Opinion » Editorial

Downtown Memphis: Less is More

The city of Memphis has been fortunate not to have been able to afford every project that’s been proposed.

An early proposed version of Beale Street Landing.
  • An early proposed version of Beale Street Landing.

The one thing Memphis and Shelby County have surely learned from the past decade or so, during which hard times visited and stayed around for a while, is that necessity truly is the mother of invention — and often a single mother at that. 

Even before the Great Crash of 2008-9, there was a general sense that we had let our ambitions on the development front soar a little too much. Take our riverfront: Organized opposition on the part of Friends of the River and other environmentally interested citizens was, along with alarms about the anticipated costs of the project, a major reason why some of the more ambitious iterations proposed by the Riverfront Development Corporation did not come to fruition. 

What was left on the plate was Beale Street Landing (BSL). Beset with delays, cost overruns, design controversies, and intermittent failures to cooperate by a sometimes unruly river, it finally got done within the past year. The public spaces are welcoming, the views are spectacular, and BSL has proved, if nothing else, to be a great place to have a party. The Flyer's own annual Best of Memphis celebration was held there to good effect earlier this year. 

It brings to mind the phrase — and the concept of — "less is more," a term which, we discovered upon doing a little research, was originated not by the minimalist architect Mies van der Rohe, as was long supposed, but by Robert Browning in the British master's 1855 poem, "Andrea del Sarto (Called 'The Faultless Painter')." 

We were stirred into admiration of a sort a few months back at an insight offered by Mayor A C Wharton (whom we had previously taken to desk, along with city planning maven Robert Lipscomb, for the grandiosity embedded in some of the ideas floated out of City Hall): Frustrated  by the scarcity of the times, by the drying up of public and private funding sources, and by overt warnings about fiscal over-reach from the state Comptroller's office, Wharton offered a new, leaner version of development, which cast downtown Memphis as an open-air arena, with its parts — among them FedExForum, the National Civil Rights Museum, the soon-to-be Bass Pro Pyramid, and, yes, Beale Street Landing — being connected by relatively inexpensive public transportation. 

This was how the mayor saw us responding to tourist and convention competition from, say, Nashville, with its massive (and massively expensive) new Convention Center. 

"Less is more." Yes, indeed. And even the nascent Main Street to Main Street Big Water Crossing project (aka Hanrahan Bridge project), establishing pedestrian connections between downtown and West Memphis, involves minimal transformation of existing natural surroundings at relatively low cost — the key component being a $14.9 million "Tiger Grant" from the federal government. Greg Maxted, the project's executive director, made that modest but far-reaching project sing when he described its prospective glories to a luncheon meeting of the Rotary Club of Memphis on Tuesday. 

We have much to look forward to, and much of what is to come is already there, in a landscape that needs only some judicious tweaking, not a massive overhaul.

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