Thursday, October 25, 2007

Kickin' Around the Cobblestones -- in Downtown Memphis

Rocks On Our Mind And In Our Heads
Memphis Flyer [link]
by John Branston

On a day when most Memphians concerned themselves with such mundane matters as rain, work, school, crime, foreclosures, and the fights and shootings that broke out at four city schools, 40 of us met at City Hall Wednesday to hear a two-hour discussion of rocks.
The rest of you can be excused for wondering if we have rocks in our heads.

The rocks in question are the cobblestones at the foot of downtown. The rock hounds included two reporters, representatives of the Tennessee Department of Transportation and various state and local historic preservation groups, and supporters and foes of the proposed Beale Street Landing.

The rocks are next to the landing. To a handful of people, the rocks are a historic treasure comparable to Beale Street or the Mississippi River itself. The $29 million landing might have "an adverse impact" on the rocks, which are slated for additional millions. Hence Wednesday's meeting.

"The current design reflects a primarily recreational use of boarding and disembarking pleasure boat and cruise ship passengers," says the state report. "In doing so, the design overwhelms any sense of the historic commercial use of the riverfront."

This is the problem with projects like Beale Street Landing and the proposed new stadium at the Fairgrounds. They absurdly inflate the importance of something that matters little if at all to most people and prevent progress on smaller and easier projects with potentially far greater benefits.

For decades, the cobblestones were so treasured that downtown workers and visitors used them as a bumpy and treacherous parking lot. Now they might be "adversely impacted" by the "verticality" of Beale Street Landing. As Benny Lendermon, the head of the Riverfront Development Corporation, noted, the elevation of the river fluctuates 57 feet. In high water, most of the cobblestones are submerged. In low water, big touring riverboats can’t get in the harbor.

Hence the proposed landing at the north end of Tom Lee Park. It will be used by recreational boats, small day-tour boats, and big, fancy, cruising boats like the Delta Queen. That is, if the Delta Queen doesn't go out of business in 2008 because the government has deemed it a fire hazard, as The New York Times reported Thursday.

The design of the docking part of the landing is unique. After some sharp discussion Wednesday, it was determined that "unique" means nothing like it has ever been built before. RDC engineer John Conroy said its structural soundness has been certified.

The people from state government who hosted Wednesday's meeting are not "big-picture" deciders. They are, as one of them explained, a "pass-through" agency. They will go back to Nashville and weigh the historic considerations and announce, sooner or later, if and how the project can proceed.

Beale Street Landing, whose cost may now fluctuate like the river elevation, is to be funded by a combination of local, state, and federal funds. Some of the federal funds come from the Department of Homeland Security, because there are ferry-boats involved.

And you thought Homeland Security was just to protect us from terrorism.

Labels: , , ,

[Read the complete article...]

Smart City and Friends

How a blog and a citizen activist are shaping the riverfront debate
Memphis Flyer [link]
by John Branston

Tom Jones and Virginia McLean are making the Riverfront Development Corporation irrelevant.

Jones is the cofounder and main writer for the Smart City Memphis blog (smartcitymemphis.blogspot.com). McLean is the founder and chief activist of the nonprofit Friends for our Riverfront (friendsforourriverfront.org).

They are often on opposite sides of riverfront issues, including the proposed $29 million Beale Street Landing. Jones has emerged as its most articulate and well-informed defender. McLean, equally hip to the latest ideas and trends in parks and cities, is the RDC's most passionate and dogged critic.


Both of them run on shoestring budgets and receive no money from local government or the RDC. Jones, a former newspaper reporter, was a spokesman and policy-maker for Shelby County government for some 25 years. McLean is an heir to the Overton family that was one of the founders of Memphis.

Their websites are timely and frequently updated, and they have become bulletin boards for unusually thoughtful comments, speaker listings, and even occasional news items. When a state official weighed in on Beale Street Landing this month and delayed the project, Jones and McLean were ahead of most if not all of the news pack spreading the word and collecting different points of view.

The RDC, in contrast, often seems muscle-bound. Created six years ago to focus public and private resources and cut red tape, it has a staff of former city division directors and City Hall cronies making six-figure salaries. It also has a blue-chip board of directors including public officials and downtown bigwigs. And it is consistently outhustled, outsmarted, and outmaneuvered by Jones and McLean and their helpers.

While Jones and McLean embrace the Internet and rough-and-tumble debate in real time, the RDC's website is outdated and trite. "Steal away to a day's vacation in the city's front yard," says the home page. "Nowhere else can you feel the rush of the Mighty Mississippi as its breeze flows through your hair and its sunsets warm your soul." The most recent "news" is a June 12th press release and a year-old item about the Tom Lee Park memorial. The description of the master plan still includes the aborted land bridge to Mud Island and pegs the total public cost at a staggering $292 million, which "will spur $1.3 billion in private investment in real estate alone" and bring "a minimum" of 21,000 new jobs and 3,400 new residential units to downtown.

Meanwhile, Jones and McLean are slugging away about the latest delays to Beale Street Landing and the next meeting of the Shelby County Commission. Within the last year, each of them helped bring national experts to Memphis for well-attended discussions of parks and citizen activism. The RDC, meanwhile, made a by-the-numbers Power Point presentation to the Memphis City Council aimed at justifying its own existence as much as informing public officials.

The RDC is not without is success stories. Its park maintenance is exemplary. Its concert series and improvements at Mud Island have made the park more attractive. Its structure involves business leaders and nonprofits in a way that government cannot, although the group's standard claim that it saves money is difficult to prove.

But the riverfront — Tom Lee Park in particular — often seems antiseptic and sterile, like a set-piece instead of a true park. On Sunday afternoon, for example, hundreds of people came to Overton Park in Midtown to beat on drums, whack golf balls, ride bikes, pick up trash, have picnics, toss balls, exercise dogs, visit art galleries, stroll babies, and do whatever. Midtown has no development authority, but funky Overton Park is surrounded by neighborhoods that feel invested in it.

Beale Street Landing looks more and more like a bet-the-company deal for the RDC. Without a big project — the land bridge (aborted), the promenade (still stalled), the relocation of the University of Memphis law school (coming soon) — why not turn its duties back over to a reenergized park commission and city administration? The Memphis riverfront, from The Pyramid to Mud Island to the trolley to proposed Beale Street Landing, doesn't lack for big investments. It lacks vitality, a decent public boat launch, walkable cobblestones, a skate park or something fun to watch, a working fountain next to the Cossitt Library, and enough shade and sprinklers to give tourists a fighting chance against the heat.

If those things happen, it will be because of citizens like Jones and McLean and their readers as much as the RDC.

Labels: , ,

[Read the complete article...]

Friday, June 29, 2007

Branston: T or F: Memphis is Greener Than Other Cities. A: True!

Memphis Flyer [link]
By John Branston

Memphis has a lot of park land - maybe more than any big city in the country.

And the debate over what to put in downtown parks and Shelby Farms is very similar to the debates going on in many other cities.

Those two things are made clear by a story in Friday's Wall Street Journal, "The Focus-Grouped Park," on the "heated debate" about what to put in them.

Although Memphis isn't mentioned in the story, the cities that are - Seattle, New York, Atlanta, Chicago, Louisville, Minneapolis, Houston, and Orange County, California - all have multi-million dollar park improvements or expansions underway.

"On a scale not seen since the City Beautiful movement of the late 19th century, public green spaces are proliferating," the story says.

The report says the real controversy is over what to do with them, with suggestions ranging from passive activities to zip lines, climbing walls, riding trails, bocce ball, and free wireless internet. And, of course, how to pay for those things.

Anyone following the debate over Tom Lee Park, Beale Street Landing, the downtown promenade, or Shelby Farms will find many familiar notes. What's most striking, however, is that the biggest park in the Journal story is 1,347-acre Great Park of Orange County. The story notes that this is "60 percent larger than New York's Central Park."

Well, as many Memphians know, Shelby Farms is five times the size of Central Park. And downtown Memphis, with 250 acres of parks, is also park-rich.

Corporate sponsorship, naming rights, and private donations are helping pay for the new parks in other cities. Gold Medal Park in Minneapolis was financed by a $5 million donation from a United Health Care executive, and Millenium Park in Chicago has named prominent areas after SBC, Boeing, and British Petroleum. So far, Memphians have taken a dim view of private development on park land, preferring to seek state and federal funds to bolster local funding. Meanwhile, rival groups engage in an intellectual arms race by bringing in friendly experts and consultants to rally supporters and publicize their views.

Friends of Shelby Farms, the Riverfront Development Corporation, and Friends For Our Riverfront take note: Memphis has an embarrassment of riches. And the story suggests that focus groups, consultants, and visiting experts may help the process along, but ultimately nitty-gritty decisions are made at the local level by concerned citizens battling it out.

"It's much more challenging to satisfy everyone's notion of what a park should be," says Witold Rybczynski, a professor of urbanism quoted in the story. "You want to please as many people as possible, but we've become so different."

Labels: , ,

[Read the complete article...]

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Branston: A Victory Lap for the Riverfront Development Corporation

Memphis Flyer [link]
By John Branston

When you’re selling the glories of Mud Island River Park to people old enough to remember its grand opening 25 years ago, you’re scraping the bottom of the barrel. That's what the Riverfront Development Corporation's support tag-team did at the Memphis City Council. The purpose of the presentation wasn't clear. The council voted to keep $29 million Beale Street Landing in the budget last week. The RDC won. So move on, and make the best of it. The RDC may, after all, be right.

But RDC President Benny Lendermon and his board members sound more like they are trying to talk themselves into believing their own Power Point propaganda.

One slide displayed Tuesday called the intersection of Beale Street and Riverside Drive the most important historic tourist destination in America. Take that, New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington Monument, Golden Gate Bridge, and Grand Canyon!

Beale Street Landing's biggest fan is city councilman Joe Brown, who thinks it will put the Memphis riverfront on par with the Chicago lakefront and the St. Louis Arch. He praised the tranquility of the Mississippi River and its benefits on community mental health.

Miraculously, other council members in the meeting managed to keep from bursting out laughing. A couple of weeks ago Brown publicly called a colleague "retarded," prompting a memo to all council members urging decorum.

Board members said they had rounded up $10 million in state and federal funds for Beale Street Landing that would go unused if the project is stopped. In other words, we are spending $19 million in local money to save $10 million in "free" money.

The presentation on Mud Island, which is part of the RDC domain, was condescending. Whatever you think of their arguments, Friends For Our Riverfront is comprised of conscientious long-time Memphians who don't need to be lectured and -- unlike the RDC’s staff and consultants -- work for nothing. As anyone who goes there knows, Mud Island River Park is nicely maintained and the river model is impressive -- to visitors seeing it for the first time. The concerts have been a welcome addition.

But attempts to jazz up the park with boats and overnight camping suffer from one obvious problem: It is too damn hot in Memphis in the summer, especially before 5 p.m. when the park closes. The place downtown where you can actually see people on the riverfront at all hours of the day is the Mud Island Greenbelt, which offers nothing more than a sidewalk, parking, acres of well-cut grass, pretty views, and some shade.

A few years ago, Memphis architect Frank Ricks proposed putting a ferris wheel at the tip of Mud Island. Throw in a sprinkler park for kids along with some shade and a portable concession stand at Tom Lee Park and clean up the cobblestones, and that's still the best and most economical idea I have heard for improving the riverfront.

But it looks like the battle is over. Bring on the boat dock, and let's hope it works.

Labels: , , ,

[Read the complete article...]

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Why Beale Street Landing Is a Go

Memphis Flyer [link]
By John Branston

Tom Lee pulled 32 people into his boat and saved them from drowning in the Mississippi River and got a monument and a park named after him.

On Tuesday, seven members of the Memphis City Council did their version of a Tom Lee reenactment, saving the Riverfront Development Corporation, aka the Retired Directors Club, which will now spend $29.4 million at Tom Lee Park so people can get close enough to the Mississippi River to drown in it.

No word yet on whether there will be a monument to "the very worthy councilmen" to go with the one to "the very worthy" Tom Lee.

The RDC should be careful what it wishes for. Beale Street Landing, a glorified boat dock, will apparently let visitors get close enough to scoop up a handful of water or dangle a toe in Big Muddy. At a time when homeowners, parks, and colleges are taking down the diving boards at their swimming pools to save on insurance costs, Memphis is going to put some floating concrete lily pads out in the river. How long will it be before some child or Memphis In May party animal slips through the rails and plunges into the Mississippi River and drowns or slaps the city with a lawsuit? And if it costs $20 million to bring Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium into ADA compliance, how much will it cost to make B.S. Landing safe for boatloads of senior citizens and their walkers?

Come back, Tom Lee, and bring your boat with you.

Politically, at least, B.S. Landing is unsinkable. It survived the elimination of the land bridge, the decision of Delta Steamboat Company to shun Memphis in its corporate relocation, public apathy (the only person to speak for it Tuesday was RDC President Benny Lendermon) and various design revisions. Several people – let's say at least 32 of them -- came to the council meeting Tuesday to oppose it, but although their spokespersons were sensible and even eloquent, they might as well have been trying to dam the river.

"My job is to recruit bright young people to work in Memphis," said Susan Caldwell. "I can unequivocally say that not one of them is making a decision on where to live based on a new commercial boat dock . . . I ask you to consider: What real community needs and future needs will be cut in order to build this project? What maintenance will be ignored? What libraries and parks will be closed?"

Nice try, but no sale. Only Carol Chumney, Jack Sammons, and E. C. Jones voted to remove B.S. Landing from the capital improvements budget. There are at least four reasons why the project is alive.

First, it gets about $10 million in state and federal money, which in the minds of some council members offsets the $19 million in local money -- even though $19 million is six times the amount the council is going to give LeMoyne Owen College.

Second, the politically savvy and well-heeled RDC played smart and got the project through as part of the riverfront master plan when it was in its infancy, then told council members they had already approved it on subsequent votes, even though the design, cost, and rationales had changed.

Third, fiscal restraint takes a back seat to a juicy public project every time to a majority of local politicians at crunch time. There are simply too many perks, contracts, and jobs to divvy up and too many political IOUs to hand out or call in. Reports of Mayor Willie Herenton's political demise are greatly exaggerated. The seven yes votes for the RDC included potential mayoral rivals Tom Marshall and Myron Lowery, who fell docilely in line behind the mayor; Scott McCormick, who got Rickey Peete’s seat on the RDC board after Peete was indicted for bribery; Edmund Ford, previously cast as the black-hatted villain in the MLGW Follies; and Dedrick Brittenum, who is quitting the council after this term is up.

Finally, "green" is white. When black members of the City Council looked out at the audience of RDC opponents, they didn’t see many, if any, people who looked like them. The failure of B.S. Landing to make a bridge to Mud Island will be a problem, but the failure of environmental groups with their smart growth, coffee shops, and bike paths to bridge the racial divide will be a bigger one.

Labels: , ,

[Read the complete article...]

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Playing Placemaker

Fred Kent pushes ideas over icons and gives Memphis a mixed review.

Memphis Flyer [link]
April 5, 2007
by John Branston

A visionary is someone with a healthy ego and big ideas who agrees with you.

In its never-ending efforts to better itself, Memphis has engaged at least a half-dozen consultants in the last few years to tell us what to do with our parks, downtown, Shelby Farms, waterfront, and bike paths. Whether any of them are visionaries depends on where you happen to be standing.

Want to tell Memphis what you think? Get in line. Recent visitors and their sponsors include city expert Ken Jackson (Urban Land Institute), park experts Alexander Garvin (Shelby Farms) and Charles Jordan (Friends for Our Riverfront), and waterfront experts Cooper, Robertson & Partners (Riverfront Development Corporation, or RDC).

Last week it was Fred Kent's turn to take a whack at the waterfront. A New Yorker most of his adult life (he organized Earth Day in 1970 when John Lindsay was mayor), Kent's Project for Public Spaces has turned Placemaking with a capital "P" into a brand of sorts. Sixty-something, easy-going, and casually dressed, Kent and his son Ethan, who is in the family business, log something like 150,000 miles a year compiling lists of places good and bad. Their big idea is that big ideas for city improvements are often wrong, especially if they're architectural monuments. The Kents think a lot of little ideas from a lot of "stake-holders" usually produces a better result. They call it the "power of 10," as in 10 destinations that each have 10 things to do

Not surprisingly, Fred Kent is no fan of The Pyramid or the proposed $27 million Beale Street Landing with its floating pods in the Mississippi River at Tom Lee Park.

"That will be one of the great design disasters that will haunt you for 20 years before you have the guts to take it out," he predicted. "And The Pyramid -- what a bad symbol for a city. I would tear it down. The only question is, will you do it 10 years from now or next year."

The Kents came to Memphis at the invitation of Friends for Our Riverfront and Memphis Heritage to tape a television interview and run one of their patented Placemaking workshops for about 140 people last Saturday. We split up into groups and headed via the trolley to seven downtown destinations, pencils and report cards in hand. It was Saturday morning, and the rain hadn't blown in yet. The COGIC funeral and the ballgame at AutoZone Park were far enough away that they didn't interfere. The downtown parks looked like they usually do -- generally well kept but lightly used except for the Kemet Jubilee parade that was winding down at Tom Lee Park.

"You guys are going to come up with all these amazing ideas," Kent said.

Well, maybe. At the cobblestones, my assigned destination, I trekked along the sidewalk on Riverside Drive and down the steps, averting a thrown-away sanitary napkin. I crossed the stones that group leader Susan Caldwell told us were once used to balance the loads in riverboats. A few cars were parked near the tour boats, and two powerboats and a kayak glided through the brown water of the harbor.

"It's not attractive to the eye," said Sybil McCrackin, from the Kemet parade.

That was the consensus of our group, too, when we summarized our scribbling at lunch. Short-term suggestions were to remove the utility poles, put in historic markers, eliminate parking, add a patch of grass, and put public art on the long gray wall beneath the sidewalk. Long-term ideas included a floating restaurant, Wi-Fi, paddleboats, and concession stands. As RDC president Benny Lendermon told me later, however, a floating restaurant failed several years ago, MudIsland is experimenting with boat rentals, and the Landmarks Commission objected to painting the wall.

"We wanted all of that," said Lendermon, who also played the game and met for an hour or so with the Kents. Beale Street Landing, the RDC's signature project, is still a go, but the underground parking garage has been scrapped.

There was much similarity to the seven groups' suggestions (see www.friendsforourriverfront.org) -- vendors, bathrooms, and street performers, which made me wish Flyer columnist Tim Sampson (All Mimes Must Die!) had been there. No one pledged the first $1,000, but the total bill wouldn't have approached $27 million.

Labels: , , ,

[Read the complete article...]

Monday, February 26, 2007

Editorial: Riverfront group needs scrutiny

Commercial Appeal [Link]
February 26, 2007

When Memphis mayor Willie Herenton floated the idea of turning management of the city's riverfront over to a nonprofit group, his pitch was simple.

The Riverfront Development Corp., as the nonprofit came to be known, was supposed to be able to handle the oversight work more efficiently than city government could.

But has the RDC fulfilled that promise? About seven years after the agency was founded, it's a question worth evaluating.

We know this much: The RDC has been very good for some former city employees.

As Jacinthia Jones reported in a story last week, the three highest paid employees on the RDC's payroll are all former city division directors. They're collecting pensions from the city while continuing to work for the agency, which, in turn, gets most of its funding from city government.

Benny Lendermon, who's been running the RDC since its founding in 2000, makes $198,290 a year, plus a $4,800 auto allowance and other benefits. That's more than Herenton's $160,000 annual salary and it's roughly double the $99,800 Lendermon made as the city's public works director. John Conroy, a former city engineer, makes $126,052 a year and Danny Lemmons, a former general services director, makes $98,437.

And that's only counting what they're earning now at the RDC. Their annual pensions range from Conroy's $36,204 to Lendermon's $61,116.

If the RDC had to operate like most nonprofits do -- begging and scraping for funding from private contributors -- then that wouldn't be a cause for public concern.

But the RDC isn't that kind of nonprofit. Under the terms of its contract, the RDC gets $2 million annually to manage riverfront parks, plus revenue generated from concerts, Mud Island museum admissions and park rental fees on city-owned property.

The RDC gets about $250,000 from private sources like the Plough Foundation, but Lendermon admitted that without the city funding, "we'd go away." So really, whether Lendermon or his charges care to admit it or not, the RDC is just like an arm of city government.

That doesn't mean it always acts like one.

During the RDC's short history, some City Council members have complained that the agency hasn't provided enough information about its planned expenditures during annual budget hearings. And some riverfront activists have complained that the RDC doesn't open up its meetings and records the way a public agency should.

With the RDC poised to tackle its largest project ever, the $27 million Beale Street Landing, now would seem like an opportune time for council members to evaluate whether RDC's claims of operating the parks more efficiently ring true.

There's a joke around Memphis City Hall that RDC stands for "Retired Directors Club." But if taxpayers are subsidizing an inflated payroll for bureaucrats who are providing essentially the same level of service with less accountability to the public, then RDC could well stand for something else: Really Dumb Concept.

See also:

Labels: , ,

[Read the complete article...]

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Branston: The Rest of the Story on the RDC

Memphis Flyer [link]
February 22, 2007
By John Branston

Better late than never.

Following up on its strong series of stories about sweet deals in city government and at MLGW, The Commercial Appeal finally turned its attention Thursday to city government’s kissing cousin, the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC) and its staff of three former city division directors.

As The Flyer has been reporting for four years, the RDC, or "retired directors club" as some city council members call the quasi-government nonprofit, enjoys an enviable package of salaries and benefits for managing a small slice of the city – the riverfront parks – as opposed to an entire city division. RDC President Benny Lendermon, formerly city public works director, earns over $260,000 a year in salary, pension, and other benefits. The other two retired directors on the RDC staff are Danny Lemmons, formerly of general services, and John Conroy, former city engineer.

"The area’s biggest megaphone," as CA columnist Wendi Thomas called her employer in her column Thursday, skated over or confused some key RDC issues in addition to doing some good work.

There was no mention of Friends for Our Riverfront, another nonprofit that operates on a shoestring budget and has fought the RDC to a standstill on the public promenade and done at least as much to promote user-friendly amenities along the river and parks in general. Two weeks ago the RDC and Friends, along with other groups, each brought well-known speakers to Memphis on different days to plug “green” issues. Virginia McLean, head of the Friends volunteers, has no ties to city government and gets no subsidy as the RDC does.

The CA story quoted Lendermon and city council members Scott McCormick and Tom Marshall who touted the efficiencies and accomplishments of the RDC and pooh-poohed the gibes about the "retired directors club." Strange then, that the city council, chaired by Marshall, is making such a fuss about former mayoral aide Gail Jones Carson over at MLGW and her $126,000 salary and her pension.

McCormick is quoted saying the RDC does a better job of managing the parks than the Memphis Park Commission did. What the story did not say, however, is that such a comparison is difficult if not unfair. The parks division, as it is now called, is responsible for roughly 180 parks spread over some 300 square miles of Memphis. The RDC gets to concentrate on 10 parks along two miles of the riverfront.

McCormick told the Flyer this week he is satisfied that the RDC really is doing the job for less and baselined its budget against pre-RDC years. "They said they would operate and maintain the parks for $2 million in 2001," he said. "They have operated the parks for five years for the same amount. Where in government does somebody maintain the same costs for five years? I thought that was outstanding."

John Malmo, former chairman of the board of the old Memphis Park Commission, told the Flyer last year that he thinks such comparisons play fast and loose with the facts. Isolating the cost of running riverfront parks from the rest of the city is like trying to isolate the cost of running one room of your house or raising one of your children. Obviously, there are a lot of shared costs and overhead.

The CA story says there are new cobblestones on the riverfront. If so, they’re not the huge ones that many Memphians remember. The broad area at the end of Union Avenue and west of Riverside Drive where the tour boats dock is a patchwork of loose gravel and small cobblestones, with a few massive chain links that are a reminder of the city’s cotton and riverboat days. But "the cobblestones" are in no condition to qualify as a tourist attraction, and, after six RDC years, there are no markers calling attention to them or explaining their significance. To call this an accomplishment of the RDC is a stretch.

With plans to enclose the harbor scrapped two years ago, the RDC’s current big project is Beale Street Landing, a $27 million park and boat landing at the foot of Beale Street and Tom Lee Park. Friends for Our Riverfront and others have argued that modest user-friendly improvements could be made at the park for a fraction of that price.

The CA puts no heat on the RDC board, which includes a host of downtown and Memphis luminaries. Once again, Friends for Our Riverfront does the heavy lifting when it comes to accountability by attending RDC meetings and circulating their notes and minutes via their website.

The quality of the RDC’s work on Mud Island and along the riverfront speaks for itself. The parks, bluff, and Riverside Drive, in the opinion of this 25-year downtown worker and fan, have never looked better. There may indeed be big efficiencies at the RDC versus the public sector. In that case, the agency would be best served by embracing complete financial transparency, explaining its magic formula without fear or favor, joining forces with Friends for Our Riverfront when practical, and expanding its expertise and thrifty business model to other parts of Memphis on a scale commensurate with those salaries.

Labels: , , , ,

[Read the complete article...]

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).








Labels: , , ,

[Read the complete article...]

Friday, November 11, 2005

Too Many Credit Cards

Memphis Flyer
By John Branston
Link to original

A $27 million Beale Street riverboat landing and a $400 million train track from downtown to the airport are capital improvements. So are a walking trail and playground at the Bickford Community Center in North Memphis. Guess which one is most likely to be stopped by the city's spending freeze.

The city and county are trying to get their budgets in shape and keep their bond ratings from slipping. The news gets worse by the month. So the city administration and City Council have frozen spending on capital improvements.

Public facilities such as the Bickford Community Center and its customers will feel the chill. Located between Caldwell Elementary School and Uptown, Bickford has an indoor swimming pool, an after-school and Head Start program, and a senior citizens program. The playground consists of a single swing-set and a bare open field. A modest investment that would make a modest improvement in the everyday lives of young and old is on hold.

A spending freeze gives city officials some breathing room, but it won't stop big-ticket projects such as the boat landing and airport train, and it won't fix the budget or restore public confidence. The reason, to oversimplify a bit, is that the city of Memphis is married with children. There are a lot of credit cards out there.

Memphis and Shelby County are like a couple with joint checking accounts and individual accounts. They have rich uncles -- state and federal government -- that shower them with money they must use or lose. And they have children -- the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC), Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA), and Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), to name a few -- with their own credit cards and some very nice allowances. Unless the parents take away the credit cards and allowances, the spending won't stop.

The Riverfront Development Corporation has groomed Riverside Drive, the bluff, and riverfront parks to an exemplary standard. But now that it has killed the land bridge and written off most of a $760,000 master plan, it should consider its own relevance. A self-imposed sunset clause might be a public service and a recognition that the agency, like the dot-com boom, was a product of an era of excess that is as yesterday as the catered breakfast served up at RDC board meetings.

What's left for an outfit with three former city division directors on its payroll at salaries plus bonuses that exceed what they were making as public servants? Its driving force and guiding light, Kristi Jernigan, is gone. The land bridge is gone, and several board members didn't even bother to show up for the vote that killed it. Mud Island River Park is ready for its annual seasonal shutdown after losing another million dollars or two this year. The University of Memphis can carry the ball for the proposed downtown law school. Lawyers and Friends For Our Riverfront and heirs of the city founders will determine the future of Front Street and the public promenade. The Pyramid has its own reuse committee.

The boat landing is supposed to make the river more accessible, but the river is already accessible from two boat ramps on Mud Island, and you can throw a rock in it from Tom Lee Park or Greenbelt Park.

The city has a contract with the RDC, which in turn signed contracts for the design, construction, and management of Beale Street Landing. With several million dollars already spent, it's not likely that the mayor and City Council will pull the plug on the Beale Street Landing and the RDC. Unless the board acts on it own, as it did on the land bridge, Memphians will have a $27 million tourist bauble.

MATA is another semi-autonomous agency, responsible for the costly and baffling extension of the Madison trolley line to Cleveland in Midtown. With the MPO, MATA is actively studying alternative routes to the airport. The lure of big construction contracts and "free money" in the form of state and federal funds is driving the project.

Once again, unless the board acts or the mayor and City Council specifically target this project, Memphians will wind up paying for it.

Labels: , , , , ,

[Read the complete article...]

Friday, October 21, 2005

A Dam Shame

The dam was damned from the start. So how did it survive so long?

The Memphis Flyer
By John Branston
Link to original

On Monday, the Riverfront Development Corporation unanimously voted to remove the land bridge or dam between downtown and Mud Island from its strategic and implementation plans. Not a single member expressed support for what can fairly be called a $100 million turkey, although the exact dollars are anyone's guess.

Members of the illustrious RDC board agreed that the dam was unnecessary, unfeasible, and so unpopular that it was a general hindrance to the RDC, the five-year-old nonprofit agency responsible for developing and maintaining the public riverfront.

Better late than never. But the history of the land bridge is an instructive lesson in public process in Memphis.

One of the first people to propose it was E.H. Crump, the political boss of Memphis, who made the suggestion to a newspaper reporter in 1953, 25 years before work began on Mud Island River Park. But the latest 38-acre brainstorm was the product of a group of consultants -- Cooper, Robertson & Partners -- who were hired in 2000 and paid $750,000 for a 50-year master plan whose relevance is suddenly nil.

Nice work if you can get it.

High-priced consultants don't materialize out of thin air. Mayor Willie Herenton hosted public forums on the riverfront in 1999 and supported the creation of the RDC, which supplanted the Memphis Park Commission, in 2000. A former city division director, Benny Lendermon, was hired to run it. The board was packed with influential downtowners and celebrities such as Cybill Shepherd and Jerry West.

Cooper, Robertson & Partners conducted a series of community meetings on the riverfront. After 18 months, they issued a Memphis Riverfront Master Plan. Its centerpiece, literally, was the land bridge or dam between Court Avenue and Poplar Avenue. Whence it came, no one really knows. Community forums, like reporters' interviews, are a small and subjective sampling of public opinion. It is usually a stretch to generalize from them, but consultants and reporters do it all the time.

My guess is that high-priced consulting is a self-fulfilling prophecy. For $750,000, Cooper, Robertson & Partners couldn't very well stop with such common-sense recommendations as a better boat landing, well-manicured parks with additional activities, an improved Promenade, and a nicely lighted sidewalk from Tom Lee Park to The Pyramid. For a big price, there had to be a big deal.

The land bridge was always couched in uncertainty: It might not be built for several years, it might or might not have high-rise buildings on it, it might or might not screw up the Wolf River harbor, it might or might not be paid for by private development. But it was too big to ignore. It was right there in the models and renderings. Of course people were going to react to it, and react they did. A second group of consultants, the Urban Land Institute, which was paid $110,000, threw up a bunch of red flags in 2003 but stopped short of recommending that the land bridge not be built.

For a while, Lendermon and the RDC tried to downplay the land bridge by pushing back the timetable. But everything else in the master plan was contingent upon it in some way. The death blow probably came last month when Jack Belz, developer of Peabody Place and the Peabody hotel, ripped it in a speech to a civic group.

Once the dam was broken, the flood broke through. RDC board members led by Dan Turley, Angus McEachran, Rickey Peete, and Kevin Kane, said kill it and kill it good. "It's not going to go away if we are vague," McEachran said. Board member Jim Hunt noted that nearly half the board members were absent and that the decision would reverse years of planning. Heads nodded in agreement.

By my watch, the RDC "debate" lasted five minutes. The land bridge was a dead duck, and the RDC's new signature project is the $27.5 million Beale Street Landing, which has its own critics but looks like a relative bargain and will probably get built.

Labels: , , , , , ,

[Read the complete article...]

Friday, July 01, 2005

Crystal Ball: Five predictions for Memphis, based on recent headlines.

Memphis Flyer
By John Branston
Link to original

John Ford will beat the rap by wrapping himself in TennCare. The more the media, state investigators, plaintiff's attorneys, and rival politicians bore in on him, the greater Ford's chances of being acquitted on federal criminal charges of extortion. The investigations will blur in the public mind and look like piling on.

There is no connection between E-Cycle Management — the bogus company in the F.B.I. Tennessee Waltz sting — and United American HealthCare (UAHC) — the parent of TennCare provider UAHC Health Plan of Tennessee. But Ford has already said he was singled out for indictment by TennCare cutters. If there are criminal indictments stemming from an investigation by the TennCare inspector general's office, which was created by the General Assembly in 2004, or Tennessee Insurance Commissioner Paula Flowers, who put UAHC of Tennessee on administrative supervision in April, Ford will cry dirty politics. And his cry will resonate in Memphis, which has more TennCare recipients who stand to lose their coverage than any other part of the state.

Ford didn't invent the concept of the high-paid consultant, he just refined it as a legislator. This week the Government Accountability Office reported that 34 states used consultants paid on contingency fees to get more Medicaid and Medicare money.

If Ford is tried by a Memphis jury, he will walk.

-- The U.S. Supreme Court's decision on eminent domain in Kelo v. New London will not help the Riverfront Development Corporation in its efforts to develop the downtown Promenade. In fact, it will hurt it by focusing attention on the land bridge, which is the most expensive and controversial part of the RDC plan.

You can read the entire opinion in less than 10 minutes at this Web site: straylight.law.cornell.edu. It is nuanced, balanced, and bears little resemblance to the simplifications and mischaracterizations of it in media accounts. The New London Development Corporation is somewhat similar to the RDC. A small group of private-property owners whose properties were not blighted fought the development plan and lost. The case turned on whether the plan served "public purpose," which is not the same as "public use." See for yourself how economic development serves public purpose.

The RDC wants to take some public land for private use to help finance public improvements. The only way to get the land bridge through is by stealth. When the focus, for whatever reason, shifts to the cost, whether it is $100 million or $250 million, it's a dead duck. Boss Crump recommended a land bridge to Mud Island in a newspaper interview in 1953, the year before he died. The most powerful man in Memphis history couldn't make it happen, and neither will the RDC.

-- The Memphis Grizzlies will wear out their welcome if they don't boost their contributions to the city in a big way. There is no causal connection, but the fact is that public parks and boulevards and golf courses are suffering while the $250 million FedExForum sits idle, the NBA finals get lousy ratings, Grizzlies malcontents making $8 million a year whine and can't get fired up to win a playoff game, and publicists try to get us to care about the 19th pick in this week's draft. Pitiful. How ironic that "surplus" funds from the MLGW water division are helping to pay off the bonds for FedExForum while the city can't water the greens at the Links of Galloway golf course.

-- The Pyramid reuse recommendation — an indoor theme park and a shopping mall — won't happen. It's not that the ideas are bad. It's that they require public subsidies, giving away the building, or both. And this is not the time to be spending public money to promote tourism or economic impact. With the arena, baseball stadium, trolley, Mud Island, and The Pyramid in place and the highest property taxes in the state, the era of big public projects in Memphis is over.

-- Which brings us to this: The next mayor of Memphis will run and win on a program of a better Memphis for Memphians through revitalized neighborhood parks and public spaces. His or her model will be Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley, who has been singing this song for years.

"As schools lost their effectiveness as community anchors, the same thing happened to parks, libraries, and other public spaces," Daley has said. "People stopped using them and the city stopped taking care of them. Or maybe people stopped using them because the city stopped taking care of them. ... The nice thing is, if you improve the quality of life for people in your city, you will end up attracting new people and employers."

Nothing gets the public stirred up like uncut grass or unpicked-up garbage.

Labels: , , , ,

[Read the complete article...]

Friday, April 22, 2005

River of Dreams: Is Memphis gilding the lily on its waterfront while the rest of the city withers?

Memphis Flyer
By John Branston
Link to original

On Tuesday, Mayor Willie Herenton presented his annual budget to the City Council, including a recommendation of a 54-cent property tax increase to restore some slashed services and continue the city's $86 million contribution to schools.

The visible evidence of reduced services includes the overgrown parks, understaffed golf courses, and weedy boulevards around the city and the reduction of recycled garbage pickup to every two weeks instead of every week.

But one area of Memphis has never looked better and is seemingly immune to budget cuts: the riverfront, which has been under the jurisdiction of the Memphis Riverfront Development Corporation since 2000. From Martyr's Park to the Bluffwalk to the Mud Island Greenbelt, parks are as neatly manicured as a country club golf course. Million-dollar homes line the South Bluffs and the main drive on Mud Island. Construction of new homes and apartments is booming. Riverside Drive has been turned into a boulevard with median strips of flowers, crosswalks, and two new stairways up the bluff.

And despite the budget shortfall that threatens schools, hospitals, and law enforcement, the flow of public money to the riverfront continues as steadily as the flow of the Mississippi River. This summer, construction will begin on Beale Street Landing, a $27.5 million boat landing on Tom Lee Park at the entrance to the harbor. A total of $17 million of that amount is coming from city of Memphis funds, the rest from state and federal governments. The main customers for the boat landing will be two tour-boat companies that bring, at most, about 20,000 out-of-towners to Memphis each year, or about the number of people downtown for a sold-out Grizzlies game. The Delta Steamship Company paddle-wheelers and the long, blue River Barge Excursion Boat now dock in the harbor on the east side of Mud Island, and passengers are transported to or walk to downtown.

On the horizon -- long term or not-so-long term, depending on whom you talk to -- is the granddaddy of all riverfront projects, the development of the Front Street Promenade and the construction of a land bridge to Mud Island. That project could bring the total cost of funding the RDC's master plan to as much as $340 million over several years.

The contrast between the Memphis haves and have-nots illustrates several things about urban politics and pressure groups. The RDC, created with Herenton's blessing during his third term as mayor, has an embarrassment of riches in staffing, funding, and business support. Its board includes former city chief administrative officers Rick Masson and Greg Duckett, Cybill Shepherd, Jerry West, Pat Kerr Tigrett, Kristi Jernigan, John Stokes, Barbara Hyde, and former Commercial Appeal editor Angus McEachran. Its president is Benny Lendermon, director of the city's Division of Public Works for several years. His assistants include former City Engineer John Conroy.

Unlike the Memphis Park Commission, the RDC all-star team and their consultants only have to focus on the front door of Memphis. The Park Commission and Division of Public Works and their bureaucrats can't rely on that kind of clout, but they must maintain hundreds of public facilities, streetscapes, and parks in out-of-the-way places used by Memphians who rarely visit the riverfront.

The result is a cityscape that suggests the homeowner who happily pours money into landscaping his front yard while the trash piles up in the attic and the backyard.

The riverfront improvements under the RDC and, in fairness, the Park Commission and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before it are obvious and have helped create the downtown apartment and condo boom. But agencies and projects tend to take on a life of their own. Beale Street Landing was funded years before Herenton proposed his latest property tax increase. The land bridge has been approved in concept by the City Council but not funded.

The RDC was not invented to keep the grass trimmed. It is all about big deals and grand visions. With an empty Pyramid and an underused Mud Island River Park and monorail staring them in the face, some Memphians are wondering if the RDC is gilding the lily while the garden withers.

"Why spend $360 million [sic] on a really crummy plan," asked Lisa Snowden at a meeting of Friends For Our Riverfront Monday evening at Cafe Francisco, attended by about 30 people. Members of the group generally support less expensive options that would emphasize parks, sidewalks, and greenspace.

Other speakers aimed their fire at the Beale Street Landing and its "floating islands" to provide pedestrians access to the river.

"They're going to start school at 7 a.m. (to save money) but we're going to have the floating islands," said Mimi Waite. "We don't need the floating islands."

John Gary, a founder of the Friends group, noted that the steamboat companies have other options besides Memphis. "We've got competition that we didn't have before," he said. "I think Tunica has some pretty good enticements to lure steamboats away from here."

Gary said the placement of the floating islands and bridges near the mouth of the harbor is "unfortunate" and could interfere with barge traffic. The group passed out a letter from Terry Martin, terminal manager for Lafarge North America, opposing any project that would affect the entrance of the Wolf River.

Lendermon said the RDC is not gilding the lily or building something that will become obsolete or underused. Pending approval of some permits by the Corps of Engineers, the RDC hopes to have contractors begin dredging the entrance to the harbor in July in preparation for "River Outlook," the name given to the boat landing. When it is complete, it will not only give tour boats a place to dock but will also tie the cobblestones to Tom Lee Park, provide a new site for festivals, and give pedestrians a place to walk between the man-made islands and scoop up a handful of river water.

"You still have no place for people to get to the water," Lendermon said. "If you were going to touch the water, where would you go? You have the ability to do that here."

The city, he noted, was going to redo the cobblestones and reshape the northern tip of Tom Lee Park at the entrance to the harbor anyway. The work actually started several years ago but was aborted because the necessary permits had not been obtained.

The RDC annual report calls River Outlook "a grand civic ending." It notes that one heavily traveled thoroughfare to the riverfront, Poplar Avenue, dead-ends at a parking garage while another, Union Avenue, unceremoniously abutted a metal guard rail before the cobblestones project was completed.

Lendermon said riverboats that carry tourists are pressing for the project to be completed.

"The Delta Steamship Company is close to refusing to dock at Mud Island," he said, even as a boat was unloading Monday afternoon across from his Front Street office. Delta Steamship and the River Barge Excursion Boat carry 350-450 passengers each and make 50 stops a year in Memphis, Lendermon said. Tunica, he said, has only gotten one visit from Delta Steamship since its $20 million museum and river park opened last year.

As for the land bridge, Lendermon said Memphis must cross that bridge when it comes to it, but that might not be for quite a while. The RDC and the Corps of Engineers are looking at industry relocations and navigation issues in the harbor, which is also a concern of the developers of the Uptown neighborhood who would like a water connection.

"In 15 years, as downtown starts developing to its fullest, someone's got to sit down and make a decision," he said.

Meanwhile, Gene Carlisle, a veteran downtowner who has seen the highs and lows of the riverfront, might change the picture if he follows through on plans to develop a condominium tower and a hotel on the corner of Beale Street and Riverside Drive, where an old building was just demolished.

Instead of being an American icon, the corner where the street that birthed the blues meets the Mississippi River has instead been the pits for 25 years, the place where busted dreams and struggling restaurants come to die. Tenants have included a shopping mall called the Emporium, Pyramid huckster Sidney Shlenker, and such forgettable restaurants as Armadillo Jack's, Number One Beale, and Wang's. In 2003, the big wind storm did Carlisle a favor and blew away enough of the building that he could tear the rest of it down and start over.

Carlisle, who grew up poor in Mississippi and made his fortune in Wendy's restaurants, was inducted into the Memphis Society of Entrepreneurs last week. In the next few weeks he said he will unveil plans for a condominium tower at least 20 stories tall and, if he can find a partner, a luxury hotel and four-star restaurant in a second building. The combined investment would be over $300 million, making it the biggest downtown project since FedExForum.

Lendermon said Carlisle's project is "something we would support." Carlisle said it is not being driven by construction of Beale Street Landing and might even have some parking issues.

But that's a problem for another day. The rest of Memphis should have such troubles.

Copyright 2005 Contemporary Media, Inc.

Labels: , , , , ,

[Read the complete article...]

Friday, March 26, 2004

What the Proprietors Saw: How a document written in 1828 shapes the future of downtown today

The Memphis Flyer
By John Branston

With the convention center, trolley, and now the FedEx Forum almost finished, how strange that the next big proposed downtown project hinges on interpretation of a document written in 1828, when wild bears and Indians roamed the town.

The Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC) wants to remake downtown's front door or promenade by replacing some public buildings and parking garages with an apartment building and an office building up to 40 stories tall. Over half of the promenade would remain public park, sidewalks, or open space. A group called Friends of the Riverfront opposes the plan.

In 20 years of writing about downtown, I have heard numerous references to the city founders and "the heirs" and the founders' bequest that created the promenade between Front Street and the Mud Island parking garage. But until last week I had never looked at the original document itself or a copy of it. It was long past time to check the original sources.

So I visited the Shelby County Archives, where archivist John Dougan dug into the Shelby County Register's Office deed book of 1828 and produced a handwritten copy. The problem was that some of the writing was hard to decipher and some was illegible. A trip to the Memphis Room at the Central Library, however, turned up a transcription in J.M. Keating's History of the City of Memphis and Shelby County, published in 1888.

Memphis was founded in 1819 -- a date that splits the difference between the appointment of commissioners for the Chickasaw Treaty in 1818 and the opening of a land office on the bluff in 1820. The names to remember are Overton, McLemore, and Winchester. John Overton was a judge. Marcus Winchester was the first mayor. And John McLemore was, according to historians, one of the most influential and enlightened men of his day. Together they were known as "the proprietors" of the land on which Memphis was founded.

What happened between 1819 and 1828 is relevant and instructive to what is happening today with the RDC and the riverfront.

Charles Crawford, professor of history at the University of Memphis, says the proprietors were "hardheaded, realistic businessmen." But they did a remarkable thing. They dedicated a web of squares, alleys, streets, and the promenade to public use while keeping the rights to operate a ferry or two at the waterfront.

Crawford agrees with Keating's judgment that "Up to that time (1820) no scheme, plan, or plat had ever been made for an American city on so generous a scale. Every emergency in the life of a leading commercial point was provided for."

So, did the early citizens of Memphis rise up in gratitude and call them blessed? No.

"The people of Memphis were opposed to the proprietors and did everything they could to hinder and hamper them," wrote Keating in 1888. One sore point was the promenade and access to the river. Someone cut a road through it to the river, then another, dividing the promenade into three parts.

In 1828, Judge Overton wrote a letter to William Lawrence and Winchester expressing his concern about the division of the promenade. He complained about the "great want of appreciation of the liberality of the proprietors in laying out the town" and suggested his critics were "stupid." Imagine a public official talking that way.

The proprietors, "having been informed that doubts have arisen in relation to their original intention," decided to restate their vision and file it in the record books. The language is a little cumbersome but worth quoting since it is likely to come up in public meetings, City Council sessions, and maybe even another court case:

"In relation to the piece of ground laid off and called the 'Promenade,' said proprietors say that it was their original intention, is now, and forever will be, that the same should be public ground for such use only as the word imports, to which heretofore, by their acts, for that purpose, it was conceived all right was relinquished for themselves, their heirs, etc., and it is hereby expressly declared, in conformity with such intention, that we for ourselves, heirs and assigns, forever relinquish all claims to the same piece of ground called the 'Promenade,' for the purpose above mentioned." (The entire document can be seen here.)

It was 1828. No one contemplated that bridges would some day be built across the river, much less the arenas and condominiums that followed.

Today, one thing Memphis arguably lacks is a skyline and Front Street worthy of its blufftop location. For better or worse, the vision of the proprietors is responsible for that.

E-mail: Branston@memphisflyer.com

Copyright 2004, memphisflyer.com - Memphis, TN. All Rights Reserved.

Labels: , ,

[Read the complete article...]

Thursday, October 03, 2002

Alphabet Soup: The city council takes aim at CVB, CCC, RDC, and "quasi-governmental" agencies.

Memphis Flyer (link to original)
By John Branston

The alphabet agencies are about to catch a little flak from the Memphis City Council.

The spark that set off the council's fire was the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau's (CVB) hiring of former Shelby County mayoral aide Tom Jones less than a month after Jones was suspended for using a county credit card for personal items. When Jones was not reappointed by new county mayor A C Wharton, the CVB and its president, Kevin Kane, snapped him up.

Jones will be doing a job in community development that did not previously exist at the CVB. The Commercial Appeal reported that his salary will be approximately $100,000, but Kane said last week it is not that much.

Kane attended Tuesday's council committee meeting where the issue of "quasi-governmental agencies" was pressed most forcibly by council members TaJuan Stout Mitchell and John Vergos. Kane noted that the CVB wasn't created by the city or county and has gotten "not one penny from the general tax fund in 20 years." It does, however, get a dedicated revenue stream from the so-called bed tax on hotel rooms.

The council committee unanimously approved a resolution requiring the "quasis" to regularly provide information about budgets and expenses. The list of agencies is yet to be compiled, but members indicated it will include the CVB, Center City Commission (CCC), Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC), Memphis in May, the Memphis Regional Chamber of Commerce, and The Orpheum.

Mitchell said she wasn't singling out the CVB or Jones but felt the job should have been posted because "there are a lot of folks looking for jobs and people need to know where the opportunities are." She said she didn't care if "Donald Trump or Donald Duck" gets the job.

"This is just a request for information," she said. "It does not imply that someone will lose funds."

Vergos said some of the agencies are "creating kingdoms" run by a handful of well-connected board members who are hostile to requests for sensitive information but quick to run to the council in time of need.

"They want to all act as if they are independent private corporations," he said, noting that his father, Rendezvous founder Charlie Vergos, was instrumental in setting up both the CVB and the Memphis Development Foundation, which runs The Orpheum.

Turf and jealousy may be factors with the council as well. The alphabet agencies have been grabbing a lot of headlines, and the pay and perks are usually better than they are in government. The city council gets the heat, a modest salary, some of the bills, and a supporting role. Top executives at the quasis tend to be consummate government insiders or, like Jones, former top-level government employees. In recent years, three city and county division directors have moved over to alphabet agencies -- Benny Lendermon and John Conroy at the RDC and Dexter Muller at the chamber of commerce.

Neither Kane nor council members were particularly happy with the term "quasi-governmental agencies." In addition to being a mouthful, it lumps together agencies like the RDC and CCC that were created by elected public officials and organizations like the CVB and chamber of commerce that get most of their operating support from their members.

The resolution adds to the confusion by making it seem that divisions of city government are the target. It says "each division of the City of Memphis that is either dependent on city funds or the approval of same shall provide the Memphis City Council and the chief administrative officer of the city of Memphis copies of their enabling legislation, annual report, 10K form, and personnel policies and procedures" each year.

A handier and more accurate catch-all is "nonprofits," although that has an outdated "food baskets to the needy" connotation. All of the groups the council is interested in are nonprofits, and they are already required by the IRS to file and make readily available to the public an annual Form 990 listing their public purpose, top salaries and benefits, budget, and income and expenses.

Nonprofit organizations, specially created authorities, and quasi-governmental agencies have virtually taken over much of downtown, including the public parks on the riverfront, AutoZone Park, the new NBA arena, The Orpheum, Memphis in May, and dozens of office buildings and apartments to which the CCC's Revenue Finance Corporation holds title, so they can get tax freezes.

Councilman Jack Sammons pointed out that many nonprofit board members serve for altruistic reasons, bring special skills and fresh ideas to the table, and "would be glad to provide us this information."

This is not the first time the accountability issue has surfaced. During the NBA arena debate, state Senator John Ford, a member of the Public Building Authority, argued that the authority and, by extension, the arena could not exist without the enabling legislation and support of the state legislature. Elected officials have made similar comments about the CCC, with the result that several of them now serve on the board.

Vergos said having a city council representative or other elected official on the board of the quasi-governmental agencies doesn't solve the accountability problem if the board is "stagnant" and run by a handful of insiders.

Copyright 1996-2005 Contemporary Media, Inc.

Labels: ,

[Read the complete article...]

Thursday, March 07, 2002

Bridging Mud Island: The biography of an idea.

Memphis Flyer [Link to original]
by John Branston

The centerpiece, literally, of the new riverfront plan is the land bridge to Mud Island, a $75 million investment that would create 50 to 70 new acres of prime downtown real estate.

Bold as it is, the land bridge is not new. Since 1924, at least half a dozen ideas including pontoon bridges, dams, pedestrian bridges, and land bridges similar to the one in the current plan have been floated by architects, planners, and engineers. Two of them, of course, were actually built: the Mud Island monorail and the Auction Street Bridge.

Like The Pyramid (which is similar to a golden bluff-top structure proposed in 1975 by designer Mark Hartz), major-league sports, and a music museum, the land bridge is one of those Memphis ideas too powerful to die.

Its earliest ancestor appears to be the 1924 Harland Bartholomew & Associates riverfront plan. It featured a classic promenade consisting of a series of arches on Front Street and a low, arched bridge wide enough to carry cars to future parks on Mud Island.

"No immediate steps are necessary," planners wrote. "As private improvements are made and as public funds become available, the various improvements can be made."

The plan was updated in 1955 with an interstate-style Riverside Drive connecting Tom Lee Park to Mud Island, an east-west interstate crossing the Wolf River at Auction Street, and a cloverleaf intersection in the middle of the island.

"It is proposed to divert the channel at a point near Poplar, and to fill the old channel, thus creating a very large area to be used for the purposes shown on the plan."

The Hernando DeSoto Bridge over the Mississippi River (and Mud Island) was built in the late Sixties. The Corps of Engineers raised the island's elevation at the same time, but development of the island was still several years away.

In 1972, Mud Island landowner Bill Gerber and Percy Galbreath, Inc., commissioned a plan for Mud Island. This one also had a land bridge closing the Wolf River harbor at Beale Street and a new channel at the north end of the island.

"We had just seen 400 acres filled by the Corps, and the idea of filling in a 30- to 40-acre connection didn't seem like any real major feat," says Gerber. "The value of the land you would gain would be more than the cost of producing it."

Harry Rike, an engineer who worked on the plan, jokes that "we were not engineers, we were prophets." The land bridge came in small, medium, and large sizes, and the preferred option, the middle one, was almost exactly the size of the one in the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC) plan.

But Gerber and Rike couldn't interest then-Mayor Henry Loeb, who was worried about crime on South Main Street.

"They didn't want to connect Mud Island to a high-crime area," Rike says. "Now, of course, all of that has changed and it's an entertainment district."

Instead, the next city administration and architect Roy Harrover moved ahead with Mud Island river park. Harrover considered two options similar to the RDC proposal. One was making the bridge that now supports the monorail a building with a museum instead.

"The second thing was quite pertinent," says Harrover. "We started at Union and filled in the Wolf River up to where the I-40 bridge ties in, creating a complete public park from Riverside Drive to the Mississippi. That scheme was cancelled by the Coast Guard and the Corps of Engineers. And the entire Yacht Club was opposed to it."

Then-Mayor Wyeth Chandler and the City Council instead chose the concept of a monorail and a park dedicated to the river. It cost $60 million and now has few fans.

"The harbor is considered a public waterway commercially used," says Harrover. "The Coast Guard told us we had to build the monorail bridge the same height as the Hernando DeSoto Bridge at that point. Then they came back a few years later and allowed them to build the Auction Street Bridge lower than that."

The Auction Street Bridge opened Mud Island to residential developments like HarborTown, but the lure of direct access from the heart of downtown remained. Architect Tony Bologna and developer Henry Turley played around with the idea of a low-cost pontoon bridge at the southern tip that could open or close for boats and barges. A former Bologna associate, Tom Turri, joined the Hnedak-Bobo architectural firm, and he sketched out drawings of a 28-acre lake formed by closing the harbor with a dam at Beale Street and another at Jefferson.

"The lake" went public in 1996, its estimated cost $30 million.

"It didn't do anything to bring the city to the river," says Turri, now with Bottletree Design Group. "There was some public discussion, then the RDC idea came along."

The RDC's charge is to recoup the cost of any public investment with roughly three times as much private development. Total package price: $292 million.

Benny Lendermon, head of the RDC, says RDC planners were staunchly opposed to a land connection at Beale Street, which was favored by the RDC board at one point. The planners insisted it should be north of that. Minds were made up.

"They might have walked away from it," Lendermon says.

So north it was. And north it is. For now, at least.

Copyright 1996-2004 Contemporary Media, Inc.

Labels: , , , ,

[Read the complete article...]

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.

Labels: , , , , , ,

[Read the complete article...]

Monday, March 12, 2001

A Not So Crazy Plan

Memphis Flyer [Link to original]
by John Branston

Is the Riverfront Development Foundation (RDC) just tossing out oddball ideas and blowing $750,000 or so in consulting fees?

That's what some downtown veterans were saying after the first round of public hearings in January where a slew of proposals came out. Wary of alarming anyone, the commission's consultants have themselves been models of go-slow diplomacy.

"This session was specifically meant to provoke people," says Brian Shea, who is leading the planning team. "It's not that we're personally pushing any of these crazy notions."

Crazy or not, ideas include housing on Tom Lee Park, a museum and/or dam spanning the Wolf River, commercial and residential development of Mud Island River Park, taking traffic off of Riverside Drive or rerouting it, and making Memphis in May a street festival instead of a Tom Lee Park festival.

The RDC won't do all of it, of course, but it may well do more rather than less and do it sooner rather than later. For one thing, it's been blessed by Mayor Willie Herenton and the Memphis City Council with the powers of the Memphis Park Commission, at least on the riverfront. Competition from Tunica casinos and fast-track suburban development lend a sense of urgency to the effort. And the RDC combines the 24-year government savvy of former Public Works director Benny Lendermon with the energy and confidence of people like AutoZone Park patron Kristi Jernigan and Morgan Keegan vice president John Stokes. None of the riverfront ideas is any "crazier" than building a $72-million downtown baseball stadium in two years without public financing.

What is most likely to change? Here's a look at the big pieces.

o Mud Island River Park: For whatever reason - the name, the limited season, the admission charge, the lack of excitement - the overriding fact is that not many people go there.

"It is a given that Mud Island River Park ought to go through a major transformation," says Lendermon.

Look for a private developer to get involved, or at least something that blurs the lines between public and private. Developer Henry Turley and architect Frank Ricks have toyed with plans for an executive conference center with a nine-hole golf course, ferris wheel, water taxi service, and residential development.

"Private space can also be public space," Turley notes. "Look at the lobby of The Peabody."

Roy Harrover, the architect of the $62 million park, would like to see it stay pretty much the way it is. He acknowledges, however, that the river museum is all but forgotten, the signature River Terrace restaurant has struggled to stay open, and the overall park is "not really what it was in-tended to be," which was a free, open-spaces park such as Overton Park or Audubon Park.....

"I think any developer would love to get his hands on Mud Island," says Harrover. "But I think it is public property and should be retained as such."

In January the RDC took over management of the park for six months. The agreement is a forerunner to long-term changes in this attractive white elephant.

o The Overton Blocks: Also known as The Promenade, the west side of Front Street between Union and Poplar features a fire station, parking garages, a library that often serves as a day shelter for the homeless, a gargantuan post office, Confederate Park, and the entrance to Mud Island River Park. Public use is dictated by the dedication of city founder John Overton.

This issue sharply divides planners and the Old Guard. Developer Robert Snowden warns that current residents and tenants on Front Street "are going to raise holy hell if you block their view of the river." And Harrover, who has seen several ambitious master plans for downtown over the last 40 years wind up on the shelf, says the Overton Blocks are probably untouchable.

"The two parking garages can probably be cleaned up but I seriously doubt that the federal government is going to give up the Post Office," Harrover says.

Is that sufficient reason to accept such a motley assortment of public uses?

"As it stands now, the Overton heirs get nothing, the city gets nothing, and the public gets nothing," says Turley, who would like to see the property pieced out for development proposals if an agreement can be reached with the heirs of the founding families.

Bottom line: a potential legal quagmire, but money talks.

o Riverside Drive: Was there ever an urban planning consultant who didn't demonize the automobile and praise the virtues of trolleys, trains, and buses? Never mind that we like our cars, we like driving them, and - except in big cities - just about anyone who can afford one prefers it to public transportation.

The RDC's planning team talks about knocking down expressway ramps to Riverside Drive, putting more traffic on Second and Third Streets, and turning the trolley from a "tourist toy" into a real transportation system. Others want to reduce traffic on Riverside Drive from four lanes to two or somehow slow drivers to a pedestrian-friendly 35 miles an hour or so.

"The problem with the riverfront is too many barriers and not enough attractions," says Turley. "Right now Riverside Drive functions pretty much as an expressway."

For every Memphian lucky enough to have a river view at home or work there are thousands more who enjoy the river through the windshield of their cars. Riverside Drive is our little river fix, the most scenic drive in Memphis, with a show that changes daily. It's also a vital and convenient access to The Pyramid and Peabody Place.

"Diverting traffic from Riverside Drive is an awful proposal which needs to be pro-tested," says Peabody Place developer (and Turley's partner) Jack Belz. "It will undoubtedly cause a traffic disaster because Second and Third streets are already limited in width and traffic will increase enormously when we open our retail and entertainment complex."

A possible compromise: lower speed limits, and construct a boulevard or traffic islands.

o Tom Lee Park: It was expanded by several acres 10 years ago, courtesy of the U.S. Corps of Engineers. Then the city choked and built a passive park starkly devoid of shade, fun, and imagination. Memphis in May claims it for two months and turns the grass brown or worse for at least one more before the heat gets serious. In recent years, the parking lot has become a favorite weekend cruising site for cars and motorcycles, to the dismay of some Blufftop residents.

"We're totally convinced Tom Lee can't stay the way it is," says Lendermon. "If it re-mains a park then we have to go in there and add amenities and appropriate vegetation. Maybe we tried a little too hard to accommodate Memphis in May. For the other 11 months of the year we have to end up with something that is of more benefit to the citizens of Memphis."

Planner Catherine Damon says developing Tom Lee residentially could provide money to do other things, but realistically "you can't take a park without giving a park somewhere else." In a way, however, the city has done just that. Greenbelt Park on the north end of Mud Island across from Harbor Town has a nearly two-mile sidewalk and acres of vacant land. Sometimes it floods in the spring, but more often it's a place where you can actually walk right down to the cottonwood trees and throw a rock into the river.

o Wolf River Harbor. Options include leaving it alone, closing it off at the foot of Beale Street, or closing it off closer to Harbor Town to create a lake. There is a grand gulf between proponents and opponents and laymen and experts on this one.

Some people who have seriously studied the proposal say it makes little sense. Landscape architect Ritchie Smith, who designed the Bluffwalk, says a dam at the entrance to the Wolf River would have to be so high that it would spoil the view of the river looking north.

Harrover calls the idea of a lake "absurd in any of its forms." The two marinas inside the harbor (which use floating docks because of the 40-foot rise and fall of the river) need river access either at the mouth of the harbor or via a new channel cut at the north end, and, in his opinion, that pretty much rules out a slack water lake.

Belz, however, likes the idea of an enclosure from Beale Street to Mud Island.

"The amount of water impounded would be about 40 acres," he says. "I think that would give us a stillwater lake comparable to the Baltimore Inner Harbor. It would create a tremendous amount more usage of Mud Island and allow that island to literally be an extension of our main part of downtown."

He scoffs at suggestions that it can't be done.

"Those revetments on the west side of the river were built by the Corps of Engineers, not by God," he says. "That's the same kind of thing that could come straight out here and create the closure we're talking about. You have to open another access to the Wolf River Harbor to serve industrial companies and the marinas. The dirt that comes out of that could be well used in raising the level of the island."

o Cost factors: The RDC wants business leases to support the construction of public infrastructure.

"We're not going to the taxpayers to say we want $100 million to transform our riverfront and then have to increase taxes," Lendermon says. "So basically the three opportunities to generate private dollars are parts of the public property on Mud Island, the Overton Blocks, or Tom Lee Park."

The next round of public hearings in February will focus more on feasibility, cost, and level of public support. For now, anything's still possible.

"If you ask each person on our executive committee where they think this is going to end up," Lendermon says, "you probably wouldn't get the same answer twice."

[This story originally appeared in the February issue of Memphis magazine.]

Copyright 1996-2004 Contemporary Media, Inc.

Labels: , , , , ,

[Read the complete article...]