Friday, April 30, 2004

Benny Lendermon Responds to Jack Belz

Here is RDC President Benny Lendermon's response to Jack Belz's letter of April 26 (reproduced at this link.)


DATE: Friday, April 30, 2004

FROM: Benny Lendermon

TO: John Dudas, CC: (RDC Mailing List)

RE: Memphis Promenade Public Realm Plan

As always I become very attentive to anything that any of the three on you have to say. It is safe to say that in the past we have been in agreement many, many more times that on opposite sides. However on this issue there are several things that must be pointed out.

The 4 blocks of the promenade property in question are encumbered with inappropriate public infrastructure. On this we can all agree. The removal of this infrastructure, no matter what you put back is very costly~$50,000,000. While we can argue the merits of these blocks being green space (which we disagree with) no one can argue the cost of removing the inappropriate infrastructure. The cost of putting a park on this site, public open space around mixed use development as we suggest, or even converting it to a soybean field are all in the $50,000,000 cost range due to the previously mentioned cost of removing existing infrastructure.

The RDC is very sensitive to allowing the construction of new space and its effect on existing space currently unoccupied. That is one of the major reasons for bringing in the Urban Land Institute Advisory Services panel to critique our plan and make recommendations on priority and strategy for implementation. Before our board elected to use ULI we conferred with many others who have used them and received glowing recommendations from many including John Dudas, Henry Turley, Jeff Sanford and others. The ULI panel interviewed 75 people during its week here including a special separate meeting to get the input from Jack Beltz and John Dudas who have been involved in so many downtown developments.

The ULI panel encouraged the creation of development on the promenade property including cafes, galleries, library and other public amenities on the ground floors with primarily residential occupying the air space above to both provide activity for the "Grand Esplanade" and generate revenue to help offset the cost of implementation. They emphasized to the RDC board "Memphians today want to be downtown, to live, work play and shop--and to develop. By launching the master plan on the Promenade property, the RDC will build on and extend the growing vibrancy of downtown and bring that energy to Front Street and the riverfront."

We agree with ULI and believe the development of the promenade property will not compete with but aid in the redevelopment of downtown in a fashion similar to what Peabody Place and Peabody Tower has and is doing.

You can argue about the extent of the revenue generated by the development proposed by the RDC Plan, but what is not in dispute is the fact that the park plan generates no revenue and the RDC Plan generates significant revenues that reduce the burden on the taxpayer.

We are in total agreement that the available parking for the east side of Front Street can not be reduced. As you know this parking is in fact eliminated in the park plan being circulated. The density of the market driven development will determine the magnitude of additional parking required. Parking that can not be provided underground will be provided in similar fashion to the elegant way you provided it for Peabody Tower.

The Tax Increment Financing funding you suggest for paying for the removal and replacement of the existing infrastructure was presented to the City Council by the Center City Commission and soundly defeated. No one I know believes that this is even a remote possibility in the foreseeable future.

The truth is that absent a private vehicle to fund a significant portion of these costs, the existing condition of these promenade blocks will remain as is just as they have over the last 50 years.

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Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Guest Editorial: RDC disregards our heritage

Commercial Appeal

Guest columnist John E. Harkins is author of "Metropolis of the American Nile: An Illustrated History of Memphis and Shelby County" and a history teacher at Memphis University School.

Our environment and our history do define Memphis and Memphians. Why then has no in-depth sense of our city's history been factored into the debate over the future of the riverfront?

In the Riverfront Development Corp.'s plan to develop a four-block section of the promenade property, there is no evidence that the RDC has ever sought input from professional historians versed in local lore. Nor has the RDC requested advice or support from leading local history groups.Several years ago, long before three skyscrapers became part of its plan for the portion of Front Street between Union and Adams avenues, RDC president Benny Lendermon told the Shelby County Historical Commission that the proposed redevelopment's watchword would be "authenticity."

But his presentation demonstrated that the RDC was giving virtually no consideration to Memphis's past, and not one of the 30-odd members of the commission expressed anything other than disdain for the plan. Earlier this year, the commission voted unanimously to oppose the RDC's proposal.

Memphis Heritage, the city's major historic preservation group, also is on record as opposing much of the plan. The West Tennessee Historical Society and the Descendants of Early Settlers of Shelby County both have resolved to resist what they view as the RDC's blatant disregard for our heritage.

Those three groups alone far outnumber the 300 citizens who the RDC boasts have attended its public hearings on the promenade proposal. I am confident that if historians had been consulted, the RDC would have received strong recommendations that no imposing modern structures should be built on the promenade; certainly, it would be unthinkable for any historian of competence and conscience to endorse the construction of three skyscrapers there.

Much of our city's history is associated with the promenade property that occupies the area between Front and Riverside Drive.

Before Memphis's proprietors donated the riverfront easement, a trading post and blockhouse stood there during the Revolutionary War. In the mid-1790s, portions of Spain's Fort San Fernando de las Barrancas, the first permanent settlement on the site of Memphis, extended across the promenade. The city's first business buildings appear atop the bluff in Charles-Alexandre Lesueur's 1828 drawings.

In the 1850s and '60s, thousands of Memphians flocked to the promenade to observe the "marriage of the waters" ceremony that marked the opening of the Memphis and Charleston Railroad and the Civil War's naval Battle of Memphis.

In the battle's aftermath, Federal troops occupied the city and began the systematic freeing of the area's enslaved African-Americans.

Black Memphians contributed mightily to the city's economy by working on the promenade as draymen and roustabouts. They transported, loaded and unloaded steamboat cargoes. More important for the city's survival, black militiamen encamped on promenade land while they preserved order through the city's worst yellow fever epidemic in 1878.

The Cossitt family's gift of a library gave Memphis its cultural heart and later, in the 1920s, provided an intellectual stimulus for noted black novelist Richard Wright.

Many Memphians, black and white, observed the 1892 opening of the Frisco Bridge from the promenade. Several national reunions of Confederate veterans were held at what later became Confederate and Jefferson Davis parks. Casey Jones began his immortal journey from the railroad station at Poplar Avenue and Front.

Of course, listing these few events barely touches the surface of the promenade's historic importance.

The RDC argues that private development of the public promenade is warranted because the area has become blighted and because construction of existing buildings has set a precedent for violating the terms of its donation to the citizens.

This position begs two questions: Who allowed the area to become so rundown? Who pushed through construction of the post office, library, fire station and two parking garages? In both instances, the answer is city government.

Further, all such encroachments on the land took place before the end of the Crump regime, when plain citizens had almost no say in civic affairs. Do we really want that condescending, plantation mentality to govern Memphis in the 21st Century?

Memphis politicos and blue-ribbon commissions seem to believe that some sort of large-scale construction project is our best solution for every problem. Often it is not. Our history demonstrates that many grandiose schemes have stuck taxpayers with financing a veritable herd of white elephants.

This brief historical review does not even broach several practical considerations that also should concern us. Along with its esthetics, the RDC's proposal raises issues of law, economics, engineering and environmental effects that need full exploration. They should be weighed against the more modest enhancements proposed for the public promenade in two 1980s studies, including the 1987 Center City Development Plan that has been adopted by Friends for Our Riverfront. Either of those proposals would cost only a fraction of the amount required for the RDC's redevelopment plan.

And in the unlikely possibility that the RDC's proposals could deliver everything the agency hopes for, shouldn't Memphis citizens be allowed to decide the issue? Considering the RDC's claims of public support for such an expensive proposal of such dubious merit, it should favor putting the plan up for a referendum on the November election ballot.

John E. Harkins is a former archivist for Memphis and Shelby County, a former member of the Shelby County Historical Commission, and former president of the West Tennessee Historical Society and the Descendants of Early Settlers of Shelby County.

Copyright 2004, - Memphis, TN.

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Architects urge open space on riverfront

Commercial Appeal
By Tom Charlier

Instead of pursuing the "high-density development" envisioned in a current proposal, Memphis leaders should provide for more open civic space in the downtown promenade area, a local architects group says.

The Memphis chapter of the American Institute of Architects adopted a resolution asking the Riverfront Development Corp. (RDC) and City Council to "explore a broader range of alternatives" than the plan recently adopted by RDC.

The RDC proposal, which now is before the City Council, would allow for private development, including high-rise towers, as part of a larger scheme of improvements designed to bring more people to the promenade area.

The council voted Tuesday to hold a May 18 public hearing on the proposed plan for the promenade. About two dozen residents had come to the council meeting, thinking they would be heard on the issue, but were not.

The promenade is a bluff-top stretch of downtown along Front Street encompassing the parking garages, a library, a fire station, the Old Custom House and Post Office and Confederate Park. The acreage was set aside by Memphis's founders.

The AIA Memphis resolution favors what it calls the "founders' vision of a largely unobstructed, open, civic space, including restoration of the bluffs and the preservation of historic buildings."

Chapter president Rebecca Conrad said the group does not want to discourage development of the promenade. But development should be done, she said, in ways that preserve historic buildings, allow for "active urban space" and frame unimpeded views of the Mississippi.

RDC president Benny Lendermon said officials "worked a great deal" with AIA Memphis in the planning process. He attributed the resolution to a small, biased group within the organization.

"It was disappointing and somewhat laughable how they handled it," Lendermon said.
- Tom Charlier: 529-2572

Copyright 2004, - Memphis, TN.

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Monday, April 26, 2004

Jack Belz writes to the City Council

Developer Jack Belz emailed a memorandum to City Council and RDC President Benny Lendermon, expressing his reservations about the Promenade Land Use Plan. Here is the text of the memo. (Lendermon's response is reproduced at this link.)


DATE: April 26, 2004

TO: Memphis City Council

FROM: Jack Belz, Ron Belz, John Dudas

RE: Response to Benny Lendermon’s e-mail - 4/21/04: Memphis Promenade Public Realm Plan

We support the relocation of the parking garages below the Front Street grade, the construction of pedestrian bridges over Monroe and other appropriate streets, the relocation of the fire station and the adaptive reuse of the Post Office for a major public purpose like the Law School. We would like to see the development of an attractive "esplanade" along the river side of the promenade area. We would even support a limited amount of low-rise structures along the west side of Front which would contain public and possibly residential uses.

We oppose the construction of high rise structures on the west side of Front Street, which are suggested in the Cooper-Robertson plan, for the following reasons:

1. These structures would block the view of already existing properties on the east side of Front, many of which are substantially vacant and in need of new users and rehabilitation.

2. The amount of parking that would be required for new high rise construction on the west side of Front and to accommodate the existing demand for parking from occupied and unoccupied space east of Front St. would require above ground parking structures which would defeat the purpose of relocating the existing parking underground. The amount of parking spaces available for the existing properties east of Front must not be reduced or the revitalization of that area will be jeopardized.

3. The promenade and other aspects of the riverfront should primarily serve as an amenity for the developed portions of downtown and the city in general.

There is adequate vacant property east of Front to accommodate all of the commercial development which the market could absorb for at least 50 years. (If a major corporation agreed to move its headquarters to downtown Memphis only on the condition that it be allowed to develop west of Front, then this could justify considering whether to allow a building in the promenade area. A speculative office building, hotel or other non-single-user facility would not justify building west of Front). The objective of the riverfront development should not be to develop a parallel downtown but rather to provide the environment and amenities to facilitate the optimum development of the existing downtown properties.

In terms of the financing of the proposed promenade public improvements, this area should be treated as any other public project and financed in the same way as a park, or public parking garage or plaza is financed. For example, Downtown property owners have been paying a special assessment on their property for almost 30 years in order to fund Main Street and other projects through the Center City Commission. Tax Increment Financing (“TIF”) is being used in Uptown and another district has been proposed for the balance of downtown in order to finance public improvements. The TIF revenues would result from the new development and renovation activities which would take place in downtown including Mud Island, the Bio Tech area and other areas within the CBID. Transferring development and rehabilitation activities from the currently built up areas of downtown to a new publicly created land area, which admittedly would have fewer obstacles for construction than the built up areas in order to create a limited amount of tax (land lease) value to fund public improvements, would retard the revitalization of Main St., 2nd St., Union etc.

The riverfront public improvements should compete on the priority list with public improvements needed in the already developed portions of downtown. It is misleading to imply that there will be no cost to the community if the promenade land was leased to private interests to build something that should be built in the already developed areas of downtown in order to fund a portion of the riverfront public improvements. If potential users are transferred from the currently developed portions of downtown to the promenade then the existing non-utilized properties will remain below their optimum value longer, which will cause blight on the surrounding properties and reduce the value and productivity of those properties. We will, in fact, be sacrificing the area east of Front for a new town west of Front.

It is also misleading to suggest that the approximate $50 million of cost, which has been floating around as an estimate associated with the promenade projects, can be financed by private development on the promenade. A $50 million bond issue would require approximately $4 million per year of revenue to amortize the debt service on the bond issue. It is unlikely that private interests could justify paying $4 million per year in land costs for the limited amount of property available on the Promenade.

Consequently, a substantial portion of the revenues for the debt service on the public improvements to the promenade would need to come from the City-wide property taxes or some other public source of funds. The proposal does not have reasonable certainty and no protection for the taxpayers that it will not simply become a transfer of this asset to private interests who are around to reap the benefits of a failed financial plan. In other words, this action could retard the revitalization of the currently developed portions of downtown and turn over a large portion of the public space overlooking the waterfront to private interests in order to raise a relatively small amount of funds for these improvements. The financing assumptions need reevaluation before the City adopts a plan based on this thesis.

Our community has only one front door and that is downtown. Our downtown has only one riverfront. The public promenade set aside by our founding fathers is the only publicly owned property on our city's high bluff that will ever exist. We must not let short term pressures override the long term best interest of our community.

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Sunday, April 25, 2004

Letter: Legal questions demand answers

The Commercial Appeal
Letters to the Editor

In 1819, Memphis's founders (being developers themselves) employed a checks and balances mechanism to protect the promenade from future developers.

They gave Memphians a perpetual easement, with the stipulation that the property always be a public promenade. They allowed the underlying land to pass to their heirs, who for all practical purposes cannot do anything with it while the easement remains.

If an easement's stipulations are violated, the landowners may sue to stop the violations or ask the court to dissolve the easement. In the 1960s, the heirs sued the city to prohibit leasing a portion of the promenade to a commercial developer. The Tennessee Supreme Court upheld the heirs.

Given that precedent, what does the RDC plan to do? It seems they would abandon the easement, reverting full control of the property to the heirs. Then they would have the city take the land by eminent domain, paying the heirs current market value.

That raises three disturbing questions:
  • Should the RDC and the city be allowed to destroy a valuable possession of the citizens of Memphis (the easement) without appropriate public process?
  • Will Memphians then be forced to pay for something that was already theirs?
  • If the proposed development fails to provide sufficient revenue to cover the debt service, will future generations of Memphians foot the bill?

Arguably, the only logical purpose of abandoning the easement, then buying the land at today's prices, is to enable commercial development. It appears that taxpayers, not developers, would bear the brunt of the business risks.

Regardless of how one feels about the esthetics of the proposed development, these questions demand to be answered.

Michael Cromer
Copyright 2004, - Memphis, TN.

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Letter: Skip a meeting, and somehow plans change

Commercial Appeal
Letters to the Editor

I attended the first two of three public meetings presented by the Riverfront Development Corp. last year. I was pleased and intrigued with the plans for the four-block area of the public promenade between Union and Adams avenues.

To my relief, a land bridge/dam across the former Wolf River channel that had been proposed earlier as part of the riverfront development had disappeared. The inappropriate parking garages, fire station and the ugly modern addition to the Cossitt Library were to be razed, while keeping and refurbishing the beautiful, historic post office.

In their place along the foot of the bluff, an array of shops, bars, boutiques and restaurants were to be built, tiered into the face of the bluff and extending east to Front Street. As I recall, this proposed development was to be low level, no taller than one or two stories on the west side of Front.

After missing the third RDC meeting, I attended a presentation last month by Friends for Our Riverfront.

The RDC's attractive plan appears to have been drastically changed. It is now dominated by three skyscrapers, from 150 feet to 400 feet high, on the river bluff. Where did these leviathans come from? They were not part of the RDC presentation that I found so attractive. Is this bait-and-switch on the part of RDC?

With considerable empty downtown office space available, do we need more office buildings? Who will pay for them? Do we need the river views from existing buildings blocked by front-row monsters?

How can anyone vote on a proposal that seems to change drastically almost every time it is presented?

As for the open promenade and park plans proposed by Friends for Our Riverfront, I don't think Memphis needs more parkland on our riverfront. With Martyrs Park, Tom Lee Park, Jefferson Davis Park, the Tennessee Welcome Center and the residential portion of Mud Island, we already have almost three miles of open riverfront parkland, in addition to the riverwalk along the bluff.

The four-block, tourist-friendly bistro/shopping development in the face of the bluff with a low level development on Front makes sense to me. Isn't it a reasonable compromise?

William B. Strong

Copyright 2004, - Memphis, TN.

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Editorial: A practical plan for the riverfront

Commercial Appeal
April 25, 2004

DEVELOPMENT OF the Memphis riverfront in a way that enhances its accessibility and esthetics is a long-time dream of generations of Memphians.

While we've dreamed, waterfront areas in other old river towns have sprung to life, in many cases through the efforts of public-private partnerships that leverage scarce public funds with private dollars.

The approach attracts critics because it uses a valuable public asset -- the public's property -- to generate profits for private developers. That is a legitimate concern.

But at the same time it accomplishes important public goals such as making the riverfront more attractive, accessible and exciting, creating jobs, luring tourists and helping to revitalize an area that needs a shot in the arm. In some cases, greenspace is increased.

It's a compromise that Memphis should make in an important phase of the overall plan for redevelopment of the Memphis riverfront - the promenade between Front Street and the river.

As Viewpoint guest columnist Randy Morton, a partner in the urban design consulting firm of Cooper, Robertson & Partners, points out in today's editions, the Riverfront Development Corp. plan "balances the need for a lasting, accessible and vibrant riverfront destination with the immediate reality of funding constraints. It seeks private development as a tool to realize the city's goal, and the site's historic intent, of creating a first-rate promenade for Memphians."

The historic intent for the site, a strip of land from Union to Adams overlooking the Wolf River harbor and Mud Island, was established by city founders John Overton, James Winchester and Andrew Jackson in 1819 when they set aside choice parcels from their newly purchased Fourth Chickasaw Bluff to be reserved in perpetuity as a public promenade.

That intent has not been carried out. Instead, the area has become covered primarily with buildings and parking garages that form a wall blocking access to the river, and severely limiting waterfront views, from Front Street.

The RDC's plan to devote some of that space to new, strictly regulated commercial development that guarantees public access would, finally, fulfill the wishes of the city's founders, create new reasons to visit the river and enhance pride in the community.

The founders' heirs are split over the idea, and opponents of the plan, including some heirs, will make their views known to the Memphis City Council this week as it begins deliberations, as the council's public works committee, on a resolution approving the promenade plan.

City Council approval, which could occur as early as May 18, would set in motion the RDC's efforts to secure clear title to the property -- a process that would involve talks with the so-called "Overton heirs."

Ownership would permit the nonprofit quasi-governmental organization to begin seeking proposals for private development -- most likely on a block-by-block basis -- to create spacious sidewalks, staircases, underground parking and what the Urban Land Institute's Wayne Ratkovich describes in another Viewpoint guest column as "a great gathering place, a civic 'family room' filled with specialty shops, cafes, coffee houses, bars and restaurants."

After partnerships are formed with private entities, the RDC expects to spend some $50 million on demolition and public improvements that would be recovered through private development of part of the property and long-term leases. The U.S. Customs House and possibly a section of the Cossitt Library would be preserved. Confederate Park would be improved. Concrete would be laid for broad sidewalks on two separate levels.

Opponents of the RDC proposal also have developed an attractive alternative for the promenade. The organization Friends for Our Riverfront proposes converting much of the tract into strictly public parkland connected by a pedestrian walk along the bluff.

The RDC proposal offers practical advantages for Memphis taxpayers that seem to give it an overall edge. But a full City Council discussion of both alternatives should prove useful.

By whatever means possible, ultimately the longtime dream of concerned Memphians -- to correct past mistakes that have hidden the wondrous and powerful Mississippi River behind a curtain of concrete - must be turned into reality.

Copyright 2004, - Memphis, TN.

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Guest Editorial: RDC proposal would ignore will of public

The Commercial Appeal

Guest columnist John Gary is vice president of Friends for Our Riverfront.

Public-private partnerships are not a new concept. One hundred and sixty-seven years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville cited extra-governmental associations as America's legacy to democracy in his treatise, Democracy In America.

Today in Memphis we have several examples of how private entities can work together with local government to the benefit of our community. The Center City Commission, the Memphis Redbirds Foundation, the Memphis Zoo and the Memphis Biotech Foundation are among the private, nonprofit groups that work closely with government agencies to make a positive impact on our city.

We should applaud the efforts of such groups, and especially their volunteer boards of directors, for all they contribute. With a clear mission and continued community support, partnerships with quasi-governmental organizations help Memphis and Shelby County governments make longer and faster strides in the right direction, and in the process bring our city to a higher level of regard nationally and internationally.

One distinct advantage that these small entities have over government is that each can be tailored to best meet its specific challenges. They can draw expertise from the local pool of professionals who likely would not leave their careers to work in government, but are willing to commit their time and knowledge to service on volunteer boards.

What a deal! These organizations can focus on one specific mission instead of having to deal with the broad scope of issues faced by their counterparts in the public sector.

Private organizations also are not faced with the level of public scrutiny that government officials and agencies must live with. Their meetings can be held behind closed doors, and their strategies can be devised in private, which is often beneficial at the inception of a project as it facilitates the free flow of ideas.

Quasi-governmental entities also benefit from many of the attributes of their much larger public partners, as they gain prestige from their proximity to our elected officials. Their capital flows from various levels of government, private foundations and individual donors with the assurance that the government partner will see that the money is properly spent.

When partnerships between government and private, nonprofit entities are used appropriately, we all win. The mission is accomplished faster and cheaper, with lasting quality. However, when a public-private partnership goes off course, or when its mission is contrary to the will of the people, the results can be troublesome. An example of this can be found in the record of the Riverfront Development Corporation.

The origins of the RDC can be traced back to 1997, when the City of Memphis presented a plan to revitalize our riverfront. The most prominent element of the plan was the creation of an expensive lake of questionable utility between Mud Island and downtown Memphis.

The public voiced its opposition quickly and decisively. Citizens questioned the wisdom of closing our valuable harbor and changing the character of our historic riverfront in the name of "progress." Because of the opposition, the plan was shelved.

However, the idea was reborn in 2000 when the RDC was formed as a nonprofit public-private partnership charged with managing five miles of riverfront parks and helping the city create a master plan for our riverfront's future.

I was excited at the prospect of a coherent plan of action to clean up my favorite part of our city. I attended each of the public meetings the RDC held and participated with great enthusiasm until it became apparent that one suggestion that had been clearly dismissed by the citizens - the lake - kept coming back into the debate.

This has again been the RDC's approach with its current plan proposing the commercial development of the river bluff west of Front Street and leasing part of the tract to private developers to generate revenue to sustain itself.

The RDC's Memphis Promenade Public Realm Plan has several significant flaws. First, the RDC acknowledges that its approach will cost the city taxpayers $50 million to replace the city-owned buildings ocupying the land. Furthermore, the plan ignores the fact that the use of the promenade land was granted by the city's founding fathers to all of the citizens of Memphis in perpetuity, so long as none of it was used for private gain, although the title to the property remains in the hands of the founders' descendants.

The sale or long-term lease of promenade property to private developers for the construction of high-rise buildings violates both the letter and the spirit of the original grant. If the RDC's lawyers have figured out a way to break this 175-year-old, legally binding arrangement, then the land Memphis citizens have enjoyed for free will have to be acquired at today's fair market price, and will add millions of dollars to the already exorbitant price tag on the project.

The RDC meetings on the proposal, or at least those that were open to the public, have been well attended. The overwhelming sentiment of the public - concerns about excessive taxpayer expenditures and preservation of our treasured public property - do not seem to have been factored into the revisions that have been made to the RDC's plan.

That exemplifies one drawback of the public-private partnership approach: The community can lose its voice to a non-elected group that cannot be swayed by the will of the people.

If the RDC's Promenade Public Realm Plan moves along to City Council approval, it will set off a chain of events that will cost our citizens millions of dollars to pay for land we have always had, so that the RDC can collect rent for buildings for which there is no documented demand.
While it may be well-intentioned, such a plan is akin to selling your front yard to pay for a new sidewalk.

Friends for Our Riverfront has created an alternative plan for the promenade that would remedy the problems associated with the property's current condition, enhance existing river views and complement the character and ongoing revitalization of our historic downtown district - at a small fraction of the cost of what the RDC proposes to do.

It is time to put the "public" back into the public-private partnership that is the RDC, by improving our public spaces while honoring the intentions of our city's founding fathers and the will of the people.

Copyright 2004, - Memphis, TN.

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Friday, April 23, 2004

Mixed reviews for promenade riverfront plan

Memphis Business Journal
By Amos Maki

Riverfront Development Corp.'s plan to transform an area of downtown known as the public promenade is getting mixed reviews from business and political leaders.

The plan calls for reshaping the riverfront by using private development to pay for public improvements to the area. The private developments would pay for projects like a proposed two-level promenade and the relocation of parking garages -- from prime real estate with stunning river views atop the bluffs -- underground. The plan also calls for pedestrian bridges that would stretch across Monroe and Court and for improvements to sidewalks on the promenade. Grand staircases would provide access to the upper level of the pedestrian walkways.

The property now contains the old Cossitt Library, a fire station, the old Customs House and Confederate Park. The land is virtually inaccessible to most of the public and offers breathtaking views of the river. The RDC plan calls for increasing the public space by more than 60%, from 3.76 acres today to 6.03 acres.

But some residents and businesses are concerned about the projected height of two of the three buildings proposed in the promenade plan. The plan says the property would be able to sustain a 300-foot residential tower where the fire station and an All-Right parking garage now sit and a 400-foot office tower north of Confederate Park, between Jefferson and Adams.

"I've always felt like our riverfront was underutilized," says Mohamad Hakimian, managing partner of the Madison Hotel. Some views from his hotel will be obscured if the two larger, bookend buildings are constructed at 300 or 400 feet. "So having said that, I'm excited some projects are on the drawing board.

"However, I'm not fond of a couple portions of it. In particular, the high rises. Such high rises at the banks of the Mississippi River are going to block an enormous amount of views from many other buildings."

Hakimian also wonders what effect new, developable property will have on the ongoing efforts to revitalize old developments in the heart of Downtown.

"Those will become the prime locations and will discourage developers from developing many of the beautiful buildings that are Downtown that are vacant," he says.

Henry Turley, principal of Henry Turley Co., says what is there now is unacceptable and that something should be done with the property.

"We don't like the way it is currently developed," Turley says. "We think what is there now serves as a wall, a barrier, between our properties along the east side of Front and their enjoyment of the river."

Turley says he would like to see towers go up Downtown -- as long as the economy drives the development.

"I would like to see our economy and our Downtown so vital it calls for another building," he says. "It's not just something you will into existence or zone into existence. That takes a real dynamic economy."

John Dudas, vice president of Belz Enterprises, says he has some concerns about the towers because of the current availability of space.

"I would conservatively estimate that we have at least 2 million square feet of vacant building space Downtown today," he says. "If another corporate user does not relocate to Downtown Memphis, then the approximate 750,000 square feet of commercial space that is proposed in the subject towers would accomodate all of the average annual demand for office space in Downtown Memphis for a 15-year period."

Plus, Dudas says, additional parking would have to be provided for the buildings.

RDC president Benny Lendermon says the 300- and 400-foot heights are the maximum height of the proposed developments, not the predetermined size of the buildings. Lendermon says he doubts any of the buildings, especially the largest one, would be constructed to the maximum height, if it's ever built at all.

"We don't think that office tower ever gets built," he says. "There is probably a 3% chance of that tower being built."

Lendermon says the economy, not the plan, will determine the size of the developments and emphasized the RDC isn't taking the build-it-and-they-will-come approach.

"A developer will build the building based on the economic reality of what the demand is," Lendermon says. "That demand will determine which buildings go up and when they go up, as well as the height and mass of the buildings."

The promenade plan could cost as much as $50 million. Officials say work on the property would not begin until private developers sign contracts to develop the land.

"There will be signed contracts and everything before the first spade of dirt is turned," Lendermon says. "We don't think you do anything until you are well along the road of executing contracts with developers."

The promenade plan will land in front of the City Council's Public Works Committee April 27; a final vote on the project will be held May 18.

Lendermon says he thinks the RDC has enough votes on the council to win approval for the promenade plan.

City Councilman Ricky Peete, who also serves on the RDC board, agrees with Lendermon and says there is enough support for the plan on the council.

"I think there is enough support for it, but there will be serious debate," he says.
At least one council member, Jack Sammons, would like to hear more about the plan before voting on it.

"This is a generational issue and, frankly, I wouldn't be shocked if the council deferred this for a year," he says. "I'm not ready to vote and if we have to do it in the next few weeks, I'd be inclined to vote against it. I suspect there will be a lot of discussion about this in the next couple of weeks."

Turley, for one, is tired of talk.

"It just seems like a lot of talk and I'd like to see some specific developments proposed and gotten under way," he says.

But legal challenges will delay any work for at least two years. If the council approves the plan, the city must move to take control of the land. Lendermon says that could be done in a number of ways, including the city exercising its right of eminent domain.

The property was donated by the city's founding fathers for use as a public promenade. The heirs of the founders hold title to the land and they are divided on the proposal. Some support the promenade plan while others have joined a group, called Friends for Our Riverfront, that opposes it.

"We're not against development," says Virginia McLean, an Overton heir and president of Friends for Our Riverfront. "We're just against the wrong development at the wrong place at the wrong time."

Her group created an alternative plan that would turn the promenade entirely into park space at a cost of about $7 million.

"That plan would require taxpayers to finance it and the RDC plan would be paid for by development and therin lies the difference," Peete says.

Lendermon says the Friends plan is unrealistic because whether or not the land is developed or turned into park space, the cost of relocating the existing structures will remain about the same.
"You have got to replace the parking because business depends on it and you have to replace the library and fire station," he says. "Maybe the council will make our life easy and come up with this big pot of money and say 'Here's $50 million, make this into a beautiful park.' "
Hakimian hopes there will be an opportunity to tweak the plan and wonders what would happen if the council voted the plan down.

"We all should be careful not to fight it in a way that kills the project forever," he says. "But we need to ask for modifications to it. It looks like this is the only plan on the table.

"This shouldn't be the only option where we either do this or there is no plan."

Peete says he hopes the two sides can find some common ground.

"While I respect everyone's right to have an opinion, I think that too often we are so extreme in our views that we can't see the forest for the trees," he says. "I think we have the ability to compromise to do something great for Memphis. Where there is flexibility to tweak the plan, I think we are of the mind to compromise."

Copyright(c) American City Business Journals Inc.

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Wednesday, April 07, 2004

The whims of the fathers: What exactly is the meaning of the word "promenade"?

The Economist
By Suzi Parker

When you have a great big brawling river like the Mississippi running past your town, it is only sensible to make something of it. So when John Overton, Andrew Jackson (the country's seventh president) and James Winchester founded Memphis, Tennessee, in the early 19th century, they proclaimed that development along the banks should never impede free access to a panoramic view of the river. And they even said that changes along a designated promenade could not be made without their heirs' approval.

City officials these days find these stipulations quaint. The founding fathers of Memphis obviously had no idea how much the city would need to grow and how much it would want, eventually, to have a vibrant riverfront like those in St Louis and New Orleans. Already, the Memphis promenade has shrunk to about half its original size because of unstructured development. What is not garages or ugly slapped-up buildings is often just a stretch of muddy grass with graffiti-covered litter bins.

Now the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC), a non-profit organisation, has voted to approve a new plan, which would re-open some of this land and return stunning views of the river to water-lovers. It would also feature new 30-storey buildings, with flats and boutiques, that will inevitably block some views of the river that the founders wanted to conserve. Still, as the RDC points out, revitalisation breeds consumers, who will enjoy the river all the more while sipping on a gourmet coffee and chatting with friends.

The plan has split the city. Preservationists worry that once dollars start pouring into the project, development will know no bounds. Instead of grass and mud, the river area will become a concrete wonderland; and those glorious sunsets, looking over the river to sprawling Arkansas, will be seen on postcards only. Virginia McLean, the leader of a preservation group called Friends for Our Riverfront, believes open green space better suits Memphis's future than yet more concrete and steel; and, as an Overton heir, she will have a big say in what happens. But other members of the family, who live in Nashville, think more modern buildings are just what Memphis needs.

The Memphis city council casts its votes on the plan this month. Whatever happens, it will probably end up in court, and legal arguments are likely to rage over the actual meaning in the founding fathers' minds of the word "promenade". In fact, when the trio bestowed an easement to the land in 1828, they made sure that the land should be public for "such use only as the word 'promenade' imports".

Perhaps they knew all too well the changeable minds of Memphis citizens. A stroll away from the embattled promenade stands the 13-year-old, $65m Pyramid, built in homage to the Egyptian variety, which was meant to be the region's main sports and concert arena. Now its future is in doubt; attention has shifted to new multi-million-dollar sporting and music facilities only a few blocks away, in another revitalised part of town, where historic buildings have been razed to make room for the new. There is every chance that, in another ten years, the RDC's sparkling apartments and shops overlooking the Mississippi will face the same bleak future as the once-loved Pyramid.

Copyright 2004, The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group.

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Thursday, April 01, 2004

New, revised plans awaiting Mud Island property

Memphis Daily News [link]
by Andrew Bell

On an August morning a little less than two years ago, a surprise mudslide sidetracked a developers plan that would have added single-family homes and multifamily units to the south end of Mud Island.

Now, developer Kevin Hyneman is preparing to present new plans for the 21-acre tract to the Riverfront Development Corp. He said the plans will be finalized within 90 days.

Land stable. Hyneman said a series of geotechnical studies conducted on the property following the mudslide are nearing completion. So far, the studies indicate that at least part of the land can sustain construction.

"The stability is fine," Hyneman said. Obviously, the mudslide area will never be able to be built on, but there was just no sense making any plans until we determined that we had a site we could actually build on."

Steeped in controversy. From the beginning, any talk of residential development on the property south of the Auction Avenue bridge has stirred up debate, starting with the clearing of trees.

Hyneman acknowledged the controversial nature of the property.

The site is within the scope of a 50-year Riverfront Master Plan created by New York-based Cooper, Robertson & Partners for the RDC, a nonprofit, public-private partnership formed to oversee improvements to the citys stretch of Downtown riverfront.

According to a special warranty deed filed in the Shelby County Register's Office, Kevin Hyneman Cos. bought land from Echelon Residential LLC for $2.5 million in 2001. Plans subsequently surfaced for Hyneman to sell the land to a joint venture that included Henry Turley, Jack Belz and the RDC who, in turn, announced plans to build an $18 million, 349-unit development on the property on a scale resembling the Mud Island homes north of Auction in Harbor Town.

New negotiations. The mudslide halted those arrangements, forcing Hyneman to consider new options.

"We have not talked in about three months," said RDC president Benny Lendermon of the organizations communication with Hyneman. There are still issues to be worked out.

Laura Morgan, Center City Commission director of planning and development, said the CCC also has not entertained discussion about the property's future in recent months.

Lendermon said the RDC's view for the south end of the island would target the center portion for development, reserving the propertys Mississippi River and Wolf River shorelines for park space.

"(Hyneman's) property is on the harbor side of the road," Lendermon said. The public property is on the western side of the road. Our idea was to swap properties and end up with park space on either side next to the water, and shift the development to the center and make it bigger and more significant.

"We feel like that's a better fit with what were hoping to accomplish."

Working out a compromise. Lendermon said the RDC and Hyneman were in serious discussions before the mudslide and for a period of time immediately following it.

He said although Hyneman can freely pursue any development granted approval by the city-county Office of Planning and Development, any project deemed risky by the RDC could prevent the organization from recommending the project for a potential Center City Revenue Finance Corp. tax freeze.

"The financial parts of it didnt make sense to us how he was trying to pursue it," Lendermon said. "We were trying to figure out some way to be the vehicle enabling the development to be built on the center of the island with green space on either side. We still think thats best way.

"We are out to ensure that the financial deal makes sense for the public entity to be involved, and at its last point, we didn't think it did."

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Pushing the limits of 'public use': Owners see their land taken -- and handed over to developers

USA Today
by Dennis Cauchon

Rene Corie installs drapes in Florida mansions. Her husband, David, builds the mansions' gates.

Eight years ago, the working-class couple finally found some waterfront real estate they could afford: a two-bedroom house for $70,000 in Riviera Beach, a poor town near the wealthy enclaves of Palm Beach and Jupiter.

But Riviera Beach now wants to bulldoze the Cories' home and 2,200 others to make way for one of the nation's grandest redevelopment plans: a collection of high-rise condos, bigger homes and upscale shops. The city plans to use eminent domain -- its power to confiscate private property for projects that benefit the public -- to take the homes of 5,100 people if the residents do not agree to move."

It's un-American to take my property and give it to a private developer," says Rene Corie, 55."I couldn't afford a water view anywhere else."

The use of eminent domain is meeting growing resistance in courts, legislatures and neighborhoods from Connecticut to Ohio and Colorado. The criticism targets local governments' efforts to spur economic growth by transferring land from homeowners and shopkeepers to developers or corporations.

Local governments are using eminent domain to acquire land for Wal-Mart, Target and other retailers that need big sites for stores. Land also is being taken for manufacturing plants, hotels, condominiums and parking lots.

Riviera Beach Mayor Michael Brown says his predominantly black community is trying to take advantage of its greatest resource: the waterfront. "For their own selfish reasons, some people want to live near the water and pay little or no taxes," he says. "Who wouldn't? But city government has to look out for all residents."

Larry Morandi, environmental program director for the National Conference of State Legislatures, says cities are using eminent domain to address financial problems. "They are taking property they don't believe is generating enough tax revenue and turning it over to a developer who will generate more taxes," he says.

To accomplish this, cities are pushing the legal limits of eminent domain. California City, Calif., declared vacant property in the Mojave Desert as "urbanized and blighted" so it could acquire land for a Hyundai auto testing facility.

Legislatures in 10 states this year are considering limits on the use of eminent domain that benefits private corporations, but the measures aren't likely to pass immediately. "It's a tough concept for legislators to understand," Morandi says. "It often takes several years for these types of laws to pass." The Arizona Legislature last year enacted similar limits."

The use of eminent domain has expanded for years, but the pendulum is swinging the other way now," says Scott Bullock, attorney at the Institute for Justice, a non-profit legal group in Washington, D.C., that is trying to establish precedents for limiting the practice.

Government at all levels has long used eminent domain to acquire land to build roads, schools, parks, hospitals and other projects of public benefit. The Constitution says private property can be taken for "public use" if the owner receives "just compensation." Courts have traditionally defined "public use" broadly. "Just compensation" usually means fair market value as determined by an appraiser.

Whether economic development justifies the use of eminent domain is at the heart of many disputes.

In a landmark case, Detroit cleared the ethnic Poletown neighborhood in 1981 for a General Motors luxury car plant. The city took 1,300 homes, 140 businesses, six churches and a hospital. The Michigan Supreme Court is considering whether to overturn the precedent in a current case that involves taking 1,300 acres near the Detroit airport for a business complex.

City planners say eminent domain is a crucial tool for restoring the economic health of cities and older suburbs. Older communities often need higher tax revenue and new attractions to remain vibrant."

Sometimes you have to acquire an old gas station or massage parlor to make way for a better use," says Jeffrey Finkle, president of the International Economic Development Council, an association of professionals involved in community development. "The community is often 100% behind these projects, and the problem may be one landowner who wants $1 million for a $400,000 project."

New York City used eminent domain to acquire land for a Pathmark supermarket on 125th Street in Harlem."Without eminent domain, that supermarket never would have happened," says Orlando Artze, program vice president of the Local Initiatives Support Coalition, a national non-profit corporation that helps revitalize urban neighborhoods.

Harlem's Pathmark store has brought the neighborhood 100 jobs, lower food prices and the convenience of not having to travel 40 blocks to shop, Artze says. But he and other urban planners fears that aggressive use of eminent domain could backfire. "If it's overused, we run the risk of legislatures and courts becoming skeptical -- and that would be bad news for people who care about inner cities," he says.

In Florida, Riviera Beach, a city of about 30,000 people, wants to redevelop 800 acres along its waterfront and U.S. Highway 1 with luxury housing, yachts and upscale shops.

The mayor says the project will increase the assessed value of the property from less than $80 million to as much as $2 billion. The added tax revenue will finance better roads, new schools and safe streets, Brown says. "We will eliminate poverty in Riviera Beach."

But Herman McCray, a restaurant owner and former city councilman, says razing whole neighborhoods is too great a price to pay. "Things should be done in moderation," he says.

Rene Corie's waterfront view may soon be gone. Across the street, a lot has been cleared for high-rise condos. The developer plans to build an 8-foot-high wall around the complex. "They are taking what I love," she says.

The mayor sees it differently: "The people who live on the water are cheating the poorest members of our community."

Eminent domain rulings in courts
Recent court cases that have limited government power to confiscate private property:

* The Colorado Supreme Court on March 1 rejected a Denver suburb's attempt to take a private lake for a new Wal-Mart.

* The Arizona Court of Appeals ruled in October that the city of Mesa couldn't take a brake-repair shop so an Ace hardware store could expand.

* The Illinois Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that a local government could not take a privately owned auto scrap yard and give it to an auto racetrack for a parking lot.

But property rights advocates aren't winning every case. The Connecticut Supreme Court ruled on March 3 that a private, non-profit corporation, which had been given eminent domain authority by the city, could take 15 riverfront homes in New London and turn the land over to a developer. Opponents plan to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has not ruled on whether economic development is a legitimate reason for government to take property.

© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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