If landscape architect Ritchie Smith has anything to say about it, Plough Boulevard — the two-mile stretch of barren roadway leading to Memphis International Airport — will become Plough Parkway.
"In one word, that really explains what we're trying to do," he said.
In connection with the Greater Memphis Chamber's aerotropolis initiative, the Memphis City Council heard about a proposal last week for a $1 million to $2 million Plough Boulevard beautification plan.
The aerotropolis concept is an economy based on the airport as its economic engine. As such, the chamber hopes to take Plough Boulevard from what is now — at best — a forgettable experience to a positive one.
The Plough Boulevard plan includes planting 2,500 trees, as well as installing new lighting, signage, and possibly public art. Planners hope to make it feel more like East, North, or South Parkway.
Jim Covington, vice president of logistics and aerotropolis development at the Greater Memphis Chamber, said the area needs some attention. Plough Boulevard maintenance is currently shared by the Airport Authority and the city's parks division.
"This is our front door," Covington said. "This is people's first impression of Memphis and their last impression of Memphis."
Ritchie Smith Associates was hired to do the master plan. Smith said the Plough Boulevard project is an opportunity to see results relatively quickly.
"A lot of the [aerotropolis] initiatives are long-term. They're economic or transportation-related," Smith said. "But this is something that could be done that will enhance the image of the area."
The trees are the most important part of the plan and should add spatial definition to the roadway, as well as visual interest. The bulk of the planting would be canopy trees, but there would also be about 650 smaller trees, as well as some shrubbery in areas that have height restrictions.
"Essentially what you have now is a treeless, featureless roadway that is very unattractive," Smith said. "We felt like trees would make more of a difference on that road than any other element."
Because the plan is still in its infancy, the tree species haven't been chosen. Oak trees would be a natural choice — an oak leaf graces the city's seal, alongside a steamboat and a cotton boll — but oak trees won't fly under airport restrictions.
"Oak trees are terrific trees to plant in this part of the country," Smith said. "They produce acorns, which is a major source of food for animals and birds."
Keeping birds away from the airport is a major job. In addition to being the home to FedEx, the airport is on the flyway for migrating ducks and geese. Airport authority head Larry Cox said they are constantly trying to scare away birds or harvest them to reduce the number of birds that could hit planes during landing and take-off.
Many airport gateways include public art, but with a two-mile stretch of road, Plough Boulevard would need a lot of art.
As such, the other component of Ritchie Smith Associates' proposal is 180 sculptural light fixtures, an idea that would fuse the utilitarian with the aesthetic. The current streetlights are cobra-head lights, what Smith called "America's light."
"They're everywhere; they're functional; but they're not what I would call attractive or interesting," Smith said. "You could have sculptural pieces that you would have to repeat over a mile. That's great, but it's a big investment and you would still have these ugly cobra-head lights."
Council members had concerns about the cost of the lights and wanted aerotropolis officials to include Airways Boulevard in the plan. The council is scheduled to revisit the issue September 15th.
I had the pleasure of flying recently, and, as a whole, Memphis International doesn't have a lot of ambience. I know they've done upgrades to the B terminal, but C terminal looks like a bomb shelter. (I don't think it helps that some of the only signage shows where to go in case of a tornado. That's important, yes, but it creates an interesting impression.)
If we can make Plough look welcoming and inviting, I'm all for it. Because, like it or not, overall impressions are important. Planting Plough may just encourage growth in other areas.
"Business consultants come in to think about locating a project in Memphis," said Dexter Muller of the Greater Memphis Chamber. "It's not just about our own perception; it's also about economic development."