Redevelopment frequently falters and fails for lots of reasons. Among them is ignoring actualities, or underestimating the difficulty in changing those actualities, or sometimes, thinking the wrong kind of big. I call this last one the Robert Moses syndrome.
Robert Moses was for many decades the official redeveloper of New York City. Praised, loved and often loathed, he changed the face of New York forever, with massive roads, parks, and public projects of every kind. He literally destroyed an entire borough with one bisecting road, the infamous Cross Bronx Expressway. He is widely regarded as the most powerful urban planner in history.
An edition last week paper brought two stories about Tupelo’s Fairpark District, separated by six pages and a world of reality. The first is a story about Oby’s restaurant deciding after a few years not to build a restaurant in Fairpark. The second is about nascent plans to add a new multimillion dollar entertainment venue to the district.
Jump starting is the strategic application of a small charge to a stalled vehicle. But sometimes, what looks like a jump start is really an attempt to redesign, if not rebuild, the entire thing.
A few years ago, one of Fairpark’s promoters explained to me how Tupelo’s center of gravity had indeed moved from downtown to Barnes Crossing, but that Fairpark would help change that dynamic and return the critical mass back to Main Street again. It didn’t make sense then and, based on events so far, it doesn’t make sense now.
The good news is that history is not destiny. Imagination and innovation-real innovation, not just repeating the conventional fixes-is the way forward. If the leaders and the people of Tupelo don’t know this, as the heirs of George McLean’s genius, then nobody does.
The first step in jump starting Fairpark is realizing that city life does not grow from the top down. If you take a bunch of projects and literally drop them down on top of an existing social and cultural life, or lack of one, nothing is changed except the landscape. In New York, Robert Moses was given a blank check to remake the city. He did that, but ignored almost all social and cultural actualities, leaving even his biggest fans admitting that big mistakes were made.
Fairpark will only flourish from the bottom up. If there is indeed $2 million or $20 million or $100 million dollars available for a new venue, that should go instead directly to the best and the brightest and most creative and innovative entrepreneurs and residents the city can find. Structure it as you will, call it what you will-loans, grants, incentives-qualified people should be paid to resettle the territory.
The conventional 20th century redevelopment wisdom was that you brought in commercial attractions that brought in money and people which in turn brought in more of the same. It failed more often than it succeeded. It failed because in a city, old or new, redeveloping or successful, money and commerce are lifeblood. But they are not life.
This is the 21st century. Fairpark is a work in progress, and Tupelo has an opportunity to take an innovative approach to cultivating the district and the city. All it takes is a willingness break new ground. George McLean would understand and approve
NEMS Daily Journal