Sunday, December 02, 2007

Editorial: New day, new way for mayor?

Commercial Appeal [link]
Sunday, December 2, 2007

MEMPHIS MAYOR WILLIE HERENTON sounded like a man with a renewed sense of purpose.

After meeting with most of the members of next year's City Council at The Rendezvous last week, Herenton said he plans to revive discussions about some issues that have long been on his to-do list.

"I'm going to be revisiting some of the dramatic and bold statements I've made in the past," Herenton told reporters after his get-acquainted session with the new council. "They fell on deaf ears before."

The golden oldies Herenton plans to put on his play list again include riverfront development, fairgrounds redevelopment, football stadium construction or renovation and that classic stand-by, consolidated government.

It was classy (and politically savvy) for Herenton to meet with the incoming council members.

There will be nine newcomers next year, eight of whom attended last week's session. Obviously, it was smart for Herenton to try to get off on the right foot with people he'll be working closely with over the next four years.

But if he's serious about bringing some of those sticky-wicket issues up for discussion again, meeting with council members was the easy part.

They probably share many, if not all, of his goals.

The real challenge is selling some of those ideas outside the sympathetic confines of City Hall.

The mayor wants riverfront development? He'll need to engage with groups like Friends for Our Riverfront, the Overton family heirs who own the so-called "Promenade" property and others who are intensely interested in what happens along the city's waterfront.

He wants to redevelop the fairgrounds? It would help to get the support of the various neighborhood groups surrounding the property.

A new or renovated stadium? Might be a good idea to work something out with University of Memphis officials and those boosters who are aggressively lobbying for an on-campus stadium instead of one at the Liberty Bowl site.

Government consolidation? That might require going into the lion's den to deal with suburban mayors who have long opposed that idea.

And, if Herenton wants the results to be any different this time around, he must do more than briefly share space in the same room with people who disagree with him.

For example, it wouldn't change much if Herenton were to show up at a meeting with those suburban mayors, tell them why he's right about consolidation, then head off to his next gig.

He needs to actually sit down and exchange ideas, to listen to other people's points of view and then try to persuade them. In a word, it'll require diplomacy.

A similar strategy is needed for virtually all of the other big-ticket items on that list.

After 16 years as mayor, Herenton has had plenty of time to accomplish the things he could do without anyone else's help. The goals he hasn't been able to achieve yet are the ones that require cooperation from other stakeholders -- in some cases, many stakeholders.

To build the kind of legacy Herenton has indicated that he wants, he'll need to reach out to people in ways he has never done before. Doing that might not come naturally or easily for the long-serving mayor, but it's probably the only way he'll be able to make real breakthroughs.

As the well-worn saying goes, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. If Herenton wants to finish his mayoral career on a high note, he would do well to take that to heart.


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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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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Editorial: Landing project needs oversight

Commercial Appeal [link]
June 27, 2007

Although a group of protesters showed up at Memphis City Hall last week to raise questions about Beale Street Landing, the proverbial boat had already left the dock.

City Council members weren't inclined to change their minds about the $29 million project, which means construction work on the boat dock/park is expected to begin during the fiscal year that starts July 1.

After a lengthy debate about the project, council members decided it would be a good addition to the city's riverfront. But their involvement shouldn't end there.

If they want to avoid repeating some past mistakes or possibly making new ones, they need to take their oversight role regarding Beale Street Landing very seriously.

They should carefully scrutinize everything from the project's financing to the design plans to the progress of the actual construction work. They shouldn't be lulled into abdicating that responsibility in exchange for vague assurances that everything will work out well in the end.

That wasn't the case with the expansion of the Cook Convention Center, which cost more than twice as much as expected largely because there wasn't adequate oversight during that project's planning and design phase. Building and maintaining a facility that's subject to the Mississippi River's changing water levels won't be easy, either.

More oversight might have also helped with FedExForum, in which grant funds were improperly spent on a parking garage -- a mistake that eventually cost the city $6.3 million worth of federal funds for future projects. It's worth noting that the Beale Street Landing will rely heavily on state and federal dollars for its financing, too.

Closer oversight into a $1.5 billion bond deal involving the Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division might have headed off some of the controversy about a transaction in which some of Mayor Willie Herenton's political supporters benefited financially. Who will profit from Beale Street Landing? That remains to be seen.

Closer oversight might also have been beneficial on the Memphis Networx deal, which now has some council members trying to figure out how $28.6 million of MLGW ratepayer money was spent on a financially unsuccessful telecom venture.

Maybe none of those types of issues will crop up with Beale Street Landing. Maybe new issues will.

But if council members want to avoid being blind-sided by whatever challenges might arise, they should stay engaged with this project.

Ignoring the details could allow the worst fears of the project's critics to come true.

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Monday, May 28, 2007

Editorial: More confusion at the fairgrounds

Commercial Appeal [link]
May 28, 2007

It didn't seem possible, but the redevelopment planning process for the Mid-South Fairgrounds got even more muddled last week.

Prominent local developer Henry Turley appeared before the Shelby County legislative delegation to push for a bill to designate the fairgrounds area as a "tourist development zone."

That designation would allow state sales tax revenue collected within the zone to be used to pay for public improvements at the fairgrounds.

Which would be awfully convenient for Turley and his business partners, who hope to be selected by the city as "master developers" for the 170-acre complex.

Turley said his plans for the property would include a "big-box" retailer like a Target store, as well as less-intensive land uses.

And apparently he's been quietly lobbying for about a month for the change in state law needed to support his vision for the property.

Turley said both Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton and Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton are "fully supportive" of what he's been trying to do.

Establishing a tourist development zone at the fairgrounds may well be a good idea. But the way this is being handled is wrong for several different reasons.

For one, why do Memphis and Shelby County governments need private developers to speak for them on legislation that relates to the use of public tax dollars?

The city and county have their own lobbyists, who should be taking the lead on this issue, if a decision has been made to seek the tourist development zone designation.

Second, a committee that's been studying possible re-uses for the fairgrounds hasn't even finalized a redevelopment plan yet. The committee is waiting on a report from private consultants, due by July 15.

So far, though, the committee's work has focused on creating a "walkable" neighborhood, with housing and small shops to complement the sports and entertainment facilities already at the complex.

A big-box retailer would be inconsistent with that ideal. As anyone who's driven on Germantown Parkway can tell you, big-box retailers tend to cluster together, surrounded by acres of parking lots. There's nothing remotely pedestrian-oriented about that type of development.

Third, after the committee makes its recommendations for the fairgrounds, the city would still have to approve them. Only after that process is complete is the city planning to seek proposals from developers.

Letting Turley take charge of the lobbying effort for public incentives suggests that his team has the inside track in the bidding process, which might discourage others from submitting proposals as good or better than Turley's.

Fourth, it's troubling that Shelby County Commissioner J.W. Gibson is among Turley's business partners on the deal. Gibson hasn't been on the commission very long, but he should know better than to get involved as an investor in any project that would rely heavily on public financing.

Redevelopment of the fairgrounds is long overdue. But it shouldn't be left to a group of private developers to call the shots on a public project of that magnitude.

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Sunday, April 01, 2007

Editorial: Mayors prime new jobs pump

The Commercial Appeal [Link]
April 1, 2007

Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton last week pledged $1.25 million in county funds for economic development in the 2008 fiscal year that begins July 1.

Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton says he will seek up to $1.5 million in city funds for the effort.

An economic development plan prepared for local government and business leaders makes a persuasive case that the mayors' investments, which are subject to County Commission and City Council approval, are not only sound but perhaps even urgent.

Local business leaders are also being prodded to devote more resources to the task of marketing Memphis to the world and sending our best and our brightest out on recruiting missions to sell the community to potential investors.

A draft of the plan obtained by The Commercial Appeal last week represents one part of a four-part series of strategic plans that also address crime, government efficiency and education-workforce development.

Because Memphis and Shelby County operate "the most under-funded economic development program" in the nation, we apparently have been lucky to get companies like Nucor and ServiceMaster to invest in the community, the report implies.

And while comparisons are often onerous, it may be somewhat instructive to note that while local governments were spending $350,000 on economic development here in 2006, Nashville was spending $3 million.

One of the plan's most useful elements may be its list of 15 disparate strategies for progress in Memphis that engage our attention from time to time but are rarely considered as parts of a coherent whole.

The list ranges from the creation of a national entrepreneurship "center of excellence" to internal and external marketing campaigns to tout the community's assets.

Benefits would flow, as well, from the development of a "seamless" linear park system linking Shelby Farms Park, the riverfront and other parkland via the Wolf River Greenway, Memphis Greenline and other green corridors.

Resolving the ticklish legal issues surrounding the riverfront promenade would be part of an overall plan to invigorate the city's Downtown and Mississippi riverfront. [Emphasis added]

Some of the newer ideas for economic development, such as enhancing the city's international role as an "aerotropolis" and expanding its biosciences industry, are given the prominent role they deserve, along with old standbys like tourism, the music industry and tax incentives.

The infrastructure exists to advance most of these strategies, although a cabinet-level, publicly funded city and county Office of Economic Development would make them easier to pursue.

At the heart of the report is a new five-year, $66 million plan that would attempt to take Memphis into the big leagues of economic development, where the game is played like a "hyper-competitive survival of the fittest in which the winners grow stronger and the losers find it increasingly more difficult to make headway in the race to compete."

Support for the ideas in the plan is easy to voice, and this one will be greeted with enthusiasm. The more difficult task is finding the money to fix the community's shortcomings and put it on a fast track to fortune.

While Wharton and Herenton tally up funding, it will be instructive to see who else wants to get on board.

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Monday, February 26, 2007

Editorial: Riverfront group needs scrutiny

Commercial Appeal [Link]
February 26, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That doesn't mean it always acts like one.

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

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

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

See also:

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Monday, August 14, 2006

Editorial: High stakes for high-rise project

The Commercial Appeal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saturday, July 29, 2006

Editorial: Rollin' on the River

The Commercial Appeal
July 29, 2006

Pardon the metaphor, but the city's plans to spend $29.3 million on Beale Street Landing seem to be moving along like a tiny twig caught in the currents of the mighty Mississippi.

The Memphis Landmarks Commission recently granted one of the approvals needed for work to continue on the riverboat landing and civic plaza planned at the western end of the city's most famous street.

Although there seems to be little political will to swim upstream now, it's fair to wonder if this project should be reexamined in light of new developments.

The design for Beale Street Landing was born in 2003, back when the city's financial situation was on much higher ground than it is today.

Also, the Riverfront Development Corp. decided several months ago to give up on a land bridge that was considered the centerpiece of its master riverfront plan.

One might ask if a new riverboat docking facility is still needed under the reconfigured plan. The land bridge would have required smaller boats to dock along the historic cobblestones, which, in turn, would have necessitated moving the larger riverboats to Beale Street Landing.

Benny Lendermon, the RDC's president, still believes the riverboats need a new and improved docking facility -- and maybe he's right.

But Memphis City Council members are giving this project far less scrutiny than they did to the FedExForum.

And we all know how well that worked out.

Copyright 2006, - Memphis, TN. All Rights Reserved.

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Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Editorial: Hyneman's gifts carry a price

Commercial Appeal

"DON'T YOU THINK he's just a nice guy?" Memphis City Council member Barbara Swearengen Holt replied when questioned about help she and other elected officials have received from developer Rusty Hyneman.

There's no question Hyneman has quite a giving streak in him, at least where certain people with the power to help him later are concerned.

As a six-week investigation by The Commercial Appeal revealed, Hyneman helped Holt get a luxury skybox seat to a Memphis Grizzlies preseason game.

Hyneman co-signed on a loan so City Council Chairman Edmund Ford could lease a $50,000 Cadillac. Hyneman also bought a $1,200 airline ticket for Shelby County Commissioner Michael Hooks and one of Hyneman's business partners gave Hooks an interest-free $16,000 loan.

And these are only some of the more recent examples of Hyneman's "generosity."

When Jim Rout was still county mayor, he got a free ride in Hyneman's private jet. Hyneman also helped City Councilman Rickey Peete buy a new house and rented County Commissioner Tom Moss a home when Moss needed to establish residency in his new district.

Like Holt, other elected officials who have been on the receiving end of Hyneman favors have described him as just a really good friend. The fact that his company regularly appears before the council and commission to request approval for land-use changes has nothing to do with anything, they claim.

That's just plain silly. Any elected official who believes Hyneman isn't looking for favorable treatment in return for his many acts of kindness is hopelessly naive. Those who clearly understand Hyneman's game and choose to play it anyway are corrupt.

Our community doesn't need elected officials who fit into either of those categories.

In the wake of the Tennessee Waltz undercover investigation, there has been a lot of attention on tightening the state's ethics laws.

It's clear that more work needs to be done at the local level as well. The council's ethics policy is advisory only, which means it's basically worthless.

However, council members might not know where to turn for objective legal advice on making improvements: After all, their attorney Allan Wade is also representing Hyneman in a divorce case.

Another disappointing aspect of the latest revelations about Hyneman is that the elected officials involved seem to be beyond shame.

Hooks, who was indicted in August on bribery and extortion charges, told a reporter that press coverage will only help him in his upcoming trial.

"The more y'all write, the better it gets, baby," he taunted a reporter trying to interview him about the loan he received from Hyneman business partner Henry Weaver. "And I'm going to need public opinion. ... Y'all ain't learned that yet."

Forget integrity for just a second. Don't these elected officials have any pride? Why would they even be willing to let someone think that they could be bought off with free air travel or other perks?

Sure, being an elected official probably gets lonely at times.

But those who need a friend should get a dog.

The messes would be easier to clean up.

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Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Editorial: A bridge better left uncrossed

Commercial Appeal

WE KNOW THIS MUCH about the Riverfront Development Corp.'s board members: They obviously can read the writing on the wall.

On Monday, the RDC board wisely voted to remove a controversial land bridge from a 50-year master plan for reshaping the Mississippi riverfront.

Assuming the Memphis City Council agrees with the RDC's decision, the $78 million project will be officially scuttled.

So what made the land bridge project so controversial? Well, for starters, there was the cost.

For a city government struggling with its finances, $78 million isn't chump change.

Then there were the engineering challenges of filling in a huge section of the Wolf River Harbor between Mud Island and the rest of Downtown.

Then there were environmental questions about whether it would really be such a good idea to create a slackwater lake out of what would be left of the harbor.

Not to mention the debate about whether Downtown really needed all of that extra land for new offices, condominiums or whatever.

All things considered, scrapping the land bridge was an easy choice. As board member Jeff Sanford put it, the land bridge had become a "lightning rod" for the RDC's critics.

RDC chairman Rick Masson said the land bridge was intended to be a long-range project, perhaps 10 or 20 or 30 years into the future, but "the perception of the public was that it was an immediate action item."

It's encouraging that the RDC listened to public feedback on that issue. The RDC would do well to keep working with citizens as it pursues other parts of the master plan, particularly the so-called Promenade project.

That portion of the plan calls for new commercial or residential development, possibly in high-rise towers, along four blocks west of Front Street between Adams and Union. There has been substantial opposition to the idea of putting high-rises in that location - and for good reason.

One of the RDC's stated goals is to open up the riverfront and make it more accessible to citizens.

Phase one of the Promenade would most likely involve removing two parking garages, a fire station and an old branch library from the site.

However, it doesn't make much sense to tear down those buildings for the purpose of improving access, only to replace them with even larger and more imposing buildings.

A better approach might be to encourage development of shops and restaurants in smaller buildings. That would create a magnet to draw people to the riverfront, while also leaving enough open space to improve accessibility.

At a minimum, more public discussions are needed on the Promenade and other key elements of the riverfront master plan.

RDC board members demonstrated this week that they can be responsive to community input. That type of attitude could serve them well in the future too.

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Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Editorial: Try to negotiate riverfront plans

Commercial Appeal

THERE'S STILL TIME to refine plans for developing the Downtown riverfront in ways that could significantly reduce public opposition.

That was perhaps the most promising bit of information that came out of a two-hour debate Sunday afternoon between representatives from the Riverfront Development Corp. and the Friends for Our Riverfront citizens group.

Oh, it wouldn't be easy. On some issues, the gap between the groups' positions is as wide as the Mississippi River itself.

Yet near the end of Sunday's forum at the Central Library, both sides said they were willing to talk about potential areas of compromise. It would be in everyone's best interests for those discussions to take place.

The most likely source of common ground might be on the so-called Promenade project, a four-block area of Front Street between Union and Adams.

The RDC, a nonprofit organization created by city government to manage riverfront property, envisions a high-rise development of some sort -- condominiums, offices or whatever -- that would provide limited public access along outdoor promenade decks facing the river.

Friends for Our Riverfront would prefer to see the area converted into parkland.

Sunday's forum exposed some weaknesses in each of those approaches.

For example, a high-rise development, no matter whether it's residential or commercial, would require a lot of parking. The RDC's plans call for two existing parking garages within the four-block area to be rebuilt as underground structures.

That might take care of the current needs for parking spaces. But a high-rise development would logically seem to require much more parking than the area currently has. And given the property's proximity to the river, there are limits on how far underground it's practical to put a garage.

RDC officials didn't make a clear and compelling case for the demand for new residential or office space, either. They say market conditions will determine what's best for the site. But if RDC officials are focused strictly on some type of high-rise, they're likely to overlook other possibilities that could be more practical and acceptable to the public.

On the other hand, RDC officials raised some very valid concerns about the idea of converting those four blocks into parkland. Rick Masson, an RDC board member, noted that Confederate Park and the Mud Island River Park are seldom used by citizens. That being the case, simply adding more unimproved park space doesn't seem like a good solution.

Virginia McLean, president of Friends, countered that parks don't have to be just empty patches of grass. She cited Overton Park as an example with multiple civic uses.

McLean said Friends wouldn't be opposed to some development on the Promenade, such as restaurants, sidewalk cafes and the like. It seems like there's still an opportunity to redesign the Promenade, perhaps using the same basic design with less-intensive retail uses.

That might prevent a court fight over use of the land. And it could produce one of those "win-win" situations that would make everybody feel better about the finished product.

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Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Editorial: More questions about riverfront

Commercial Appeal

A U.S. Supreme Court decision last week might make it easier for the City of Memphis to move forward with its plans for redeveloping the riverfront.

The nation's highest court ruled that cities may use "eminent domain" power to take property from private landowners for the sake of creating new development. Acquiring land through eminent domain might be necessary to complete at least two major projects the city has in the pipeline, the Downtown promenade and the Mud Island land bridge.

But just because the city could use that power doesn't mean that it should.

The legal issues notwithstanding, there are still other questions city officials should address before they move forward with those projects.

The promenade project calls for new commercial and residential development, possibly in high-rise towers, along four blocks west of Front Street between Adams and Union.

The land bridge project would involve damming the Wolf River Harbor to create more developable property connecting Mud Island to the rest of Downtown.

Cost should be a major consideration in both cases.

Those two projects account for much of the total expense of a riverfront redevelopment plan that's expected to cost about $300 million. Given the city's recent budget troubles, it's fair to ask how high they should rank on a priority list for spending public dollars.

Benny Lendermon, president of the city's Riverfront Development Corp., has suggested that some or all of the costs might be recovered through leases charged to private tenants who would use the redeveloped property.

The issue there is how much would tenants be willing to pay and over what period of time? City officials should be very cautious about going into long-term debt to support private businesses that might not stick around until the debt is completely repaid.

There's also a question about how much more space Downtown needs for new offices or retail businesses. With the wrong mix of businesses in the areas targeted for redevelopment, the city's plans could wind up doing more harm to economically fragile areas like Main Street.

Friends For Our Riverfront, a citizens group that has been monitoring the city's plans, also has raised some valid environmental questions about the land bridge project.

John Gary, the group's vice president, believes converting Wolf River Harbor into a lake could create underwater pressure and seepage that would erode Mud Island, possibly causing property damage to the homes there.

Also, Gary said a lake with no outlet into the Mississippi River would trap stormwater pollutants and become a breeding ground for mosquitoes.

As for the promenade project, Virginia McLean, president of Friends For Our Riverfront, doesn't believe last week's Supreme Court decision would apply to property the city needs there. McLean said the state Supreme Court has already laid down the ground rules for developing that land in previous decisions. That may be a matter for the courts to decide.

What's clear, though, is that the city has a long way to go in terms of justifying key components of its riverfront plan.

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Sunday, April 10, 2005

Editorial: No sacred cows in city budget

Commercial Appeal

Around most households, people try to figure out how they'll pay for groceries and utility bills before they start thinking about adding a new wing to the kitchen.

Memphis city government should be run the same way.

With that principle in mind, the city's leaders might want to take another look at some of the "big ticket" projects they've been planning to do over the next five years or so.

Mayor Willie Herenton is scheduled to present his annual budget proposal to the City Council April 19.

Keith McGee, Herenton's chief administrative officer, said he didn't want to discuss specific cost-saving steps until the proposed budget has been finalized.

For months, though, the mayor has suggested the options for balancing next year's budget could include a hefty property tax increase, reductions to city school funding, service cutbacks or some combination of all three.

Council members have a few thoughts of their own about how to save money, including Carol Chumney's suggestion to delay some major construction projects and redirect that money to cover operating expenses.

Of course, neither that idea nor any other will likely be the whole solution to the city's budget problems.

There will undoubtedly be a need to examine whether all city departments are operating as efficiently as they possibly can.

There will be a need to determine whether the city's fees and fines should to be increased to bring in more revenue.

And there will be a need to evaluate whether the city should be giving grants to nonprofit organizations or providing college tuition reimbursement to its employees.

However, there are a lot of big projects looming on the horizon that could cost -- or save -- the city millions.

One example is the Beale Street Landing, a project that includes improvements to the Wolf River harbor entrance and a riverboat docking facility at the end of Beale.

The project's cost would be $27.5 million, of which the city would pay approximately $17.5 million, with the balance coming from state and federal sources.

Another example is the Memphis Area Transit Authority's light rail project. Including money set aside in this year's budget, the city is planning to spend $283.8 million on light rail through the 2008-09 fiscal year. Even with federal and state grants, the city's share would be about $70 million.

At this point, no one here is arguing against spending money to improve the riverfront or ease the traffic flow on local streets. Both of those examples could be good projects, provided money is available to do them. But in the city's current financial situation, they might represent that new kitchen wing or sun room in our household analogy.

It doesn't make a whole lot of sense to cut funding for schools -- or for that matter, delay more vital construction projects like new roads, police precincts or fire stations -- without at least discussing whether the glitzier projects could wait until the city has a bit more cash at its disposal.

Regardless of the city's short-term problems, it's wise to make some investments for the future. In their budget deliberations, council members might conclude either or both of those projects qualify as good investments.

Yet if money is as tight Herenton and his staff say, there shouldn't be any projects left out of the budget discussions this year.

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Friday, May 21, 2004

Editorial: An Opportunity on Front Street

Commercial Appeal

MANY MORE hurdles remain to be crossed, but the Memphis City Council has established the most viable course for eventual transformation of the promenade on Front Street into an attractive downtown amenity.

The council's approval of a redevelopment concept for the four-block blufftop tract from Union to Adams - using private funds for public improvements - came after four hours of debate.

The vote was a recognition of the reality that private investment is probably the only practical way to revitalize that stretch of the waterfront.

Now cluttered with buildings that block access to river views, the 12-acre promenade, if the Riverfront Development Corp. plan continues to advance, could be cleared for the most part to make way for broad sidewalks, walkways to the river and new buildings with the kinds of ground-floor businesses that would draw people to the riverfront for shopping, dining and socializing.

The council's decision is hardly the last word on the fate of the promenade. City government has an easement to use the property for the public's benefit, but the situation is complicated: It is owned by heirs of the city's founders, a large and diverse group with widely varied opinions on the matter.

Beyond the legal challenge lies the selling job. Investors must be persuaded to put millions of dollars into building projects that will have to conform to the objectives of the RDC plan, with restrictions on such factors as building heights, appearance and usage.

As soon as City Council minutes are approved, the RDC will attempt to start talks with the heirs of the Memphis founders who set aside the area for public use, persuading skeptical members of the group, it is hoped, that commercial investment is the most viable option for restoring the promenade to its intended use.

As difficult as those tasks may be, at least the area now has a chance to recover from decades of neglect. The promenade could become the cornerstone of a world-class riverfront in which future generations of Memphians can take pride.

Unfortunately, City Council's decision to launch the promenade redevelopment plan was marred by Chairman Joe Brown's delay - without explanation - of a public hearing on the issue.

More than 200 people showed up for a 3:30 p.m. public hearing, only to be forced to wait for more than three hours while the council ambled through its agenda. And then opponents of the redevelopment plan were given only 20 minutes to make their case.

If the chairman's intent was to spare those with unrelated council business from having to sit through the public hearing, that should have been clearly explained to the audience.

Forcing people to wait for hours to state their positions on controversial issues is an unfortunate tactic used occasionally by City Council chairmen in what the public perceives as an effort to wear down opponents of proposals favored by council majorities.

Instead of discouraging people from participating in the process, the council should use every opportunity to show that the public's views are being taken seriously.

This matter was handled in a way that reinforced the notion that the promenade plan was being shoved down the throats of an unwilling and skeptical public. Not a very good way to win people over to your point of view.

Copyright 2004 The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN

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Sunday, May 16, 2004

Editorial: Turning the City's Face to the River

The Commercial Appeal
Editorial, Page B4

THE MEMPHIS City Council has many factors to consider in its decision on the fate of the Riverfront Development Corp.'s plan for redevelopment of Front Street's Public Promenade, which could come as early as Tuesday.

The Tennessee Preservation Trust's designation of the four-block-long blufftop strip as one of Tennessee's "most endangered public treasures" should not be one of those factors.

The promenade was a treasure once. Now it's primarily a collection of parking garages and public buildings that wall off access to spectacular river views. Access is forbidden in at least one spot with a "no trespassing sign."

What we still call the "promenade," the west side of Front Street from Union to Adams, is nothing like the area that city founders John Overton, James Winchester and Andrew Jackson set aside for permanent public enjoyment in 1819.

Redevelopment aimed at creating full public access to the promenade would fulfill the original intention of the founders. It would create an inviting atmosphere that would help bring Memphians back to the river. It would give tourists a panoramic view that would make them want to visit Memphis again.

Legitimate concern has been expressed about building heights and other factors. Those are matters that would still be resolved through the consideration of individual site plans. Many more questions would have to be answered before a detailed picture of the redeveloped promenade plan would come into focus.
Specific details of the RDC plan, which would be financed by commercial development of parts of the promenade, in other words, are still negotiable.

The suggestion here is that Memphis should not miss out on a golden opportunity offered by the RDC to create something special in this special place on the bluff.

The concept of tightly controlled commercial development - with an emphasis on broad sidewalks suitable for a promenade, outdoor cafes, perhaps even a sidewalk musician or two - remains the most practical way to make the promenade accessible again.

Existing parking garages would be replaced by underground parking. Residential, office, hotel and retail space would rise overhead. New access to riverfront views would be created, and the existing Confederate Park would be preserved.

Needless to say, a spacious park would be preferable. But local government finances are extremely tight and likely to remain that way for some time because of the heavy demands of public education, public safety, health care and other necessary services.

The RDC's redevelopment plan offers a way to create an exciting new amenity in downtown Memphis without going to local taxpayers for the funds to build it. It would give a boost to downtown revitalization, enhancing its commercial and residential offerings.

The promenade area has been subjected to decades of neglect. Passing on this opportunity to put a redevelopment plan into play would doom the Memphis riverfront to a perpetuation of that fate, possibly for many more decades to come.

Not every idea that planners at the RDC have come up with meets a need as perfectly as the promenade plan, but this one - at least in concept - offers some hope that at this critical point the city would turn its face to the Mississippi River again.

The City Council has scheduled a public hearing on the plan for Tuesday, and a decision could come soon after. If there are problems with the specifics, they can be resolved.

But the momentum for making the promenade an attractive, accessible amenity that everyone can enjoy should not come screeching to an indefinite halt.

Copyright 2004 The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN

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Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Guest Editorial: RDC disregards our heritage

Commercial Appeal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2004, - Memphis, TN.

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Sunday, April 25, 2004

Editorial: A practical plan for the riverfront

Commercial Appeal
April 25, 2004

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2004, - Memphis, TN.

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Guest Editorial: RDC proposal would ignore will of public

The Commercial Appeal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2004, - Memphis, TN.

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Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Guest Editorial: Respect original vision for riverfront

Commercial Appeal
February 3, 2004

Guest columnist James F. Williamson is a partner in Williamson Pounders Architects. He collaborated with Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates of Philadelphia on the 1987 Memphis Center City Development Plan.

In the original 1819 town plan for Memphis, the bluff top and the west side of Front Street north of Union Avenue were reserved in perpetuity for public use.

Founders John Overton, James Winchester and Andrew Jackson set the area aside as "an ample vacant space, reserved as promenade; all of which must contribute very much to the health and comfort of the place as well as to its security and ornament."

The opportunity to re-create this grand civic gesture will be lost if a proposal by the Memphis Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC) to sell or lease the promenade to private developers is approved. The RDC plan calls for construction of a wall of commercial buildings that would destroy existing open space, cut off the unencumbered views of the river from Front Street and irrevocably alter the area's historic character.

Fortunately, the RDC proposal is not the only vision for the use of this valuable land. Another design, contained in the 1987 Center City Development Plan, preserves the existing historic fabric and respects the intent of Memphis's founders to keep the promenade "forever public." This alternative grows out of the need to reconnect downtown to the riverfront, is modest and achievable in comparison with the RDC's proposal, and now merits serious reconsideration.

Among its key points:

Along the west side of Front Street from Union to Adams, the promenade should be re-created, consisting of wide expanses of park-like open space with panoramic views of the river. Of the present structures, only those possessing a civic character should be preserved, including the Post Office and perhaps the surviving fragment of the original Cossitt Library.

The parking garages, fire station and modern addition to the Cossitt Library should be demolished and replaced by a network of new parks. At the bluff edge, handsome stone parapets should be constructed and walkways should make frequent connections to Front Street to encourage pedestrians to meander away from the street to experience the river views and breezes.

Confederate Park should be preserved and redesigned. The formal visual axis already implied by the alignment of Court Square with Court Street (east of Front Street) should be extended through Confederate Park. The statue of Jefferson Davis or another focal point should be located along this axis as a counterpoint to the Court Square fountain, and an overlook point should be created on the bluff top at the west parapet. The park's Civil War theme should be preserved and strengthened as an integral element of the city's past. The decrepit and inappropriate 20th Century artillery pieces should be replaced with 1860s-era cannons such as those employed in the Battle of Memphis, and interpretive signage should be provided to explain the tactics of the battle to visitors.

If additional parking areas are needed in the future, below-grade parking could be developed beneath the new promenade. New parking and the proposed "land bridge" across the Wolf River to Mud Island should not, however, be allowed to destroy the natural bluff face on the west. Vehicular entrances should be limited to east-west streets to help preserve a pedestrian orientation for Front Street.

A new civic use should be found for the Post Office. The maze of forgotten war memorial planters, ramps, steps and vehicular turnouts should be re designed into a simple, dignified fore court in keeping with the building's neoclassical design. The fountain and reflecting pool in front of the Cossitt Library should be kept clean and operating.

A re-created promenade will provide many sites for public art, and local sculptors should be commissioned to fill these spaces with art relating to local history and the river. Streetscape improvements should be made with the civic character of Front Street in mind. Street trees should be planted along the west side only, emphasizing the street's "one-sidedness." Benches, seat-height walls, bus shelters, trash receptacles, lamp standards, bicycle racks and tree grates should be provided to enhance the street's pedestrian quality. When possible, they should evoke a sense of local color, like the "alligator gar" benches in Jefferson Davis Park.

West Court Street between Front Street and Riverside Drive should be preserved and returned to its original cobblestone paving, which may still lie beneath the asphalt topping. The stone wall along its south side should be enlivened with graphic images showing scenes from the days when the street was used to haul cotton from the riverfront up to Front Street.

The redevelopment of this historic area should respect the spirit of the founders' grand civic gesture. The Center City Development Plan, which is available at the Center City Commission offices, offers a proposal in which Front Street can be reconnected to the riverfront with a re-created promenade to remain "forever public" - not cut off by a wall of commercial towers.

Copyright 2004, - Memphis, TN.

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Sunday, December 28, 2003

Guest Editorial: Don't cut public's access to river

Commercial Appeal
December 28, 2003

Guest columnist Virginia McLean is author of "The Memphis Guide" and president of Friends for Our Riverfront.

Many cities and towns along the Mississippi River enjoy proximity and access to the river, but few can boast a relationship with the river like that of Memphis.

The 19th Century founders of Memphis saw a natural river landing and a high bluff that was safe from flooding. They recognized the significance and attractiveness of the land along the river and envisioned a busy river port and a mighty city.

To ensure that the new city would always be an attractive place to live and do business, its founders dedicated the most valuable property along the riverfront as public open space to be shared by all the citizens of Memphis.

Named the Public Promenade and Public Landing, this property stretches from the riverbank to Front Street and from Union Avenue north to Jackson Avenue.

In 2000, the newly formed Memphis Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC), a nonprofit, quasi-governmental organization, hired a New York-based consulting group, Cooper Robertson & Partners, to develop a plan for our riverfront. Cooper Robertson's plan proposes that the Public Promenade be sold or leased to private developers for the construction of office towers, apartments, shops and restaurants.

The proposal is one phase of an expensive and environmentally and financially risky riverfront development plan that advocates the eventual construction of a land bridge to Mud Island and the conversion of our active harbor into a lake.

Downtown's central fire station, the historic Cossitt Library, the U.S. Post Office and Customs House, Confederate Park, the Tennessee Welcome Center, the entrance to Mud Island and several publicly owned parking garages occupy space on the Public Promenade.

In the most recent version of the Cooper Robertson plan, all but Confederate Park and the Post Office and Customs House would be removed and replaced by commercial development.

The planners say their design, which incorporates some public space and riverbluff walkways, would "improve pedestrian access to the promenade property and its river views," and "bring more people to the river."

In effect, however, their plan would reduce the amount of open space now available for citizens' enjoyment of the riverfront and would limit our access to the riverfront. Furthermore, it would put our public land into the hands of a few private developers and use public money to add commercial space to a downtown area that already is glutted with vacant commercial space.

I have joined with others who believe there are better ways to enhance our riverfront and Public Promenade in forming Friends for Our Riverfront. Our organization is composed of people from all over Shelby County who have a common interest in seeing that the RDC and its planners hear the voices of the citizens of Memphis.

We believe that:
  • The Public Promenade property should remain just that - public. It should be open, accessible and free for all to use and enjoy.
  • Commercial investment and retail growth should be focused on our current downtown business district - east, not west, of Front Street.
  • Revitalization of the Public Promenade and the riverfront should be a top priority for the city, but any plan for their renewal should first recognize that this is our park. Any plan should respect and preserve Memphis's rich history, the uniqueness of our riverfront, and the beauty of the natural environment.
  • Any plan should protect, not obstruct, our open vista, encourage the adaptive reuse of our historic buildings, stimulate the vibrancy of our harbor for navigators and naturalists and celebrate, not homogenize, the uniqueness of our riverfront.
Vibrant cities with expansive, linear downtown parks such as Portland and Chicago would serve as good role models for us.

Ill-advised changes to the riverfront and the Public Promenade would drastically alter our city. We must ensure that these unique assets remain accessible to all Memphians and available for our enjoyment for all time.

Copyright 2003, - Memphis, TN. All Rights Reserved.

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Thursday, January 18, 2001

Guest Editorial: Considering All Options Will Produce Best Riverfront

Commercial Appeal
By Dean Jernigan

Dean Jernigan is co-founder of the Memphis Redbirds and chairman and chief executive officer of Storage USA.

FOUR years ago, when my wife, Kristi, and I began thinking about bringing a higher level of baseball to this region, we considered many options. We weighed the option of purchasing the former Memphis Chicks against soliciting Major League Baseball for a triple-A expansion franchise.

We considered renovating Tim McCarver Stadium vs. building a new ballpark in east Shelby County vs. building a state-of-the-art ballpark in the core of downtown Memphis. We considered whether to follow traditional roles of team ownership or to give ownership of this amenity to the citizens of the Mid-South.

A tremendous amount of public discussion surrounded each element of these options. The Commercial Appeal published articles and editorials. Every talk radio host seemed to have a different opinion about every option but one: The one clear consensus was that the new ballpark should be built in east Shelby County - it didn't really matter where, as long as it was far away from downtown.

Still, Kristi and I insisted on giving careful consideration to all the options. Last season, more than 900,000 people enjoyed baseball in AutoZone Park, and many of them were re-introduced to downtown Memphis. I think most were pleased.

Similarly, we must consider all options in the riverfront master plan. There is a very important reason for hiring planners from diverse regions who possess varying experiences with waterfronts: They bring a fresh and informed perspective to elements that those of us who are closest to them might not otherwise see.

World-class planners make great efforts to learn and understand the nuances of a new place and the culture of its people before they begin the planning process. Cooper-Robertson & Partners has met with more than 200 people from our city and county to do just this for the Memphis riverfront.

A world-class riverfront will have a significant cost structure. The best way to secure the required finances is through development opportunities. The planners have been charged with creating a plan that is economically feasible. Therefore, they must identify city land that can be developed and generate a revenue stream.

The Overton Heirs property is one prominent area of our city that our founders had the foresight to set aside for public use. This land probably cannot be developed for private commercial use.

The city has full control of this promenade, which unfortunately includes many visual and physical barriers to the riverfront. By eliminating some parking garages and other poorly designed structures, we can enhance and create a great civic green space, while removing barriers to the riverfront. This space could become our Central Park.

Tom Lee Park is a wonderful green space on Riverside Drive, but it is grossly underused throughout the year, except during the Memphis in May festival. It is important to study the concept of moving Tom Lee Park into the core of our central business district, onto the Overton Heirs property along the bluff and Front Street.

This green space could benefit all of downtown, and could be used 12 months out of the year. I don't know what the best use might be for the land opposite Riverside Drive that is the present site of Tom Lee Park, but I strongly doubt it would need to be green space if we are successful in moving Tom Lee Park onto the Overton Heirs property.

We need not worry now about that ultimate use. Instead, we should pursue with vigor such things as the development of Mud Island, the creation of a magnificent lake at the foot of our bluffs, and a beautiful new green space in the middle of our downtown named Tom Lee Park. The new Tom Lee Park could become a great home for Memphis in May, allowing it to have an economic impact on all of downtown.

Our master planners are extremely competent and are presenting a number of options for our collective consideration. We do ourselves and our city a tremendous disservice by deciding against one or another of these options prematurely.

We must be big thinkers, and we must venture outside of our comfort zones. Let us commit to having open minds in considering all possibilities.

Copyright 2001 The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN

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Sunday, May 28, 2000

Editorial: The Promenade: Founders' riverfront vision can still be realized

Commercial Appeal

RHYME IT with lemonade if you like, in the parlance of square dancing. Or say prom-en-AAD if you'd prefer. It can be noun or verb. Whichever one chooses, the word evokes a nostalgic, somewhat formal sense of pleasurable walking, in no great hurry so as to take full visual advantage of the scenery, human as well as natural.

It is physically and esthetically the focus of the latest effort to realize the vision of Memphis's trio of founders when they laid out the city in 1819, labeling the land west of Front from Union north to Jackson a "public promenade," relinquishing all claim to the land "now and forever" as long as public use continued.

For the most part, that arrangement still prevails, although the Memphis waterfront lacks the drawing power of, say, St. Louis or Chicago. It has great potential, though, and the recently incorporated Riverfront Development Corp. should come up with some splendid ideas.

One idea it must begin with is to keep intact a commitment described by founder John Overton, by making public access to the riverfront a non-negotiable requirement in any development plans.

No development in the area should hamper public access because the Promenade, which has through the years shrunk to about half its original size, is the public's land and the river is the public's river.

Its access should never be bartered away to lure private development into the historic area. What is essentially Memphis, from the historic cobblestone river landing to -- bless its heart -- the unprofitable but one-of-a-kind Mud Island River Park, must be preserved.

And there can't be any backing away from the commitment to finish uncompleted sections of the riverwalk and bluffwalk with unimpeded views of the Mississippi.
art of that project is expected to get under way soon with the approval of a contractor for the $4.5 million Cobblestone Walkway project, linking Jefferson Davis Park and the Tennessee Welcome Center with Tom Lee Park along the western edge of Riverside Drive, with a plaza at the foot of Union overlooking the harbor.

A planned $3.3 million redesign of Riverside Drive aimed at slowing traffic should help further the aims of the RDC by enabling pedestrians to reach the river more safely.

An important step toward riverfront development was taken last week when the RDC selected a team headed by a New York architectural firm to develop a master plan for the five-mile riverfront project.

The firm has previous experience with New York, St. Louis, Columbus, Boston and Chicago waterfront projects. It will hold public meetings to gather input from the community. The plan is expected to cost $500,000 to $750,000.

Another significant event in the development plan was Memphis real estate developer Robert Snowden's acceptance of the unenviable task of attempting to represent an estimated 200 to 300 heirs to the Memphis founders, one of whom is Snowden himself.

Known collectively as the Overton heirs - no offense intended to the descendants of James Winchester and Andrew Jackson who are also in the group - the heirs would have to approve any non-public use of the Promenade.

Public budgets being as tight as they are, the kind of development that would draw people to the riverfront and put it on a par with St. Louis or New Orleans would most likely require a sizable private investment smack dab in the historic Promenade. This is where the so-called Overton heirs, reportedly divided into five distinct family-oriented factions from coast to coast, would have to be brought in on the deal.

The project is fraught with legal complications, and there are numerous parties that will have to be brought together with the common goal in mind of fulfilling the founders' long-delayed dream.

But some of the city's brightest, most ambitious and civic-minded people, including Benny Lendermon, Kristi Jernigan and John Stokes, are on the case. Everybody grab your partner and promenade.

Copyright 2000, - Memphis, TN.

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Tuesday, April 25, 2000

Guest Editorial: For Park Commission

Commercial Appeal
Letter to the Editor
By Fred L. Davis, Member Memphis Park Commission

The Memphis City Council is about to pass on an ordinance that would dismantle the Park Commission. Why does the council want to do this?

Is the commission doing too good a job of keeping politics out of its operations? Is it serving too many diverse needs? If that is the case, the council should state which needs the commission should stop serving. The commission's 100-year history is free of scandals and investigations.

Or does the council have so much free time that it needs another project? I'm at a loss.

The commission was created to manage and preserve the city's most precious natural resources, and to provide a buffer between them and politics. Some of the city's most capable citizens have served as its chairman, including Abe Plough, Bert Ferguson, John D. Martin, William Wolbrecht and John Maxwell.

The commission made enormous progress under John Malmo, who resigned as chairman last June. It spent $200,000 and 2 1/2 years developing a 20-year capital facilities plan, which the City Council approved. If there was any fault with Malmo's service, it was not showing proper deference to the council's ego.

Perhaps its seamless operation has led Memphians to take the commission for granted, and led the council to conclude that anyone can do the commission's work. The commission does not exist just to oversee parks, playgrounds and community centers and provide after-school and summer activities for children. It is also custodian of Memphis's art, recreational and cultural jewels - the Memphis Zoo, the Pink Palace, Lichterman Nature Center and the Goldsmith Civic Garden Center among them.

The commission does not directly manage every facility for which it is responsible, but it does have budget, planning and policy oversight. These responsibilities require decision makers who have acquired these skills in other areas and are willing to share their expertise with the city.

Memphis needs the Park Commission now more than ever.

Copyright 2000 The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN

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Thursday, January 27, 2000

Editorial: Park Commission / Citizen Body Still Has Place in City Government

Commercial Appeal

MEMPHIANS are still waiting for the City Council to offer a good reason to abolish the Park Commission. Yet the effort has gathered momentum again, with the likely passage of an ordinance that would shift control of 10 riverfront parks, Mud Island River Park, the cobblestones and the historic promenade from the Park Commission to the mayor and City Council.

A council committee will consider a more ominous proposal next Tuesday: creating a department of city government to handle parks and recreation affairs, eliminating the Park Commission once and for all.

This time the council is launching a strike against the commission over the latter's plan to demolish the old Melrose High School building to make way for a senior citizens' center in Orange Mound. Leaders of the council movement to dump the commission insist it has arisen not from a personality conflict, but from a need to streamline the park system.

Council members also argue that the commission has shown a lack of political sensitivity on issues that usually end up in their laps. In fact, the Park Commission simply made its best judgment of what to do about Melrose and appropriately presented its case to the ultimate authority: the City Council.

The council and the commission have been through this before. The commission recommends a course of action on, say, a proposal to lease some land in Martin Luther King Jr./Riverside Park, or to build a senior citizens' center in Overton Park, or to convert Confederate Park to a monument to cancer survivors. Or perhaps it plays whatever cards it has in its deck to delay something the council wants, such as buying Whitehaven Country Club.

Its tactics occasionally prompt council members to dredge up the hoary proposal to abolish the commission. In 1996 the council created a 10-member advisory panel to study the idea. The group recommended leaving the commission alone. Earlier that year, a City Council funding moratorium on park projects temporarily set park operations on their ear.

This time the council will succeed in dumping the commission, predicts Mayor Willie Herenton, who isn't publicly taking sides on the issue. But the mayor's current agenda, which involves more direct City Hall involvement in schools, day care centers and the Head Start program, would suggest that he wouldn't mind a more direct hand in park operations as well.

An updated legal interpretation of the City Charter holds that the council has the power to get rid of the five-member commission. The Park Commission's defenders, such as Fred Davis, the mayor's nominee to succeed John Malmo as its chairman, hold that only the voters can eliminate the commission because the authority to create it is embedded in the charter.

Whether that interpretation eventually holds up, abolishing the Park Commission is a bad idea. The level of autonomy delegated to the commission to operate city parks provides a necessary buffer between the parks and politics, and a check against their potential degradation as part of a spoils system.

Besides, Park Commission members, who serve without pay, have shown that they can be a useful source of expertise.

COUNCIL members can, and should, continue to make careful and deliberate reviews of Park Commission decisions. And they can support Memphis parks with an adequate budget.

The $20 million annual tax-funded portion of the parks and recreation operating budget has not grown appreciably in 15 years. If council members truly want to do something to improve Memphis parks, a fresh look at the money they allocate to park upkeep would be a better place to start.

Copyright 2000 The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN

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Thursday, June 26, 1997

Editorial: Rising Cost Disturbs Picture-Perfect Lake

Commercial Appeal

THE WORD pictures and architectural renderings of a renovated Memphis Harbor may be captivating, but do the odds for success justify the price? A price that has just jumped at least $13 million.

Right now, it's the federal and state governments that will tackle the question. If they decide the game has gotten too rich, local taxpayers will have their turn.

Mayor W. W. Herenton had a great idea: Continue to develop and renovate the downtown riverfront so it would entice tourists, puff up local pride and generate economic growth. In the process, he said, the different parts of downtown - from South Main and Beale Street to Mud Island and the Wolf River - should be tied together to allow and encourage people to move along the whole length of the riverfront.

The mayor had a substantial amount to build on. Redevelopment has been proceeding, sometimes erratically, for two decades. Even so, he has given the project new life and enthusiasm and an expanded mission.

But will enthusiasm be mugged by rising costs?

A feasibility study released Tuesday estimates that Herenton's harbor plan, including a 36-acre recreational lake enclosed by dams that would link Mud Island to Beale Street and the Interstate 40 welcome center, will cost $43.2 million instead of the $25 million to $30 million that Herenton announced last September.

The higher cost is attributed to the need for a channel at the northern tip of Mud Island, a bridge over the channel and upgraded docking facilities for riverboats. The new channel would connect the harbor north of the lake to the Mississippi River. For safety reasons, it would replace plans for a channel closer to the Hernando DeSoto Bridge.

Some of the details even have downtown residents scratching their heads. Can the southern tip of Mud Island, for instance, really be raised for private development? In this year's flooding, the Mississippi rose almost to the flagpole on the top of the tip. It sounds like a massive, lengthy job of dredging and filling.

Herenton maintains a positive attitude. His plan, he insists, ''will serve as a catalyst for even greater downtown residential and commercial development.'' He says a ''major riverboat company'' is considering a move to Memphis - something more solid, one would hope, than a ferry service to Tunica.

Publicist Carol Coletta reports that ''some of the biggest entertainment folks around'' showed interest in the harbor plan at an urban entertainment meeting in Los Angeles last spring.

''When you say we're extending Beale Street to an island out in the middle of the Mississippi River, that gets people's attention,'' she said. Well, it's really not out in the middle. Sidney Shlenker thought he had captured the attention of his California friends with his grand plan for The Pyramid. Memphians are likely to feel more reassured when those entertainment folks start investing.

As things stand, the state has committed $7 million for the harbor plan and the city says it is seeking at least $20 million in federal funds. The new cost estimate, presumably, will raise the city's requests. Herenton will host U.S. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater for a riverfront tour this weekend.

Public works director Benny Lendermon suggests that Memphis is due the same federal help that Indianapolis and New Orleans got for similar projects. Memphis has been singing that blues song for decades, but maybe Lendermon is right. Maybe Washington, in the midst of a drive to balance the budget and deep cuts in urban programs, will develop a sudden soft spot for one neglected Southern city.

Or maybe Memphians will have to decide whether they want to find more millions on their own. There's no disputing the attractiveness of the plan - or the difficulty of paying for it.

Copyright (c) 1997 The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN

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Sunday, September 08, 1996

Editorial: From the mud? Grand Downtown Plan Needs a Lot of Study

Commercial Appeal

IF THERE were some way to move Graceland to Mud Island, the grand new plan for downtown might be a guaranteed success.

Otherwise, city officials should proceed with caution.

The Graceland possibility is suggested by San Antonio's famed riverwalk, which winds through the center of the city and past, among other tourist attractions, the Alamo.

What would exert the same kind of pull to bring people to the new Mud Island? A 28-acre "lake" squeezed between the island and the riverfront? A handful of stores with lodging and entertainment - the proposed "village" - built on the filled-in southern end of the island? A dam and land bridge from the island to Riverside Drive? A channel cut through the island to let boats and yachts get into the harbor? Another land bridge to and from the state Welcome Center?

The plan, Downtown Neighborhood Association president Bill Denson said, is "very unconventional and innovative." But he stopped short of endorsing it.

That's a sensible approach.

Mayor W.W. Herenton was careful to say that he was "considering and still investigating" the proposed changes, as laid out by Hnedak Bobo Group architects and PDR Engineering. He said the city would arrange for a feasibility study and invite comments "from diverse community groups."

There is always the option of delaying a new $30 million project until some of the other downtown plans, many already approved, are actually finished and paid for.

Those plans include the $17.8 million renovation of Central Station, the $60 million replacement of Ellis Auditorium, the $37.3 million Downtown Core Redevelopment Plan, a $3.8 million fire museum, the $5.4 million North End Parking and Transfer Facility for the Memphis Area Transit Authority, the $8.3 million renovation of the Orpheum, $11 million of improvements to The Pyramid, the $8.7 million completion of the Riverfront Trolley Loop and the $1.5 million riverbluff walkway.

The idea of connecting Mud Island to Riverside Drive caught a lot of attention. But it needs a lot of discussion, too.

Some City Council members were enthusiastic. Council chairman Janet Hooks said it "may be the shot in the arm that might help revitalize Mud Island." True. Especially since she hedged: "may be" and "might help."

Benny Lendermon, city public works director, said a study would cover technical and navigational concerns, permit requirements and potential sources of public and private funding.

The U.S. Corps of Engineers would have to be involved, too. Donald Dunn, chief of planning for the corps office in Memphis, said that the office was eager to learn more about the project but could not take a position until it knew more of the details.

There's no denying, however, that the Hnedak Bobo-PDR plan is worth talking about. Once the caveats are in place, it's intriguing to imagine what downtown would be like with easy access between the island and the riverfront, with riverboat restaurants moored along a land bridge instead of at the foot of the tricky cobblestones, with a clear lake surrounded by amenities instead of a muddy inlet from the river and with people wandering, jogging and milling around in a park that, so far, has been a serious drain on the city's budget.

The plan is bolder than the original, $11 million riverfront development project, which includes the riverwalk, floating shops and restaurants, new docking facilities for passenger riverboats and the privately funded Ron Terry Plaza at the foot of Union. All those ideas would be retained, with some changes.

Can it really be done? Is it affordable? Will the state provide more funds? And would the attractions be strong enough to make the investment a good bet?

To city officials' credit, they haven't formed a bandwagon yet. Extensive discussions will precede any parade. But Graceland - or something dramatic and proven - would be a big help.

Copyright (c) 1996 The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN

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