Thursday, February 26, 2004

Heirs likely to split on private development

Commercial Appeal
By Tom Charlier

Embarking on a process likely to end in court, the Riverfront Development Corp. board Wednesday resoundingly adopted a land-use plan giving private developers a key role in reshaping Memphis's downtown promenade area.

The blueprint approved in the board's 17-0 vote would transform a four-block area of parking garages and largely neglected and inaccessible facilities into a network of walkways and open spaces lined with shops, restaurants and other developments. The plan now goes to the City Council, which is expected to vote on it in April.

But even as they adopted the measure, RDC officials acknowledged that none of the improvements can be made until legal issues are worked out.

"The legal matter probably gets resolved in court, just to be frank,'' board chairman John W. Stokes said.

The legal uncertainties stem from the fact that founders of Memphis set aside the promenade acreage for public use. Past court rulings held that while the city has an easement, the property is owned by the founders' heirs, who must consent to the plans. With hundreds of heirs, any consensus is unlikely, officials say.

Some heirs have expressed support for letting the city, through the nonprofit RDC, redevelop the promenade. However, others have joined a new group - Friends for Our Riverfront - that contends private development would violate the founders' intent.

The group's vice president on Wednesday criticized the plan approved by the RDC.

"What has been, for all intents and purposes, the property of the citizens will no longer be that. It will be the property of private developers," said John Gary, who is not an heir.

But in a presentation to the RDC board, Randall Morton, a partner with the New York firm of Cooper, Robertson & Partners, said the point of the land-use plan is to enhance public amenities on the promenade. The private development is just the means to pay for it.

"The private land is only there to support your public realm . . ." Morton said. "The plan is really based on establishing your public realm first."

Estimated to cost up to $50 million, the plan for the 12-acre area would relocate parking garages underground and include such features as pedestrian bridges, widened sidewalks and an upper and lower promenade along the historic downtown bluff.

A library and fire station would be relocated. In their stead, private development, including buildings as high as 400 feet, would be allowed in prescribed areas.

Morton and RDC board members said the increased open space envisioned in the plan would improve access to the Mississippi River, while the developments would attract the "critical mass" of people needed for the project's success.

- Tom Charlier: 529-2572

Copyright 2004, - Memphis, TN.

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