On the Memphis Waterfront: Master Plan Must Account for What the Founders Wanted: A Public Promenade
by Deborah M. Clubb
A mile of uninterrupted Mississippi River vistas and space to stroll it - such was the vision of the men who bought the edge of the Fourth Chickasaw bluff and drew Memphis on it in 1819.
They labeled the land west of Front from Union north to Jackson as a "public promenade" called Mississippi Row, while declaring the area north of Jackson, where the river ran deep and close to the bluff, as "public landing" for navigation or trade. They relinquished all claim to the land "now and forever" for themselves and their heirs, for as long as the public use continued.
More than 180 years later, the riverfront is very different from the slippery mud bank on which stood founders John Overton, James Winchester and Andrew Jackson. The open space never was developed with the pastoral charm they apparently envisioned.
Still, the Promenade's blocks west of Front Street from Auction to Beale are by far the prime land on Memphis's waterfront.
(Click here to see a map of the area.)
Despite the fact that legal battles have shrunk the Promenade area by half, the spectacular location guarantees that new uses for the Promenade are a top goal of the new nonprofit Riverfront Development Corp. (RDC). One caveat: The founders' terms dictate that the city would lose the land (it would revert to the founders' heirs) if a nonpublic use was allowed.
With that in mind, the RDC board will hire a consulting team later this week to begin a master plan for development and management of the 5-mile Memphis riverfront, including the Promenade.
"It about acts as a wall to the river," said John Stokes, vice chairman of Morgan Keegan and chairman of the public-private RDC, which was formed by Mayor Willie Herenton's riverfront development task force earlier this year.
"We don't think that property right now is doing the downtown or the riverfront much good. If we could come up with a plan that would please the Overton heirs, that would also be good for Memphis, that's what we ought to do."
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The new town on the Mississippi River had "wide and spacious" streets, a number of alleys, four public squares "and between the front lots and the river, is an ample vacant space, reserved as a promenade; all of which must contribute very much to the health and comfort of the place, as well as to its security and ornament."
So said Overton in his advertisement for Memphis, published in 1820. The city was founded on May 22, 1819, and incorporated in 1826; the Public Promenade was dedicated for public use in 1828.
Historians call Overton, a judge and businessman who lived southeast of Nashville, the most active of the absentee proprietors of Memphis and the one who planned and directed most of the work of the partners' agents in the river town.
Although he became reputedly the wealthiest man in Tennessee, the slow-moving Memphis investment, which cost Overton about $5,000 in 1794, largely benefited his descendants. Altogether, heirs to the Memphis land are called "Overton heirs" and number between 200 and 300.
Today, land that city founders called the Promenade is still mostly used for public purposes. On it are the historic cobblestone landing, two parks and the ticketing and monorail entrance for Mud Island River Park, three public parking garages, a bit of Memphis Cook Convention Center, the Tennessee Welcome Center and its parking area, a forest of redwood-size concrete columns supporting Interstate 40 ramps and roadways, Memphis Fire Department Headquarters, Cossitt Branch Library and the U.S. Post Office in the historic Custom House.
The only business operating on privately owned land in the area is Lone Star Industries. Its dozen silos, towering due west of the new Performing Arts Center under construction, ship 400,000 tons of cement to concrete makers annually.
In the "public landing" area north of Jackson are The Pyramid arena and its sea of parking, the offices and boats of the U.S. Coast Guard's Lower Mississippi River group and a long grassy strip along the Wolf River, running behind old businesses and vacant lots to Saffarans Street.
Herenton has asked longtime Memphis real estate developer and Overton heir Robert G. Snowden to try to represent his large, extended family in discussions about changing the Promenade. The effort is just beginning.
"That's the basis that we are working on now, to try to be able to speak with some authority and then have the family be willing to accept and do whatever was necessary and required to make it work," said Snowden, chairman of Wilkinson & Snowden Inc., developers of shopping, housing and industrial properties. In the past, each of the five groups of the family was asked to elect a spokesman, Snowden said. In addition, the trust departments at First Tennessee and National Bank of Commercehave close involvement in the property and would be very active in the complicated legal discussion, Snowden said.
"Whatever we do should be best for the city," Snowden said. ". . . But a city is a changing thing. . . . If we're going to have a great city, which we do have, we have to change and meet those changing conditions."
Soon after World War II, Snowden and some other business people met several times on the riverfront to talk about developing old warehouse properties for the booming postwar housing market. They gagged at the stench of sewage dumped into the Mississippi at several points, and mosquitoes swarmed.
"Now I don't think there's a nicer area to live," Snowden said. "It has a view, has everything. Now everybody is looking to develop every square inch of it, so we've got a big decision to make, and not an easy one."
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Legal squabbles about what to do with the land go back at least 165 years, but the Promenade remained free of buildings until after the Civil War.
From the beginning, the needs of commerce and transportation ate into the Promenade's space: first riverboats, then railroads, interstate highways, automobile parking and trolley lines.
Farmers camped on the open bluff after hauling bales of cotton on wagons pulled by oxen, horses and mules.
Riverboats nosed in to shore to unload goods and load the Delta's bounty.
Between 1844 and 1886, hefty limestone and granite cobblestones from the upper Midwest were laid to form what is today the largest intact river landing in existence, honored with a listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
A court in 1834 ruled the city could do what it wanted with the land and cautioned that the Promenade should never be a deterrent to progress.
Through the 1830s, the river deposited new land at the foot of Market, and Memphians added dirt and rubbish to it.
When John D. Martin, W. D. Dabney and James D. Ruffin laid claim to 173 acres that had grown out into the river, the city sued them. The claims were settled in 1844 in what is called the Batture Compromise: Alluvial land north of Market (between Exchange and Winchester) was given to the city, and that south of Market was put in the hands of a trustee, Seth Wheatley, who was to sell the land and divide proceeds among the city, proprietors and heirs and the businessmen.
The city quickly sold its northern portion to the federal government for $20,000 for use as a Navy Yard, but the only ship built in the yard failed to float. In 1852, Congress ceded the yard back to the city, and it began a series of private ownerships that ended with construction of The Pyramid arena there by city and county governments in 1991.
The arena property is owned by the Public Building Authority, while the vast parking area is simply listed as city owned.
Lone Star's cement plant is on Batture Compromise land that became privately owned.
An 1856 editorial in a local newspaper endorsed a proposition to lease or sell the Promenade for about $700,000. "As it is, it is more than useless," the newspaper declared. But an alderman's motion to dispose of the land was defeated in 1857.
Civil War veterans began raising money for the first ambitious project for the land around 1870, when they proposed a Roman forum with benches for thousands of spectators, on the riverfront from Union to Monroe, as a memorial for the war's dead and wounded. Aldermen named the site Monument Square, but local militia companies that had leased the land for drill grounds refused to let go.
Then in 1876 the U.S. government was given part of the Promenade at the foot of Madison for a Customs House, which also housed the post office and federal courts. The building today is the only structure on the Promenade listed on the National Register.
City leaders, eager to lure railroads, in 1881 leased part of the Promenade for a depot and railroad tracks. Casey Jones began his fateful trip to Mississippi from there. More rail leases followed until, by 1973, 22 miles of track threaded through Memphis's riverfront.
In 1888, part of the Promenade at the foot of Monroe was set aside for a castle-like structure called Cossitt Library. A splendid red sandstone building was dedicated Dec. 14, 1892 and it was expanded in 1906 when it also housed a museum. In the late 1960s, after decades of humidity had weakened the sandstone, the original "castle" building was torn down and a new louvered section was added on the Front Street side.
In 1889, the Fire Department headquarters was built on the northwest corner at Union and Front. By the time a new two-level concrete, steel and glass structure was built in 1967, fire officials had begun to fear a collapse.
Seeing the city give up parts of their desired memorial grounds, the Confederates gave up on the river bluff and used their funds to erect a monument in Elmwood Cemetery.
A few years later, the young Memphis Park Commission established Confederate Park beside the Customs House on bluff-top acres citizens had used as a dump. Thick stone walls held new soil in place. By 1908 the park was winning national prizes for civic improvement, with its big flower bed forming the design of the rebel battle flag and Civil War cannon at the bluff's edge. Neither the flag nor the Civil War cannons are there anymore; the current cannons are from World War II.
In 1930, a new park on 2.4 acres along the water's edge below Confederate Park was dedicated to Jefferson Davis.By the 1950s, America's love affair with the automobile demanded more space. The city built two concrete parking garages on the Promenade.
The first, recently named the Riverfront Garage by the Downtown Parking Authority (DPA), was built in 1954 at Monroe and Front, beside the fire station on the last bit of old Chickasaw Park. It belongs to the city, is operated by the DPA, a part of the Memphis Center City Commission, and managed under contract by Allright Central.
The second, Shoppers Garage, was built in 1957 by a Californian between Jefferson and Adams. He pays the city $458.33 a month for his property lease that expires in 2009. DPA would then take full control, and all revenues would come to the city. Allright Central also manages Shoppers.
In 1973, city engineer Robert A. Fosnaugh proposed a 16-lane Riverside expressway to connect the old and new bridges. It would take the Promenade parking lot behind City Hall then run along the top of the bluff generally along the railroad tracks, leaving a strip about 160 feet wide for parkland.
On the other end of the public service spectrum, Rudolph Jones, a consultant to the county conservation board, recommended purchase of 11 acres on the bluff for a 12-foot wide hiking trail from Confederate Park to Harahan Bridge.
Fosnaugh's concept never materialized. But Bluffwalk through downtown opened last year to complete much of Jones's vision.
Developers, consultants and planners through the 1970s proposed, but never funded, massive projects for the river bluff. A "New Promenade" concept would have relied on urban renewal methods to assemble large parcels of property for redevelopment in 18 square blocks in the central business district. A project called the Promenade Gateway in 1975 offered developers the chance to build apartments on the promenade if legal problems were resolved. The project never materialized.
Today, downtown workers and visitors park in vast numbers on the original Promenade. Drivers can slip into large city-metered paved lots, the uneven and unmetered cobblestone landing and three public parking garages.
Travelers also pull into the Tennessee Welcome Center on the river's edge where statues of Elvis Presley and B. B. King stand indoors. The center opened in 1996. From there to The Pyramid and Auction is an asphalt field for parking, below Interstate 40 and its ramps.
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Consultants who studied Main Street Mall this winter for the Center City Commission proposed relocating the downtown library and Front Street post office onto Court Square. The historic properties then could become a fine arts high school, museum or other facility, they said.
Current occupants had mixed reactions to the idea. Don Marshall, Memphis postmaster for two years, said the Customs House is almost fully occupied by 100-150 Postal Service employees.
"There are no plans right now for us to even think about vacating that building," Marshall said. "We own that building. If we moved, we'd have to lease space."
Judith Drescher, director of the Public Library and Information Center, was pleased with the mall consultants' idea to make a branch library part of a proposed renovation of Court Square and its surrounding buildings. She's eager to move from the decrepit Cossitt building, where street people used the front fountain as a bathtub and vandals twice beheaded the fountain's sculptured reader.
To modernize and renovate Cossitt's 80,000 square feet as a mixed-use property was estimated to cost up to $6 million 10 years ago. Librarians use only one-eighth of it.
All Drescher wants is 25,000-30,000 square feet, on one level, to serve downtown workers: "We need someone who would renovate an entire building and let us use the bottom for a branch library."
Mall planners didn't reach to the fire station on Front, but the Riverfront Development Corp. probably will. The station is on a parcel that was the subject of a Promenade lawsuit in the early 1960s, when the city negotiated to lease or sell the property to local investors who wanted to construct a hotel. Mid-South Title Co. refused to insure the city's claim. The city went to court.
A chancellor ruled the city held title to the land. The court of appeals reversed him, and was upheld by the Tennessee Supreme Court in 1965. The upper courts ruled that the heirs held title, so the city could not agree to a private use.
Fire Department Deputy Director J. C. Fleming said fire officials have met with no one to discuss a move and have begun no study for a new site for the station, which also is home to the department's top brass. "This land only belongs to us as long as a fire station is on it," said Fleming.
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Under the leadership of Stokes, Memphis Redbirds Foundation co-founder Kristi Jernigan and former Public Works director Benny Lendermon, the Riverfront Development Corp. is negotiating with the city to take management and development control of the public waterfront from Wolf River on the north to Chickasaw Heritage Park and Indian Mounds on the south.
Later this week the RDC board will select a consulting team to hold public hearings and devise a master plan for development of Memphis's riverfront over the next 10-15 years. In coming weeks, the board is expected to approve a contractor for the $4.5 million Cobblestone Walkway project delayed more than three years by the minority contractors' lawsuit against the city.
A walkway 14 feet wide and 2,000 feet long will link Jefferson Davis Park and the Tennessee Welcome Center with Tom Lee Park along the western edge of Riverside Drive. A plaza at the foot of Union will overlook the harbor.
The UrbanArt Commission is overseeing selection of artists or architects to design three shade structures along the Cobblestone Walkway. Proposals are due Sept. 1.
By fall, a local design and engineering team should complete plans for a $3.3. million redesign of Riverside Drive aimed at slowing traffic and enabling pedestrians to reach the river. Headed by architect Frank Ricks of Looney Ricks Kiss, the team includes PDR Engineers Inc. and landscape architects Ritchie Smith Associates. The project will construct a 6- to 10-foot-wide median to be heavily landscaped, to narrow and slow traffic on the four-lane route.
At the extreme south end, brick pavers, landscaping and signs will alert drivers that they are entering a new environment. RDC would like to have the cobblestone and Riverside Drive projects "substantially completed" by Memphis in May 2001, Lendermon said.
The RDC board has no specific dream for the Promenade land, Lendermon said, but is convinced that the area is a barrier separating the riverfront from downtown.
"We just would like to explore the possibility of some type of development that would knit the riverfront to downtown," he said. "Whether it's totally public, whether it's mixed use, whether it's development that's in partnership with the Overtons, we don't know."
Copyright 2000 The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN