Sunday, July 25, 2004

Memphis brawls on the Promenade - Revitalization quest splits city

Atlanta Journal-Constitution
By Drew Jubera

Memphis --- There are hundreds of them, maybe a thousand. Descended from this river town's 19th-century founders, they're all over the world, living all kinds of lives, from judge to jailbird. Two have been mayor. They're Democrats, Republicans, white and, in one branch, black. They've made and lost fortunes, married (sometimes each other) and multiplied.

But after 180 years and five or six generations, the heirs of this city's three founders are now front and center in a high-profile dust-up over a downtown development on a bluff above the Mississippi River.

It's a dispute full of blue blood, new blood and bad blood, destined for a courtroom but not necessarily a resolution. It centers on four precious but declining blocks called the Promenade that Memphis' original proprietors gave as public space in the 1820s --- but to which the heirs still hold title, allowing them to block plans contrary to the founders' intent.

Now this rebounding city wants to let private developers refashion what has become a bleak stretch of moldering civic buildings and "No Trespassing" signs into a mixed-use playground of condominiums, boutiques and restaurants where patrons can look over a wine list while looking out at the Big Muddy.

That vision has split not only the heirs, but many of the city's movers and shakers, from business moguls to land barons to celebrities like actress Cybill Shepherd and basketball legend Jerry West.

Supporters of commercial development claim it will kick-start a long-dormant area. Opponents, including preservationists and environmentalists, view the plan as a land grab that violates the founders' aim. They want the city to develop a park instead.

"It's a passionate issue. It's a where-do-you-stand-on-Memphis issue," said John Branston, columnist for Memphis magazine. "There are a lot of hard feelings. If they go after a legal solution, there's no way it will be resolved. Solomon couldn't decide this."

'Interesting headache'

Nobody knows how many heirs there are to John Overton, James Winchester and John McLemore (who bought his stake from a cash-strapped future president, Andrew Jackson). While their surnames appear on park and street signs, nobody seems certain what the heirs' rights are, who speaks for them or whether one set has more say-so than another.

"Nobody will really know until it's brought to court and goes through the legal process," said Newton Allen, a Memphis lawyer who represented heirs in a 1965 state Supreme Court decision that upheld their title rights and stopped the city from giving part of the Promenade to a hotel chain.

"It's going to be a headache," he added, "but an interesting headache."

Here's what is known: When the founders laid out Memphis, they set aside prime river bluff property as open air for what was then a malarial sweatbox. When they gave the new city an easement to the land, the founders insisted, in a document filed with the Shelby County registrar's office in 1828, that the property forever be "public ground for such use only as the word [promenade] imports."

More expansive than it is now, the land was whittled away as the city and its geography changed: The river receded, an island formed off its bank, new industries sprouted. Heirs allowed some changes and fought others.

By the 1960s, with Memphis in decline, the Promenade was an incoherent jumble of public buildings. A quaint park with a river view did survive, though few seem to notice it anymore.

The Promenade has since been largely ignored. As downtown Memphis bounced back in the '90s, development drifted elsewhere: a rejuvenated Beale Street; a mall attached to the Peabody Hotel; new housing along the more southern bluffs.

"The privilege of using that property for the public has been squandered," said Napoleon Overton, an heir and stock analyst whose office overlooks the Promenade. "Everybody agrees on that."

In 2000, the city ceded riverfront planning to a nonprofit, quasi-governmental agency, and last year the Riverfront Development Corp. unveiled its Promenade project. The corporation, whose board of power brokers run the gamut from old influence to new money, hailed it as a vibrant answer to a bluff known as Memphis' "front yard." The board's star power included West, president of the NBA Memphis Grizzlies, and Shepherd, a Memphis native who lives there part time. (West supports the plan; Shepherd was originally in favor, but now opposes it.)

The City Council OK'd it. Even the heirs appeared to be on board. Hamilton Gayden, a Nashville circuit judge, unearthed 160 fellow Overtons. A survey he mailed asked them to choose between two Promenade options: an accord that allowed private development if there was sufficient green space and revenue-sharing with the heirs; or leaving the property as it is.

A large majority favored development and sharing in profits.

"We ought not be obstructionist," Gayden said. "Nobody's expecting any money --- there's not enough money to cover that many heirs and make it worth it."

Other heirs, mostly Memphians, say they weren't contacted or didn't respond to the survey, and were outraged by what they viewed as a blood betrayal. A meeting between the groups was a disaster.

"They're a good group of people, but I'm starting to wonder about some of the gene pool," said Virginia Overton McLean, president of a grass-roots group opposing bluff development in favor of an enhanced park.

"We try to be civil to each other, but the whole thing just incenses me," she added. "It's just so abhorrent to what I believe should be done."

Condemnation possible

The next step likely is in court. Benny Lendermon, Riverfront Development Corp. president, said the city's options include condemning the land and collaring it by eminent domain. The land has not been assessed, but its value could run into the tens of millions, a portion of which would go to the heirs.

"It's a way to get before a judge to rule on what the heirs' rights really are," Lendermon said. "I don't think anyone with the city is concerned about resolving it. It's just deciding which is the best way to pursue it. It could take as much as two years."

Most heirs are silent on the issue; many hadn't considered the Promenade in years, if ever, before this ruckus.

"I wanted not to be involved, because when people hear the word 'heir' it has an old-timey, negative connotation," said Lisa Overton Snowden, who opposes the development. "People thought we were going to benefit personally, and that's the last thing I wanted people to think."

But both sides feel the weight of their ancestry.

"It's bizarre," said Ruth Warner, heir and historian at Travelers Rest, the Nashville home of founder John Overton. "It's putting a burden on your descendants to say something should be restricted like that. I would like to honor his wishes, but I also have to think of the needs of a modern city. How could he possibly have envisioned what Memphis would be like today?"

Yet heirs who oppose the commercial development insist the founders' vision was both enlightened and timeless.

"This is not like a son all of a sudden thinking his father didn't have any sense," said McLean. "These were astounding people way back when who had this broader view of what could be good.

"I feel a responsibility to them," she added. "You couldn't pay me enough to go away."

© 2004 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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