Landing Sign Approved Following Design Debate

By Bill Dries

The sign for Beale Street Landing turned out not to be a big deal for the Downtown Memphis Commission’s Design Review Board.

The Downtown Memphis Commission’s DRB approved a sign for Beale Street Landing.

(Courtesy of Riverfront Development Corp.)

It’s larger than the planning standards and guidelines for that part of Downtown. But most on the board argued an exception was warranted and the sign could go bigger because of the scale of the project it is attached to. The sign was approved.

And for the most part the board at its Wednesday, July 11, meeting sidestepped any discussion about the multi-colored panels behind the sign, which have become the latest controversy for the riverfront development project.

But when it did veer into the panels to come on the elevator shaft that will have its bulkhead above the grass roof of the landing building, there were some lively longer-term points made about architecture on a board with a voting majority of architects.

Board member Julie Ray, who was one of two “no” votes against the sign and not an architect, argued the colored panels on the elevator shaft are part of the sign. She also said four years ago the board didn’t ask but also didn’t know the colors would be so bright.

The other “no” vote, architect David Schuermann, argued the riverfront sign code doesn’t permit signs that big.

“The building ought to be able to be iconic enough to know it and love it for what it is,” he said.

Board member and architect Ray Brown argued the guidelines, which are about to be revised, are from the mid-1980s.

“In the mid-1980s everybody thought the Mid America Mall was going to be Colonial Williamsburg,” Brown said.

He also said he liked the bold colors. His argument was that architecture in Memphis doesn’t take many or enough chances.

“There’s one firm in town and a couple of others that go that way. But for the most part we’re pretty conservative around here,” Brown said. “It’s time to take the city in a different direction, in my opinion.”

“That doesn’t look odd to you?” Schuermann asked about the panels and the size of the sign combined.

“Odd?” Brown countered. “It looks like something we’re not used to seeing here in Memphis. If that makes it odd, OK.”

Benny Lendermon, president of the Riverfront Development Corp., the group building and running the landing for the city, was eager to talk about the origin of the look and how planners came up with it. The architect on the project is Danny Bounds, another Design Review Board member who recused himself in the vote on the sign.

“The river reflects incredible hues and colors at different periods of time,” Lendermon said after the meeting. “So they took a picture of a sunset shining on the Mississippi River and they pixilated the picture. They came up with a concept of wrapping the inner core of the building with these metal panels. And each one will represent a pixel of a color taken from a sunset on the Mississippi River.”

The theme will be explained inside the building, he added.

“They’re not garish,” Lendermon said of the colors. “The panels are going to be an incredible piece of the project.”

But critics from Friends for The Riverfront group argued the colors are too bright and don’t blend in well with the surroundings. They also argued the RDC didn’t mention such bright colors four years ago when the same review board approved the general concept.

Attorney Hite McLean of the group urged the board to set a later hearing on the issue and stop construction work on the sign until then.

Downtown Memphis Commission president Paul Morris, however, said that is not a call the review board could make because the landing is a city project and the panels aren’t part of the sign.

“The city has the power to stop it,” he said. “As a practical matter, we don’t.”