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VOL. 121 | NO. 110 | Thursday, May 25, 2006

NYC Heavy-Hitter Weighs in on Shelby Farms

Garvin brings 'think big' mentality to park's issues

By Andy Meek

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MOVING FORWARD: Canoers glide forward in this shot - a common scene at Shelby Farms. The park appears poised to echo that forward movement with the help of Yale adjunct professor and master city planner Alex Garvin. -- Photograph Courtesy Of The Shelby Farms Park Alliance

In the course he teaches at Yale College, "Introduction to the Study of the City," adjunct professor Alex Garvin has coordinated elaborate real estate war games with his students, pitting them against each other as developers, politicians and anyone else who makes a development deal click.

The exercises are guided by an industry insider who knows how to get things done. Garvin is president and CEO of a planning and consulting firm that bears his name, and he's also written a nearly 500-page primer on city design. In his formative years, he studied architecture in Paris.

Garvin is the former lead planner of the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., tasked with rebuilding the World Trade Center site that was shattered on 9/11. He was the managing director of planning for New York City's bid to host the 2012 Olympics. He's been a real estate developer and worked in the city's government.

"The problem with Shelby Farms is how to make it go from first gear into full drive."
- Alex Garvin
Yale College adjunct professor and city planner

And now he's bringing his formidable urban planning prowess to a piece of property in Shelby County that's long bedeviled local planners. Under contract with the Wolf River Conservancy, Garvin will help a public-private board come up with a guiding vision for Shelby Farms. At the same time, the board also is attempting to whip up a master plan for the 4,500-acre park.

"I am excited because I believe Memphis has a chance to create one of the really great parks of the 21st century," Garvin said by phone Monday after attending a ceremony at Yale. "You're almost there, because you own the territory. Now the problem is how to help you transform that into one of the first of this century's really great parks."

The gears begin shifting

This week, the Shelby County Commission approved its funding for part of the contract with Garvin. Under the $75,000 contract with the WRC - half of which will be funded by county government, half by private donations - Garvin will be helping with such monumental chores as developing a governance plan for Shelby Farms.

Rick Masson, chairman of the park's master plan committee, said Garvin also will be helping develop a budget for the master plan process that includes hiring a master planner.

"He's already been down here and interviewed a few people," Masson said.

In some ways, the choice of Garvin isn't surprising; parks like Shelby Farms are among the newest bargaining chips cities are using to entice young professionals to come hither. In the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau's new press kit that's being mailed to about 500 media outlets, Shelby Farms is at the top of the list of the city's parks and outdoor attractions.

Alex Garvin & Associates
In Brief:

- A Planning and real estate consulting firm
- Established in 2004
- Grew out of Garvin's more than 35 years of individual experience in planning, architecture, real estate development and public service
- Operates internationally from New York City

"You have this extraordinary asset in an enormous park, which could really become the centerpiece of the whole county by the year 2025," Garvin said.

A clue to how Garvin will approach his current assignment can be found along the miles of train tracks encircling the city of Atlanta that's known as the Beltline. It's where a design team recently envisioned acres of opportunity in the form of well-manicured parks that would become the jewels of an "emerald necklace" around the city.

In a report - written for the design team by Garvin's firm - a proposed transformation of the many abandoned lots along the Beltline includes a massive trail, transit and park system.

"It's not as big, though - we're talking about 2,500 acres in the end, whereas Shelby Farms has 4,500," Garvin said. "But its impact on Atlanta is similarly enormous because it would encircle the whole of Downtown and Midtown, connect 47 neighborhoods and provide access to a number of parks."

A Titanic to-do list

Garvin's local duties make him something akin to the architect of a stately ocean liner; meanwhile, park supporters still are drawing up a travel itinerary for the vessel and looking for a captain to steer it.

"We've really engaged one of the best in the world," said Adams, president of the Shelby Farms Park Alliance, about Garvin's ultimate contributions.

But who, really, is this man who's left a massive footprint on the landscape of the urban planning industry and who now will have some sway in revamping a local park that's more than five times larger than New York's famous Central Park?

Something that might seem incomprehensible to Mid-Southerners is that Garvin has never lived farther than a mile from where he was born on Manhattan's Upper East Side. By most accounts, the cornerstone of his philosophy is "think big."

His inspiration, according to the New York Post, is early 20th century planner Daniel Burnham, an architect who laid out plans for Chicago. Small ideas, Burnham once wrote, "have no magic to stir men's blood and will not be realized."

"The problem with Shelby Farms is how to make it go from first gear into full drive," Garvin said.

Garvin once told New York's Newsday he spent his entire childhood and adolescence in Central Park. His involvement in the city's 2012 Olympic bid - which ultimately did not succeed - began when a prominent venture capitalist saw Garvin's book, "The American City: What Works, What Doesn't" in a Barnes & Noble store.

Garvin managed and renovated apartment buildings and converted rental units to co-ops for more than a decade. He's lived in an Upper East Side apartment that's in the building visible in the opening credits of the old television show "The Jeffersons."

And now Garvin is jumping into his Shelby Farms assignment with gusto.

"The first thing that we have to figure out is who are the users of the park; what alternatives do they have for recreation; where are they going now; and who's likely to be using this park over the next 25 years," he said.

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