Downtown Memphis is already where downtown St. Louis hopes to go

The King is still dead, no matter how many cheesy Elvis imitators flock to Graceland to lip-curl, croon and karate-kick their idol back to life.

Downtown Memphis, however, is everything Elvis isn't. And it isn't hiding out, working the midnight shift at a 7-Eleven down in Tupelo, Mississippi or pumping gas in Trumann, Arkansas.

In less than a decade, a critical mass of residents, redevelopment projects, nightlife, public facilities, tourist attractions and new buildings has emerged in what was once the dying and decaying heart of this Mississippi River city. Downtown has grown from about 1,700 full-time residents to more than 17,000 and possesses the priciest per-square-foot residential-construction figure in Tennessee.

Make no mistake, though. Downtown Memphis ain't perfect: It's sucked up a massive amount of public money and sports its share of monied greedheads feeding at the public trough and big-ticket white elephants -- projects that promised to jump-start other development that never got off the ground. And it still has its share of urban desolation.

But from the blues bars of Beale Street and the pubs of the old Irish neighborhood known as the Pinch District to the neotraditional homes on Mud Island and the South Bluffs to the condos overlooking a jewelbox of a new downtown baseball stadium, home diamond of the Cardinal's Triple-A affiliate, the Redbirds, Memphis finds itself the proud owner of a downtown that is still lively well after the nine-to-five crowd heads for the suburbs.

Dumb luck, an unsevered connection to the river and a willingness to learn from past mistakes such as the Mid-America Mall and the Mud Island monorail and historical museum partly explain this rebirth, say Memphis civic leaders such as Benny Lendermon, head of the Riverfront Development Corporation, a public-private partnership.

Like lightning, that can't be bottled and exported upriver to St. Louis.

But what can be captured and shipped to this town is a key component of downtown Memphis' success -- its emphasis on single-family homes, condos, apartments and townhouses and the commercial outlets that cater to these nuevo downtowners, from clubs to restaurants to grocery stores to shops. There are even plans for a new $12 million public school.

That's what downtown St. Louis needs to support its growing number of downtown residents, says Matt Ghio, a Memphis-born lawyer and board member of Metropolis, the activist organization of young St. Louis residents who are trying to get this city's civic leaders to wean themselves from their reliance on silver-bullet solutions such as the convention-center hotel and the stalled stadium project for the Cardinals.

It needs something else that Memphis has down cold, says Ghio -- a willingness to play smallball, to take a block-by-block approach, build on incremental success and mix in a few judiciously placed big-ticket projects that complement what's happening on a grassroots level.

"Smallness works," Ghio says. "You've got to do it small, and you've got to do it right. If you do a lot of small stuff well, you got something big that works. You're creating a neighborhood -- a neighborhood on steroids. You've got all this activity going on, and plop a ballpark down and, voilà, you've got density."

Lendermon agrees.

"It's all those things adding up, building-block fashion," he says, "a number of little bitty pieces coming together."

But before it learned to play smallball, Memphis had to learn to walk away from the silver-bullet approach, says Tom Marshall, architect and longtime Memphis City Council member. The $70 million mid-'70s fiasco known as the Mud Island theme park helped this process along, he says, creating a distaste for big-ticket projects that don't deliver the promised salvation of downtown.

"We don't want another boondoggle like Mud Island," Marshall says. "We always seemed to take these initiatives and pilot them with such glitz and glamour and promises that were impossible to reach. Constituents are very leery about initiatives that have a lot of splash but are unattainable."

This is not to say there haven't been a number of big-ticket projects in downtown Memphis, including the $105-plus-million Peabody Place office-and-entertainment complex pushed by developer Jack Belz, owner of that grande dame of a hotel, the Peabody, where the ducks parade to a pond in the lobby every morning. A new headquarters for AutoZone Inc. and the ballyard for the Redbirds were also built nearby.

But these weren't seen as stand-alone saviors. They supercharged what was already going on downtown, creating a critical mass of residents and visitors that keep cash registers ringing in restaurants, bars and shops and ensuring the livelihood of creature comforts that appeal to both those who live there and those who are only doing a weekend drive-by.

"It's part of a plan," says Robert Lipscomb, executive director of the Memphis Housing Authority and the city's Housing and Community Development division. "We had to build some anchors, and we developed several for downtown -- Peabody Place and housing. The key was bringing people downtown. And what attracts people is having activities for them."

Although Marshall, Lipscomb and Lendermon want to see those suburban dollars joining the coin of downtown residents, none of them wants to see a suburban-style mall or project jammed onto urban turf. St. Louis has an ongoing reminder of the folly of such projects -- St. Louis Centre, the failed dreamchild of former Mayor Vince Schoemehl. With its skywalks and vacant retail space, St. Louis Centre is anathema to the bustling street traffic new urbanites want to encourage with a mix of shops, restaurants and other retail outlets aimed at office workers and downtown residents.

Next Page »