Friday, May 21, 2004

Editorial: An Opportunity on Front Street

Commercial Appeal

MANY MORE hurdles remain to be crossed, but the Memphis City Council has established the most viable course for eventual transformation of the promenade on Front Street into an attractive downtown amenity.

The council's approval of a redevelopment concept for the four-block blufftop tract from Union to Adams - using private funds for public improvements - came after four hours of debate.

The vote was a recognition of the reality that private investment is probably the only practical way to revitalize that stretch of the waterfront.

Now cluttered with buildings that block access to river views, the 12-acre promenade, if the Riverfront Development Corp. plan continues to advance, could be cleared for the most part to make way for broad sidewalks, walkways to the river and new buildings with the kinds of ground-floor businesses that would draw people to the riverfront for shopping, dining and socializing.

The council's decision is hardly the last word on the fate of the promenade. City government has an easement to use the property for the public's benefit, but the situation is complicated: It is owned by heirs of the city's founders, a large and diverse group with widely varied opinions on the matter.

Beyond the legal challenge lies the selling job. Investors must be persuaded to put millions of dollars into building projects that will have to conform to the objectives of the RDC plan, with restrictions on such factors as building heights, appearance and usage.

As soon as City Council minutes are approved, the RDC will attempt to start talks with the heirs of the Memphis founders who set aside the area for public use, persuading skeptical members of the group, it is hoped, that commercial investment is the most viable option for restoring the promenade to its intended use.

As difficult as those tasks may be, at least the area now has a chance to recover from decades of neglect. The promenade could become the cornerstone of a world-class riverfront in which future generations of Memphians can take pride.

Unfortunately, City Council's decision to launch the promenade redevelopment plan was marred by Chairman Joe Brown's delay - without explanation - of a public hearing on the issue.

More than 200 people showed up for a 3:30 p.m. public hearing, only to be forced to wait for more than three hours while the council ambled through its agenda. And then opponents of the redevelopment plan were given only 20 minutes to make their case.

If the chairman's intent was to spare those with unrelated council business from having to sit through the public hearing, that should have been clearly explained to the audience.

Forcing people to wait for hours to state their positions on controversial issues is an unfortunate tactic used occasionally by City Council chairmen in what the public perceives as an effort to wear down opponents of proposals favored by council majorities.

Instead of discouraging people from participating in the process, the council should use every opportunity to show that the public's views are being taken seriously.

This matter was handled in a way that reinforced the notion that the promenade plan was being shoved down the throats of an unwilling and skeptical public. Not a very good way to win people over to your point of view.

Copyright 2004 The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN

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