Monday, March 26, 2007

City to request screen for harbor pumping station

Commercial Appeal [Link]
March 25, 2007
by Tom Charlier

Terry Hanson's twice-weekly canoe outings in Wolf River Harbor would be a lot nicer without all the soft-drink cups, beer cans and other litter lining the banks like a dirty ring on a bathtub.

"It's horrible," the 52-year-old Downtown resident said after an outing last week. "It's not just the trash. It's the unkempt nature of the riverbank."

For years, the problem of litter in the harbor near Downtown has rankled outdoors enthusiasts and raised the eyebrows of tourists.

Rains wash the trash from city streets into storm sewers, which dump it into the harbor at the Bayou Gayoso Pumping Station at North Front and Saffarans. Prevailing southerly breezes can help keep it there.

But within the next month, Memphis will take the first step toward a multimillion-dollar solution to the problem. City officials will issue a request for proposals for a screen mechanism that would be installed at the pumping station to trap much of the litter before it reaches the harbor.

The project won't be simple. The bar screens that officials envision must be sufficiently sturdy and elaborate to catch trash without impeding the flow of water and contributing to flooding Downtown, city public works director Jerry Collins said.

"The first step is to figure how to implement a screening device that will actually work," he said. "It's not going to be an easy application."

The storm sewers and pumping station are critical components of the city's drainage and flood-control system.

During normal conditions -- when the Mississippi River has not risen to within 5 feet of flood stage -- storm water flows by gravity through concrete channels and reservoirs, entering the harbor through a gate at the pump station. When the river is at least 29.5 feet on the Memphis gauge, the gate is closed and the water is pumped through a flood wall protecting Downtown.

Since there are screens to protect the pumps, the litter problem occurs mostly when water is flowing through the open gate.

Collins said the city plans to issue the request within the next 30 days and receive the proposals 30 days after that.

Although no precise timetable or cost estimate for the project has been prepared, "we're definitely talking about millions of dollars," he said.

The screen project will be funded through the storm water fees that households, businesses and agencies have been paying since last May. The fees bring in nearly $13 million a year, with average residential household paying $2.18 a month.

Memphis officials had delayed decisions as to how the harbor should be cleaned up because of the prospect of a land bridge to Mud Island, which had been planned by the city's Riverfront Development Corp. and would have turned much of the harbor into a lake. The RDC's decision in late 2005 to drop the land-bridge plan opened the way for the screen project.

Terry Templeton, manager of the division of water pollution control in the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation's Memphis field office, said that while litter is generally not as serious as chemical pollution, it is an environmental problem.

The screens should trap much of the litter, but ordinary citizens can help even more, he said.

"The ultimate solution for trash is for all of us not to litter," Templeton said.

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Thursday, August 03, 2006

Garage Gate, Part Two?

The rationale for building Beale Street Landing is slipping away.


The Memphis Flyer [link]
By John Branston

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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








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Saturday, July 29, 2006

Editorial: Rollin' on the River

The Commercial Appeal
Editorial
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, commercialappeal.com - Memphis, TN. All Rights Reserved.

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Monday, June 26, 2006

Finding Safe Harbor: Beale Street Landing to lay anchor soon

The Daily News [Link to article]
By Andy Ashby

The Riverfront Development Corp. (RDC) has absorbed $500,000 of city budget cuts and appears ready to move ahead on its largest project to date, the $29.3 million Beale Street Landing.

When the Memphis City Council approved the city budget June 6, the RDC received $2.1 million for its operating budget for fiscal year 2007, down 18 percent from $2.6 million last year. The RDC's total operating budget is projected to be $4.2 million, down slightly from last year's $4.3 million.

The RDC was able to fill the city funding gap by reducing expenditures and through a projected revenue increase stemming from the operation of Mud Island River Park. The park includes the 5,000-seat Mud Island Amphitheater.

From disconcerting to concerts

When the RDC took over the amphitheater's operations from the city in 2000, the concert venue made almost no money, said RDC president Benny Lendermon. Last year, eight concerts netted more than $200,000 in profits. Next year, the RDC has a minimum of eight concerts planned, with a potential for more.

The RDC also will not offer raises to its 35 full-time employees next year.

"The normal citizen's experience on the riverfront will not change through these budget cuts," Lendermon said.

The RDC also adjusted the funding structure for its Capital Improvement Projects (CIPs), spreading the city's payments over three years to lessen the impact on each year's budget. Previously, the city was funding Beale Street Landing over fiscal years 2007 and 2008.

Now the money is going to be spread across three years, with the RDC receiving CIP money in fiscal years 2007, 2008 and 2009.

Beale Street Landing, which features a floating dock and five islands set at varying heights along the Mississippi River, is the biggest project on the RDC's CIP budget.

The millions at high tide

In last year's CIP budget, the project would cost the city $7.2 million in fiscal year 2007 and $12.7 million in fiscal year 2008, with $9.2 million in reprogrammed money, which is state and federal funding.

Under the new CIP budget, the city will pay $2 million in fiscal year 2007, $9 million in fiscal year 2008 and $7.8 in fiscal year 2009. The project now will get $10.5 million in reprogrammed money, as more state and federal funding has been found since last year, Lendermon said.

Once completed, Beale Street Landing will consist of five islands set at different levels of a terrace along the bank of the river and will be connected by bridges. Some of the lower islands will flood occasionally as the water level changes. This will allow visitors to get close to the river.


AYE, AYE: Capt. William Lozier, owner and operator of Memphis Riverboats Inc., is concerned the Beale Street Landing project will cause logistical problems for his fleet of three riverboats. Since it started in 1955, the company has operated from the cobblestones at the foot of Monroe Avenue and Riverside Drive. -- PHOTOGRAPH BY ANDREW ASHBYA 13,000-square-foot building will be constructed on the northeastern edge of the property with glass windows facing the river. The first floor of the building will be 10,000 square feet and could host a gift shop, a ticket terminal for boating companies and a restaurant. The second floor will have 3,000 square feet for utility equipment.

"That building will house what is one of the missing links for that area now," Lendermon said. "If you're in Tom Lee Park or at the cobblestones, you're a long way from a Coke, a burger or a glass of wine."

Hope floats

The project also features grass planted over the roof of the building, which slopes down on both ends, with one side landing in Tom Lee Park to the south and the other ending in a planned plaza to the north.

The RDC also is planning a 70-space garage under the building. This is down from the initial plan's 100 spots, another cost-cutting move.

Beale Street Landing's total project cost will remain $29.3 million, despite rising construction costs.

"Prices are certainly going up," Lendermon said. "Katrina and fuel prices have greatly increased the cost of this project, although we've committed to build this project for a set amount of money ($29.3 million). We deal with the increased price through changes in the project."

One change will be a shortened floating dock, which will rise and fall according to the Mississippi River's level. The original design called for a 580-foot floating dock. The RDC reduced the dock length by 100 feet to save money.

The reduction made the dock long enough to accommodate large steamboats and excursion boats.

"We felt it wasn't worthwhile to spend another million dollars extending this floating dock when it wasn't needed for the docking of vessels," Lendermon said.

When planning the landing, the RDC also reduced the number of islands at Beale Street Landing from six to five.

The first phase of the landing was completed in August 2005, when Great Lakes Docks and Dredge Inc. widened the point where the Wolf River Harbor meets the Mississippi.

Lendermon said he hopes bidding for the second phase of the landing, which involves building a sea wall to allow for construction of the rest of the project, will begin in early July. The second phase of the project should start in September, with the entire landing scheduled to be finished in early 2009.

Voice of reason

Beale Street Landing would change the appearance of Memphis' riverfront, but some citizens aren't sure it's needed.

Friends for our Riverfront, a nonprofit citizens group, has spoken out about several RDC projects, such as the proposed land bridge to Mud Island and the development of the public promenade area along Front Street. While the organization might seem to be anti-RDC, that's not the case, said Friends president Virginia McLean.

"But in terms of (the Beale Street Landing project), we think they really need to be evaluated in terms of the cost, in terms of the need and in terms of whether it's a good investment," she said. "Is there really a need for Beale Street Landing, or would the cobblestone area we already have, with improvements that could cost less, suffice?"

Capt. William Lozier, owner and operator of Memphis Riverboats Inc., said he also thinks the cobblestones are a better investment. The company has been in Lozier's family since 1955 and always has operated from the cobblestones at the foot of Monroe Avenue and Riverside Drive.

"We like where we're at," Lozier said. "Yeah, we'd like a new facility, but a new facility comes with new problems."

The company operates three riverboats, and Lozier said he has plans to put two more into service next year. Once Beale Street Landing is built, it could add another step to his departures.

"We would have to deal with the logistics of another landing and where the boat is going to disembark from," he said.

Setting sail from good to great

Some Memphians are excited about Beale Street Landing as a terminus for one of the city's most famous streets.

"If you go there today, it's in a dismal condition," said Carol Coletta, host of "Smart City," a nationally syndicated radio show that focuses on urban issues. "It's really no way to treat the Mississippi riverfront of a city that has ambition or pride."

Coletta said she thinks Beale Street Landing could be a key development for Memphis' riverfront.

"I think one of the reasons Beale Street Landing is so important is because it will set the tone from an urban design standpoint," she said. "It will set the standard for everything that comes after it. It doesn't need to just be good, it needs to be great."

Lendermon said he agrees with Coletta and thinks Beale Street Landing will provide a connection to the water that Memphians desperately need.

"You can't physically get to the water anywhere in Memphis except for the cobblestones and many people can't walk on the cobblestones," he said. "This will be a place you can get to the water's edge any time and in a very pleasant way."

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Friday, November 11, 2005

Too Many Credit Cards

Memphis Flyer
By John Branston
Link to original

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Friday, October 21, 2005

A Dam Shame

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

The Memphis Flyer
By John Branston
Link to original

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

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

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

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

Nice work if you can get it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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, October 18, 2005

Mud Island-Downtown land bridge is falling down

Riverfront planners want to refocus, deflect critics

Commercial Appeal
by Tom Charlier

Yielding to what they called political and economic realities, Riverfront Development Corp. officials Monday scuttled plans to build an ambitious, development-studded land bridge connecting Mud Island with Downtown Memphis.

If followed up by the City Council next month, the action could kill a project described as "the single most important defining element" in a 50-year, $300 million master plan for reshaping the waterfront along the Mississippi River.

The land bridge, planned for the area between Court and Poplar, was intended to leave Mud Island "seamlessly integrated" with Downtown. It would have created land for development and transformed much of what is now Wolf River Harbor into a lake.

The RDC board of directors cited several reasons for the vote, including the need to redevelop other areas of Downtown first and the financial challenges facing Memphis.

Board members also said that while the land bridge had not been slated for construction for at least 15 years, the frequent criticism of it was a distraction. RDC is busy trying to build the $27.3 million Beale Street Landing for riverboats and redevelop the Promenade acreage.

"We've got a lot on our plate," said board member Kevin Kane. "...We've got to focus on what we can control in the next five or 10 years."

Jeff Sanford was among several members who said groups were seizing on the land bridge proposal in their efforts to block any redevelopment along the riverfront.

"The land bridge has become a lightning rod," he said.

The board's action, which follows a study of the land bridge by a subcommittee, drops the proposal from the RDC strategic plan. It also asks the City Council to remove it from the riverfront master plan that was approved in 2002.

Board member Rickey Peete, a City Councilman, said the matter probably will be put on the agenda of the council's Nov. 1 meeting.

The RDC action comes as the Corps of Engineers is completing a study of issues involved with the land bridge. Corps project manager Greg Grugett said the study does not make recommendation as to whether the project should be built.

RDC had pegged the cost of the land bridge and related construction at $78 million, by far the most expensive item in its $292 million slate of outlined improvements. Although public capital funds would pay for the projects, RDC's master plan says a "significant portion" of the costs would be recouped through private development activity.

Critics, however, called the land bridge a costly boondoggle that would unloose major environmental and drainage problems and harm recreation.

Virginia McLean, president of Friends for Our Riverfront, a group critical of RDC's proposals, said she was "thrilled" by the vote Monday, which she said indicates the board has begun listening to public opinion.

"The public has been saying all along that we don't want a fake lake down there. We want a green riverfront," she said.

McLean and group vice president John Gary said RDC officials now should re-evaluate other parts of the master plan, especially those dealing with the Promenade.

"I'm kind of skeptical as to whether the master plan is worth pursuing," Gary said.

Despite the vote, RDC members said the land bridge concept could be revived sometime in the future.

"Plans are basically a work in progress," Peete said.

But for now, "the political reality is that it (the land bridge) has got to go."



Remaking the riverfront

The board of directors of the Riverfront Development Corp., the nonprofit group overseeing efforts to enhance Memphis's ties to the Mississippi River, voted Monday to drop plans for a land bridge between Downtown and Mud Island. The action is the latest in the group's five-year effort to revitalize the riverfront:

July 2000: RDC begins work on a master plan of improvements for a five-mile stretch of the riverfront.

January 2002: The RDC board approves a master plan developed by New York architects Cooper, Robertson & Partners. Its central feature was a 50-acre land bridge, which would transform most of the Wolf River Harbor into a lake. The plan also includes a riverboat facility known as Beale Street Landing and the redevelopment of the Promenade area of Downtown.

May 2002: The master plan is approved by City Council.

May 2004: Despite opposition from a citizens' group, the City Council approves RDC's land-use plan for the Promenade, which calls for mixed-use development on the area west of Front between Auction and Beale.

September 2005: State and federal regulators approve environmental permits for RDC's planned Beale Street Landing project, a $27.3 million facility featuring a floating dock and other amenities to accommodate commercial excursion vessels. Initial dredging for the project could begin this fall.

October 2005: RDC board, citing political and economic obstacles, votes to eliminate the land bridge from the RDC strategic plan and ask the City Council to strike it from the master plan.

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Friday, July 01, 2005

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

Memphis Flyer
By John Branston
Link to original

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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, June 12, 2005

RDC chief uses fishing tactics to land a Big River Catch

Commercial Appeal
By Blake Fontenay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For some, the riverfront initiatives are an obvious target.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Letters: Public won't escape riverfront bill

The Commercial Appeal
Letters to the Editor

Your April 22 article, "Shutting off Wolf? Land bridge would force companies to move," said: "The land bridge is a central feature of a $292 million master plan of improvements -- most of them privately financed -- sought by the city's Riverfront Development Corp."

If you are talking about the "$292 million" (a figure that is out of date), most if not all of it is actually public financing. But if you really meant to describe the entire master plan (with "improvements," i.e. buildings), then you used the wrong figure. It should be more like $1.3 billion.

I refer to the financial projections provided by the Riverfront Development Corp. in January 2003 to the Urban Land Institute:

The capital cost of the project (with contingencies) was actually estimated at $340 million. (That's in 2002-2003 dollars, and will likely change after the Corps of Engineers does its feasibility study.)

The financials refer to a $200 million "public portion" (which is supposed to be injected evenly over 10 years). The financials do not detail what portions are federal, state and local.

Consistent with the above, Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton referred to $100 million over five years planned for in the 2003 Capital Improvement Program budget.

The remaining $140 million ($340 million less the public portion) is to be financed by debt. It does not take a rocket scientist to guess that the public will be involved with this debt, most likely by guaranteeing the bond issues.

Whether you count only the $200 million or the entire $340 million (including debt), most of the capital cost of the land bridge and lake is not privately financed. Therefore, your characterization is highly misleading, if not an outright error.

You don't have to rely on my word about the financial projections. Go to the RDC Web site and look at the master plan itself, which predates the ULI submission.

No question, the $292 million (or the slightly more current estimate of $340 million) is intended to be paid with public financing. Clearly, a correction should be published, lest Memphians be fooled into thinking they will get a land bridge and lake for free.

Michael Cromer
Memphis


This so-called land bridge is really an earthen dam several blocks wide that would close off the harbor to barge traffic to link Downtown with Mud Island and make new land, in the river, available to private developers to create a second Downtown and a small recreational lake. Taxpayers will pay for this dam, just as they will pay for most of the RDC's "improvements" to the Mississippi riverfront.

Taxpayers will pay for the RDC's attempts to seize the Promenade blocks by eminent domain, and taxpayers will pay for the ensuing lawsuits as the heirs of Memphis's founders struggle to keep that land in the hands of the people. Taxpayers will pay to relocate all of the buildings on the Promenade, which include the City of Memphis Fire Headquarters, Cossitt Library, two garages and, depending on what is done with it, the Customs House and Post Office. Even RDC president Benny Lendermon was forced to admit on television that the public would have to pay for the relocation of the fire headquarters.

Taxpayers will pay a large part of the cost of placing the floating islands, terminal and docking facility at the foot of Beale Street, which is a $27.5 million project.

It is inaccurate and misleading for you to claim that all of these projects in the RDC master plan will be financed by private developers. You need to get the facts instead of taking the RDC's word.

Mimi Waite
Memphis

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Friday, April 22, 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2005 Contemporary Media, Inc.

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Shutting Off Wolf

Land bridge would force companies to move

The Commercial Appeal
By Tom Charlier

The company Terry Martin works for isn't just situated in Wolf River Harbor. It's cemented there.

Lafarge North America Inc. operates a cement terminal that distributes 165,000 tons of powder a year to mixing plants in the Memphis area. Barges carrying 1,500 tons of cement regularly pull into the 58-year-old terminal at Henry and Front, a mile north of The Pyramid.

That's why Martin, the terminal manager, has trouble even contemplating being forced to move some day to make way for an expansive riverfront-development project envisioned by Memphis officials.

"We've got a lot of money invested in this terminal," he said.

Nonetheless, Lafarge and six other industries and government agencies that remain along the waterway are the focus of a survey gauging the impact of a long-range proposal to close off the harbor with a land bridge linking Downtown and Mud Island.

The land bridge is a central feature of a $292 million master plan of improvements -- most of them privately financed -- sought by the city's Riverfront Development Corp. But it's not going to be built for probably another 15 years or so, RDC president Benny Lendermon said.

"You really have to have a majority of the developable property on or close to the waterfront developed" before new acreage is created through a land bridge, he said.

If it is built, the land bridge will transform the harbor into a recreational lake, eliminating a last remaining vestige of Memphis riverfront history.

In the decades before the Corps of Engineers rerouted the Wolf River to north of Downtown in the early 1960s, the mouth of the Wolf served as a bustling harbor for commercial vessels on the Mississippi River.

But the construction of a causeway to Presidents Island more than 50 years ago created McKellar Lake -- a large, slack-water embayment that has become the city's main port.

According to the Waterborne Commerce Statistics Center, river vessels shipped 18.2 million tons of material in and out of the Memphis area in 2003. But only 1 million tons came through the Wolf River Harbor.

Although that total was up from the 877,000 tons reported in 2002, it was barely half the 1.8 million tons of cargo shipped in and out of the harbor as recently as 1995.

The operations that still line the Wolf's former channel include the headquarters of Anderson-Tully Co., a hardwood timber management and lumber firm, and a Coast Guard facility that helps oversee nearly 800 miles of the Mississippi.

In addition to Lafarge, industrial operations include a cement terminal run by Buzzi Unicem (formerly Lone Star Industries) and terminals and elevators owned by Bunge North America, Cargill Inc. and Westway Feed Products.

The survey, conducted by a corps contractor, will help define the scope of the harbor facilities and how they are served by the waterway and the surrounding road network.

Officials with some of the firms say they dread the prospect of moving.

"It would be expensive," said Deb Seidel, spokesman in Bunge's St. Louis headquarters.

The land bridge would "shut us down," she said. "Most of our business is barge traffic."

The Coast Guard's Group Lower Mississippi River facility is the base for a 75-foot cutter that tends navigation buoys up and down the river. But officials there haven't staked a position on the land bridge, said operations specialist Joel Coffman.

Some harbor facilities would feel little effect.

Anderson-Tully, for instance, no longer has barge traffic in the harbor. Most of its mills and facilities are centered near Vicksburg, Miss. "Our business operations would not be affected," president Chip Dickinson said.

Donald McCrory, executive director of the Memphis and Shelby County Port Commission, said he's concerned about the potential effects of the land bridge on overall river commerce. "I hope that's given the consideration it needs."

In addition to the long-range RDC plans, the harbor industries might conflict with the city's Uptown development being built just to the east.

Robert Lipscomb, director of Memphis Housing Authority and director of Housing and Community Development for the city, said relocating the industries is vital to the city's redevelopment.

"I think you have to relocate them. ... There's a higher and better use for that property."

Copyright 2005 commercialappeal.com

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Monday, April 18, 2005

Development threatens harbor operations

Land bridge, residential development may relocate harbor firms

Memphis Business Journal
by Amos Maki
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Businesses along the Wolf River Harbor say a proposed land bridge stretching across the harbor would cripple their businesses and probably force them to close for good.

"If they shut down river traffic, it would shut us down," says Deborah Seidel, communications director for Bunge North America, which has 11 full-time employees at its facility on North Second.

"The vast majority of our business there is barge traffic."

Officials from Riverfront Development Corp., Army Corps of Engineers and Tetra Tech, Inc., are contacting seven Wolf River Harbor businesses to determine the impact of RDC's proposed land bridge.

The land bridge, if built, would close the harbor many of the companies rely on to move everything from cement to grain. The planned $78 million, 38-acre land bridge would stretch across the harbor from Court Street to Poplar and is part of the RDC's Riverfront Master Plan drawn up in 2002 by architecture and urban design firm Cooper, Robertson & Partners.

Businesses affected include Anderson-Tully Lumber Co., Bunge North America, LaFarge North America, Inc., Buzzi Unicem, Cargill, Inc., Westway Feed Products and the U.S. Coast Guard.

The cost of the $332,000 feasibility study is being split by RDC and the Corps of Engineers.

But even if the land bridge is never built, those harbor businesses would probably be forced to move anyway to allow residential development to expand all the way to the water's edge.

"They are studying what impact the land bridge concept will have on the industries in the harbor and, more than that, how you get them to start looking at relocating their facilities within Memphis," says Dorchelle Spence, RDC spokesman.

"The reason that needs to happen is for a number of projects that are going forward and the biggest one is Uptown, moreso than the land bridge.

"The Uptown development that is occurring is taking residential closer to the waterfront and you can't do that when you have all of these industries in the harbor because of the 18-wheel truck traffic it brings through that neighborhood," she says. "(Moving industry off the harbor) needs to happen whether we move forward with the land bridge or not."

Uptown, a joint venture between Belz Enterprises, Henry Turley Co. and the City of Memphis, covers more than 100 city blocks in the north end of Downtown.

The project received a $35 million HOPE VI grant from HUD, which helped transform two of Uptown's former public housing units into mixed-income housing.

Robert Lipscomb, director of the division of Housing and Community Development and Memphis Housing Authority, says using the harbor land for industry isn't the best use for what could potentially be very valuable residential property.

"As Housing and Community Development, we want to go all the way to the river and make sure we use the land to its highest and best use," he says. "To me, the highest and best use of that land, not to mention the compatibility with residential uses, is residential and commercial development. The current use is really not compatible with the residential and commercial use that is moving toward that area."

Lipscomb says he will work with the RDC, a not-for-profit, public/private partnership under contract with the city of Memphis, to redevelop the area.

"The RDC is the primary motivator and will determine what goes there, so we'll be working with them to make sure the highest and best use of that property is attained," he says.

"I think we're definitely on the same page."

The RDC and Housing and Community Development may be on the same page, but harbor industry officials don't like the book. They say they rely on the harbor to transport their goods by barge and that closing the harbor or relocating them to make way for new development could put them out of business.

"We get all our barges in from that end of the river and if they dam that up, I'm out of business," says Terry Martin, terminal manager at LaFarge North America, a cement distributor which has been on Henry Street since 1947 and has five full-time employees. "We do everything by barge."

Mike Johnson, terminal manager for Buzzi Unicem, a cement distributor, says moving off the harbor would kill the business.

"It would put us out of business," he says. "The cost of trucking isn't even feasible and we don't have any rail into there and the cost and dependability of rail for the volume we do isn't feasible, either."

Spence says they are in the early stages of exploring how to relocate the industries, hopefully within the city.

"This is first step in exploring what it would take to make that happen," she says.

© 2005 American City Business Journals Inc.

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Saturday, March 05, 2005

Letter: Land bridge is waste of precious funds

The Commercial Appeal
Letter to the Editor

This week the League of Women Voters hosted a meeting about the proposed land bridge that is a big part of the Riverfront Development Corp.'s master plan for Downtown's waterfront. RDC president Benny Lendermon and Virginia McLean, of Friends for Our Riverfront, were guests.

No matter how you view the proposed changes and their impact on our city, we all must agree that our first priority must be fiscal responsibility. As the numbers began to come out, grudgingly on the part of Lendermon, it became clear we are talking hundreds of millions more than this city has ever put into any public works project.

In a time of severe budget crisis, when our mayor considers cutting $86 million from the city schools, do we need to spend $100 million on the RDC to develop plans for spending hundreds of millions more? Where are our priorities? Should we invest in our people, our poverty, our crime, our education, our homelessness and our police forces? Probably, but for some reason, our elected officials are more interested in creating estate homes on the harbor and turning our Public Promenade into high-priced condos.

We are robbed each time we get our property tax bills. It's time for us to get rid of every politician who votes for funding anything until our children have a decent education. They are our future, not a land bridge that lines the pockets of some of the wealthiest players in the game.

Jeffrey Chipman
Memphis

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Monday, January 10, 2005

Letter: Restore CCC as Downtown planner

Commercial Appeal
Letters to the Editor

As this community faces the threat of higher taxes, our leaders are making a great show of efforts to reduce expenditures. Consolidation has become Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton's solution to the looming shortfalls. He has an opportunity to show his belief in consolidation within his own domain.

Memphis has two semiprivate organizations that oversee the development of our city, the Center City Commission and the Riverfront Development Commission. Both organizations, funded to a large extent by taxpayers, are staffed with highly paid individuals, and both maintain executive office suites in Downtown Memphis.

Before the RDC was created, Downtown development efforts were led solely by the CCC. By removing the riverfront from CCC purview, the mayor was able to provide highly paid jobs for ex-city employees who carried on his vision of a grand-scale rebuilding of the city, centered on a land bridge and lake. In light of the current budget crisis, these plans have taken a low profile.

With the view that consolidated organizations are more efficient than divided and often duplicated efforts, now would be a great time for the mayor to consolidate the efforts of the CCC and the RDC, returning the development of Downtown to the CCC. This act would save millions by reducing duplicated costs, and allow costly planning efforts to return to a more realistic level, benefiting the city and taxpayer alike.

Thomas Kroll
Memphis

Copyright 2004 - The Commercial Appeal is an E.W. Scripps Company newspaper.

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Monday, November 15, 2004

Mud Island sale tracks a path to the future

Commercial Appeal
by Tom Charlier

In selling off one of the last large pieces of land left on the north end of Mud Island, the Riverfront Development Corp. cut a deal to secure more public access to the waterfront.

RDC, the nonprofit overseeing redevelopment of the Memphis riverfront, received six parcels totaling 18 acres along the Wolf River Harbor in addition to the $840,000-plus price that developer Kevin Hyneman paid for 8.7 adjacent acres.

RDC president Benny Lendermon said the donated acreage will accommodate part of a walking trail planned along the harbor.

"We hope to have public access all along the harbor, especially as the harbor gets better and better," Lendermon said.

Hyneman, a partner with Jeffrey Bronze in several projects on the island, will use the purchased land as part of a 15-acre development featuring 106 single-family homes. The Riverpoint planned development, which Hyneman describes as a continuation of his previous projects, was approved by the Land Use Control Board on Thursday.

The 8.7 acres in the transaction are less than a half-mile south of the causeway connecting the northern end of Mud Island to Downtown.

The land had been owned by an asphalt company, with the city obtaining it when the firm moved. The city transferred the property to the RDC this year. The sales price was based on the appraised value of the land, Lendermon said.

Hyneman agreed that RDC and the public benefited from the deal. "We think they came out on top, but that's OK," he said.

RDC officials were glad to see the land used for homes instead of apartments. "There's nothing wrong with apartments," Lendermon said. "But there's a multitude of apartments down at that northern end."

Hyneman, who has developed some 500 homes on Mud Island, said the residences in the new project probably will be priced from $160,000 to $250,000.

"The market is very strong down on the island," he said.
In addition to Riverpoint, he and Bronze are working on plans for a $75 million mixed-used development on the island just south of the Auction Street bridge and encompassing the site of a calamitous mudslide two years ago.

The project will feature condominium units and homes, but the 4 acres affected by the mudslide will be set aside for some amenity - perhaps a marina or park, Hyneman said.

Copyright (c) 2004 The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN

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Sunday, October 24, 2004

Riverfront planners watching high court eminent domain case

Commercial Appeal
by Tom Charlier

A Connecticut legal battle that has made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court could help determine whether Memphis uses eminent domain to seize the downtown acreage it covets for an expansive riverfront redevelopment.

The high court late last month agreed to hear a case arising from a waterfront development project in New London, Conn., that bears similarities to the one envisioned in a 50-year, $292 million plan of improvements along the Mississippi River in Memphis.

Proponents and critics of the plan say they'll be watching the court's ruling in the New London case because it's likely to determine when and how governments may seize private property for economic development projects.

"I think it will be very telling," said John Gary, vice president of Friends for Our Riverfront, a group that has opposed portions of the plan set forth by the Riverfront Development Corp., the nonprofit group guiding the city's efforts to remake its waterfront.

While stressing that he'd prefer to use other means to obtain property, RDC president Benny Lendermon said eminent domain is "an option that we've always considered."

The New London case, he said, "may have some bearing on it, one way or another."

The Connecticut dispute began when officials announced plans to raze a working-class neighborhood to make way for a hotel, health club and offices along the Thames River. As in the Memphis proposal, a major goal of the development is to attract people to the waterfront.

However, several homeowners sued, calling the plan an unjustified taking of their property. The Connecticut Supreme Court, in a ruling earlier this year, sided with the city's claims that the promise of additional tax revenue justified the condemnation of the waterfront property.

The New London case is the latest of several focusing on eminent domain. It follows a Michigan Supreme Court ruling this year that overturned a two-decade-old decision allowing Detroit to raze an ethnic neighborhood to accommodate an auto plant.

With more and more cities turning to redevelopment projects to boost their sagging budgets, the Connecticut case has ramifications nationwide, officials say.

Municipal leaders argue that cities should be able to use eminent domain to revitalize downtowns and neighborhoods.

"If the court takes away this tool that has 50 years of precedence, where will cities find the revenues to do the things they are legislatively charged to do?" said David Parkhurst, principal legislative counsel for the National League of Cities.

But property rights groups contend that in employing condemnation, cities often have strayed from their constitutional charge to transfer the property for public use. In thousands of cases, the private land has been taken for the benefit of private developers and businesses, said Bert Gall, a staff attorney for the Institute of Justice in Washington, which is representing the New London homeowners.

"Public use is not condominiums. It's not offices, it's not retail," Gall said.

In Memphis, the plan pursued by the RDC would revamp a five-mile stretch of the riverfront. It includes mixed-used commercial development, including high-rise towers, in the historic promenade area along Front Street, construction of a lake and a 50-acre land bridge to Mud Island and redevelopment of current industrial sites.

In a recent report assessing the RDC plan, the Urban Land Institute raised the prospect that eminent domain might be needed.

"Given the critical amounts of land needed for riverfront development, this tool may become important to the RDC," the institute's report said.

Still, RDC officials say they'll try to avoid condemnation. To obtain the promenade area, they plan to negotiate with the heirs to the Memphis founders who set it aside for public use.

"I'd rather not even have to consider it (eminent domain)," said John W. Stokes, chairman of the RDC board.

Lendermon said he remains confident the promenade area can be acquired without eminent domain. He said a condemnation case there would be "very convoluted" because the owners - the founders' heirs - number in the hundreds and don't have direct use of the land because of an easement held by the city.

"You're condemning these rights that are somewhat nebulous," Lendermon said.


Other areas where the city might have to condemn land for the riverfront project include the industries along the Wolf River harbor.

RDC officials say the court's ruling in the New London case, which is expected as early as next summer, will provide some needed guidelines on the use of eminent domain.

"I think the pendulum has swung away from condemnations that used to go through pretty easily," Stokes said.

Copyright 2004 by The Commercial Appeal

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Friday, September 24, 2004

A Riverfront

Memphis Magazine

Confused about the debate over our riverfront? You're not alone. Maybe we can help sort things out.

Has Mother Nature taken sides in the debate over the Memphis riverfront promenade?

It looked that way after a Memorial Day storm seemingly took dead aim at the downtown bluff and knocked down several trees in Confederate Park across from the Morgan Keegan Tower. It was the second time in 10 months that a storm had littered the park with toppled trees, suggesting, perhaps, that if the heirs of the city founders can't decide what to do then the airs of the west wind will simply destroy the promenade piece by piece.

The promenade is the centerpiece of the riverfront, the west side of the blocks between Union and Poplar. The pro-development Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC) has picked the low-hanging fruit by putting a median in Riverside Drive, building a sidewalk above the cobblestones and stairwells on the bluff, landscaping riverfront parks, and holding a design competition for a boat landing at the foot of Tom Lee Park.

But what about downtown's front yard, which now includes a fire station, library, and parking garages? That's where the RDC and a group called Friends for Our Riverfront are far apart. Here's a look at some of the issues that divide them.
What was the founders' vision and why does it matter?

Memphis was founded in 1819, a date which splits the difference between the appointment of commissioners for the Chickasaw Treaty in 1818 and the opening of a land office on the bluff in 1820. The "proprietors" of the land were John Overton, John McLemore, and Marcus Winchester, later the first mayor. Charles Crawford, professor of history at the University of Memphis, says they were "hardheaded, realistic businessmen" with unusual foresight. They dedicated a web of squares, alleys, streets, and the promenade to public use while keeping the rights to operate a ferry at the waterfront.

By 1828, doubts had already arisen about the proprietors' intentions.

"The people of Memphis were opposed to the proprietors and did everything they could to hinder and hamper them," wrote J.M. Keating in his 1888 History of the City of Memphis and Shelby County .

So the proprietors decided to restate their vision and file it in the record books, which can still be seen in the deed book in the Shelby County Archives. This is what it says:

"The proprietors say that it was their original intention, is now, and forever will be, that the promenade should be public ground for such use only as the word imports, to which heretofore, by their acts, for that purpose, it was conceived all right was relinquished for themselves, their heirs, etc."

Are the heirs united?

No. Some of them are leaders and supporters of Friends for Our Riverfront. Others are willing to support parts of the RDC plan with a major qualification. Hamilton Gayden Jr., a judge in Nashville and an Overton heir, helped organize a survey of "165 Overton first-in-line heirs," 140 of whom answered the survey. According to Gayden, 133 Overton heirs favor development of the promenade for private use "provided the development ensures adequate green space and protects the public's access to and views of the river, and provided the revenues from private uses are shared in an equitable fashion between the city and the heirs."

Gayden's group says the McLemore descendants favor the RDC proposal, but that appears to be hearsay evidence at this point. As for the Winchester heirs, suffice it to say that founders James and William Winchester each had nine children, one of whom was Marcus Winchester, who also had nine children. Do the math.

Finally, even if a majority of the heirs could be found and surveyed, their sentiments might not matter.

"So what?!" states a Friends handout. "The descendants have no right to change the conditions of the initial grant of this land."

What powers does the RDC have?

The RDC was created in 2000 as a not-for-profit, public/private partnership. Under contract with the city of Memphis, it is charged with promoting, planning, and coordinating whatever enhances the attractiveness, accessibility, and economic value of the waterfront. It took over all of the downtown riverfront parks from the Memphis Park Commission. Memphis City Council members sometimes call it the Retired Directors Club because its staff includes former city division directors Benny Lendermon and John Conroy.

In 2002, the RDC completed an 18-month master planning process, which culminated in the Memphis Riverfront Master Plan (which can be viewed online at www.memphisriverfront.com). The plan cannot be implemented without the approval of the Memphis City Council at a number of stages, including public funding if and when it comes to that.

"Finding a way to pay for improvements is essential," says Lendermon. "The RDC plans call for mixed-use developments on 40 percent of the promenade land, which will generate money needed to build the walkways, bury parking, and add trees. Without those revenues, this plan would likely end up where most plans are, collecting dust on the shelf."

What does Friends for Our Riverfront want?

To see the four blocks of the promenade from Union to Adams returned to a more or less continuous park and greenspace with new walkways and without the library, fire station, and parking garages. Those buildings go away, and their replacement cost is not part of the $7 million estimate Friends puts on demolition, new landscaping, and pedestrian bridges. (The group's Web site is www.friendsforourriverfront.org.)

What happened to the lake and land bridge?

The most obvious new feature in the RDC Master Plan is a proposed 38-acre, five-square-block area of new land connecting the city to Mud Island. It would create two new bodies of water -- a smaller downtown commercial harbor and a new lake -- and provide land for new development. The RDC says it could take 10 to 20 years or more for all elements of the plan to be implemented. Lendermon, a veteran of many years at City Hall, and the board of the RDC have elected to fight one battle at a time.

Jack Tucker, an architect and downtown pioneer with an office on Front Street, says one of the RDC consultants told him that the land bridge was mandated by the RDC and did not come from the planners. Downtown developer Henry Turley says it is so massive and expensive that he fears it could cause more doable parts of the plan to be scuttled. The Urban Land Institute, a group of consultants hired by the RDC, seems conflicted about the land bridge in its 2003 report.

"Do not let the land bridge be a barrier to progress and action in other areas," the report says. It lists five "challenges" posed by this "expensive way to create a new development opportunity" including redirecting investment away from other parts of downtown. "Despite these challenges the panel does not believe that the land bridge should not be built," the report says.

Nothing like the old double-negative endorsement.

What about parking?

Friends says there are alternatives to Front Street parking lots such as trolley links to parking lots at the north and south ends of downtown. But the RDC and Center City Commission say that any promenade parking that is demolished must be replaced with new parking facilities, possibly underground.

"Whether the RDC plan is implemented or not, we need the estimated 1,000 parking spaces that are in the two garages on Front and Monroe and Front and Jefferson," said Jeff Sanford, executive director of the Center City Commission. "There is already demand for more public parking than exists."

Where did those 400-foot office towers come from?

The RDC says office towers up to 400 feet tall have always been part of its plans that were presented in three public hearings. At the same time, however, Lendermon says there is only a slight chance of such towers being built.

Where do the mayor and City Council stand?

Mayor Herenton is pro-RDC. In May, the City Council voted 10-3 to let the RDC plan move forward but modified it by knocking the office buildings down to a maximum height of 150 feet. The presentation and public comment on the plan came at the end of a seven-hour meeting and left some people on both sides feeling snubbed by City Council Chairman Joe Brown. Brown's North Memphis constituency includes many poor and working-class Memphians who are more concerned about crime and schools than the RDC plan. But Brown voted with the majority.
Both sides could overplay their hand, or they could wind up simply mortally wounding each other. Jack Sammons, who represents affluent East Memphians, said his "nay" was a cautionary one to let the RDC know that he will also be raising lots of questions down the road. Carol Chumney and E.C. Jones were the other "no" votes. The architect of the 150-foot compromise was Council-man Tom Marshall, but he has an independent streak as well.

Who's winning?

It would seem that the RDC won the first round by virtue of being on the long end of a 10-3 vote, which kept the plan alive without authorizing any public appropriations or construction contracts. With many more battles ahead, however, an early win may not mean much. On its Web site, Friends vows to "stop the RDC's land grab." And Bruce Kramer, an attorney who represents Friends, had this reply to one plan supporter:

"Since you are glad the RDC won round one, I wonder if you are interested in buying or leasing the Brooklyn Bridge?"

Is it going to court?

Probably so, in the opinion of the Urban Land Institute and others. If it does, the court battle could be long and expensive -- and a long time coming. A decision could be appealed. The dispute over running Inter-state 40 through Overton Park went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1971, then it was nearly 20 more years before new houses were built in the old expressway corridor.

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