Muncie, Indiana, is "middletown" America. It serves as a tester city, where everyone from The Wall Street Journal to Taco Bell comes to see how the average American feels about George W. or the chalupa. If Muncie likes it, the rest of the country will, too. And as Ball State University architecture professor Tony Costello says, "if it happened in Muncie, it can happen anywhere."
That's good news for the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). Costello was at a local AIA forum last week to talk about the Muncie Urban Design Studio, a university-driven initiative that was started to improve the quality of life in Muncie. AIA Memphis recently won a $10,000 grant as part of the national organization's 150th anniversary, and they plan to use it to create a Memphis Regional Design Center (MRDC).
Memphis is the only large city in the state that doesn't have a design center. Once fully functional, it will offer free services to neighborhood and nonprofit groups and would serve as a clearinghouse for project planning.
"Ten months ago, we starting thinking about different initiatives," says Heather Baugus, executive director of AIA Memphis. "Our number-one priority was to create something that responded to the needs of the community and was far-reaching beyond 2007. That's when discussions started to establish an independent entity that would be based in Midtown/downtown."
"It would not only be an advocate for the community," says Baugus, "but an entity that the city and the county looks to for advice on public issues."
If the endeavor sounds academic, well, it is. But that doesn't mean it's not needed. Costello and two other panelists explained how their respective design centers function and the types of projects they had worked on: low-income housing, restoring historical facades, and giving the citizenry courses in urban design.
"Community-based work ... is often accused of never really getting anything done. It's a lot of pretty pictures; it's a lot of dialogue, but where are the goods?" Costello says. "You have to be in it for the long haul. It's not going to be valuable in two or three years."
There are a lot of plans floating around the Bluff City. Earlier this spring, the Memphis and Shelby County division of planning and development held a charrette, an intense public-design session, on the Broad Avenue corridor near Binghamton. Winchester Park/Intown, a residential area just off Danny Thomas, is undergoing a similar workshop this week with noted new urbanist Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk.
"We have a lot of different organizations currently doing a great job in terms of offering workshops, doing charrettes, facilitating discussions based around public planning and neighborhood redevelopment," says Baugus. "[The MRDC] will bring everyone together and provide an independent center for sharing."
On the same day last week as AIA's forum, the Center City Commission presented its strategic plan for the next year, along with a panel discussion of downtown as a regional asset. And one of the most dominant themes of the luncheon was how far downtown has come in the last 15 years.
Twenty thousand people now live downtown. It is currently experiencing 10.3 percent annual growth versus 1.1 percent for the rest of Memphis.
It couldn't have happened without hard work, but maybe more importantly, it couldn't have happened without vision. Downtown may be a regional asset now, but I doubt anyone would have put it in that same category 30 years ago.
Which is perhaps why the pretty pictures and all the planning are so important to our future.
"We've seen [design centers] do wonders for other cities -- Chattanooga comes to mind," says Lee Askew, with AIA Memphis. "Memphis could get along without it, but this will accelerate the pace."
Over the next 12 months, AIA Memphis plans to step away from involvement as the center gets its own board of directors. By fall 2007, the MRDC should have a location, goals, and be ready to open its doors to the public.
It can happen anywhere; it just takes someone to envision it.
Nonprofits, CDCs, or neighborhood groups that want to get involved with the MRDC should contact AIA Memphis at 525-3818.