Monday, August 27, 2007

The Empty: Triage

The threatened C&I Bank Building, with the Sterick Building behind

Assuming that we won't be able to fill all of our empty buildings in the next year:

What kind of empty should we have?
  1. Do we want the empty of a surface parking lot or vacant lot?
  2. Or do we want the empty of a standing structure?
One of the most frustrating ideas that regularly circulates these parts states:

"that old building is not being used, so we should tear it down."

That's it. That's the idea.

If it were followed by

"and replace it with a community center",


"a high-rise hotel",


"an art museum",


"a school"

it would be a (more) palatable idea. But so few times do I hear the second part, what will replace it. Tearing it down solves the problem of the empty building.

No doubt, an empty building can be a visual reminder of economic decline. But that's only up close. No one looking at the Sterick Building from Interstate 40 or from the Peabody can tell if it's being used or not. From more than a block away, emptiness is an abstraction, but its vision is real. Remove the building and emptiness is real.

But, forget vision for a second. We want the buildings, or the land they're on, to be used. One of the arguments that support vacant lot/parking lot demolition/replacements is that these are just halfway houses to real development. Demolish the building, remove its ADA/HVAC/water damage/asbestos/etc. problems, clear the land, and it will be good and ready for the next developer to step up.

Except they don't step up. Even if you accepted this as a reasonable tradeoff, Memphis history shows that the promised development never comes or comes too slowly to base civic policy on.

Think of the 30+ years that the areas around Beale Street sat empty except for surface parking, the 20+ years that the once building filled block surrounding Morgan Keegan has sat nearly empty.

Despite being contractually obsolete as an arena for 5 years, the Pyramid is still surrounded by a dead sea of surface parking lots. Despite being surrounded by some of the hottest real estate in Memphis, the site of the Eureka Hotel is as desolate as when the last bulldozer drove off 2+ years ago.

A quarter of downtown is filled with surface parking lots, yet destroyers and their apologists cite future development as justification for demolition of more buildings. The fact stands that speculative demolition, the New UrbanRenewalism, does nothing (except destroy history, architecture and the fabric of the city). Destroys without creation. Destroys.

And we still have the problem of the empty.

The "tear 'er down" faction advocates amputation with a spurious promise that the limb will grow back better and newer than ever. What we need is urban triage that keeps Memphis whole while we decipher the problem of the empty.

If the C&I Bank Building is saved from the Regional Chamber's plan to add 15 parking spaces by 2012, it will be a half-victory. The full victory is when the building is bought and used by an organization that is committed to its preservation. An empty building is not good enough.

An empty lot is sure as hell bad enough.

The site of the demolished Eureka Hotel, 2 years after its demolition
(photo at top courtesy of Justin McGregor)

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