Thursday, August 23, 2001

Down By the Riverside

The Riverfront Development Corporation prepares to sell its vision for Mud Island's future. Will Memphis buy it?

Memphis Flyer [Link to original]
by John Branston

If a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, then a process that could reshape downtown Memphis for the next 50 years begins next month when the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC) starts selling its vision for a dramatically different riverfront.

Starting from public hearings and a mom-and-apple-pie vision statement of a "world-class riverfront" that "binds us together as a community," the RDC and its consultants have come up with a package of short-term (think 2002-2003) and long-term improvements (not soon, but probably well short of the RDC's ruffle-no-feathers 50-year horizon).

The final draft of the master plan will be approved within two months. But the rendering on these pages is generally state-of-the-art, although it shows buildings where there will not be buildings and omits a pedestrian bridge from the foot of Union Avenue to Mud Island. Prominent features of the plan include:
  • A massive land bridge connecting Mud Island to downtown and dividing the present slackwater harbor into a smaller harbor and a narrow 150-acre lake.
  • Extensive residential and commercial development on Mud Island River Park.
  • Preserving part of the park (mainly the southern end and river's edge) as public park.
  • Keeping the model of the Mississippi River in the park but getting rid of the amphitheater and possibly the monorail, while expanding the museum but putting it in a new building.
  • Saving prime space on the land bridge for a corporate headquarters in case some company wants to relocate from the suburbs or another city in the future.
  • A circular outdoor plaza and cruise-boat dock at the foot of Beale Street and the northern end of Tom Lee Park.
  • Relocation of all marinas and small-boat tie-ups to the southern end of the slackwater harbor next to the cobblestones, which would be shored up with a seawall.
  • Development of the public promenade known as the Overton Blocks which includes the fire station, post office, Cossitt Library, and parking garages.
The driving principle behind all of this: Make it pay. "There has to be something to pay for the infrastructure," says Benny Lendermon, president of the RDC. "We're trying to create three times as much private investment as public dollars. That gives enough payback."

Lendermon and Kristi Jernigan, vice chairman of the RDC, will start selling the plan in earnest next month. Among other things, this will test how well the tortoise-and-hare RDC partnership works, now that it has usurped the powers of the Memphis Park Commission in all riverfront matters. Lendermon comes from the public sector, where he served in city government for some two decades, viewing no less than 13 riverfront plans that came and went, by his count. He knows better than anyone that major parts of the plan need political and corporate support and funding, plus the blessing of regulators, preservationists, and the courts. Kristi and Dean Jernigan were the driving forces behind AutoZone Park, which went from concept to completion in three years and was praised in a feature article last week in The New York Times.

The picture that ran with the article was a reminder that downtown Memphis still has a ways to go. It showed AutoZone Park with the 30-story Sterick Building in the background. Few of the Times readers probably realized that the Sterick Building has been empty for years.

One reason the RDC plan will have more impact than its predecessors is that it builds on some work already funded and in progress. The low-hanging fruit includes the sidewalk next to Riverside Drive between Tom Lee Park and Jefferson Davis Park which has been under construction all summer. Eventually it will extend all the way to Mud Island, running along the west side of The Pyramid. Improvements are also underway to stabilize the cobblestones. The RDC also took away the admission charge to the grounds of Mud Island River Park this summer and plans to use Mud Island for more events, including this year's Blues Ball, previously held at The Peabody, the Rock 'n' Soul Museum, and Central Station.

Other changes that are likely within a year or two include placing medians in Riverside Drive and lowering the speed limit, scheduling more activities at Tom Lee Park, and improving stairway connections from the bluffs to Tom Lee Park as well as the docking facility and plaza at the foot of Beale Street where it meets the river.
The more ambitious parts of the plan are the massive land bridge, the lake, the Overton Blocks, and the Mud Island makeover. Politics, a lack of public funding or private investment, regulatory or engineering problems, or failure to reach agreement with the Overton heirs could stall any or all of these indefinitely. But the opening of AutoZone Park and Peabody Place and the relocation of the NBA Grizzlies have created a feeling that all things are possible, at least in the minds of RDC officials.

"Now there is an implementer," says Lendermon.

The RDC, for example, is actively contacting and negotiating with the Overton heirs through the Baker Donelson Bearman and Caldwell law firm. Lendermon says that, contrary to newspaper reports, the RDC has "a productive working relationship" with brothers Kevin and Rusty Hyneman, who own a key piece of land on Mud Island between the two bridges. There are relatively few industries on the harbor compared to other places that RDC members visited, including Cincinnati, Louisville, Pittsburgh, and New York -- all cities that managed to start or complete waterfront redevelopments.

"The real issue now is defining costs and testing this with developers," says Jernigan.

For now the RDC is only looking for their expertise, not commitments. But Lendermon and Jernigan think there could be substantial progress on the land bridge and Overton Blocks in five to seven years. Those two projects alone would create prime sites for a major corporate headquarters -- something downtown hasn't landed since AutoZone moved to Front Street 10 years ago.

Here's a detailed look at specific parts of the riverfront plan, with comments by Lendermon and Jernigan.

Tom Lee Park

Memphis In May stays. So does the Beale Street Music Fest. "We'd like to think we could improve the layout and vegetation to accommodate more non-Memphis In May uses," says Lendermon. The park will get more seating, places for vendors, and connections to the stairways on the bluff.

"Next year we would like to look at programming Tom Lee Park more," says Jernigan. "Kind of like what Battery Park in New York does with their Hudson River summer festival and activities from bike rental to in-line skating to morning tai-chi workouts."

Vance and Confederate Parks need improvements too, and one possibility, Jernigan says, is "a total upgrade of all the greenspaces that are here now that are going to stay long-term."

Riverside Drive

Think slower. The goal is to accommodate the same volume of traffic at a lower speed. The RDC will soon take bids to build a 10-foot planted median as well as lighted pedestrian crossings at Beale and the stairways on the bluff and a change in pavement to encourage slower speeds at the juncture of Interstate 55 and Riverside Drive. The RDC is also working with the city of Memphis to accelerate the work schedule on an interchange at Crump Boulevard and I-55 and a connection between Riverside Drive and Second and Third Streets near the south end of Riverside Drive so that those streets can take more traffic. The width of the roadway will be widened by covering up a drainage ditch on one side.

Beale Street Landing

This circular pavilion will serve as a docking facility for large steamboats, a dropoff place for shuttle buses, and a concession stand. It will be the terminus of Beale Street, Tom Lee Park, and the Cobblestone Walkway and will have some sort of tall monument or tower to draw attention to itself. Planners think the tip of Mud Island has the potential to be something on the order of the coming together of great rivers in Pittsburgh. Since the harbor is not exactly a river at all, much less a great one, this seems a stretch, but this is a key location in the overall plan. A near-term improvement.

The Cobblestones

In a word, difficult. Between dealing with historic preservation interests, Memphis In May, lawsuits from injured boat passengers, and regular tour-boat traffic, the cobblestones have proven "more of a challenge than we anticipated," Lendermon says. Some of the "less historic" cobblestones have been removed to accommodate a retaining wall to hold the rest of them in place. Low spots will be filled in, but people will still be allowed to walk on the cobblestones, although there will also be walkways above them for those who prefer not to risk a tumble.

Long-awaited Ron Terry Plaza at the foot of Union is still alive, but the RDC is trying to figure out how to incorporate it into the new walkway under construction. A planned pedestrian bridge from the foot of Union to Mud Island further complicates matters. "The worst thing would be to build Ron Terry Plaza and five years from now go in there and tear part of it out," says Lendermon. Once seen as a near-term improvement, the cobblestones could be a work in progress for years if the land bridge happens.

Mud Island Park

Twenty years ago its buildings were so "now." Which could be why they now look so "then."
Two decades of public apathy are enough in the minds of the RDC. Major changes in the long term, minor ones in the near term. Admission to the grounds is free this summer, and Lendermon says attendance was up 50 percent in July. The amphitheater is rarely booked, despite a sold-out rap concert last weekend and a beer festival this weekend. Pat Tigrett's Blues Ball is moving to Mud Island, the scene of her bridge-lighting party in 1987. Over the next two years, the RDC would like to move more events that attract a few hundred to a few thousand people to Mud Island and leave mega-events at Tom Lee Park.

The museum and amphitheater stay open for the next year or two, but long term the amphitheater most likely goes, say Lendermon and Jernigan. The river model stays, possibly as the centerpiece of a future hotel, but the Gulf of Mexico part shrinks. "It definitely will not be a swimming pool," says Lendermon. A new seawall braces the southern tip and harbor, letting people get down to a proposed new walkway closer to the water. Coupled with the land bridge, Mud Island River Park between the amphitheater and the museum becomes a mixed-use development, long term. The south end and the western edge along the river remain a public park.

The Overton Blocks

This enticing piece of the puzzle is hamstrung by a historic covenant prohibiting private development. The RDC envisions some private development facing the river, a la the AutoZone headquarters, mixed with a lot of public space and parks. The post office stays, maybe as a new home for the Wonders series. Buildings would be subject to height restrictions. A lawsuit is likely, even welcomed.

"A court has to legally decree something and put its stamp of approval on it," says Lendermon. "There is no way we can enter into a private-party contract with the Overton heirs without the judicial system being involved."
Another approach would be to argue that the RDC is by definition a public purpose and use condemnation proceedings.

"We're going to have to work with the city and their political will, so it's going to have to be a joint effort," says Jernigan.

Despite all the obstacles, the RDC is optimistic because the potential is so great.

"Even the Overton heirs are for it," says Lendermon. "The fact that there is an entity focused on the riverfront I think gives the heirs some confidence that something is going to happen and that it is going to be in accordance with a plan that is going to be executed."

The Land Bridge

Lendermon estimates it would take two years to get the permits and design it once there is agreement to go forward with this riverfront centerpiece. Construction would take two more years, following the method used to expand Tom Lee Park.

"Five years would be quick," he says. "We think it is more like 10, realistically, before you have that site ready. We will be talking a lot to the development community about this one."
There are concerns that the project, in addition to being hugely expensive, could be so big that nothing happens and momentum is lost, as happened at Battery Park in New York. Or it could simply shift businesses away from other parts of downtown, with no net gain.
Ideally, the land bridge would fill up with housing, commercial sites, a hotel, and office buildings, with a public plaza rounding off the harbor on the south side. Development costs would be offset by lot sales and leases.

The Lake

A 150-acre lake is created north of the land bridge. It becomes a prime site for residential development instead of the industrial users now on its eastern bank. The RDC estimates it will take two or three years to move the industries, and three to five more to finish the lake. The existing marina would move to the cobblestones.
"The lake would be a great neighborhood generator for Uptown," says Jernigan.

(Uptown is the residential development northwest of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.)

One possibility is connecting the lake with the harbor via a San Antonio-style river walk cutting through the land bridge.

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