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.

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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.

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Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Editorial: Another look at the Landing

Commercial Appeal [link]
October 9, 2007

Beale Street landing suffered another setback last week when state officials questioned whether the $29 million boat dock and riverfront park would be a good fit with the surrounding neighborhood.

Patrick McIntyre, executive director of the Tennessee Historical Commission, wrote that changes to the Landing's design are needed because the project "as currently proposed will adversely affect the historic property through the introduction of out-of-character elements into its setting."

The Riverfront Development Corp., a quasi-governmental organization that had been spearheading the project, got word about the state's concerns just as some of the work was about to go out for bid.

Benny Lendermon, the RDC's president, said state officials will schedule a meeting, probably later this year, to discuss possible changes to the design. Groups that expressed concerns about the project to the commission will have an opportunity to attend and provide input.

While this delay won't make life easier for Lendermon and his staff, the commission's decision could be a blessing in disguise if it eventually leads to greater public acceptance for the project.

June West, executive director of Memphis Heritage, said her group has a number of concerns with the project as proposed. Chief among them is that the Landing would incorporate a modernistic design located next to the Cotton Row Historic District's riverfront cobblestones.

"It's not an ageless design," West said. "It may be bright and shiny for a number of years. Over the years, I'm not sure it'll wear well. I think that as it ages, it's going to be hard to maintain and keep it looking shiny."

The design was chosen from among 171 entries in an international architectural design contest in 2003.

While the winning design would certainly be distinctive-looking -- with a chain of islets shaped like guitar picks and linked by bridges -- it doesn't have the sort of retro feel that would blend into the district.

West said Memphis Heritage is also concerned about the technology that would be used to raise and lower the boat dock as the water level on the Mississippi River rises and falls. And that the project will require taking some land from adjacent Tom Lee Park. And that the RDC isn't doing enough to properly maintain the cobblestones.

It remains to be seen whether those issues and any others raised during the meeting can be resolved.

But let's hope so. The Memphis riverfront is an underutilized asset -- and it's in the whole community's interest to see it reach its full potential. A successful project at the foot of Beale Street could provide a key link to the entertainment district and the rest of Downtown.

However, that project needs to have widespread community acceptance if it's going to succeed. The state's meeting could be an important step in that direction.

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Sunday, July 08, 2007

Letters to the CA: Beale Street Landing

Click the "complete article" link below to read the letters to the Commercial Appeal [link] in response to last week's Hot Button question, which was:

Do you think Beale Street Landing, as designed, will attract residents from across Greater Memphis to spend time on the riverfront regularly?


I'm always frustrated and disappointed when I have clients or family and friends in from out of town and they ask me where they can go to get something to eat on the riverfront. Plus, I work Downtown, so it would be great to be able to walk a few blocks and go to a nice lunch or dinner on our riverfront. We will finally have that with Beale Street Landing!

I think the space will attract live music, which always draws a crowd. And what family wouldn't want to bring their kids down to the river for boat rides and cool places to play games?

Adrienne Timberlake
Memphis


I've longed (for the 44 years I've lived in Memphis) for more ways to enjoy the Mississippi River. I think being able to get so close to the water is the most compelling feature of this complex project. A restaurant on the riverfront that is easy to get to, family-friendly areas and many more trees are amenities that are much needed.

Lucia Gilliland
Memphis


Has anyone even thought of the parking situation? Or the traffic congestion? Why is someone always trying to turn the Downtown area into an amusement park? And a floating dock no less.

Which brings to mind the one thing that surely would have attracted Memphians as well as visitors down to the river more often -- a casino! There are a number of examples of this that have taken Memphians and visitors a little farther down the river.

Frank B. Tate
Memphis


Instead of spending 29 million taxpayer dollars on something so risky and unnecessary, why don't we spend this year's Riverfront Development Corporation budget on redevelopment of Mud Island to achieve the same goals? We already have the infrastructure in place. The river park is shamefully underutilized but already paid for.

Everything that can be done with a new expensive boat dock can be accomplished across the harbor even closer to the mighty Mississippi! Add a trolley bridge, a pedestrian drawbridge and easier access for cars via Harbor Town and we might just accomplish our goal of reuniting Memphians with the river for about a tenth of the cost.

Jeffrey Chipman
Memphis


I've looked at the four artist renderings of Beale Street Landing that were shown to City Council in May, and I now see accidents and crimes waiting to happen. There are too many places where an unattended child could get hurt or climb over a wall and go splat, or splash, below. There are too many walls, "islands" and strips of trees obstructing visibility, so that if someone was hurt or in trouble, they wouldn't be seen. Beale Street Landing is going to require 24/7 security.

Michael Cromer
Memphis


I'm all for scrutinizing city projects to make sure the money is well spent, but it's time we gave the RDC a break. They have a great track record for making cost-effective riverfront improvements that help lend much-needed civic pride.

Memphians need to shed the cancerous cynicism and come together in excitement over this project.

Beale Street Landing will not only be a docking facility but primarily a place where the public can enjoy the river, regardless of the river level. The plans also include 100 new trees for shade and a green roof component, so it will only make the riverfront look better.

It will be a great way to start giving Memphians more tangible reasons to turn back to the river.

Hunter Sharpe
Memphis


We go to Paducah, Ky., regularly on weekends. They have a community get-together called Downtown After Dinner every Saturday from May to September, with music of every variety and other activities and displays. Their riverfront has the tiers and walkways that are proposed for here. There is also a feeling of safety there, no matter where you walk.

Before our city officials spend money to draw people Downtown, they need to put the $29 million in city coffers to cover lawsuits, turn the police loose on the criminals, and allow them to clean up the city.

Until that is accomplished, no amount of money spent is going to attract people. Rape, robbery and murder have always been known to take the vibrancy out of any area.

Norma Wilson
Millington


Not too long ago, I had the experience of seeing some elderly friends who were visiting Memphis for the first time off on a riverboat cruise. It was quite embarrassing to take them down to the river and see them awkwardly try to navigate the cobblestones. We had to look at mounds of garbage that had been unloaded and heaps of luggage and supplies being loaded out in the open.

Later that same week I traveled to Pittsburgh for a meeting in the Three Rivers district. Across the river from my hotel was a beautiful riverboat landing, bustling with activity. The entire riverfront scene in Pittsburgh was beautiful, inviting and something that the former steel mill city takes great pride in. What a shame that Memphis, the city that defined river trade and entertainment in America, lags so far behind. Let's make our riverfront something to be proud of.

Robert Carter
Cordova


I believe an addition such as this is long overdue. Both New Orleans and St. Louis have vibrant waterfront areas with numerous restaurants and places of entertainment that encourage not only their own citizens to visit downtown, but tourists as well.

Jack Wilson
Memphis


Oh, please. Beale Street Landing will bring the same folks as The Pyramid, Peabody Place, Mud Island, the current river park and the Madison Avenue trolley. Will the City Council appoint Joseph Lee as head of the project?

James Dean Moss
Memphis

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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."

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The Focus-Grouped Park

Cities are building new parks at a rate not seen for 100 years. Jon Weinbach on the increasingly heated debate about what to put in them.

Wall Street Journal [link to original]
By Jon Weinbach

There's a new status symbol for American cities and it's not a soaring office tower or retro stadium. To many civic leaders, nothing says progressiveness and prosperity like an elaborate urban park.


Hudson River Park, New York; 550 acres; Opened 2003 Construction, partly on top of old piers, is continuing along Manhattan's West Side. It's the largest open-space development in New York since Central Park, with green spaces, trails for bikers and Rollerbladers, and free wireless Internet.

On a scale not seen since the "City Beautiful" movement of the late 19th century, public green spaces are proliferating. In Irvine, Calif., work has begun on a $1.1 billion recreational area that will be 60% larger than New York's Central Park. Private donors in Houston financed the bulk of a $93 million downtown greensward, while the mayor of Louisville, Ky., wants to ring the city's borders with 100 miles of trails. In all, 29 of the nation's biggest cities have added nearly 14,000 acres of new parkland in two years -- the equivalent of about 11,000 football fields.

But even grass and trees can be complicated. Citizens and planners across the country are getting tied up in a larger debate about what a park should be -- one that often pits people who believe in peace and quiet and the soulful contemplation of nature against those who prefer zip lines, Frisbee golf and hang-gliding.

In the Twin Cities, some residents don't agree with the decision to build a public sports field with artificial turf. Park builders in Dallas are trying to find room in one new project for a backgammon area. And an effort to rehabilitate Manhattan's Washington Square Park has been met by three lawsuits so far -- including an attempt by preservationists to keep the city from moving the central fountain about 15 feet to the east. "You'd think we were proposing to build a nuclear waste dump," says Adrian Benepe, the city's commissioner of parks and recreation.


Gold Medal Park, Minneapolis; 7.5 acres; Opened 2007 Built on a set of old parking lots, site aims to foster quiet activities like picnics and strolls rather than sports. It was financed by a $5 million donation from former United Health Care chief executive William McGuire.

At a public meeting earlier this month in Louisville, about 150 people came to weigh in on Floyd's Fork Greenway, a 27-mile stretch of parks, bike paths and canoe launches to be built along a scenic creek. After the presentation, residents furiously scribbled suggestions on project maps that hung around the room. Among them: "A nature trail can't run along a highway!"; "Leave an area large enough for a hot air balloon launch"; and from one particularly agitated person, "Many people were not notified of this meeting." Ralph Stanton, a goateed tile contractor in his mid-50s, was concerned that the park plans didn't include a trail wide enough to accommodate all three of his horses. "Kentucky is the home of the Derby, but we've got to go to Indiana to ride," said Mr. Stanton, clutching his cowboy hat. "They ought to get the horse people more involved."

Symbols of Democracy

For decades, local and federal governments had cut back on park budgets as funding needs grew for education, health care and safety. That marked a change from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when urban parks were held up as symbols of democracy, public health and progressive social planning -- and received generous government support. There was another surge of park building during the "Great Society" era of President Lyndon Johnson, but as more city residents fled for the suburbs, many urban parks were not properly maintained -- and green spaces deteriorated or disappeared.

Federal money is still hard to come by. The Land and Water Conservation Fund, a program that provides grants for state and national parks, will receive about $28 million this fiscal year, down nearly 80% from 2002. Another initiative, the Urban Park and Recreation Recovery Program, has not been funded in five years.


BeltLine, Atlanta; Over 1,200 acres; Opening unknown The initiative, which awaits funding, would double Atlanta's park acreage. It calls for converting this former quarry into the city's largest park.

A number of factors are spurring the current parks boom, from research about the health benefits of green space to interest from private donors and corporate sponsors. Developers who once fought with conservationists are now pushing the idea, after discovering that successful parks -- such as Manhattan's Bryant Park and Atlanta's Piedmont Park -- can dramatically increase property values.

City leaders are also using parks as a marketing tool. In an effort to draw young professionals and graying suburbanites, a number of cities including Denver, Philadelphia and San Diego have gentrified their downtowns recently. But politicians are finding that most of the new residents grew up with access to running trails, sports fields and the like -- and expect to have the same access in the city.

The largest increases in park space over the last two years took place in sprawling municipalities like Houston and Jacksonville, Fla., but even densely packed older cities such as Cleveland (with 187 new acres) and Philadelphia (22 acres) are finding ways to create new open space, often on former military bases or industrial sites. Seattle's nine-acre Olympic Sculpture Park, opened earlier this year, was built on a former oil-transfer site. Other cities have focused on building parks on reclaimed brownfields -- industrial or commercial sites tainted by pollution -- especially near valuable waterfront or downtown real estate. Pittsburgh, the long-time hub of the U.S. steel industry, redeveloped a 283-acre slag dump along the Monongahela River a few years ago, converting it into a residential complex and 200 acres of green space.

New York is in the midst of "the biggest period of park construction and redevelopment since the 1930s," says Mr. Benepe, the parks commissioner. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who sat on the boards of two local park foundations before taking office, recently increased the parks department's operating annual budget to about $355 million -- double the total in 2000. The city's most ambitious projects are building a park on top of an abandoned elevated railway line in Manhattan and converting the Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island to a 2,315-acre recreation area.

As cities increasingly rely on corporate donors, real-estate developers and private, not-for-profit entities for park funding, they're facing some criticism. When Chicago's Millennium Park, opened in 2004, named prominent areas after corporate sponsors such as SBC, Boeing and British Petroleum, some traditionalists cried foul. Several cities have recently devised guidelines for sponsorship and naming rights -- in Denver, a company has to contribute 50% of all capital costs to get its name or logo on a new park


Millennium Park, Chicago; 24.5 acres; Opened 2004 Some have criticized the park for naming prominent areas -- including the Frank Gehry-designed BP Bridge, pictured here -- after corporate sponsors.

But in most cases, the arguments revolve around one issue: the purpose of a park. In Chico, Calif., work on the city's new master plan for Bidwell Park has been hamstrung by a fight between preservationists and disc golfers who have been using a remote part of the park to play the Frisbee-inspired sport. Environmental advocates say the golfers are damaging trees and compacting the soil. At a meeting earlier this month, two golfers said their course should not be treated any differently than bike or hiking trails.

Planners for downtown Houston's 12-acre, $93 million Discovery Green park, which is set to open next year, wanted to create a "critical mass of activities" to generate buzz in a long-forgotten area of town, says Philip Myrick, vice president of Project for Public Space, a New York nonprofit that helped conceive the park's programs. Throughout 2005, the group conducted about a dozen small meetings with different "stakeholders" -- ranging from Hispanic community leaders to downtown employees to elementary-school students -- and held workshops for anyone interested in contributing ideas. The Hispanic community wanted open space for events, while the students proposed adding a "zip line" ride, a pulley suspended from a cable wire that allows thrill seekers to fly through the air.

The final park plans included a dog area, a jogging trail, a puppet theater and a "birthday veranda" for parties -- but no zip line.

Bocce Ball and Dogs

"Just having a baseball diamond, a grove of trees and a couple soccer fields is really the old model," says landscape architect James Burnett, whose firm is designing a $80 million park in downtown Dallas that will cover a sunken eight-lane freeway. The current plans for the site, tentatively called Woodall Rodgers Park, include a bocce ball court, a backgammon area, spaces for leashed and unleashed dogs and a botanical garden. "The program list can get very long," he says. "The discussion is always heated."


Great Park of Orange County, Orange County, Calif.; 1,347 acres; Opening 2009 (projected) Plans for the $1.1 billion project, on a former military base, include a 2.5-mile man-made canyon and a massive wildlife corridor. Most visitors will need to drive there, since it's far from residential neighborhoods.

In some ways, the skirmishes over space mirror previous controversies over park land. After Central Park opened in the 1800s, New York City commissioners were overwhelmed by public requests for boat rides and more activities, even though landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted imagined the park as "purely passive space," says Witold Rybczynski, a professor of urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania and author of a 1999 biography of Mr. Olmsted.

But now that prime urban real estate is much more scarce and expensive, "it's much more challenging to satisfy everyone's notion of what a park should be," he says. As a result, many of the new projects share a theme-park quality, with neatly organized areas catering to different groups. "You want to please as many people as possible, but we've become so different," he says.

Few parks today match the cost or scope of the Great Park of Orange County in Southern California, on the site of the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. The decision to build the park came after years of battles over the fate of the base, which closed eight years ago. In 1994, county voters narrowly approved a plan to convert the base into an airport, but opponents stalled the effort until 2002, when voters approved a measure overturning the airport plan in favor of a park.

The Navy handled the sale of the base, dividing it into four parcels. In 2005, Lennar Corp., the nation's second-largest home builder, bought all four lots for about $650 million. In order to build on the site, Lennar had to turn over a chunk of the land to the public for park development, contribute $200 million toward the creation of the park, and spend another $201 million on infrastructure. For its part, Lennar plans to create a sprawling, 3,400-unit residential development around the park, as well as a 750-acre "Lifelong Learning" area that's slated to include a college campus and senior housing.

The park won't begin to open until 2009, though its first attraction, a balloon ride that will take riders 500 feet in the air, is scheduled to debut on July 14. (The balloon will be orange, naturally.) Last March, the park's designers announced a projected cost of about $1.1 billion -- not including the funds needed to construct a planned set of museums or a botanical garden.

No to Advertising

To generate revenue, the park is exploring sponsorship, naming rights and sublease options, as well as charging fees for parking and certain events and activities, like evening softball games. However, earlier this month the park's board of directors voted not to put advertising on the new balloon ride, despite estimates that it could bring in as much as $250,000. (Visitors may be charged for parking though.)

Like most park projects, this one has youth sports organizations and enthusiasts of every stripe angling for prime turf. Last year, the board asked for suggestions how to develop the park's 165-acre sports area -- and got an avalanche of proposals. The list includes a "casting pond" to teach aspiring fly fishermen, a research center to study children's exercise habits, and a "California Sports Hall of Fame" honoring local athletes. Mike Meier, a 56-year-old hang-gliding manufacturer from Orange, Calif., concedes his request for hang-gliding space probably won't get top priority. Nonetheless, he spent "about 30 or 40 hours" putting together a 12-page proposal, which included sketches of a bowl-shaped hill where beginner-level pilots could learn how to take off. "It wasn't a Madison Avenue-like production," he says. "I'm not holding my breath."

In contrast to most urban green spaces, which are centered around pedestrian access, few people will be able to walk to the Great Park -- aside from residents in Lennar's new homes. (The site is in a remote area a few miles northeast of Interstate 5, far from anything resembling a neighborhood.) There are plans to create a light-rail service that will connect an enlarged train station in Irvine with stops at the park and a nearby shopping center, but even Roy Cooper, the park's operations director, admits that transportation is a major obstacle. "If we provide alternative, convenient transportation, we might have a shot at getting people out of their cars -- but this is Orange County," he says.


Discovery Green, Houston; 12 acres; Opening 2008 The park -- located between the city's two recently built sports venues, the Toyota Center and Minute Maid Field -- is expected to cost $93 million.

Write to Jon Weinbach at jonathan.weinbach@wsj.com

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Thursday, August 03, 2006

Garage Gate, Part Two?

The rationale for building Beale Street Landing is slipping away.


The Memphis Flyer [link]
By John Branston

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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








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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.

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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.

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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.

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Sunday, June 12, 2005

RDC chief uses fishing tactics to land a Big River Catch

Commercial Appeal
By Blake Fontenay

Like most good fishermen, Benny Lendermon understands the importance of being patient. It doesn't do any good to get angry or frustrated when the fish aren't biting.

So it's no surprise that Lendermon, an avid fisherman and president of the Riverfront Development Corp., isn't showing any outward signs of panic about the future of the city's $292 million riverfront development plan.

Never mind that recent budget troubles have some Memphis City Council members questioning the wisdom of spending big bucks on the Mississippi riverfront when other parts of the community are in greater need.

Never mind that a pending U.S. Supreme Court case could severely limit the city's rights to acquire land for private development projects along the river.

And never mind that a determined citizens group called Friends for Our Riverfront has been raising all manner of questions about the master plan the RDC completed in January 2002.

Lendermon says he's still confident that the plan will remain on course, even if some aspects of it won't be developed for many years.

Lendermon's critics might counter that he's fishing with the wrong kind of bait. Some contend the RDC plan calls for too much intensive development, particularly private development, in an area best left open for parkland.

Money questions have been on the minds of City Council members for months. In an attempt to replenish the city's reserve fund and reassure Wall Street bond analysts, they've been looking for ways to cut costs.

For some, the riverfront initiatives are an obvious target.

"It's a huge amount of money at a time when we're having trouble keeping the grass cut," said Councilman Jack Sammons.

The council recently decided not to set aside about $6.2 million for the Beale Street Landing, a planned riverboat docking area and civic plaza, in the budget year that begins July 1.

That hardly derailed the project, though. Because the council already had approved about $21.4 million in previous budget years, Lendermon said he plans to use those unspent funds to begin construction on the Beale Street Landing this summer.

Lendermon isn't overly concerned about the projected costs of the riverfront promenade or the land bridge, two of the other big-ticket items in the RDC master plan.

He said public dollars invested in those projects could be recovered over time through land leases with private developers.

"We support the premise of having projects that can stand by themselves and not be supported on the backs of taxpayers,'' said Lendermon.

While that sounds great, it could take years or even decades for the city to recover its investment in projects with high up-front costs. For example, the promenade project calls for a high-rise office tower along four blocks of Front Street between Union and Adams avenues. Lendermon estimates that relocating a fire station, two parking garages and an old branch library from the site might cost anywhere between $30 million and $50 million - an expense that developers probably would be unwilling to pay up front.

And after six years of waiting for a return on the city's $29 million investment in the Memphis Networx telecommunications venture, council members might not be eager to rush into another long-term deal with private partners.

Another issue that could affect the RDC's plan is a case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. In Kelo vs. City of New London, Conn., a group of homeowners are questioning their city's right to use so-called "eminent domain" powers. The Connecticut city plans to turn the property owners' land over to private developers, who want to tear down the homes and build a hotel, health club and offices.

The overriding question before the court is whether cities legally can take over private property in areas that aren't considered blighted for the "public good" of creating new economic development.

A ruling in the New London case is expected this month - and if the city loses, it won't bode well for similar projects in other cities.

Lendermon said Memphis might not need to use eminent domain to acquire land for the promenade project, but that remains a possibility.

That property is owned by heirs of the city's founding families, although the city has an easement allowing for public uses of the land. The heirs have been divided, with some supporting and some opposing the city's riverfront plans.

The land bridge project, which would close off part of the Wolf River Harbor, almost certainly would require use of eminent domain to acquire land owned by several businesses that would lose their access to the river. Lendermon said plans for the land bridge, which would create new property for businesses to develop on Mud Island, are so far in the future that the impact the New London case might have isn't worth worrying about.

Many cities across the country have launched redevelopment projects along their waterfront property over the past 20 to 25 years. There are plenty of success stories, including regional neighbors such as Little Rock and Chattanooga.
For example, development has sprouted along the river separating downtown Little Rock from North Little Rock, Ark., including an expanded convention center and a new arena. North Little Rock Mayor Patrick H. Hays said investment in public facilities on both sides of the river has attracted new private businesses, particularly apartments and restaurants.

There's debate, however, about the merits of direct government investment in private businesses.

The Waterfront Development Corp. in Louisville, Ky., has focused its efforts on developing a giant riverfront park, using a combination of public funds and private contributions.

David Karem, the group's president and executive director, cites examples of several cities that have tried and failed to create successful private waterfront developments over the years.

"If private development is going to take place, let the market dictate it,'' Karem suggested. "If you're spending public money or money you've raised privately, spend it on parks and let the commercial development float or sink on its own."

Karem recommended private fund-raising not only to reduce the public's cost for riverfront projects, but also to get more community "buy-in" for the work that's being done. For Louisville's $100 million project, Karem said more than $35 million has been raised through private sources.

Memphis's efforts seem to have room for improvement in community buy-in. Friends for Our Riverfront, a citizen activist group, has been trying to build up a grass-roots campaign opposing the RDC's plan on several fronts.

The group generally opposes major new private development along the river. In place of the promenade, for example, Friends representatives would prefer to see a park developed at a fraction of the cost projected for the office building.

Virginia McLean, the group's president, said RDC officials didn't pay attention to citizens' calls for greater use of open space during public hearings before the plan was finalized.

McLean also accuses the RDC of neglecting the assets it already has along the riverfront, allowing brush and debris to collect and the publicly owned buildings west of Front Street to fall into disrepair.

With the right kind of shuttle service in place, McLean contends, the Mud Island River Park could become a popular place for locals as well as tourists to dine or enjoy concerts.

"They're not doing what they ought to be doing because they plan to get rid of it," said McLean.

Friends for Our Riverfront also has concerns about the land bridge project, including environmental questions about creating a slack water harbor and economic questions about the need for more commercial space in the heart of Downtown.

Despite all of those questions, the RDC plans don't seem to be in serious jeopardy - at least right now.

City Councilman Rickey Peete, who also sits on the RDC board of directors, expects all future city capital improvement projects, including those along the river, to be put "under a microscope." Peete said he expects his colleagues will question whether projects provide long-term benefits for citizens, but the riverfront plans should be able to meet that test.

"I think they are sitting on pretty solid ground for the future," said Peete.


Public dollars invested in projects to transform Memphis's downtown riverfront, shown here looking south from Court, could be recovered over time from land leases with private developers, says Benny Lendermon, who is guiding the $292 million plan.

The Friends for Our Riverfront organization opposes the RDC's master plan. The group's president, Virginia McLean, said RDC officials didn't pay attention to citizens' calls for more use of open space when they compiled the riverfront redevelopment plan, and that they have neglected the assets the RDC already has on the riverfront.

A Friends for Our Riverfront slide presentation at a recent Sierra Club meeting brought the audience up to date on the debate about plans to redevelop Memphis's Downtown riverfront.


Blake Fontenay is an editorial writer for The Commercial Appeal. Contact him at 529-2386.

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Friday, April 29, 2005

Street Talk: Hooks says "revenue problem," history says otherwise

Memphis Business Journal [Link]
By Scott Shephard

At last week's City Council meeting where the mayor presented his 2006 budget, City Councilman Janet Hooks repeated her assertion -- just as she did when her payroll tax was defeated in November -- that the city "did not have a spending problem, it has a revenue problem."

With respect to Hooks, history suggests otherwise.

In 1992 when Mayor Willie Herenton took office, the City of Memphis' operating budget was $252 million. In 2003 the budget was $461 million -- an increase of 83%.

Meanwhile, the Consumer Price Index (CPI inflation rate) for this period was 31%, indicating that spending was growing at more than twice the inflation rate.

The 2005 adopted budget is $495 million, a 96% increase from 1992.

City records contain some other telling statistics:

The property tax income to the city in 1992 for the operating budget was $77 million. The 2003 property tax income was $147 million -- an increase of 90%.

So, Memphis must have grown considerably during this 11-year stretch, right?

Not so much.

The city's population grew by a scant 7% during this time frame, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Apparently, many of those new residents were getting jobs with the city.

The total city employment in 1993 was just over 6,000 people. The city employment in 2005 is proposed to be more than 7,100, up 19%.

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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.

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Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Guest Editorial: RDC disregards our heritage

Commercial Appeal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2004, commercialappeal.com - Memphis, TN.

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Sunday, April 25, 2004

Guest Editorial: RDC proposal would ignore will of public

The Commercial Appeal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2004, commercialappeal.com - Memphis, TN.

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