The Big Empty

If you build it they will come... or maybe they won’t.

photography by Brandon Dill

The passenger terminal at Memphis International Airport has long been recognized as one of this city’s great architectural treasures. Completed in 1963, local architect Roy Harrover’s iconic creation has charmed visitors and locals alike, with its “martini glass” columns and its distinctive lighting, changing with the seasons.

Unfortunately, the terminal’s beauty is now hidden to Memphians, most of whom approach the airport by expressway from the north, by what can only be described as a possibly good idea gone horribly wrong. MEMpark, the gigantic new parking garage that now obscures the view of Harrover’s masterpiece until drivers are right up beside it, is, quite simply, a monstrosity.

Not only is this seven-story behemoth the equivalent of a concrete stage curtain; MEMpark is a genuine white elephant to boot. Completed last fall at a total cost of $122 million, this 4,500-parking-space garage (the two bottom floors are devoted to rental cars) supplements the roughly 1,000 spaces that still exist in the adjacent three-story garage designed in the 1970s, specifically so as not to impede the terminal view.

That’s more parking spaces than Memphis International ever needed in its heyday as a Northwest Airlines hub. Even back then, the old garage was rarely full; now, thanks to Delta’s pullbacks, passenger air traffic at MEM has dropped precipitously. Memphis is among 16 cities that have lost hubs since 9/11, so it isn’t likely that parked cars will ever dot the building’s vast empty plains of concrete, whose forlorn emptiness photographer Brandon Dill has captured so eloquently in these pages.  

How did something so unnecessary get built in the first place? Answers to that question are hard to come by. The Airport Authority seems to have made most decisions about MEMpark behind closed doors.

We do know that construction was financed by federal dollars, including $80.4 million in up-front costs from grants and fee- or tax-based sources and $40.9 million from debt-related sources. The Commercial Appeal reported in December 2012 that the Authority’s COO projected that “daily rental of 1,278 economy parking spaces, less than a third of the total, would cover the debt payments.” Let’s hope he’s correct.

Undoubtedly, the existence of over $120 million in federal construction funds to be spent in Memphis in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crash was something of a godsend. Building MEMpark was a defacto stimulus project, providing jobs when they were badly needed.  But why did this money have to be wasted on something so unnecessary? As Memphis Flyer editor Bruce VanWyngarden pointed out in January 2010, the community wasn’t exactly asked for input about the project: “Was there a way to incorporate or play off of Harrover’s design to blend the new with the old? Or to put more of the garage underground or off to the side? Maybe not. But we’ll never know, because the decision has been made for us.”

For better or worse, then, we’re now stuck with MEMPark; that much concrete doesn’t just go away. We asked our photographer if the many hours he spent in the building (a portion of Brandon Dill’s portfolio on MEMpark is shown below ) had given him any ideas for adaptive reuse of this unusual “public space.” He demurred. “While photographing the space, I couldn’t help but wonder what the future success of the project would be,” he says. “It’s ambitious and interesting. [But] if there’s any project that exemplifies inflexibility it’s this; once a parking garage, always a parking garage. But hopefully it will work out well.” Fingers crossed, Memphis. — research by Anna Cox 

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