Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Memphis Builds a Hole

My long-simmering, near burnt thoughts on August's stunningly lopsided 10-2 City Council vote, clearing at least the political path for CVS to demolish the Union Avenue Methodist Church:
    Union Avenue Methodist Church
  • The vote's a template for future defeats that advocates for a better built Memphis can't ignore. Organizational unity, education of both leaders and citizens, and political advocacy for both candidates and systematic change are important to avoid a thousand defeats and an uglier, less livable Memphis.
  • A big mistake for the built community would be to try and pin the defeat on Memphis Heritage. In voting for the CVS anti-design, The Council ignored the Office of Planning and Development, the Land Use Control Board, the Memphis Regional Design Center, the Commercial Appeal, the Central Gardens Neighborhood Association, Playhouse on the Square, the Midtown Redevelopment Corporation, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the district's councilmen, Jim Strickland and Shea Flinn, and Memphis Heritage. It was a blow for preservation, smart growth, urbanism, walkability, planning and Memphis' built environment.
  • Urbanists can separate themselves from preservationists in fast growing cities. In Memphis, preservation is a necessary tool of urbanism. We can say, "I don't care about saving that building, I care about good design", but as a practical matter 9 out of 10 people who don't care about re-using a good building also won't care about good urban design.
  • I heard someone say that the defeat was due to poor lobbying by the opponents of the CVS design. I don't know enough about political campaigns to know the truth to this, but it does scare me that our Council could be so lightly principled that some special political ingredient -- beyond the public pleas of the staff, boards and associations mentioned above -- could have turned a 10-2 defeat into a 7-5 victory. Anyway, even if extra special lobbying could have made a difference, it strikes me as a very expensive, unsustainable, politically exhausting way to move toward a better built Memphis. A thousand city-wide mobilizations for a thousand buildings and designs that start at the bottom of a 10-2 hole won't work.
  • The Council made it clear in their words and horsetrading what they would do the next month -- gut the Midtown Overlay.
  • I don't think the Councilpeople who voted for CVS are clueless or idiots or [insert your insult here], but I do believe that the issues of smart growth, walkability, good design, much, much less preservation, have made little inroad into our city's political leadership. At this point, the great majority of our Council don't care. Their apathy is a core smart growth problem in Memphis.
  • City Council meetings are like a game show hosted by the Great and Mighty Oz. Citizens stand below the raised, intimidating dais of the Council and are given a ticking 2 minutes to speak. Instead of a screamed "Silence!" a buzzer goes off when the speaker's minutes are up.
  • Near the end of the debate, Councilman Bill Boyd let the crowd in on a dirty little secret. Numbers of supporters or opponents in City Council chambers don't sway their vote. Perhaps this where the off-the-clock lobbying comes in and citizen advocacy gets the buzzer.
  • If you need political support for regression in Memphis, get yourself a spokeschristian. Very effective.

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