CA: Fairgrounds planning adds to whirlwind of Memphis redevelopment
When I graduated from high school in the early 1990s, Memphis looked much different than it does now. I saw concerts and Memphis Tigers basketball games at the pointy Tomb of Doom down on the river and Memphis Chicks games at comparatively tiny Tim McCarver Stadium at the Fairgrounds. I no longer remember what was on the parcels of land that became AutoZone Park and FedExForum (and Gibson Guitar Factory and the Westin Hotel).
South Main was the seedy end of Downtown where “Mystery Train” had been filmed. Overton Square was something that mostly used to be. Cooper-Young was an intersection, not a destination.
The only recently rechristened University of Memphis had a campus that underscored the generally unfair sobriquet “Tiger High” and the nearby Highland Strip, near where I lived, was pretty dingy. Broad Avenue was an industrial corridor.
Shelby Farms was mostly a field and the paint was chipping on the old wooden benches at the Raoul Wallenberg Shell at Overton Park. The Old Forest? Best keep away. Harbor Town, a hard-to-imagine development down — way down — by the river was just beginning to rise.
Yesterday, when the Strickland Administration announced (yet another) restart to the planning process for Fairgrounds redevelopment, less than 24 hours after the announcement of a $70 million mixed-use redevelopment proposal in the Edge District, I wondered how different Memphis will look in a quarter-century to those who graduated from high school here earlier in this decade.
Has there been a period in living memory when so much of Memphis’ landscape has been subject to so much change?
From the South End of Downtown to South City. Riverfront to Fourth Bluff to the Gateway Project in the Pinch, including St. Jude’s expansion. Edge District to ongoing growth in Overton Square to Crosstown to Broad & Binghamton. University of Memphis and Highland Strip. Germantown and Shelby Farms.
The level of recent, ongoing or proposed physical change along the central band of the city — and, very notably, almost only along this central band — is breathtaking.
Not all of this has been instigated by the Strickland administration — not all of it is in Memphis — but the Riverfront, the Pinch and now the Fairgrounds all have the city’s hand on the wheel. Given the mayor’s self-styled “block and tackle” reputation, the boldness of this bid to remake and rebuild the core city and especially its most public places is striking. Strickland has taken some guff for his “brilliant at the basics” branding (including some here, though my resistance is mostly linguistic at this point), but this is terribly ambitious. If there’s satisfactory follow-through on these three fronts while keeping city budget expenditures to an oft-stated minimum, it will be all the more impressive.
It warrants pointing out that of all the areas on the aforementioned list, the Riverfront, the Pinch, and the Fairgrounds are the ones that are still most theoretical. The ones still most rooted in presentations and plans and pretty pictures rather than action. At the risk of discouraging boldness, overpromising and under-delivering is a danger. One worries that Memphis is a little over-rendered at the moment. Architectural envisioning doesn’t hold back. The final results rarely match the pretty pictures.
Of the three, the Fairgrounds feels the least pressing. Mud Island badly needs some TLC. The Pinch has been allowed to fester as a concrete desert for far too long. At the Fairgrounds, recent neglect has been comparatively benign.
As for the Fairgrounds specifics, we’ll wait for the public process to restart next week before mulling over specifics in what is at least the fourth attempt to redevelop the space in the past decade. “This is the final step,” Strickland said in the release announcing the new effort. Maybe, but given the history of the space, the mind struggles to comprehend where we are in the process. The beginning of the end or the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end of the beginning? The process is starting where it last ended, with a everybody-gets-a-pony plan proffered by the national Urban Land Institute (the local chapter wasn’t involved), which retained a smaller element of a youth sports complex previously touted by city government. That smaller element seems to be the cornerstone of what may emerge. But stay tuned:
The city will host a series of public Fairgrounds planning meetings, starting at 5 p.m. Aug. 10 at the Kroc Center of Memphis, 800 E. Parkway, Mayor Jim Strickland’s office announced via social media Wednesday. The city plans to apply to the state by year’s end for a tourism development zone (TDZ) that will capture and reinvest sales taxes in the area, said Memphis Housing and Community Development Director Paul Young.