Trolleys and cars once traveled along Main Street together. Then the trolleys went away, leaving only the cars; later the cars went away, leaving only the trolleys.
And now urban planner Jeff Speck says the street — like the current Main Street loop — should go full circle and be open to both trolleys and vehicular traffic.
"I'm perplexed when people say you shouldn't bring cars back," he said. "There are so many people trying to do great stuff with [Main], and it's unfair to them to leave it the way it is."
Putting cars back on Main Street was one of 12 modest suggestions that Speck, former director of design for the National Endowment for the Arts, presented to a crowded Christian Brothers University auditorium last week. Speck co-authored Suburban Nation with Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, two leaders of the new-urbanist movement. Like Duany and Plater-Zyberk, Speck believes a successful city is a walkable city.
"The pedestrian is the canary in the coal mine," he said.
So it might seem odd that he advocates returning cars to downtown's pedestrian mall.
"There's very little stopping you from driving down Main right now. It happens already," he said, showing a slide of a car parked on the mall. "You don't need to change much if the cars drive slowly. ... It's ready made for the right speed of traffic."
Under Speck's plan, which he estimated would cost about $50,000, a few curbs would have to be removed and a few "teaser" parking spaces would be created. If cars used the current narrow trolley lanes, pedestrians would still feel comfortable on Main.
Studies have found that lane widths and speeds correlate closely. If a lane is eight feet wide, for instance, most drivers won't feel comfortable going over 20 miles per hour. Get drivers in a lane 14 feet wide, and they feel safe doing 70.
"We don't drive the speed marked. We drive the speed we feel safe," Speck said. "If you're a teenage boy, you drive the speed you feel dangerous."
Center City Commission head Jeff Sanford said the city would not make any decisions about Main Street without public input, but he was happy to hear Speck echo what other experts have told the commission.
"I have to say, I couldn't find anything to disagree with," Sanford said. "In the main — no pun intended — I thought he was dead on."
That was a vote of confidence, especially since many of Speck's suggestions centered around downtown. They included both the very general — build Memphis for people, not cars, and plant trees — and the very specific — fix what Speck called the "Main Street knuckle."
"South Main is struggling a little. That's good. That means the chains will stay away for a little while," he said. "But it breaks down at one key connection spot."
That spot is the area between the Main Street Mall and South Main, where the Chisca Hotel sits empty and the MLGW headquarters looms.
"The biggest insult to your city is the MLGW headquarters," Speck said. "Who would think to take a suburban office park and drop it in the middle of the city?"
Other suggestions included creating a more urban waterfront, building a Martin Luther King monument, and stopping what he called "diminishing your economic advantage." Memphis Heritage, currently trying to save the almost 60-year-old Cumberland Presbyterian Center (see page 9), might call it saving historic buildings.
In a world of cities competing for workers and visitors, Speck said architecture is important.
"The differentiated product attracts the customer," Speck said, comparing cities to retail. "Since the '60s, cities all look the same. The older buildings are the ones creating your trademark."
Speck said he chose modest proposals that could be enacted within a year or so, because he knows Memphis doesn't have a problem with planning. Large-scale coordinated planning goes on all the time. But large-scale coordinated planning can take a long time.
And sometimes, like the lanes on Main, bigger simply isn't better.
For more of Mary Cashiola's take on Jeff Speck's presentation, visit http://inthebluff.blogspot.com.