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Building an Icon?

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I've been thinking a lot about icons lately. Fans of Memphis' most recognizable face just celebrated -- if that's the right word -- his 29th "Death Week." A developer was recently quoted in The Commercial Appeal saying that the Number One Beale venture -- a $175 million project with luxury residential, commercial, and hotel space -- "would become an iconic building" for the city.

And last week, during a lecture presented by the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC) and the Leadership Academy, speaker Alex Garvin showed a number of iconic images of waterfronts from Paris to Malibu to San Antonio.

Each place is completely different and instantly recognizable. But places and things that are instantly recognizable are not always workable. The last time Memphis tried to build something truly iconic, we got The Pyramid. And now it sits dark, waiting for Bass Pro to gut and filet, er, renovate it.

And with plans for the riverfront and Beale Street Landing moving forward, we'd be wise to think carefully about what we want from the river.

"Waterfronts are unique opportunities," said Garvin. "It can become a transformative element [for a city]."

Garvin, an urban planner and Yale adjunct professor, outlined six criteria for success at the latest installment of the RDC's "Leadership of Place Making" series, a number of discussions about how cities across the country are reconnecting to their waterfronts. These criteria are location, accessibility, design, financing, entrepreneurship, and time.

Sounds simple, right?

"People want to be able to enjoy the waterfront, but people have to be able to get there," he said about accessibility. "You need to always be thinking about who's coming and how to accommodate them when they get there."

Garvin talked about waterfronts that were financially self-sustaining -- helpful in any fiscal climate, not just the current one -- such as Chelsea Piers in New York. Not only does the 30-acre complex house the soundstage for TV's Law & Order, but more than 8,000 people go there each day to use the golf facilities, the ice-skating rink, and the Olympic-sized swimming pool.

But a few things Garvin said seemed particularly salient for Memphis' waterfront. Most people understand that a successful project takes time, but he said planners should also be thinking about different uses during the day.

In one example he cited, "people are using the riverfront park all day and into the evening. You can't just have a park that is used at 5 p.m. or after work."

And I'm not sure it can happen with the way the riverfront has been designed. Think about Tom Lee Park. Visiting it in the middle of a summer day is like taking a trip through Death Valley. It needs trees or some sort of shade.

But because of the variety of Memphis In May activities -- specifically music fest and the barbecue-cooking contest -- there's no place to put them.

Garvin also talked about the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis, which includes the Gateway Arch and the Museum of Westward Expansion. Over three million people visit the Arch every year, but the area does not connect well with the city. To get there, visitors have to use four sidewalks -- each about half a mile long.

"Here's a great location," said Garvin, "but people come, they park their cars, they walk to the [Arch]. Then they go back to their cars and go somewhere else. Downtown doesn't get any benefit from that."

At the same time, the Gateway Arch is definitely an iconic symbol of St. Louis. And I wonder if that many people would visit it if it weren't an icon. I mean, who wants to visit the Museum of Westward Expansion otherwise?

The RDC's plan for Beale Street Landing includes five guitar-pick-shaped terraces, a floating dock, a parking garage, and a terminal building. I can't say I'm totally sold, but I do think the riverfront needs ... something.

If you look at the RDC's list of the top 20 riverpark uses, most of them seem fairly active: jogging, dog walking, rollerblading, biking, yoga, frisbeeing, playing touch football. Others are more passive (kite flying, painting), but there doesn't seem anything specific or special that brings citizens -- or tourists -- to the Mississippi River.

"Every city is different," said Garvin. "I think what you do here has to be adjusted to Memphis and not copying someone else."

Could the Memphis waterfront become an icon? Who knows? But depending on what is built, it could help -- or hurt -- the city's image.

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