Sunday, November 30, 2008

Overton Square Meeting this Tuesday

Clock Tower in Overton Square
Memphis Heritage is hosting a 2nd meeting about the future of Overton Square. Be there-- because your voice makes a difference!

December 2, 2008
3:30-5pm @ MHI Headquarters, Howard Hall, 2282 Madison

Bring your thoughts, ideas and creative minds. Bring along your neighbor and let's put our heads together to save what was once and can be again the heart of Midtown!
I believe any project built in Overton Square should, at the very least:
  • increase the walkability of the neighborhood.
  • preserve and restore the urban form to the Madison and Cooper sides.
  • build to an aesthetic standard equal to the Idlewild and East End neighborhoods (not Union!!!).
  • build to a aesthetic and urban standard that complements the investments made by neighboring businesses, like Playhouse on the Square, Bosco's, Maggie's Pharm, Mr. Lincoln's Costume Shop, etc.
  • build to a aesthetic and urban standard that strengthens the Heart of the Arts.

Not Empty in Overton Square

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Room With a View

I recently forewent free wine and networking so I could explore the terraces of Roy Harrover's Memphis College of Art.

Terraces of Memphis College of Art

Terraces of Memphis College of Art

I discovered that, like the studios, the bathrooms on the top floor opened directly to the outside terrace.

Bathroom with a View, Part II


Usually a bathroom that opens directly to the elements is a problem, of abuse and neglect.

But on the top floor of the MCA, open to nature but controlled access to the public, it's clean. And it's cool. At least I think it's cool.

Leaving the door open will probably get you expelled, but there is the view.

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Sunday, November 23, 2008

Magic: the Art Installation

Update: well this is a lot different than what I had assumed. I still love unexpected public art.

Go see the recently installed portals to the Overton Park greensward, I assume by an artist from the nearby Memphis College of Art.

Here I Rule . Com Art Installation

Here I Rule . Com Art Installation

Here I Rule . Com Art Installation

Here I Rule . Com
will take you to a website about the game Magic: The Gathering, of which I know nothing except that some friends play.

I had a puppy with me when I took the pictures so I didn't try to walk through the doorway, or look through the peepholes.

Here I Rule . Com Art Installation

What would I see?

I love unexpected public art.

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Friday, November 21, 2008

5 Un/der/used Outdoor Spaces in Memphis

Memphis' urban outdoors has to be more than a smoky space between car and building.

I offer 5 heavily underused outdoor spaces in downtown and midtown that could be that more, places you'd want to stop and places you'd want to walk by (just so you could look at those who stopped). These places and others like them could be social anchors for our city's new street life.

As you can see in the photos, they are underused to the point of unused. They have the stuff to attract (including shade because outdoors should also be more than a spring and fall), but they need people, and the uses that attract people.

This is my imagining a social life for each of these spaces.
  1. Civic Center

    I hadn't originally considered Memphis' official public place for this, but when I asked for recommendations, several people pointed it out. A subsequent visit on a beautiful sunny day brought me around to the possibilities. Memphis' great trees are growing up here and softening this modernist, concrete plaza, which actually contains multiple spaces, including the center fountains,

    Civic Center

    the wall fountains

    Civic Center

    and the magnolia-shaded gallery around City Hall.

    Civic Center

    Realm: Public

    Pros: public space with increasingly mature trees, activity from public buildings, fountains that children love.

    Cons: cold modernism, hot concrete, single use.

    Challenges: No use-mixing during business hours, no use at all after office hours. And it's big. Of the 5 spaces, the most problematic.

    Possibilities: small vendors and markets catering to workers, tourists and residents. Mixed private uses, including housing, to provide mixed, around the clock uses.

  2. Cossitt Library Fountain Area

    Cossitt Library Fountains

    A low space defined by the walls of the original Cossitt Library walls and the newer modernist library.

    Realm: Public

    Pros: shaded from the east by highrises, from the west by the library and beautiful trees; visible from Front Street but separated by wall and sunken location; a fountain (although not operating now); soon to have lots of law students, faculty and staff walking by. Maybe art lovers too.

    Cons: the Cossitt has become a vector of speculative fever, which has perhaps led to poor maintenance, which has led to public disdain (which isn't helped by a 50 year old demolition that knocked out the stunning original Romanesque library).

    Challenges: to do anything small and simple when we just know that the site is worth at least a bazillion and a half dollars.

    Possibilities: with the fountain fixed, a breakfast/lunch/coffee area especially geared towards law students, and later a watering hole for visitors of the Memphis Art Park.

  3. Chicago Pizza Factory patio

    A nice patio directly fronting Madison.

    Realm: Private, but public street and sidewalk adjacent and visible.

    Pros: great shade; directly on and visible from Madison; possible spillover from nearby restaurants, like Huey's, Molly's and the Blue Monkey.

    Cons: uncertainty about Overton Square's future, the major anchor to the east; vacant shops to the west; itself vacant for a long time.

    Challenges: opening a business in an area that has been very spotty for nearly a decade and counting.

    Possibilities: a restaurant where the patio is a centerpiece, for itself and reborn street life on Madison. Maybe there's hope.

  4. Magnolia Room Patio

    Magnolia Ballroom Patio

    At corner of Monroe and Florence in Overton Square, it's a sidewalk facing court, shaded and protected by a beautiful magnolia. This might actually be an operating business but the court doesn't appear to have a persistent life.

    Magnolia Ballroom Patio

    Realm: Private, but public street and sidewalk adjacent and visible.

    Pro: a cool building and patio, which is shaded from the magnolia and the building itself. active neighboring businesses, including Mr. Lincoln's Costume Shop and TheatreWorks.

    Cons: location directly across from the world's ugliest parking lot; uncertainty about Overton Square development.

    Possibilities: always on patio providing and receiving street energy for adjacent businesses and, who knows, a vital Overton Square rebirth.

  5. Abe Goodman Golf House porch in Overton Park

    Patio of a beautiful Tudor club house

    Abe Goodman Club House

    overlooking the Overton Park golf course, the greensward, the Old Forest and the walkers, bikers, artists, music, dog and nature lovers passing by on their way to enjoy all of the above.

    Patio of the Abe Goodman Club House

    Realm: Public

    Patio of the Abe Goodman Club House

    Pros: awning already there, shaded in the west by magnolias, already has a concession area.

    Cons: I don't see any.

    Patio of the Abe Goodman Club House

    Challenges: Just doing it. Of all 5 spaces, this seems to me to be the easiest, lowest cost to transform (if we don't get distracted by grandness).

    Possibilities: Upgrade and extend the concession for more than golfers and more than tee times.
Because they are already fulfilling their public purpose, the public spaces can (and should) experiment with smaller ideas and smaller entrepeneurs. The private owners don't necessarily have that much leeway. Either way, I wouldn't think any would require massive renovations to be successful outdoor spaces.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

An Unhappy Med City: No Pedestrians

A few weeks ago I wrote about HappyMedCity and Memphis' hopes to build a thriving medical district.

The UT Basic/Clinical Research Sciences Building, at the corner of Madison and Manassas is part of the new construction going into the rebuilt Medical District.

Medical District Building

Visually, I like it. I also like that it filled an empty lot, and that it has a almost urban setback (although I never get the berms -- the berms! -- those 4 feet borders of boring, useless grass)

But as I've looked closer at the building, I've noticed that it has no entrances/exits on Manassas or Madison. All customer entrances appear to face the private drives or parking lots on the side or back. There are no public, street-facing entrances.

It's within walking distance of other medical buildings and directly across from a nice park*, but the building penalizes walking, rewards driving. And it's a half-block of uselessness for pedestrian passersby.

This visualization for the soon-to-be-adjacent Hope Lodge shows a similar problem.

Summer Walk 2008

No openings to Union. You do see some people sitting outside on the right, so maybe the builders are thinking about this. In the meantime, we do see the phantom walkers of classic architectural illustration, poor suckers walking down the street looking for an entrance, or a reason to keep walking.

So while I salute the filling of these brownfields with nice buildings, I believe if Memphis is serious about re/building an fun, energetic, vital, safe medical district, we have to build actively for pedestrians too. Otherwise, we might build a attractive, empty, unsafe, dead medical district -- the same as we have now but prettier.

Build to the HappyMedCity standard.

* The University of Tennessee has been negotiating with Memphis to take over Forrest Park's management. One of the reasons stated is for the University to handle security for the park. Of course, one way to do this is by stationing security officers in the park. A less obvious, but more sustainable, economical way is to have the buildings and businesses along the park's edge seed its active use and steady cross-traffic, discouraging criminals and encouraging law abiders by its vitality.

Beyond mundane crime prevention, if a worker were to actually witness a crime in the park from this building, it would take them 10 minutes to get out and around to the aid of a victim. If the buildings along the park aren't designed for pedestrians, they could end up being beautiful skyboxes from which to watch the ballet of the criminal, the homeless and the law.

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Sunday, November 16, 2008

Term of the Week: Irrational Paralysis

Irrational Paralysis: a malady turning the otherwise creative and active of Memphis into the hesitant and passive. Perhaps caused by fear of failure.

Spoken by a stranger (no longer strange) during a conversation at Otherlands a few nights ago.

Memphis Car

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Density of Creativity in Memphis

Not a week passes where I don't meet, almost at random, new people on the ground here in Memphis who are creatively working to make change happen.

Speaking as someone who by nature is neither extroverted nor connected, the frequency of these meetings has started to amaze me.

Is Memphis' creative density growing?

Markings from the Lost Tribe of Overton Park

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Monday, November 10, 2008

The Exotic in Normal

Perhaps because I was born in the era when many were being built, I never cared much for Memphis' modernist buildings. They were the normal, while the strange were the older, traditionalist buildings I might see in my rare trips downtown and less rare trips to midtown.

But time has subverted and replaced the norm, and I've come to love what I can see now as the historical exoticism in buildings that looked so boring to me as a kid.

Like the Normal Masonic Lodge.

Normal Masonic Lodge

A simple modernist building overall, it has a nice horizontal tile-inlayed plane on its second floor, horizontal concrete borders around its windows, a concrete Masonic icon and most interestingly, these short and stout columns

Columns of Normal Masonic Lodge

which remind me of Botero. It's like the builders were afraid to give up traditionalism and settled on these as a lifeline. A hesitant traditional touch that is weirder than anything modern they could have added.

Unfortunately, while I appreciate how its landscaping evokes the building's era in its rigid untouched normalcy, it also taints the building's exoticism.

Normal Masonic Lodge

While architectural styles have changed much, suburban-style berm and bush landscaping style hasn't. We risk overlooking the special in the building due to the sameness of the lawn.

And it is a risk, because the coming westward expansion of the University of Memphis will threaten even special buildings. A building mistakenly branded as insignificant by a berm doesn't stand a chance.

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Thursday, November 06, 2008

The Empty: a Theory

The economic and social expectations (and the wealth that sustains the expectations) of so much Memphis commercial space is too great for a local grassroots entrepeneurial ecosystem to successfully form in that space, given Memphis' present density and available capital.

As a result, buildings remain empty rather than rented or purchased at economically sustainable and viral lower levels.

It's a theory, and subject to proof, if not too badly theorized.

Is it a verbose way of saying we got speculation going on? I think it's more than speculation.

It's that those at the top of the Memphis pyramid are oblivious to the large wealth gaps that separate them not only from the poor but from the middle class. Consequently, they set their expectations to their and their peers' resources, rather than the resources available to Memphis' talent rich, capital poor entrepeneurs.

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Tuesday, November 04, 2008

More Perfect

Despite blessings of good people and good place, Memphis has been cursed from founding by our nation's greatest imperfection -- racism.

May today be the triumphant beginning to the final end of the curse.

Detail from the Tom Lee memorial on the Mississippi River, Memphis

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