Sunday, September 07, 2003

Paddlewheels Turning on Riverfront Changes - New Uses Sought for Front St. Bluffs

Commercial Appeal
By Deborah M. Clubb

Memphis's riverfront makeover is more than a plan: It's happening.

In seven weeks a national jury will choose a final design for a $20 million Beale Street Landing.

Meanwhile, the Riverfront Development Corp. is launching public meetings to plot new uses for the city's prime Front Street blufftop.

Last week a prestigious panel of national experts in real estate and urban development gave a positive review to the massive plan guiding the RDC's work.

And blueprints are being drawn that would transform Front Street's historic U.S. Customs House and Post Office into a new University of Memphis law school.

"It's wonderful to see people committed to their city," said Wayne Ratkovich, the California urban developer who headed an Urban Land Institute advisory panel that reviewed the RDC's master plan. "It's a grand plan. It's very well done. . . . Work toward it."

The ULI panel rechecked the numbers and assumptions in the $750,000 master plan and pondered the sense of a proposed land bridge that would connect downtown to Mud Island from Court to Poplar.

The panel also recommended what should be done first and how to keep riverfront work moving.

"Among things we heard was there's a lot of agreement with the plan, but it seemed to be in someone else's lifetime," said Ratkovich, whose team interviewed 74 Memphians plus RDC staff during an intensive week here in March.

The riverfront master plan, completed in January 2002 after 18 months of study, public meetings and consultants' analysis, was introduced as a 50-year vision that would cost more than $292 million and spur $1.3 billion in private real estate investment downtown.

Ratkovich's ULI panel urged continued Main Street revitalization, improved downtown parking and other elements outside the RDC's mission as "good building blocks" for the riverfront plan.

The panel said the RDC should begin steps toward future creation of the massive land bridge, but added that the new real estate "will be appropriate only after the city's existing land has been redeveloped."

The top priority should be the promenade blocks, according to the Urban Land Institute report.

"What happens there determines whether we're going to be successful," RDC chairman John Stokes said Wednesday. "We'll never get to the land bridge without the promenade."

Getting there involves a complex legal question because of potential claims by hundreds of descendants of the city's founders, known commonly as the Overton heirs. The founders dedicated the property for public use in 1828.

Key to any new uses will be the interpretation of "public use."

The ULI report says the power of eminent domain is "critical to the success" of a project like the riverfront makeover.

The RDC, a nonprofit established to manage and oversee redevelopment of Memphis's miles-long riverfront, has decided to figure out the likely best new uses for the promenade's blocks, then seek approval from the heirs or court action to take the property.

The land use planning starts Wednesday with a walk from the Memphis Fire Department headquarters at Union and Front to Adams and back. Ideas will be further discussed at two public meetings in the fall.

Architect Lee Askew has prepared drawings that would revive the Customs House, with some new space added to the rear loading dock for a possible move by the U of M's Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.

The Riverfront Development Corp. is working with lawmakers on legislation that would direct the Postal Service to talk with the city about relocating, which would allow the property to revert to the city and possible use by the university, said RDC president Benny Lendermon.

Cooper, Robertson & Partners, the urban design and planning agency that headed the master plan team, will create the promenade redevelopment plan for $80,000 plus expenses. The New York firm won the contract over Memphis firms Hnedak Bobo and Looney Ricks Kiss.

The riverfront development agency's strategic financing committee will incorporate recommendations from the ULI study, Lendermon said.

Rob Carter, FedEx Corp. executive vice president and chief information officer, and Tom Morgan, Trammell Crow area director, head the committee.

Morgan, a commercial real estate specialist, developed hotels and casinos for two decades. He sees a combination of public and political support and control of land that positions Memphis for success.

"Unlike many of the cities that I have seen and deals I've participated in across the country in redevelopment projects, the city of Memphis/RDC controls a substantial amount of land along the riverfront," Morgan said.

"This land along Front Street, up on the bluff, with these commanding views of the river are just spectacularly positioned real estate that I believe will have a great deal of interest for projects that will serve the public purpose."

With no official marketing, one major developer has come to see the site, Morgan said, and he anticipates an "intense competition for these very valuable opportunities."

Formed in 2000 at the urging of Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, the RDC is negotiating with city attorneys the terms of a contract that would establish the corporation's authority over redevelopment as it pursues the master plan.

The city granted contracts to the nonprofit group in 2001 to manage Mud Island River Park and everything on public land near the river.

With a lean staff topped by two former public works directors, the corporation relies on board-member expertise for legal, political, financial and real estate issues.

On Oct. 29 Herenton will join RDC vice chairman Kristi Jernigan and board member Dianne Dixon on a national jury to select the winner among five international entries for a landmark structure to rise at the foot of Beale Street.

RDC officials intend to begin construction on that winning design in fall 2004.

About $45 million in federal and state grants and city capital funds are committed to future riverfront improvements and the corporation will seek private investment and revenue via ground leases or air rights.

-- What: Walking tour of the blufftop blocks known as the "promenade" to prepare for public discussion of new uses for the land
-- Where: From Memphis Fire Department headquarters, at Front and Union, north to Adams and back
-- When: 5:30 p.m. Wednesday
-- Highlights: Along the five blocks, walkers can jot comments about how best to use the property, which will be used at future public discussions about the promenade land use plan.
-- Sponsor: Riverfront Development Corp.
-- For information: 312-9190
- Deborah M. Clubb: 529-2351

Caption:By Alan Spearman Development plans south of The Pyramid include construction of pedestrian and land bridges, and the Beale Street Landing project.

CAPTION: John W. Stokes Jr., Kristi W. Jernigan, Sally Palmer Thomason, Burnetta B. Williams, John M. Farris, Bill Taylor, Dr. James C. Hunt, John Pontius, Rob Carter, Tom Morgan, Pete Aviotti

CAPTION: By Jason R. Terrell Remaking the riverfront The Riverfront Development Corp.'s master plan describes changes and improvements for the Memphis waterfront from the north end of Mud Island to Chickasaw Heritage Park on the south. Some are as small as improved lighting and seating at Martyr's Park or new artistic gates at Tom Lee Park. Others, if achieved, will require millions of dollars and years of effort. The RDC's major projects (see inset): A.

Beale Street Landing Docking system and "grand civic space" with small retail/commercial component. Final selection in international design competition is Oct. 29. Cost estimate: $20 million*

Construction: Fall 2004 to fall 2006 B. Tom Lee Park Improvements to allow better casual use and more effective use by large festivals such as Memphis in May and the Stone Soul Picnic. Cost estimate: $5 million*

Construction: 2005-2006 C. Cobblestone landing Restoration to preserve the historic cobbles and make the landing more accessible and user-friendly. Cost estimate: $4.5 million*

Construction: 2005-2007 D. Riverwalk: Fill gaps in the 12-mile walkway for pedestrians, joggers and others. Cost estimate: $5 million*

Construction: Ongoing E. Promenade (green area) Blufftop property along Front Street to be redeveloped to higher uses preserving public access to the riverfront and its views. Cost estimate: To be determined by land use plans derived from upcoming public meetings

Construction: 2003-2010 F. Riverwalk esplanade "Boardwalk" on the western edge of the Promenade with links to the rejuvenated Cobblestone Landing. Cost estimate: $6 million*

Construction: 2007-2008 G. Land bridge New real estate that connects downtown to the Mississippi River and extends streets into Mud Island, creating a new 2-mile lake, smaller harbor and amphitheater-style gathering place. Cost estimate: $122 million*

Construction: 2009-2013 H. Pedestrian bridge Connection from Union Avenue to Mud Island and the river's edge. Cost estimate: $5.3 million*

Construction: 2011-2012 I. Point Park Landscaped and terraced public place at the southern tip of Mud Island that reshapes Mud Island River Park and includes the park's scale model of the Mississippi River. Cost estimate: $36.5 million*

Construction: 2012-2013

* The cost estimates are capital costs only. Some estimates have been revised since the printing of the Master Plan. Source: Memphis Riverfront Master Plan, Riverfront Development Corp. staff CAPTION: By Jason R. Terrell

RDC Executive Committee members
John W. Stokes Jr., Chairman; Morgan Keegan
Kristi W. Jernigan, Vice chairman; Memphis Redbirds Foundation
Sally Palmer Thomason, PhD, Secretary; Retired
Burnetta B. Williams, Treasurer; FedEx Corp.
John M. Farris, Asst. Secretary; Farris, Mathews, Branan, Bobango & Hellen PLC
Bill Taylor, Asst. Treasurer; Tennessee Valley Authority
Dr. James C. Hunt Board member UT, retired
John Pontius, Board member; Pittco Management
Rob Carter, Board member; FedEx Corp.
Tom Morgan, Board member; Trammell Crow
Pete Aviotti, Ex Officio; City of Memphis

Other RDC board members
Dianne Dixon, Clark Dixon, architects
Greg Duckett, Baptist Memorial Health Care
Herman Ewing, Retired
Lucia Gilliland, Community activist
Barbara Hyde, Hyde Family Foundations
Derrick D. Joyce, A.G. Edwards & Sons Inc.
Rick Masson, Plough Foundation
Angus McEachran, Retired
Cybill Shepherd, Actress
Pat Kerr Tigrett Pat Kerr Inc.
Jerry West, Memphis Grizzlies
Keith McGee, Ex Officio City of Memphis CAO
Rickey Peete, Ex Officio Memphis City Council

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