed Budget

Posted By on Tue, Apr 16, 2013 at 4:35 PM

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton presented a proposed general fund operating budget of $622.5 million to the City Council Tuesday. The council received it without comment, and will begin hearings later this month that will last several weeks.

The proposed budget is notable for three things.

It covers the first year in which Memphis is not obligated to support schools. It is the first time in modern history that overall property values have dropped. And it restores half of the 4.6 percent pay cut city employees took in 2011.

The current fiscal year budget is $648.9 million. The city operating budget is only part of the Memphis financial picture. Still to come are the capital improvements budget and the Shelby County budget.

Wharton said there will be no net savings from getting out from under the school funding obligation because the funds, averaging about $60 million in recent years, came from non-recurring sources.

"These funds must now be restored," he said. "For example, $22 million must be returned to the budget to pay for Pensioner's Insurance costs this coming fiscal year. Additionally, the police department budget has increased by more than $43 million since fiscal year 2008. Also in FY 2008 the property tax rate was reduced, resulting in a revenue loss of $33.6 million."

The city currently has 6,290 employees but proposes to cut that to 6,170. The greatest number of employees are in police (3032) and fire (1830.).

"The drop in assessed property values will not generate the same amount of revenue necessary to cover the operations outlined in this budget," said Wharton. "Not at the current tax rate. I mention these things because it better frames the existing options. While the administration is open to alternatives to this budget, I ask that you be mindful that we cannot meet ongoing financial demands by drawing on non-recurring revenue as we've done in previous years."

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Rating UM President Shirley Raines

Posted By on Tue, Apr 16, 2013 at 3:03 PM

University of Memphis President Dr. Shirley Raines is leaving in June. I was only on the campus a dozen or so times during her years, and often as not it was for a press conference involving football or basketball or the athletic director. So I did not follow her career first hand, but I disagree with those who are saying her biggest failing was the on-campus stadium issue.

Tellingly, it was former Mayor Willie Herenton who first broached the idea of a new stadium, in a surprise announcement during a press conference on New Year's Day that wasn't even staffed by the daily paper. At no time after that do I remember the university's A-List donors to the athletic department publicly clamoring for a new stadium to be built on campus or anywhere else. Rather, there was support, admittedly tepid, for keeping the home field in the Liberty Bowl Stadium and fixing it up. If Mike Rose, Fred Smith, and Brad Martin had joined Harold Byrd in his call for a new stadium then Raines would have signed on too, I believe. Instead she threw it to a committee. Big deal, that is pretty standard procedure.

The biggest disgrace of the last 12 years was the Derrick Rose entrance exam farce. All he had to do was give a sample of his handwriting, which he refused to do, to clear up the matter. So the university athletic department leadership and administration including Raines backed Rose's sham play and jumped on the NCAA and the testing services. Rose was soon gone, with John Calipari following, and the NCAA sanctions at about the same time. The administration's response should have been, "Young man, make what choices you must, but if you are part of this university know that we will in no way be complicit in any shenanigans or cover-up involving your entrance tests."

My visits to the university for academic affairs were few and far between, but I always thought the campus looked very nice and I would have been proud to have sent my children to school there if that had been their desire. Dr. Raines has a couple more months before she leaves, and it isn't realistic to expect current faculty and staff to objectively evaluate her years. So I asked my friend Bob Levey, the former Washington Post columnist who held the Hardin Chair of Excellence in Journalism, for his thoughts. This is what he wrote.

“During Shirley Raines’s ten years as president, The University of Memphis could have slid toward becoming a community college. The deck was totally stacked. UM didn’t have the right friends in Nashville. It didn’t do as well as it might have in fundraising. And its students didn’t seek the liberal arts curriculum as much as they should have. President Raines fought valiantly—and quite successfully—against all three of those problems. She shored up departments like art, journalism and history when so many were saying that they didn’t produce jobs (they have, they do, they will). Besides, she steadied the ship during a recession that really socked UM students and the city. I give her very high marks.”

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Friday, April 12, 2013

Mall Plan would give Raleigh "a fighting chance"

Posted By on Fri, Apr 12, 2013 at 8:31 AM

The Raleigh Springs Mall is in "deplorable" condition but would get a total makeover that would cost at least $36 million in public funds under a plan the city administration and Memphis City Councilman Bill Morrison are pushing.

Morrison, Mayor A C Wharton, Housing and Community Development Director Robert Lipscomb, and architect Tom Marshall presented the plan to about 225 people at The United Methodist church in Raleigh Thursday night. The crowd filled the sanctuary, which was a welcome sight to the church's minister John Holt, who is used to seeing half that many people at Sunday services.

"There is hope," Holt said of the latest plan, which has been revised several times in the last three and a half years. The racially mixed crowd applauded speakers several times, and leaders of the Raleigh Community Council, a longstanding neighborhood association, are enthusiastic. Morrison lives in Raleigh, and Marshall grew up there, giving the meeting something of a homecoming atmosphere.

The plan calls for partial demolition ($7 million) and phasing out existing businesses over the next few years, construction of a public library, police precinct and traffic station to replace existing ones ($23 million), and construction of a lake and a large fountain recognizing the history of Raleigh Springs ($6 million). It is hoped that this would attract private development, but no names of interested investors were mentioned at the meeting. A story Friday in The Commercial Appeal put the total price at $60 million including private investment, but that number did not come up at the meeting.

"I was so glad they are not going to remodel the mall," said Imogene Tisdale, president of the association.

Joy Jefferson, a Memphis police officer, Raleigh resident, and head of the neighborhood watch, said "we're going to take Raleigh back, and Frayser."

The mall is more than 40 years old and has lost its anchor retail tenants and movie theater. Marshall called its condition "deplorable" and said there are about 32 small businesses still operating. The owner of one of them, Averill Brittenum, who has operated a custom air-brushing shop for 19 years, was not pleased with some of what he heard.

"I was surprised at how the community was so in favor of it being destroyed," he said. "I had an eerie foreboding of the destruction of my business. When they talked about Mom and Pop stores it makes me feel expendable. This is my livelihood."

Morrison promised to fight for funding and said some of it is already in capital improvements budgets going out as far as 2018. "We deserve this," he said. The plan, he said, "gives us a fighting chance to bring businesses and families back to Raleigh."

The project, however, faces competition for funding from other big public projects in Midtown, Whitehaven, downtown and other council members' districts. When the lake feature of the mall came up, there was an echo of the parking garage under construction in Overton Square. Marshall said the low areas on the mall site "might open the door to stormwater funding." The Overton Square garage covers a stormwater retention pond.

Lipscomb mentioned several of the other public projects underway around the city, and said the administration's strategy is to fund anchor developments and "connect the dots."

"You cannot cut your way to prosperity," he said. "Austerity does not equal prosperity."

Working the crowd like a veteran politician, Lipscomb said "I am not a czar, I am a public servant. My problem is I can't say no."

I think I hung that one on him, and he might want to get a second opinion. When you tell people you're going to give them lots of nice new things with tax money you influence they usually smile, applaud, and call you blessed. That's politics.

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Friday, April 5, 2013

AutoZone Park and the Steroids Era

Posted By on Fri, Apr 5, 2013 at 10:40 AM

AutoZone Park is the Mark McGwire of minor-league baseball stadiums.

Like the former St. Louis Cardinal slugger, the park is gigantic and juiced.

This week the national media rediscovered a story that has been around for more than a year about the likely future of the ballpark and the Memphis Redbirds. My colleague Frank Murtaugh interviewed John Pontius a year ago. Frank also wrote this story about the park's financial plight before other local and national media jumped on it.

McGwire was juiced on steroids when he hit 70 home runs in 1998, setting the all-time single-season record, and when he appeared in Memphis with the Cardinals at the opening of AutoZone Park in 2000. The ballpark was juiced on hype and an unsustainable financing plan.

AutoZone Park has more than 14,000 seats plus a left-field berm and right-field picnic area and cost $80 million. It was a thrilling sight to see when more than 15,000 people came out to see the Cardinals and McGwire open the stadium with an exhibition game in 2000, just as it was thrilling to watch McGwire break Roger Maris's home run record and match Sammy Sosa home run for home run during the 1998 season.

By the same token, it was sad to see the crowds decline to a couple thousand or so, and McGwire descend into disgrace.

Thirteen years later, AutoZone Park is still a beautiful sight but too big and expensive by half. There are 44 luxury suites, many of them rarely used, whose leases expire after next year. Meanwhile, newer minor-league parks have no suites. The math on $80 million simply doesn't work.

McGwire was a very good ballplayer who juiced to become a muscle-bound behemoth and a great home run hitter. The ballpark failed its bondholders. McGwire failed his fans, and fell well short of the number of votes needed to get into the Hall of Fame again this year.

A no-juice major-league hitter does very well to hit 35 home runs year in and year out. A no-juice minor-league baseball stadium does very well to draw 7,000 fans per game year in and year out. Double those numbers and something's not going to add up.

The Memphis Redbirds open the 2013 season tonight with a double-header and, Murtaugh says, a line-up of future stars.

AutoZone Park was a case of Memphis thinking big but not being able to meet expectations; FedExForum was a case of Memphis thinking big and rising to expectations. Some of the credit for the latter must go to the former. The optimism was contagious, and spread to an ownership group and pursuit team determined to build a major-league stadium and attract a major-league team and a city and region willing to support it.

AutoZone Park was part of a development package that included the apartments to the east, the downtown elementary school, and the renovation of the William Moore office building. It replaced a blighted empty building, a porno theater, a mule barn, and parking lots on the corner across from The Peabody, downtown's most enduring commercial landmark. Sooner or later, the city will make a deal to buy the ballpark for a fraction of what it cost, as it should.

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Saturday, March 30, 2013

Ku Klux Klan Rally Is a Non-event in Memphis

Posted By on Sat, Mar 30, 2013 at 4:39 PM


A cold rain, massive law enforcement presence, and a malfunctioning bullhorn put a damper on a Ku Klux Klan rally of about 75 people protesting the renaming of Civil War parks including the one named for Nathan Bedford Forrest Saturday.

The group arrived in two city buses and gathered in front of the Shelby County Courthouse. They were enclosed by a chain-link fence and a line of uniformed police officers and sheriff's deputies. There was no room to march, and members were not allowed to stand on the upper steps of the courthouse, so they crowded together on the sidewalk and lower steps.

Nearby streets were blocked off as they are during a presidential visit. Members of the media were corralled behind yellow tape across the street, and a group of protesters were similarly separated at the other end of the street, out of earshot of the Klan group. There was no interaction, and other than periodic shouts of "white power" it was nearly impossible to tell what the Klan speakers were saying. One sheriff's assistant chief said the group did not have batteries for their bullhorn.

The law enforcement response was overwhelming, starting hours before the rally, which began about 2:30 p.m. There were hundreds of officers in riot gear, scores of vehicles, canine units, horse-mounted units, TACT units, armored vehicles, motorcycles, fire trucks, mobile command posts, and enough firepower to repel, or at least mount a fair challenge, to General Robert E. Lee's Army of Virginia.

The purpose of the rally, such as it was, was hard to discern. A single sympathizer, a woman, carried a sign that said "Save Our Parks." There were about a dozen Klansmen in robes and hoods — a wise fashion choice in light of the rain — but no masks were allowed. Some of the men wore dark glasses or camouflage hats. About a dozen of them carried flags of the USA, the Klan, and a neo-Nazi group. The speeches began about an hour after the scheduled 1:30 start time. Speakers took turns, but other than the white power chant and some vague denunciations of the "corrupt mayor and city council" it was hard for the assembled media to hear what anyone said.

After the first few speakers finished, several members of the group were smiling and taking photographs of one another, as were the assembled cops. The Klansmen and their friends shut down after less than two hours and boarded the two buses that took them back to the parking lot of The Pyramid.

What a way to spend a Saturday.

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Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A Rare Bright Day for the Unified School System

Posted By on Wed, Mar 27, 2013 at 7:22 PM

Dorsey Hopson and staff
For a day, at least, it was all sunshine.

Under a bright blue sky, Interim Superintendent "Dorsey" (Hopson) introduced Interim assistant superintendent "David" (Stephens) and the rest of the administrative staff. No formality, no bodyguards, no limos, no scowling Irving Hamer, no snark, no hostility, no guarded answers. Maybe it was the weather, or the spirit of Easter and renewal. But less than 24 hours after another five-hour school board meeting, the new leadership aired it out.

Hopson said there will be no attendance zone changes and no busing. There could be more school closings, but not until the 2014—2015 school year. The school system will try to get full payment of past debts from the city "but I don't want to be in an adversarial position with the city," Hopson said. "I hope they do the right thing and pay what they owe."

John Aitken was "great" but "the work goes on." Hopson does not plan to apply for the permanent superintendent's job, if permanent can be used in such a context.

"We've got to all be partners whether we have one district or ten districts," he said.

The picture was worth 1000 words. Both Hopson and Stephens have children in the city or county public schools. And Stephens has a good personal story. His father, O. Z. Stephens used to work for the Memphis City Schools back in the busing years. In fact, he cowrote Plan Z, the "terminal" busing plan that drove more than 30,000 students out of the system in 1973 and 1974.

David Stephens
  • David Stephens
David Stephens said his father's views of the merger have softened since two years ago when I interviewed him and he said he feared another round of white flight and busing. The slow pace, in this case, has been a good thing. David is working on his doctorate, and part of his research is interviewing his dad. They got about an hour on tape. I asked David if I could listen to it some time and he agreed. I will write more after we meet.

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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

A Tie Vote on Teacher Pay Change at School Board

Posted By on Tue, Mar 26, 2013 at 9:37 PM

Dorsey Hopson
  • Dorsey Hopson
The Unified School Board voted 10-10 Tuesday on a proposal to change the way teachers are paid. But the measure, which needed 12 votes to pass, can come up again because of some strategic moves by proponents of the change.

Three members of the 23-member board were absent. Board member Kevin Woods voted "no" but is actually in favor of the change. By voting no he reserved the right to bring up the measure again — a practice that is fairly standard on the Memphis City Council and Shelby County Commission. Barbara Prescott, chairman of the Transition Planning Commission which proposed the change, said she believes there is one more "yes" vote among the three absentees, which, with Woods, would make a majority.

The proposal puts more emphasis on student test scores and less emphasis on experience and advanced degrees. But interim superintendent Dorsey Hopson emphasized that it would not cut the pay of any current teacher or any teacher currently working on an advanced degree.

In the face of dozens of Memphis Education Association members holding signs urging board members to vote no, Hopson defended the proposed change, in the first test of his leadership as superintendent.

He gave a good account of himself, as did several board members in the debate that avoided emotional outbursts. The complex issue, with conflicting studies and research, lends itself to "on the one hand, on the other hand" speeches, and there were several of them.

The division on the board defied the usual stereotypes. Both suburban and Memphis representatives were to be found on both sides. So were board members with advanced degrees. Proponents included David Reaves, Tomeka Hart, Jeff Warren, Betty Mallott, and Billy Orgel. Opponents included Joe Clayton, Snowden Carruthers, David Pickler, Sara Lewis, Patrice Robinson, Stephanie Gatewood, and Kenneth Whalum Jr.

No speaker carried the day, but Hopson had the most memorable line. He repeatedly used the fictional example of a degree in "basket weaving" qualifying a teacher for more money. In the example he used, a teacher with a bachelor's degree and excellent student test results and mentoring experience would make $43,994. Another teacher with a master's degree and 45 more hours of graduate school with mediocre test results and no outside mentoring or added responsibility could make $66,258.

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Friday, March 22, 2013

Reactions to the New Riverfront Report

Posted By on Fri, Mar 22, 2013 at 11:45 AM

Memphians with a stake in the riverfront have had time to consider the six "quick fixes" for the riverfront proposed by urban design expert Jeff Speck this week. Here is some of what they had to say.

Henry Turley, developer: “I thought the quote of the night was Paul Morris (head of the Downtown Memphis Commission) saying “plan less, do more.” I have long thought there was a battle between river access and expressway on Riverside Drive. Jeff Speck hit that right. On Bass Pro, I think he hit that right too. It is turned south and therefore does not significantly impact The Pinch. Several years ago I asked the McWherter administration not to put the state welcome center in Arkansas. The idea was to develop those sites, where the parks and development sites would go together. Overall, I didn't find much to pick at.”

Charlie Ryan, partner in Beale Street Landing restaurant. “Wow. Wow. We already don't have enough parking. So what else can I say. It is difficult to get to the building. It's as simple as that.”

Bud Chittom, partner in Beale Street Landing restaurant: “Once the smoke clears there will be parking at the end of the park. We've got to have that little parking lot.”

Burton Carley, minister of Church of the River, called “the church of None Shall Pass” in the report. “It would cost the city millions for the river walk to come across our property. We spend a lot of money maintaining it.” Carley said the church has talked with the city and railroad about doing something to help the bike path to the Harahan Bridge without putting it in front of the church, with its big windows looking out over the river. “We are not obstructionists. The renewal of the riverfront began with the Church of the River.” Nor is he alarmed by anything in the report. “What I have learned in my 30 years here is not to pay attention too much.”

Tom Jones, who introduced Speck, wrote this on his Smart City Memphis blog, which includes links to the full report. Jones has been a close observer of downtown projects for more than three decades.

Jimmy Ogle, Beale Street Landing. “Taking out parking at Tom Lee Park would be tough right now. How do you get to the park?” Ogle said he is “lukewarm” to making changes in Riverside Drive.

Jim Holt, executive director of Memphis In May: “I met with Mr. Speck. Tom Lee Park has been our home for 37 years. Part of the magic of the event is the river. Every modification has an impact. We have been flexible.”

Greg Maxted, The Harahan Project: "The idea I liked a lot was Riverside Drive, adding a bike lane and parallel parking, and removing the parking lots and adding more green space." As for the bridge project and the church, Maxted said the design utilizes Virginia Avenue for access and will not impact the church.

Virginia McLean, Friends For Our Riverfront: "I think what he had to say about Bass Pro Boulevard was a strong and good suggestion. If they would listen again they might have a chance of developing that little part. But if nobody listens now and they go ahead with their large sign and lights, then I don't think there is any possibility of mixed-use going in there."

While it is true that downtown has a lot of plans on the shelf, it also has a lot of riverfront projects costing many millions of dollars. Most of the projects since 1980 have expanded public parkland and amenities and deemphasized cars. A partial list includes:

Mud Island River Park, now entering its fourth decade and closed half the year. It has had two full-service restaurants in addition to a snack bar. It has been managed by the city and the Riverfront Development Corporation. At various times, it has had paid concerts, longer hours and a longer season, free concerts, a swimming pool, kayaks, paddle boats, air-boat rides, a museum, playground, overnight camping, and free admission.

Tom Lee Park was expanded to more than double its acreage, with a broad sidewalk at the edge of the river from just south of Beale Street to the top of the hill at Ashburn-Coppock Park. The sidewalk was extended south behind the Rivermont apartments to Martyr’s Park, which has the highest viewpoint of the river in Memphis.

A lighted sidewalk on the west side of Riverside Drive above the Cobblestones Landing.

The Bluff Walk from Beale Street to the South Bluffs, including a pedestrian bridge over Riverside Drive and staircases to walkways across the road to Tom Lee Park.

Henry Turley
Greenbelt Park on Mud Island, with a lighted sidewalk above the flood plain and paths and benches on the grass near the river, and room for several special outdoor events including a bike race.

Harbor Town was developed as a walkable residential community that now has thousands of residents.

The A. W. Willis Jr. Bridge opened Mud Island to private development. The bridge has protected sidewalks on each side.

Mud Island River Park is accessible by bike from the bridge or the sidewalk above the monorail, which can be accessed by elevator. Bikes are allowed in the park.

A landscaped median and crosswalks were added to Riverside Drive to make it more pedestrian friendly.

The Main Street Trolley goes north and south on the pedestrian mall. Cars are banned. The Riverfront trolley line carries passengers from Auction Street to the train station.

A pedestrian bridge was built to connect the University of Memphis law school with the park north of it.

Bike lanes on Front Street.

New projects or additions to what urban experts call "the built environment" are often premised on the idea that people would walk and bike more if they only had more places to do it. I am unable to associate myself with this thesis. Most people bike for recreation, not to get somewhere for a specific purpose. And we love our cars. There is no better illustration than the bike racks and parking lots at Rhodes College and the University of Memphis, the very demographic that is supposed to be hot for bikes. One is packed, the other isn't.

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Monday, March 18, 2013

Expert Suggests Six Quick Fixes for Riverfront

Posted By on Mon, Mar 18, 2013 at 8:42 PM

Jeff Speck, author of Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step at a Time, suggests six quick fixes for the riverfront.

At the request of Mayor A C Wharton, Speck reviewed some 20 riverfront plans dating back more than 30 years. He gave a nice straightforward 90-minute talk to about 125 people at the Memphis Cook Convention Center Monday. Speck showed familiarity with the past, present, and future of the riverfront. He was last here for an extended visit in 2008, but also remembers the 2002 grand vision that included a land bridge and high-rise buildings on Front Street. He called it "as imaginary as it was imaginative."

"The last thing the city needs is another plan," he said.

Here are his six suggestions, along with my comments.

The Pyramid: Its connection should be to Main Street, not Front Street. The Pinch should focus on attracting people from conventions, not travelers on the interstate. Bass Pro "still has a long way to go" to understand the city. Speck suggests selling off four acres on Bass Pro Boulevard (the southern entryway next to the state visitors center) for private development and turning the boulevard into two or three lanes of car traffic and a lane for bikes and pedestrians.

Comment: I watched the Tunica casinos come out of the ground in 1994-1995. There was an incredible sense of drive, mission, and urgency. The Bass Pro Pyramid does not have that. I doubt it will meet the 2013 opening deadline. The boulevard is small change.

Mud Island Park: Still disconnected from the rest of downtown. Needs stairs to the monorail from the visitor center. Speck suggests a water taxi from Beale Street to the tip of the island. He thinks the park should be open year round. Speck did not comment on the naming controversy over Jefferson Davis Park, which is just south of the visitor center. He said this park is "the next great waterfront opportunity."

Comment: Visitor experts overestimate Mud Island River Park every time. Memphians are bored by it, and it attracts very few tourists. It is closed six months for a reason.

Riverside Drive: Shrink it from four lanes to three lanes or two lanes. Include a buffered bike lane and a lane for parallel parking. Take the parking lots out of Tom Lee Park and next to Beale Street Landing. Keep Memphis in May in the park. Break the park up into small areas separated by trees.

Comment: A $42 million boat dock with a restaurant with no parking lot. Yikes.

The Cobblestones. Speck said it is about impossible to make it usable and historically accurate at the same time, given the demands of accessibility and preservationists. He said the RDC should finish the project and add light structures "draping" on it.

Comment: The man has done his homework.

The Riverwalk: By this he meant the sidewalk and Bluff Walk going from the Pyramid to Martyr's Park. It now leaves the riverfront and goes behind the law school and into South Bluffs residential development. Speck suggests making it more linear and always within sight of the river. The walk should be extended between the Church of the River and Channel 3's offices to the French Fort area south of the Harahan Bridge.

Comment: The section along the railroad tracks between Union and Madison is a pain, but I like the dogleg through South Bluffs. Those who want to stay in sight of the river can take the 84 steps down from the Bluff Walk to Tom Lee Park at Huling Street and follow it south to where it ends near the church.

Beale Street to Beale Street Landing: Needs "edging" — development along Beale Street by the parking lots near the river, once envisioned as the site of One Beale, a tall hotel and condo. The Harahan Project needs something on the West Memphis side in the floodplain, maybe just a loop trail and a pavilion, because Main Street West Memphis (the other half of the "Main Street to Main Street" idea) is too far away.

Comment: The fact that there is basically nothing on the bluff at the corner of Beale and Riverside Drive, a pretty famous American intersection, is sad. This corner, like the Pinch on the north end of downtown, actually had more activity 30 years ago when Captain Bilbo's was around.

To learn more about Speck and his 74 pages of observations and proposals, visit the city of Memphis website.

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Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Fact Checking "Argo," "Lincoln," Steinbeck, and Who Knows?

Posted By on Tue, Mar 12, 2013 at 10:55 AM

According to various reports, the government of Iran is considering suing Hollywood over the movie "Argo."

No surprise there. These days everyone's a fact checker, and news stories, blogs, books, movies, and famous authors are all fair game.

The Iran and Argo story was reported recently in the CBS News and Huffington Post among others. That car-chases-plane scene at the end was pretty over-the-top, got to admit, but you would think Iran would have bigger things to worry about.

Earlier this year, a congressman from Connecticut pointed out inaccuracies in "Lincoln" about the vote for 13th Amendment. Joe Courtney spotted something strange in the movie's depiction of the landmark vote. He found out that the Connecticut congressmen depicted in the film — and two more who weren't portrayed — were for, not against, passage of the amendment.

"How could congressmen from Connecticut — a state that supported President Lincoln and lost thousands of her sons fighting against slavery on the Union side of the Civil War — have been on the wrong side of history?" Courtney wrote in a letter to the movie studio DreamWorks.

Former journalist Bill Steigerwald has written a good book about John Steinbeck called "Dogging Steinbeck" in which he exhaustively fact checks the eminent author's 1960 road trip (which Steigerwald duplicated) with his French poodle that was the subject of the book "Travels With Charley." Turns out Steinbeck made up some interviews and other stuff.

Not all errors are intentional. Last week a Memphis publication put the Front Street Deli at the corner of Front and Main, which are parallel streets. The deli is at Front and Union. The error was corrected.

There but for the grace of God go I, I thought. I have become convinced that sometimes reporters simply cannot catch their own errors no matter how much they proofread. I once reported that a living person was dead, and I have misspelled many a name I should know. A friend, also from the North, topped me though. He interviewed a sheriff in North Carolina and reported that he had a degree in "farms and bums." A sharp-eyed editor took note, and it turned out the sheriff said "firearms and bombs."

Flyer stories in the paper are read by the author and three other people before they are published. Blog posts go online without a second set of eyes looking at them. Comments, of course, are often anonymous and sometimes full of bogus statements of "fact" that get recycled even if they are corrected.

Plagiarism and factual errors are only going to get worse as daily and weekly newspapers and magazines like "Time" fight for their lives in the digital age and reporters and bloggers publish without a net. Whatever you think of them, old media put a lot of effort into editing stories and fact-checking.

Are you willing to cut Hollywood some slack but do you still want the facts right in your news? Be prepared to pay someone, some way, somehow.

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Friday, March 8, 2013

Federal Prosecutors Seeking Death Penalty in Henning Double Murder

Posted By on Fri, Mar 8, 2013 at 12:10 PM

United States Attorney Edward Stanton III said the government will seek the death penalty in the case of Chastain Montgomery Sr., who is charged with killing two postal workers in the West Tennessee town of Henning.

In a hearing before U.S. District Judge Jon McCalla, Stanton himself made the announcement of the unusual decision. He declined to comment after the hearing, but a spokesman said he believes the last federal defendant to be executed was Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.

Montgomery is charged with shooting and killing Paula Robinson and Judy Spray while robbing a Henning post office with his son in October 2010. His son was later killed in a shootout with law enforcement. Montgomery was in court Friday, slumped in a chair next to his attorney, but did not say anything. Family members of the victims were also in the courtroom but declined to speak to reporters.

Montgomery's attorney, Michael Scholl, said seeking the death penalty is unusual but not unprecedented in his experience in federal cases in Memphis.

"This prevents a quick resolution of this case," he said, predicting there will be "litigation for years at a cost of millions of dollars to the taxpayers."

He said the alternative would be for the government to seek life without parole.

Scholl said he will attempt to show that Montgomery has a mental disability and an IQ below 65. Montgomery confessed to the post office shootings after being arrested.

Resolution of various motions in the case is expected to take several months.

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Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Lee Busby of Front Street Deli is Dead

Posted By on Wed, Mar 6, 2013 at 5:36 PM

Lee Busby was a good man on a good corner.

Lee was one of the last of the one-man deli owners. His place was Front Street Deli, on the corner of Union and Front, in the heart of what was once the Memphis cotton district downtown. He died Wednesday in the hospital after trouble related to heart problems.

Regulars knew Lee's place as the scene of a bit in the Tom Cruise movie "The Firm" based on John Grisham's book. Lee was a fan of baseball, the St. Louis Cardinals, the Memphis Redbirds, the Memphis Tigers and Grizzlies, and sports and scuttlebutt in general. He had worked on the river before going into the deli business and was a fountain of information about that too. And he made an honest sandwich or a plate of fried chicken with a side of chili, deviled eggs, or a chocolate shake.

He was a friendly, hard-working Memphian and we'll miss him.

Visitation will be held in the Narthex of Grace-St. Luke's Episcopal Church, Friday, March 8, 2013, from 1:00-2:00 p.m., with the funeral service beginning at 2:00 p.m.


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