Monday, August 14, 2006

Editorial: High stakes for high-rise project

The Commercial Appeal

It would be tempting, but inaccurate, to cast a dispute over building heights for Number One Beale as a clash between the rich and the richer. In reality, the stakes are far broader than that.

Number One Beale, not to be confused with the old restaurant of the same name, has the potential to change the skyline of Downtown Memphis in a big way. The proposed $175 million project would include a luxury hotel, upscale condominiums, offices, restaurants and retail space where Beale Street meets Riverside Drive.

The new development could provide another economic boost to the community, creating new jobs and generating more tax revenues.

However, the project hit a snag last week when representatives from Waterford Plaza, an upscale condo high-rise just north of the site, expressed concerns about how Number One Beale's twin towers might obstruct their residents' views of the Mississippi River.

The Land Use Control Board decided to wait at least 30 days before considering an exception to the building height limits needed for construction of Number One Beale to proceed. Ultimately, the building height issue will probably end up before the Memphis City Council.

If and when it does, council members could take a very narrow approach to this case, weighing only the economic benefits of this particular project against the concerns of the Waterford residents.

But we're hoping council members won't stop there.

This case offers a great opportunity for a broader discussion about public access to the riverfront.

Number One Beale isn't the first high-rise project proposed along the riverfront and it probably won't be the last. There has also been discussion in recent years about building high-rises along a stretch of public land known as the Promenade.

Council members should consider ways to balance the public's rights to see and walk along the river against pressure from developers to allow ever newer and taller buildings.

Chance Carlisle, Number One Beale's project manager, said his company's proposed development would provide access to the public. A pedestrian walkway would connect Front Street with the river. Also, the hotel lobby would be open, much like The Peabody's, so residents and tourists could go inside to have a drink or two, eat at one of the restaurants or pay a visit to the spa.

That's fine. But there's a bigger picture question here.

Rickey Peete, chairman of the council's planning and zoning committee, said he would support dedicating some portion of the riverfront for public access. That would, theoretically, provide Memphians with some assurances that the riverfront won't be gradually walled off from sight completely by rows and rows of skyscrapers.

Dedicated public access to a portion of the riverfront is a concept worth pursuing, although the details could certainly be troublesome. Would that involve having the city buy more valuable riverfront property, taking it off the tax rolls? Would that mean establishing a policy that requires riverfront developers to keep some portion of their properties open to the public?

The answers to those types of questions aren't easy. But unless the council is expecting Number One Beale to be the last high-rise proposed along the riverfront, then it seems like a good time to start looking for them.

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Thursday, August 03, 2006

Garage Gate, Part Two?

The rationale for building Beale Street Landing is slipping away.

The Memphis Flyer [link]
By John Branston

Ever taken a ferry-boat ride from Memphis to Arkansas?

Neither has anyone else. Memphis doesn't have ferry service to Arkansas, Tunica, Mud Island, or anywhere else. But that didn't stop the city of Memphis and the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC) from putting the bite on the Federal Highway Administration for $1.8 million in 2005 Ferry Boat Discretionary Awards for Beale Street Landing, the proposed $27 million improvement to Tom Lee Park.

The Federal Highway Administration, you will remember, is the agency that financed the FedExForum parking garage, which was supposed to be an inter-modal transfer facility for buses, cars, and trolleys. Except it turned out that the garage was really for the exclusive benefit of the Memphis Grizzlies and did not serve any mass-transportation purpose. So Memphis had to give back $6 million.

The phantom ferry could be Garage Gate, Part Two. Once again, Memphis is playing with fire for the sake of a downtown project driven not by popular demand but by the powers that be -- this time at the RDC, along with their consultants, would-be contractors, and architects.

The grant to Memphis, which was reduced to $1.28 million "after obligation limitation lop-off and takedown" (how's that for jargon?), is the largest on the awards list. And it stands out like a broken bridge. The other grants are to places such as San Francisco and New York City, which actually have working ferries and water taxis. Beale Street Landing, on the other hand, is a combination of cobblestone improvements, high-concept architecture, underground parking garage (cue the ominous music from Jaws), restaurant, and boat landing for tourists. A ferry it ain't.

The RDC describes Beale Street Landing as "the first piece of the puzzle" in its master plan, but one by one, the reasons for building it are crumbling like a sandy riverbank in a flood.

First it was the price tag, which made the project and its "floating islands" seem extravagant in light of the city's strapped budget and short-lived freeze on capital spending in the summer of 2005.

Then it was the elimination of the land bridge from the riverfront master plan. The land bridge would have shrunk the harbor and cramped the docking space for the tour boats that cruise the Mississippi River. Without the land bridge, boats ranging in size from the Memphis Queen to the Mississippi Queen can dock comfortably at either the cobblestones or the Mud Island boat ramp.

Now another leg of the table has been knocked out. The latest change involves the Delta Queen Steamboat Company, owner of three steamboat replicas that cruise the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. This week, Delta Queen is closing its last operations and administrative offices in New Orleans. Using the proposed Beale Street Landing as an incentive, Memphis made a pitch for Delta Queen's headquarters. RDC officials also warned that Delta Queen boats might abandon Memphis without a better dock.

Nonsense. Delta Queen, soon to be renamed the Majestic America Line, needs Memphis more than Memphis needs Delta Queen. The company was hardly in a position to command incentives from Memphis or any other city. It has been through a bankruptcy and has had three owners in five years. Hurricane Katrina crippled its operations last year, but there were only 126 employees in New Orleans before the storm. In April, Delaware North sold it to California-based Ambassador International, which is moving the cruise-ship division headquarters to Seattle.

"They're moving out of New Orleans," said Lucette Brehm, whose last day as spokeswoman for Delta Queen was Monday.

"An operations-support office will be maintained in St. Louis," said Annmarie Ricard, spokeswoman for Ambassador International. "There will not be any office in Memphis. All three of Delta Queen's ships will continue to call on Memphis."

So the Beale Street Landing economic-development fantasy slides into the river along with the land bridge. The city and the RDC should scale back Beale Street Landing to the cobblestones replacement and make some modest improvements to Tom Lee Park such as sprinklers, shade trees, more water fountains, and a concession stand. But don't bet on it. When there's "free" federal money at stake, the tail often wags the dog.

The following artist's renderings were not published in the Flyer. They are reproduced from an article in the July 2006 issue of Memphis Health and Fitness. Click any picture to see it enlarged. Click here to download a PDF of the article itself (Warning: over 3 MB).

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