Thursday, July 31, 2008

Shelby Farms Skate

Yesterday, the County Commission's Conservation Committee approved a master plan for Shelby Farms that includes an expanded Patriot Lake, improved park access, and even a small beach area. The master plan was designed by New York-based field operations.

My colleague Bianca Phillips covered the meeting for the Flyer and she knew I would be interested in the fact that Commissioner David Lillard was looking out for roller bladers and skaters.

Apparently, Lillard is something of a skater himself and was concerned that the plan's proposed pedestrian entrance and loop around the landfill would be a stone dust trail. Which would be rather difficult for skaters to use.

field operations principal James Corner said that was something they hadn't thought about but would consider in going forward with the plan.

Lillard also cited a proposed boardwalk around Patriot Lake as a potential problem for cyclists and skaters.

I'm so glad he brought those issues up.

I used to skate at Tom Lee Park and it's just awful. Though there are these nice, wide, smooth squares of sidewalk, they are interspersed with about a foot of cobblestones in between each one.

I get that it's a nod to the cobblestone landing — I sure hope it is — but it's not fun to skate. It's like you're skating nicely along, though not for very long, and you hit this big bump. Then you're back on smooth sidewalk, then another bump, and it goes on like this, one jarring bump every 10 seconds. If that.

(I can demonstrate this concept better with my hands and some very strange noises, but I'm finding it very difficult to explain here.)

Once you get going pretty fast, it's easier to ignore it, but if a strong wind is blowing or you're tired, just forget about it.

I even once advanced the theory that Tom Lee was designed this way on purpose to keep skaters from using the park. I don't really believe that's true, but the other options are that it either didn't cross anyone's mind or it did and they didn't care.

Either way, it looks like I need to thank Commissioner Lillard for mentioning skaters before the path is built.

The Shelby Farms plan goes before the full commission Monday, August 4th.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Talking Trash

It looks like just over a quarter of Memphis' residential garbage gets recycled.

I was reading this NYT story yesterday about how Houston, as the worst recycler among the 30 largest U.S. cities, only recycles 2.6 percent of its total waste. And I started wondering how Memphis compares.

According to figures from trade publication Waste News, Memphis recycles 26 percent of its total waste. That figure puts the city almost smack-dab in the middle of the country's 30 largest cities. San Francisco, which recycles 69 percent of its total waste, leads the rankings, followed by Portland and Los Angeles.

Houston, Oklahoma City, and San Antonio bring up the rear.

Annually, Memphis collects almost 6,000 tons of paper, 552 tons of metal, 828 tons of plastic, 1,800 tons of glass, and about 94,000 tons of yard trimmings, all of which yields the city about $352,000 in recycling revenue each year.

To read more about all this garbage — pun intended — click here to revisit Flyer writer Preston Lauterbach's 2006 cover story on the subject.

Waste News didn't have data on commercial recycling in Memphis, but I'd be interested to see what it is. (I met someone at the Coalition for Livable Communities Neighborhood Summit last month who was talking about trying to start a bar and restaurant recycling program. And, really, what a great idea. Even if you just started small, like with beer bottles.)

Chicago, for instance, comes in near the top of the overall rankings with a 55.4 percent recycling rate, but only 18.1 percent of its total residential waste is recycled. Their commercial recycling rate, however, is 61.4 percent.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Small Town Blues

In recent weeks, there's been a lot of talk about how higher gas prices might promote a shift of people migrating back to core cities from the suburbs.

The Kansas City Star had a story recently about how higher gas prices might also harm small town America.

From the story:

"For thousands of small-town residents across the country who drive long distances to jobs that pay little more than minimum wage, the high cost of gas is making that daily commute cost-prohibitive.

So much so that economists predict that over the next few years, the country could see a migration that would greatly reduce the population of Small Town America — resulting in a painful shift away from lifestyle, family roots, traditions and school ties."

I don't know about the painful shift, but I know that for my parents, the price of gas has actually meant spending more of their income in their teeny, tiny west Texas town (of course, they actually work in the town in which they live). The closest mall to them is about 50 miles away in Abilene, but their town has a few shops, a two-screen, double-decker movie theater, and a McDonald's.

A few years ago, they would drive to Abilene about once a week to buy groceries. It was kind of a trek, but it was worth it for the savings. Now, with the cost of gas, they're opting to buy from their local grocery store.

So, in at least one respect, it seems like high gas prices would be beneficial to small town America.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Something to File Away for Later

Looks like the City Council is attending an ethics training session today at 1 p.m. at Christian Brothers' Center for Ethical Leadership.

I'm sure they'll cover not taking bribes in the bathroom of Earnestine & Hazel's.

Oops, sorry, that was former County Commissioner Michael Hooks.

Well, they might want to mention it anyway.

(I'm kidding. All our politicians are fine, up-standing citizens. But just in case they stray ... now we know they were at least told what is ethical and, more importantly, what isn't.)

Wal-Mart Shopper Strips Down?

The Consumerist is one of my favorite blogs (tho, for the life of me, I can't figure out why) and today they have a little bit about a Wal-Mart shopper who wasn't allowed to bring her $600 bike into the store.

Because there were no bike racks at that particular location, the cyclist thought she'd just take the bicycle with her into the store, something she'd done in the past. But a Wal-Mart manager argued that she couldn't bring it into the store because the store sold bicycles.

From her posting on Bike Forums:

"I was starting to get really frustrated since I had ridden all the way there seemingly for no reason, so I asked her if they also sold shirts in the store. She said yes so I took off my jersey and said well then I'd better not bring this in either. She got kind of flustered and said that it was a different situation but couldn't explain why. So I said that if they also sold shorts in the store that I'd better not wear those in either and I took off my shorts. Same goes for the shoes and sunglasses. Now I'm standing there in my spandex and a sports bra and I ask here if I can leave my things behind the customer service counter where they will be safe until I finish making my purchases and she said that I couldn't come into the store without shoes on, to which i responded 'but I certainly can't wear shoes into the store because you sell those here and someone might think I've stolen them.'"

On a related but unrelated note, writer Shara Clark has a story in the upcoming issue of the Flyer about a proposed Wal-mart at Houston Levee and Macon and the Cordova residents who oppose it.

For all the suburb-bashers out there who are thinking to themselves "Have you seen Cordova? How can they be against Wal-mart?" — don't worry, your worldview is safe. It's not that they don't like Wal-mart, per se, they're worried that the new Wal-mart might put one of the old Wal-marts (like the one on Germantown Parkway) out of business.

And a big box is one thing; an empty big box is another thing entirely.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Main Street Mall For All?

Even if vehicular traffic doesn't return to the Main Street Mall, Center City Commission president Jeff Sanford says the controversial idea might result in some improvements to the mall.

"We've been saying for several years that the maintenance on the mall has been lacking. In fact, we determined that the metal infrastructure hasn't been painted in 15 years ... and the trolleys are 15 years old," Sanford says.

The Center City Commission (CCC) held a meeting earlier this week to solicit public input for its controversial idea of returning vehicular traffic to the north end of Main Street. CCC staff members are expected to present a recommendation to the CCC's traffic and transportation committee in mid-August. That committee will then take a recommendation to the CCC's main board.

Main Street Now

But even then, nothing would be a done deal.

"If the CCC board agrees that any kind of change on Main Street would be good for downtown, they would communicate that to the city," says CCC president Jeff Sanford. "It's the city of Memphis that has the authority to make any and all decisions about the public right-of-way."

In addition to the public meeting, the CCC has met with representatives from the fire department, the police department, MATA, and the city engineer's office to discuss the idea. The CCC also held a separate meeting with Main Street property owners.

"We've had three highly respected consultants in Memphis recently, all of of whom, independent of one another, suggested that we should consider putting cars back on Main Street," Sanford says. "However, the public's opinion, the local opinion, is just as important to this discussion as is the consultants opinions and the experience of other cities."

One of the consultant's, Jeff Speck, said he thought it would only cost about $50,000 to remove a few curbs and add a few teaser parking spaces, but that the lane sizes were just right to control the speed of vehicular traffic.

"We don't drive the speed marked. We drive the speed we feel safe," Speck said. "If you're a teenage boy, you drive the speed you feel dangerous."

There were once about 200 downtown, outdoor malls in America, but there are now fewer than 30.

Main Street 1906

"In the end, I think the ultimate question we will try to answer is, if we knew then what we know now, would we have designed and constructed this mall in the same way? Not wanting to leap ahead of the staff's opinion, I would say the answer is probably no," Sanford says. "But that definition of no could be a lot of things."

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Gas Tax Down

A few days ago, I wrote about local projects taking a hit after a cut in federal clean air funds.

In a related story, the LATimes reported this week that "the principal source of funding for highway projects will soon hit a big financial pothole. The federal highway trust fund could be in the red by $3.2 billion or more next year."

The fund is backed by the federal gasoline tax but the tax is levied by the gallon, not the price, of gas. And with U.S. motorists buying less fuel, that means fewer dollars for transportation projects.

Good thing we aren't relying on aging infrastructure.

From the LATimes: "In the long run, lawmakers must figure out whether the 18.4-cent-a-gallon federal gasoline tax, which helped bring in money when fuel-hungry SUVs were hot, is still a viable way to fund transportation projects amid heightened concern about gasoline prices, U.S. dependence on foreign oil and global warming."

By the way, this is not me urging you to drive more. Just so we're clear.

Life without a car?

Alternet has a first-person account today about a man who, for the first time in two decades, is no longer a driver.

Andrew Lam says that owning a car has always been intrinsically American, but now giving up your car is the new American responsibility.

(I don't think I'd go that far ... and I certainly couldn't without my car. Ba-dah-dum!)

Lam confesses that he misses the convenience of his car:

"What was once a matter of expediency is now an effortful navigation.

'I'll be there in 15 minutes!' I used to tell a good friend who once lived nearby but who now resides, without a car, at an inconvenient distance. Going to my favorite Asian food market suddenly has turned into another arduous chore: Once a 30 minute event, it has become a two-hour ordeal, with bags in hands, and bus transfers."

What is interesting is that Lam is writing from San Francisco, one of the most walkable American cities. If it's hard for someone in San Fran, how doable is it for someone in Boise? Or, to use the American test city, Peoria?

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

School Cynicism

When I first began working at the Flyer, I covered education. Basically, the woman I replaced as calendar editor liked that beat, and though I didn't have any particular affinity for educational issues, it seemed as good of a beat as any.

(In general, I think education is considered a good assignment for cub reporters. Most of the people you cover are educators so not only don't they mind answering dumb questions, they actually see it as part of their mission in life. The beat also will get your feet wet re: construction issues, budgets, data sets, and, if you're a lucky little reporter, scandal.)

It's been a while since I've really covered education in any depth, however. Since Janel Davis relocated to the D.C. area, I've considered John Branston our key education reporter.

Despite all that, I agreed to interview new Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash. The resulting interview, weeks in the making (you have no idea! and I don't think it's fair to go into on the blog, but if you see me out and you want to hear an interesting story, I'll by more than happy to share), is currently up on the Flyer's website.

Once I actually got to talk to him, Cash was easy to talk to. But I have to say, I think a lot of the things he said sound very similar to what Carol Johnson said during her first interview with me. We're going to work hard, hold people accountable, change the perception of the school system, build coalitions ...

And while all those things still sound good, I guess I've gotten more cynical.

When I first started thinking of questions for the new superintendent, the one I kept coming back to was: Why would anyone want that job? (I'm not the only cynic. Most people I asked who weren't the superintendent had one answer — money.)

It seems to me that they're set up to fail, getting a hero's welcome the moment they step in the door (and, okay, maybe they deserve a hero's welcome for wanting to step in the door in the first place) and then we find out they're just as human, just as flawed, as everyone else.

I mean, we're talking about a billion dollar operating budget here.

I'm sure that Cash will work hard and build coalitions, but even with a public mandate, I'm not convinced it will make a difference.

And, obviously, I'm not sold on that changing perception thing, either.

But I'd be happy to be proven wrong.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


A few months ago, local governments were planning to add hybrid vehicles to their fleets. Memphis was going to buy 10, Shelby County and Collierville were going to get four each, and Bartlett was going to get two.

But that was before a budget snafu and a reduction in federal funding for clean air projects.

“There was money taken out for the [FedExForum] garage incident. That was the beginning of the problem,” says Larry Smith, supervisor of the local health department’s air quality improvement branch. “In addition to that, the state reduced the allocation given to the local area.”

To fund its upcoming projects, the Health Department reallocated money from its RideShare program, but other agencies weren’t as lucky. Funding for a new MATA transit center near the airport was eliminated.

“We generally get about $3.2 million” each year in Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality money, says Martha Lott, administrator for the local Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO).

“In 2000, we got $1.9 million. In 2008, we got $1.6 million, and they’re telling me for 2009, 2010, and 2011 to project about $200,000 less each year,” she says.

The funding, known under the acronym CMAQ, is federal gas tax money that is disbursed to the state and then spent in areas that don’t meet clean air standards in ozone, carbon monoxide, and particulate matter.

Though the state said it would recoup more than $6 million in funding in late 2006 because of money misused for an intermodal bus transfer facility at the Forum, that money was not transferred until May of last year. Lott says she was not notified when the money was transferred.

In previous years, the state has given about 80 percent of CMAQ funding to the state’s various MPOs. This year the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) used 86 percent of the $28 million in this year’s CMAQ funding.

Alan Jones, advisor for TDOT’s environmental policy office, says one of the department’s priorities was intelligent transportation systems — which include cameras and electronic message boards — in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga.

“We have not started Chattanooga’s system yet,” Jones says. “Of the $28 million, $23 million is dedicated to starting Chattanooga’s system. None of the other MPOs had to spend their money on that.”

However, Jones says he hopes to see more funding given to MPOs in future years.

“The MPOs are uniquely qualified to understand their region and what might be the best projects,” Jones says. “Having this hybrid of the state department of transportation looking at priorities established by Congress or by the administration, we need the ability to send at least part of the money to MPOs to make their own decisions.”

Jones could not comment on the FedExForum garage because of an ongoing Tennessee Bureau of Investigation inquiry.

[Note: This story was supposed to run in this week's Flyer, but because all my colleagues had to go and do good work and get awards and everything, it got the ax. Which is probably just as well.]


I know I just wrote about my wonderful scooter, but I had an unbelievably bad time on it yesterday.

It seemed like every possible place where something could go wrong, it almost did.

I mean, how often do you see a semi backing across two lanes of traffic ... because it needs enough clearance to do a u-turn? (Actually, after a little mishap where a u-turning sugar truck retired my red baby Subaru, I don't have a lot of patience with trucks doing that particular maneuver.)

I even had to honk my horn at someone who almost turned left into me! (It worked, but probably because she heard it and thought, "Has a duck landed on my car? What is that funny little noise?" and paused just long enough to look for it. Then she saw me.)

I know the Flyer commenters have been all about the helmets and, yes, I was wearing mine, but I'm not sure it would have helped.

At any rate, today I'm in the car, chalking the whole thing up to it being so hot that no one can focus, and taking it as a reminder that Memphis drivers — myself included — are a crazy lot.

In happier times.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Trans Talking

Sometimes, the good part about reporters/journalists is that they do things you might be interested in, but for whatever reason, can't or won't do yourself.

Like attending five-hour school board meetings or listening to long-winded speeches by the reigning leadership. Or even participating in a sub-culture.

(I'm a huge fan of Slate's human guinea pig column where Emily Yoffe does all sorts of interesting things such as becoming a papparazzo, performing as a drag king, nude modeling for an art class — basically all the things you might want to know what they are like, but that you would probably never, ever do yourself.)

At the Flyer, our resident sub-culture expert is probably Bianca Phillips. She has gone ghost-hunting on a number of occasions, spent time at The Farm, a commune in Summertown, Tennessee, and who could forget her weekend at the annual Furry Convention.

Last week, we sent her to a lecture entitled "How to Talk to a Tranny" (for you regular Flyer readers, that means her story will be out Wednesday/Thursday, depending on your favorite pick-up spot).

The next day, we were talking about the dos and don'ts of talking to transgendered people (tranny is one of the don'ts). I had a lot of follow-up questions (I generally have a lot of questions about everything!) and, as is also often the case, Bianca told me that most of them would be considered offensive. (Oops.) So that's good to know for the future.

The piece is pretty interesting. It cleared up a couple of things I was uncertain about — it's definitely worth a read if you get a chance later on in the week.

Friday, July 18, 2008

School Suit

I've been at Chancery Court all morning for the hearing on the city funding cuts to MCS, and this won't come as a surprise to any of you legal eagles out there, but I ALWAYS forget how boring court is.

I'm pretty sure I caught at least two people sleeping (in fairness, maybe they were just resting their eyes) and the only thing that keeps me from nodding off is writing down everything anyone says.

Interestingly enough, there weren't any City Council members in attendance (save the gallery appearance of former member TaJuan Stout Mitchell) and lawyer Jay Bailey said he had sent a subpoena to council chair Scott McCormick at city hall, but that McCormick hadn't yet been served.

Council attorney Allan Wade said that Myron Lowery is supposed to be in attendance this afternoon and that seemed to appease Bailey (he needs a representative of the council there for appeal purposes, I believe. Don't quote me).

I guess we'll see.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Kissing the Porcelain Goodbye

I've been busy posting to the Flyer's site this morning (this whole Rampage Jackson thing is crazy! You can't flee the scene of a crime in a vehicle that has a giant picture of your face on it! C'mon!), but this is the another kind of story I can't ignore: million-dollar toilets.

After spending $5 million on five automated public toilets, the city of Seattle has put them up on eBay, starting the bidding at $89,000 each.

Apparently, even though the automated toilets are supposed to clean themselves after each use (disinfecting the seat and power-washing the floors), the restrooms became so filthy that rarely anyone used them. (Even a woman who said she used to smoke crack there thought they were too disgusting to use.)

Seattle blames the potty problems on installing the toilets in areas that already had a lot of drug activity, combined with the fact that the taxpayers are picking up the tab.

From the NYTimes:

"In the typical arrangement involving cities that want to try automated toilets, an outdoor advertising company like JCDecaux provides, operates and maintains them for the municipality in exchange for a right to place ads on public property like bus stops and kiosks. Revenue from the advertisers flows to both the company and the city.

But a strict advertising law here barred officials from such an arrangement, meaning Seattle had to pick up the entire $5 million cost. 'That’s a lot of money, a whole lot,' said Ray Hoffman, director of corporate policy for Seattle Public Utilities, the municipal water and sewage agency that ran the project.

Richard McIver, a Seattle city councilman, agrees. 'Other cities around the world seem to be able to handle toilets civilly,' Mr. McIver said. 'But we were unable to control the street population, and without the benefit of advertising, our costs were awfully high.'”

But instead of just flushing all that money down the toilet, Seattle may be able to recoup some of their losses through the eBay sale. New York, Los Angeles, and Boston are all spending money to install more automated restrooms.

Memphis has struggled with a similar situation. If I remember correctly, restroom facilities at Tom Lee park are a little hut that's been padlocked shut. When Robert Church park was being renovated several years ago, council woman Barbara Swearengen Ware kept asking where the public toilets were going to go. The administration told her that it couldn't keep public restrooms clean — they had problems with vandals, drug users, etc. — and instead of building something just to lock it up, they could always go the port-o-john route.

Which is also what I think is done at Overton (and I've heard horror stories about that, too.)

Just a word to the wise, if you're interesting in purchasing one of Seattle's toilets (and, no, I don't know why you would be), the eBay listing says you'll need to remove it no later than 3 weeks from the close of the auction.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Future Through Photography

You've heard of trend forecasters? Slate has a piece on the crystal-ball powers of companies that sell stock videos and photography.

Apparently, one such company is betting that advertisers and media companies will be soon be looking for something to illustrate a mood of modern disconnectedness.

From the story:

"I was startled to realize that stock photo and video purveyors actually create material in anticipation of demand. (I'd somehow failed to consider that stock pictures could be made, not just found.) These suppliers of the world's commercial imagery are making bets on what life will look and feel like in the near future. Which made me wonder: What else, besides an ongoing technological dystopia, do they imagine waiting ahead?"

It's an interesting business. As someone who spends a certain amount of time each week browsing for photos for the Flyer — no, we don't have a photographer on staff — I can attest that they have images that relate to pretty much anything. But not only do the companies have to predict what subject matter their clients will be looking for, they also have to guess what abstract concepts they should be illustrating.

"'We had a bad day when Dolly was cloned,' says Denise Waggoner, vice president of creative research at Getty. 'We hadn't been studying biotechnology, and suddenly everyone wanted a shot of 25 sheep on a seamless white background. So now we try to keep our toes dipped in the water in lots of different fields, so we can be ready.'"

One other tidbit? Apparently, images of people are usable for about four years — after that, the clothing and technology in the picture make them, well, obsolete.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

No Vacancies?

With Indianapolis trying to sell their vacant lots online, you've got to wonder what Memphis is doing.

Shelby County does has a land bank and, last time I checked (granted more than a year ago), had about 3,000 parcels of unwanted land.

Here's what I wrote then:

"Under state law, the county is required to bid on and receive tax-delinquent properties at auction. Developers, community housing corporations (CDCs), and the city of Memphis Housing and Community Development division usually take the properties that have potential for renovation or redevelopment.

'What is left for the county are undesirable lots,' says deputy CAO Sybille Noble. 'A lot of times they are in undesirable neighborhoods or it will be a single lot on one street. No developer wants to come in and develop one lot.'"

I was reminded that Memphis mayor Willie Hereton proposed land bank legislation late last winter. The administration apparently felt that the law limited what local governments could do with foreclosed property and wanted to be able to transfer vacant land to public, private, and non-profit entities for neighborhood revitalization.

I don't know if that legislation would be good, bad, or other, but it looks like Memphis' problem with vacant properties is on the rise.

Polar Donkey sent me these maps of vacant properties from 1990, 2000, and 2007.

Here's 1990.

Here's 2000.

And here's 2007.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Memphis had an estimated 690,111 people in July of 2000. The latest estimate put that figure at 674,028. But surely that can't account for all the vacancies.

Monday, July 14, 2008


The city of Indianapolis is taking a lesson from ebay.

The city recently started an online land bank for vacant property and abandoned homes. The site includes a list of available properties, as well as photos and an estimate of the home's value.

The land bank is part of a plan to get residents back into Indianapolis' roughly 8,000 vacant homes and stop crime.

Police officers only have to pay $2,500 for one of the properties if they agree to live there for at least three years. Neighborhood revitalization groups get the same deal, but many of the land bank's properties cost much less.

The Indianapolis Star says that the online land bank is an improvement over buying the properties at auction:

"Abandoned property purchased through a Marion County tax sale is typically sold 'as is,' often leaving the buyer to pay off tax and other liens. But a home purchased from the Indy Land Bank comes with a clean ownership title, free of such liens."

Friday, July 11, 2008

Poor Public Housing

The Chicago Tribune had a lengthy story earlier this week about what they call Chicago's grand experiment to transform public housing.

The Trib's investigative team found that after the ninth year of a 10 year plan, the city had only completed 30 percent of its plan to tear down housing projects and replaced them with mixed-income neighborhoods. They tell a tale of city insiders getting rich, while more than 56,000 people are on a waiting list for public housing, a list that has been closed since 2001.

(I talked to Robert Lipscomb about Memphis public housing in April and he told me that when HUD issued new Memphis public housing vouchers two years ago, more than 21,000 people applied for 600 vouchers.

I had heard that people applying for public assistance were told it would take at least two years to get into public housing and as many as four years to get on Section 8. At the time, Lipscomb admitted that it could take several years. "It's supply and demand," he said. "Demand is not going away and supply is a problem.)

But the already struggling Chicago experiment is threatened — and this may interest Memphians — by the housing market bust.

In the mixed-use developments, the construction of public housing was contingent on the sale of market-rate housing. Sure, developers were getting public subsidies to build town homes and condos, but the plan was to use that part of the development to pay for affordable housing.

From the story:

"In interviews with the Tribune, city and Habitat officials now say they need to reconsider some of their strategies. Valerie Jarrett, Habitat's chief executive, said the company will seek the advice of housing experts from across the country and also ask developers to come up with new ideas.

The sputtering effort also has translated into higher costs—with some public housing units totaling more than $300,000 to build, more than the price of a home in many Chicago neighborhoods. ...

The consequences of these failures go far beyond Chicago. The federal government also prodded dozens of cities across the country to adopt similar blueprints for fixing their public housing sites. Since then, many of those projects have stalled as well."

Thursday, July 10, 2008

More Maps!

Because who doesn't love maps?

Polar Donkey just sent me some maps that prove his point (comments re: Fill 'er up) that, with so many employers located along Germantown Parkway, people might gravitate there instead of the urban core.

In this map of total employer establishments by zip code, downtown does have a lot of employers, but so do big chunks of Cordova and East Memphis. (Click to enlarge.)

What I think is interesting about this 1990 commute map is that the highest commute time on the map is 17-18 minutes (in red). Most people in the area had a less than 15 minute commute.

But when you compare that to the 2000 commute map, a commute of 1 to 18 minutes (remember, 17-18 miles was the longest commute in 1990) is the shortest commute. Sure, the longest commute on the 2000 map is 26 minutes (and comparatively, that's not horrible) but the Frayser commute almost doubled, from 12 to 14 minutes to 23 to 24 minutes. And in Whitehaven, you see basically the same thing.

Thanks, Polar Donkey!

Fill 'er up

For those of you who like maps (and you know who you are), here's two from the Center for Neighborhood Technology that might interest/horrify you.

The first is the annual household gasoline expenditure for 2000. (Click to enlarge.)

In this map, only people who live in Tipton County are spending more than $3,800 on gas. People who live near Millington, Arlingon, and Tunica are spending anywhere from $2,400 to $3,000 but the majority of the metro area is spending less than $1,600 a year.

The second is the annual household gasoline expenditure for 2008.

In this map, it looks like they need to add some more colors and some higher numbers. The people in all the outlying areas are now spending more than $3,800 and only the people in the core city are spending less than $3,000 a year.

And it looks like, based on other Center for Neighborhood Technology data, that that figure is about 20 to 28 percent or greater of income each month.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Driving is the New Smoking?

For Doug Farr, sustainable urbanism is the new American dream.

The author of Sustainable Urbanism: Urban Design with Nature, Farr defines the concept as walkable, transit-served urbanism integrated with high-performance buildings and high-performance infrastructure. Farr thinks this will be the norm by 2030.

"It's in the public's interest; it's in each individual's interest; and developers can make money off of it," he said.

In front of the packed room at the Memphis Botanic Garden yesterday, Farr said that communities (okay, he may have used the words "the media") have to get past the compact fluorescent lightbulb, the hybrid car, and more energy efficient buildings, because while those things are good, they're not enough.

Which brings us to the local Sustainable Shelby initiative.

Shelby County mayor A C Wharton said that when he was first elected, it became clear to him that we were "creating disposable neighborhoods."

That realization eventually led to his Sustainable Shelby initiative, which included yesterday's call to action.

"A few years ago, people thought they looked stupid if they rode a bicycle," Wharton said of Germany, a country he just visited and where a gallon of gas costs $8. "Now the only people who look stupid are those driving to work alone in their car."

From the Sustainable Shelby report — recommendations put together by seven committees and rated by both committee members and a survey of the general public — Wharton said he drew several conclusions: that there is a strong sentiment for revitalizing existing neighborhoods, that people care about the public realm and want to have parks, streets, and plazas that are special, that people want to protect the natural environment, that they want walkable communities, and they want the local government to stop talking about sustainability and start leading the charge.

"While there are noble and idealistic reasons for sustainability, in the end, it is in our own enlightened self-interest," Wharton said.

The administration will develop plans for how to implement the top 52 recommendations within the next 90 days. If you're interested in Sustainable Shelby's full report and top recommendations, visit Or here's a better link.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Harnessing the Wind

USA Today has an interesting story about oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens and how he wants to drive the U.S. political and economic agenda — to wind power.

From USA Today:

"'We're paying $700 billion a year for foreign oil. It's breaking us as a nation, and I want to elevate that question to the presidential debate, to make it the No. 1 issue of the campaign this year,' Pickens says. ...

'Nixon said in 1970 that we were importing 20% of our oil and that by 1980 it would be 0%. That didn't happen,' Pickens says. 'It went to 42% in 1991 with the Gulf War. It's just under 70% now. Where do you think we're going to be in 10 years when our economy is busted and we're importing 80% of our oil?'"

The place he kicked off his media blitz is Sweetwater, Texas, home of the annual Rattlesnake Roundup and 1,500 wind turbines by the end of the year.

It's also, though the story fails to mention this, where my parents live. (I don't really understand how there could've been such an oversight.)

The story does note that Sweetwater's Nolan County — were it its own country — would rank sixth on the list of wind-energy-producing nations (though state by state, North Dakota produces more). And, frankly, it's been pretty amazing to watch in the last few years.

I don't get back often (once a year, at most, and then only for a few days) but the horizon, once red plateaus and big sky, is now lined with huge white turbines. Locals feel two ways about this, as you can imagine.

When you see them in the distance, they don't look overly imposing, but you definitely can't overlook them. When you're right next to one of the SPOKES, however — and it's being hauled down the highway by an oversized semi — it can be a little humbling.

(Of course, there are also oil derricks in this part of the world, pumping away on the side of the highway. It makes for an interesting contrast, the black oil derricks versus the white wind turbines.)

But for a town that several years ago was on the verge of collapse, wind energy has made a world of difference.

But I'll leave it to Sweetwater mayor Greg Wortham:

"People hear about the 8-foot-tall wind turbines at Logan airport in Boston or the five turbines at Atlantic City and think 'interesting,' " Wortham says. "But they don't see how we can get to the 300,000-megawatt-production level" established by the Bush administration as a national goal for 2030. "Once you come to Sweetwater, you see that it can be done, and be done pretty easily, not only here, but … anywhere there are prime wind conditions. None of this existed seven years ago. Now, we produce enough electricity in this one county to power a large city, and we do it cheaply and cleanly."

Monday, July 7, 2008

Shelby Smart Growth?

Today is the "call to action" event for Mayor A C Wharton's Sustainable Shelby initiative. Doug Farr, author of Sustainable Urbanism, will speak and the initiative's agenda and future plans will be announced. It starts at 2:30 p.m. at the Memphis Botanic Garden.

But, while I'm very supportive about what Sustainable Shelby is trying to do, I think they've got their work cut out for them.

I was looking over the Sustainable Shelby public opinion poll yesterday and was surprised by a number of results.

Forty-two percent of those surveyed put a "very high" value on walkable communities while 39 percent put a "high" value on it. Twenty-three percent "strongly agree" that the rising cost of fossil fuels will make longer trips from home to work unsustainable.

At the same time, however, when asked about "what is sometimes called urban sprawl," 62 percent of respondents were "for it," meaning they preferred the suburbs because they have "lower density development, are less noisy, more private, have better schools, less crime, and a generally slower lifestyle."

In fact, in response to a question about what your neighborhood needs to have in order to be sustainable for future generations, one person said this:

"I think the further away from Memphis the better."

Obviously, there's a disconnect.

More than 600 people — from Memphis, Bartlett, Millington, Germantown, etc. — were surveyed and of course, they are going to have a myriad different opinions. But I think the initiative will need to explain what smart growth and sustainable urbanism is, exactly, and what it means to the people involved.

Many people surveyed said smart growth was about building new (or better) homes and bringing new (or better) jobs to neighborhoods. I think those can be effects of smart growth, but I'm not sure I would call those the main tenets.

In my mind, smart growth is about controlling sprawl, re-using existing buildings when possible, mixed-use development, and a host of transportation options.

But maybe it won't be as challenging as I think.

When asked about responsibility for the local environment and natural resources, 47 percent said they felt "a great deal" of personal responsibility for those things. Forty-one percent said they felt "some" personal responsibility.

The trick, I think, will be tapping into people's self-interest.

If you can't get baby pandas ...

try for baby elephants.

The Memphis Zoo confirmed the pregnancy of African elephant Asali, which — if all goes well — will make her the first elephant to deliver a calf in the Zoo's 102-year history.

Asali was artificially inseminated last September (with material collected from bull elephants at the Jacksonville, Florida, and Pittsburgh zoos. Insert your own joke) and because elephant gestation is 22 long months, should deliver NEXT July.

In anticipation of the birth, the zoo says it will renovate the inside of the elephant barn to provide more stalls and more usable space for the elephants. The elephant yard also will be expanded toward Northwest Passage in the space currently housing the Zoo greenhouses and concessions. (No word on where those things will be moved.)

Over all, the expansion will give the elephants about twice as much space as they have in the current exhibit.

And just because no post about baby zoo animals is complete without a picture, here ya go.


A recent article in Atlantic Monthly showed the link between Section 8 housing and crime in Memphis, but the link between poverty and a number of social problems line up similarly.

For instance, foreclosures.

Polar Donkey sent me this great (and I use that term loosely) map of 2007 foreclosures. The little blue dots are foreclosures — there were more than 8,000 in Memphis last year — and median household income is delineated by color. Bright red represents $0 - $13,627 a year; dark orange is up to about $25,000 a year, and light orange is up to just over $35,000 a year. The three shades of greens go from $61,783 to $179,542.

(If you're wondering about that fire engine red spot in the lower right area inside the loop, it's the University of Memphis.)

And, though foreclosures are happening everywhere, regardless of income, ours seem to be clustered in the orangy areas. Predatory lending, much?

Of course, it's not just us.

In an effort to turn the tide in Fairfax, Virginia, the government is looking at foreclosed properties as affordable housing. Fairfax County has committed to spending $10 million on as many as 200 foreclosed properties. Under the program, they'll buy some homes outright, but will also help middle class families buy others through subsidized loans.

And here's a fun fact from The Christian Science Monitor:

"Some 44.5 million homes in the US now stand next to an empty house, resulting in a drop of at least $5,000 in property value per house. By that calculation, a total loss of home value of $220 billion across the US can be attributed to the vacancy problem.

'This is a man-made disaster that's had more dramatic impacts on real estate markets than natural disasters [have]," says Bruce Katz, a housing analyst at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington. "In a way, we have a lot of mini-Katrinas across the country.'"

While the mortgage crisis causes blight from vacant, foreclosed homes, it also diminishes the surrounding property values. And because we have a local tax system based on property values, we ought to be concerned.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Mississippi Fats

For the third year in a row, Mississippi has been named the "fattest state" in the country by CalorieLab.

And before anyone starts gloating, Tennessee came in at number 6 and Arkansas came in at number 8 (tied with Oklahoma). West Virginia, Alabama, Louisiana, South Carolina, Kentucky, and Michigan (?) rounded out the rest of the top 10.

Colorado remains the leanest (and meanest?) state.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Skatin' Through

Full disclosure: I have a weakness for all sorts of skaters. Especially a certain group of fast girls.

But even if I didn't, I like the idea of a city skate park. This one is in Denver.

The city has earmarked $440,000 for a skate park in the brand new fiscal year's budget, thanks in part to a previous plan within the city administration and in part to the advocacy of California native Aaron Shafer and Skatelife Memphis.

(To read my original column about the proposed park, go here.)

The city doesn't seem to have a firm timetable for the project. Parks director Cindy Buchanan said that they are taking their time to make sure they do everything right, especially in terms of the liability and legal issues.

(And since Parks is in charge of the city pools where two teenagers recently drowned, who can blame them?)

But Shafer points out that almost all skateboarding accidents happen on streets, not in skate parks, with irregular surfaces accounting for 50 percent of all skateboarding injuries.

It seems to me that a skate park — like Shafer says — is an amenity and, in a city known for its high levels of obesity, its low levels of education, and its racial division, one that's needed.

I once heard Charleston mayor Joe Riley say that a great city is one that poor people and rich people can enjoy equally. Since then, I use that as a litmus test for projects and ideas; sometimes the simplest things can be the most effective.

The city hasn't chosen a location for the skate park, though Shafer would like to see it as Overton Park. Glenn Cox of Overton advocacy group Park Friends says they are reviewing Shafer's proposal to see if they'll send a letter of support to the city, but that they might not mind a skate park where the baseball diamond is.

"We'd like to see it take up half of the parking lot near Rainbow Lake," Cox said. "All [the parking lot] does is breed predators and drug dealers. There's no reason for anyone to come to Overton Park and sit in your car."

In other news, Mike Lasiter of Mid-South Homebuyers says that there is talk of moving Skate Park of Memphis' bowl, which he spent 11 weeks building, to a park near Cooper Young.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Possible Charter Changes

During its executive session today, the City Council discussed putting two charter changes on the November 4th ballot.

The first would give the council approval over mayoral appointments to deputy director positions. The second would give the council approval of all contracts over $100,000 or spanning more than 24 months. Both were presented by longtime council member Barbara Swearengen Ware.

"There has been discussion back and forth whether or not the council should approve deputy directors the same way it does directors," Ware said. "Because there will be significant changes made to the charter, I thought that this would be an ideal time to add this item."

The administration is not in favor of the change and said the council was attempting to manage the day-to-day workings of the city.

"Since there's no problem, we don't think [the change] is necessary," said CAO Keith McGee.

The average salary of a division deputy director is about $100,000. McGee said that the people directly under the deputy directors often make around $100,000, as well.

After Mayor Willie Herenton began his last term, he appointed former bodyguards and a former City Council member to deputy directorships, but Ware said her proposal wasn't in response to any specific issue.

"I don't think everything should be reactive," Ware said.

The administration was also not in favor of the contract oversight proposal.

"We believe the current process works," McGee said.

Council and Charter Commission member Janis Fullilove told her colleagues that both Herenton and former mayor Dick Hackett had appeared before the Charter Commission to oppose the very same issue.

"The city mayor signs so many contracts on a daily basis. They have to go through a process and the mayor is the last one to sign them," Fullilove said. "If the City Council became involved in the signing and approval of contracts, then we'd probably be here well into the morning."

Other council members shared her concerns, especially when McGee told them the number of contracts that would come before them would be between 2,000 and 4,000 a year. Ware said she envisioned the council's oversight of the contracts similar to the way it handles MLGW contracts.

Another option was for contracts to be reviewed not by a dollar amount or a time limit, but if they involved the lease or sale of city property.

"I don't want us to get bogged down in contracts," Ware said, "but I do think we have a fiscal responsibility. We would not be here until 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning. I don't know why anybody would make that kind of statement."