To the unsuspecting eye, the iconic buffalo mural on South Main near the Memphis College of Art grad school is just another vacant building façade. But behind the fading, pastoral scene of grazing buffalo lies a small urban forest tucked between buildings.
The buffalo mural lot is one of seven sites the Downtown Memphis Commission (DMC) has chosen for its first-ever South Main Design Challenge, an open-to-the-public contest urging citizens to dream up big ideas for vacant and underused spaces in the South Main Historic Arts District.
"This challenge gives anyone the opportunity to join in and throw ideas on the table for how to best turn underutilized buildings and vacant lots into things that really strengthen the neighborhood," said Brett Roler, development project manager for the Downtown Memphis Commission.
Besides the buffalo mural lot, the other sites include an underused parking lot at the corner of Huling and Main, an empty, grassy lot at Talbot and Main, the vacant Russell Hardware building at 319 S. Main, the vacant Ambassador Hotel building at 345 S. Main, the underused Army/Navy Park, and the "lyric panel lot" (currently blocked off by wooden panels featuring lyrics from songs that mention Memphis) near the Arcade Restaurant.
"We've all walked down South Main and passed a vacant lot and thought, man, wouldn't it be cool if this was a public art space or a dog park or a mixed-use building?" Roler said.
The contest is open to anyone, but the Downtown Memphis Commission would prefer contestants work in teams of six. Roler said they would also prefer each team have at least one architect or designer and one South Main resident. But those are not requirements.
"We're recommending the architect or designer on each team so there's some level of design consistency and someone can communicate the ideas on paper," Roler said. "And the member of the South Main community can offer local perspective about these sites."
Each team must develop a short-term concept plan and a long-term vision for whichever site they're assigned. The short-term plan should be something that would be easy to implement on a limited budget, such as a dog park. But the long-term plan can involve any level of complex development, such as new construction on the site. The improvements must be something that will last for at least two to five years.
Each team's plan will be presented at public art receptions during South Main Trolley Tours from February through April. The winning team will take home a $1,000 prize, but Roler said there's no guarantee the winning design will actually be implemented.
"The purpose of this is just to generate ideas, so there's no dedicated funding. We don't have a bag of money set aside to implement any of these projects," Roler said. "But we wouldn't be doing this if we weren't optimistic that, if you can make good ideas happen, there's a possibility that ideas from this process could be used to improve the neighborhood."
He said the DMC will explore grant funding opportunities to help implement any ideas that have strong support from the owners and neighbors of the seven properties.
The deadline to enter the challenge is January 14th. For more information on how to register, go to southmaindesignchallenge.virb.com.