The Memphis Flyer: "Digging Deeper. Chumney does her own budget searching."
September 24, 2004

By Bianca Phillips

This week, the City Council approved a resolution requiring the city finance office to submit quarterly budget reviews. Those reviews, which will include budget trends for each city division, spending reports, and year-to-date revisions, have been put in place to predict and minimize any budget shortfalls. The vote comes two weeks after city administrators reported that overtime costs and costs related to the July 2003 windstorm combined for a $30 million shortfall in the 2004 budget.

During last Thursday's budget committee meeting, City Council members listened to finance director Charles Williamson's contingency plans designed to offset this year's budget shortfall and future projected revenue shortages. But one council member -- Carol Chumney -- was more concerned about the causes of the budget shortfall.

"I was shocked and amazed at [Mayor Herenton's] announcement and what he said about council members being asleep on the job," said Chumney. "For them to come in and say that about $20 million was taken from the reserve fund to make up for this year's shortfall, that blew my mind." In a Commercial Appeal article, Herenton was quoted as saying that council members should have been aware of the city's fiscal situation.

Following reports by Williamson and his staff and information presented by the U of M's Sparks Bureau of Business and Economic Research, Chumney presented her own report, one that analyzed budget data back to April 2003. Her contention was that city leaders, namely Herenton and then finance director Joseph Lee, were aware of the city's revenue problems long before the council was notified last week. "We need to know why the city came up with numbers much rosier than the Sparks numbers," said Chumney. "I think we need some accountability, some answers."

The city's plan includes hiring freezes, cost decreases, and phasing out temporary workers and would produce about $32 million in savings. Chumney said the shortfall is closer to $36 million. Herenton has said that an increase in city property taxes may be necessary. Chumney proposes additional budget cuts, including college incentives and tuition reimbursements for employees, food expenses, legal and court costs, Riverfront Development funds, and a hold on nonessential new computer purchases. Those items currently account for $13 million of the budget. "Before you advocate property or payroll taxes, you have to make a reasonable budget and make cuts," Chumney said. "Only after doing that do you go to the people and ask for a tax increase."

Budget reports from Sparks had not been made available to council members. Chumney said that if the council had been provided with ongoing revenue reports from Sparks, it would have made more informed decisions before approving the budget for fiscal year 2005. The council approved the budget based on the city's April forecast data. "Of course, [the council] didn't ask for the Sparks reports because we didn't even know they existed," said Chumney. "Earlier this year it was said that I was too aggressive and was asking too many questions. Now, it's like we're not being aggressive enough or asking enough questions. You can't have it both ways."

Copyright 2004, The Memphis Flyer. All Rights Reserved.

The Associated Press: "Memphis riverfront in tug of war; Wanted for park, redevelopment"

June 7, 2004

MEMPHIS, TENN. - In 1819, the founders of Memphis had run off the Chickasaw Indians and were getting down to drawing a design for their city.

They envisioned a town with a long, green park as its front door gracing a high bluff over the Mississippi River. The Promenade, as they called it, was to offer a commanding view of the river and would forever remain "public ground."

But not much of that park is still a park, and the view is far from commanding.

Now the view of the river from the Promenade is blocked by two run-down city parking garages, a firehouse, an old library and a former federal courthouse.

The city's plan for gussying up the riverfront would clear out the old buildings and open four central blocks of the Promenade for developers to put offices, condos, shops and restaurants.

That plan has created two determined camps: a citizens group that wants the Promenade returned to open green space and the Riverfront Development Corp., which wants a splashy commercial waterfront like other cities have built.

Likely in the mix, too, will be hundreds of heirs of the Memphis founders who argue they can claim the land if private developers move in.

"It was meant to be reserved for the use of the people, not for private business," said Charles Crawford, a University of Memphis history professor.

Though the land on which Memphis sits was then occupied by the Chickasaw, North Carolina claimed it in the late 1700s and a speculator named John Rice bought a 5,000-acre chunk.

The founders of the city, John Overton, James Winchester and John McLemore, got the land from Rice's estate after he was killed by Indians. By the 1820s, Memphis had fewer than 100 residents, but it was a center of trade for livestock, cotton, timber and other goods.

The Memphis founders were land developers, but they took the unusual step of setting aside several sites for public parks. The Promenade drew the attention of private business early on.

"People were using it to park their wagons. They would camp there, and if they brought something in to sell, they would pile it up on the riverfront," Crawford said.

In 1828, the founders drew up a written explanation that their easement for the site meant it was to be public land.

Benny Lendermon, president of the current-day Riverfront Development Corp., said the site has since become an eyesore and the only way to transform it is with private money.

"It's been talked about for years, but it's not ever going to happen. It will just keep sitting there like it is," Lendermon said.

His nonprofit corporation is under contract with the city to manage and redevelop the 5-mile-long riverfront.

Memphis, like other cities, has pushed in recent years to make its riverfront more attractive to tourists and local residents alike.

Over the past two decades, the city has made major strides cleaning up downtown -- a revitalized Beale Street entertainment district, the new Peabody Place mall, a new minor-league ballpark and the NBA Grizzlies' FedExForum opening later this year.

The face-lift has convinced more people to move downtown and has sparked commercial development. The Riverfront Development Corp. has plans for more improvements.

Lendermon said clearing out the old buildings plus laying out a park could cost $50 million. Members of the citizens group, Friends of Our Riverfront, predict it would cost considerably less, however, perhaps as little as $7 million.

The development corporation has the city council's OK to move ahead with its plans, but Virginia McLean, president of Friends for Our Riverfront, said her group's fight is far from over.

"The land they're talking about is public land. It belongs to the citizens of Memphis," said McLean, an heir of founder John Overton. "We think it should remain open space for everybody to use."

The Riverfront Development Corp. now must begin talking to the founders' heirs, a diverse group that still owns the land, even though the city has an easement to use it.

Lendermon has said there must be a court decision on how the land can be used, and that might take up to two years to settle.

The Riverfront Development Corp. hopes to find private developers to build two towers up to 150 feet tall for offices and condominiums. The development also would include shops, restaurants and other such businesses.

The riverfront already has more than 250 acres of parks but little else to draw people to the river, Lendermon said.

"If you want to have a view of the river and have dinner at a small bistro or some nicer place, there's no place to go," he said.

Copyright 2004, The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

The Commercial Appeal: "Approval of land's heirs next step in riverfront redevelopment plan"

May 20, 2004

By Tom Charlier

After winning a key vote of approval from the Memphis City Council, Riverfront Development Corp. officials prepared Wednesday for what could be the most difficult step in their quest to transform the downtown promenade.

The RDC must begin a dialog with the heirs of John Overton and the other Memphis founders who set aside the four-block area west of Front for public use.

The discussions, involving diverse factions of heirs, would delve into their viewpoints on the property and possible terms under which they might accept development, RDC officials said.

Whatever the response, the talks likely will lead to a court decision stipulating how the land can be used, RDC president Benny Lendermon said.

"No matter what happens, . . there has to be some judgmental decree that allows something to happen on the property," he said.

The legal decree is needed because the heirs own the land, while the city has an easement. The RDC said it might be two years before the matter is settled.

The council's approval of the RDC's promenade land-use plan Tuesday opens the way for discussions with the heirs.

The plan entails $50 million worth of improvements and calls for a blend of public areas and commercial development. Amid strong opposition from citizens' groups, the council placed a 150-foot height limit on buildings, down from the 400-foot maximum in the RDC plan.

Once the council's action becomes official with the approval of the meeting minutes next month, RDC officials will meet with the city's legal staff to determine how to approach the heirs, Lendermon said.

The RDC has been contacted by a number of people claiming either to represent heirs or be heirs themselves, he added.

Noting the various factions involved, Lendermon said the RDC might conduct mass meetings with the heirs.

Opponents of the promenade plan, who include some of the heirs, accuse the RDC of communicating mostly with those descendants who support development on the acreage. That group includes several out-of-town Overton heirs, such as Davidson County Circuit Judge Hamilton Gayden.

"They do not represent us," said Virginia McLean, an Overton heir who is president of Friends for Our Riverfront, which fiercely opposes the RDC plan and instead favors development elsewhere downtown.

In addition to Overton heirs, the descendants of founders John C. McLemore and James Winchester also have rights to the promenade land and must be part of negotiations, McLean said.

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

The Commercial Appeal: "Visions battle on river bluff"

May 18, 2004

By Tom Charlier

On a four-block strip of the Memphis bluff long coveted for its high ground, no one can find much common ground these days.

The downtown promenade area is the focus of starkly contrasting visions and dreams that likely will frame a fractious debate before the City Council this week.

The council has slated a public hearing for 3:30 p.m. Tuesday to receive comments on a Riverfront Development Corp. land-use plan that provides for mixed-use commercial development as a means of attract ing people and generating revenues on the promenade.

The RDC plan has mobilized critics who believe the private development and possible high-rise buildings envisioned in it would violate a public treasure. They favor expanded parkland and open space in the area.

Some council members say they're torn over the issue.

"I really don't like the RDC plan, and I don't like the plan the opposing group has come up with, either," said Carol Chumney, who'd like to see the promenade included in a more comprehensive downtown plan.

The issue remains far from resolution. Even if the council approves the proposal, RDC still would have to launch legal action to gain control of the acreage, as well as conduct more detailed planning and search for developers.

"This process is not nearly as far along as the public discussion would suggest it is," said RDC president Benny Lendermon.

The promenade encompasses acreage west of Front Street that was set aside for public use by Memphis's founders. Court rulings have held that the property is owned by heirs of the founders, with the city having an easement.

The four-block area is home to parking garages, a deteriorating library, a fire station, Confederate Park and the old Custom House and Post Office.

About the only matter on which there is widespread agreement is the current state of the promenade, which the RDC plan calls an "inactive barrier between the city and its river."

"I think everyone agrees that the current state of our promenade is unacceptable," said John Gary, vice president of the group Friends for Our Riverfront, which opposes the RDC's plans.

The agreement ends where planning for the prome nade begins.

RDC's proposal, drawn up by the New York firm of Cooper, Robertson & Partners after a series of public meetings last year, would put the parking garages underground and remove most of the other structures. The Custom House and Post Office could be refurbished for other uses, such as the University of Memphis law school.

The RDC proposal includes a two-level promenade, or walk way, along the bluff edge and pedestrian bridges across east-west streets.

Commercial development, which would be needed to fund the $50 million cost of improvements, would be sought at specified locations. They likely include sidewalk cafes and apartment buildings towering as high as 400 feet, with the lobbies of the structures open to the public.

Mindful of the criticism over the prospect of high-rises, Lendermon said whatever kind of development occurs will be market-driven.

"We are totally, totally convinced that without some kind of mixed-use development on the promenade, it's going to sit just like it is for another 50 years," he said.

"The issue isn't how tall the buildings are. It's that you have that kind of activity at that place."

The Friends group and other critics, however, say the RDC plan violates the founders' intent for the promenade and gives developers too much control of a public asset.

Gary says that in setting aside the land, founders in effect placed a conservation easement on the promenade.

"We're not against buildings on the property," he said. "Public uses for the property are acceptable."

The vision favored by the Friends group is based on a plan for the promenade first drafted in the 1980s. It features mostly park space, sidewalks where buildings now stand and pedestrian bridges.

Gary said the group's plan is cheap and can be accomplished without the legal battle facing the RDC proposal.

"It could basically be done for what the city would pay in legal fees," he said.

In recent weeks, the RDC plan has drawn criticism from groups other than Friends.

The Memphis chapter of the American Institute of Architects adopted a resolution favoring "largely unobstructed, open civic space" on the promenade.

Downtown developers Jack Belz, Ron Belz and John Dudas also sent the council a letter opposing high-rise structures on the promenade and questioning other aspects of the RDC plan.

But Lendermon said critics typically make more noise than supporters. He said "a huge number" of developers and other citizens support the RDC plan.

"The problem is having these people step forward," Lendermon said.

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

The Commercial Appeal: "Promenade makes state list, called endangered; supporters applaud"

May 11, 2004

By Richard Locker

Memphis's riverfront Public Promenade made the Top 10 list of Tennessee's "most endangered public treasures" issued Monday by the Tennessee Preservation Trust because of plans to lease it for private development.

The green space stretching atop the downtown bluff was laid out as permanent public space in the original plan for Memphis by the city's founders, including future president Andrew Jackson. But the City Council is considering a plan by the Riverfront Development Corp. to lease part of the Promenade for private development, including high-rise office towers.

The plan has prompted an outcry from preservationists and others. The City Council has scheduled a public hearing May 18 and will likely vote afterward.

The inclusion on the Trust's "Ten in Tennessee" list offers the space no legal protection but does call statewide attention to the issue. TPT is a statewide nonprofit historic preservation education and advocacy group and is the state partner of the prestigious National Trust for Historic Preservation. The annual list is compiled by a committee of historians and preservationists, from nominations submitted by the public.

"This year's list addresses a wide range of places that help give our state its unique identity," TPT Executive Director Patrick McIntyre said during a ceremony in the state Capitol's Old Supreme Court Chamber. "We have found that lack of awareness is the single biggest hindrance to the preservation of historic places, and the list serves as a means to generate awareness of the most critically threatened."

The Promenade is the only Memphis site on this year's list. Two other sites in West Tennessee are included: the Alex Haley House in Henning, and the Sons and Daughters of Charity Hall in Bolivar.

The 2004 list is the third issued by the Trust. Memphis sites on previous lists are the Chisca Hotel in the South Main Historic District, in 2002, and Chucalissa Indian Village and Melrose School, both in 2001.

The Riverfront Development Corp. is a nonprofit organization that contracts with the city to manage public properties along the riverfront. Asked to comment on the Promenade's inclusion on the list, RDC President Benny Lendermon said, "I wish everyone would come and see it today. I don't think anybody wants it to stay the way it is.

"There's a fire station, a falling-down library and two parking garages on it, that block the view and prevent public access. It's a wall of inactivity between the riverfront and downtown Memphis," he said.

Virginia McLean, president of Friends For Our Riverfront, which opposes the RDC's plan, said she "is thrilled" with the Promenade's inclusion on the list and hopes it helps save it. "I think people in Memphis feel passionately about our river. That land's been our parkland for 185 years, and basically this RDC plan is going to plop down 400-, 300- and 150-foot high-rises on it."

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

The Commercial Appeal: "Architects urge open space on riverfront"

April 28, 2004

By Tom Charlier

Instead of pursuing the "high-density development" envisioned in a current proposal, Memphis leaders should provide for more open civic space in the downtown promenade area, a local architects group says.

The Memphis chapter of the American Institute of Architects adopted a resolution asking the Riverfront Development Corp. (RDC) and City Council to "explore a broader range of alternatives" than the plan recently adopted by RDC.

The RDC proposal, which now is before the City Council, would allow for private development, including high-rise towers, as part of a larger scheme of improvements designed to bring more people to the promenade area.

The council voted Tuesday to hold a May 18 public hearing on the proposed plan for the promenade. About two dozen residents had come to the council meeting, thinking they would be heard on the issue, but were not.

The promenade is a bluff-top stretch of downtown along Front Street encompassing the parking garages, a library, a fire station, the Old Custom House and Post Office and Confederate Park. The acreage was set aside by Memphis's founders.

The AIA Memphis resolution favors what it calls the "founders' vision of a largely unobstructed, open, civic space, including restoration of the bluffs and the preservation of historic buildings."

Chapter president Rebecca Conrad said the group does not want to discourage development of the promenade. But development should be done, she said, in ways that preserve historic buildings, allow for "active urban space" and frame unimpeded views of the Mississippi.

RDC president Benny Lendermon said officials "worked a great deal" with AIA Memphis in the planning process. He attributed the resolution to a small, biased group within the organization.

"It was disappointing and somewhat laughable how they handled it," Lendermon said.

- Tom Charlier: 529-2572

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

Memphis Business Journal: "Mixed reviews for promenade riverfront plan"

April 23, 2004

By Amos Maki

Riverfront Development Corp.'s plan to transform an area of downtown known as the public promenade is getting mixed reviews from business and political leaders.

The plan calls for reshaping the riverfront by using private development to pay for public improvements to the area. The private developments would pay for projects like a proposed two-level promenade and the relocation of parking garages -- from prime real estate with stunning river views atop the bluffs -- underground. The plan also calls for pedestrian bridges that would stretch across Monroe and Court and for improvements to sidewalks on the promenade. Grand staircases would provide access to the upper level of the pedestrian walkways.

The property now contains the old Cossitt Library, a fire station, the old Customs House and Confederate Park. The land is virtually inaccessible to most of the public and offers breathtaking views of the river. The RDC plan calls for increasing the public space by more than 60%, from 3.76 acres today to 6.03 acres.

But some residents and businesses are concerned about the projected height of two of the three buildings proposed in the promenade plan. The plan says the property would be able to sustain a 300-foot residential tower where the fire station and an All-Right parking garage now sit and a 400-foot office tower north of Confederate Park, between Jefferson and Adams.

"I've always felt like our riverfront was underutilized," says Mohamad Hakimian, managing partner of the Madison Hotel. Some views from his hotel will be obscured if the two larger, bookend buildings are constructed at 300 or 400 feet. "So having said that, I'm excited some projects are on the drawing board.

"However, I'm not fond of a couple portions of it. In particular, the high rises. Such high rises at the banks of the Mississippi River are going to block an enormous amount of views from many other buildings."

Hakimian also wonders what effect new, developable property will have on the ongoing efforts to revitalize old developments in the heart of Downtown.

"Those will become the prime locations and will discourage developers from developing many of the beautiful buildings that are Downtown that are vacant," he says.

Henry Turley, principal of Henry Turley Co., says what is there now is unacceptable and that something should be done with the property.

"We don't like the way it is currently developed," Turley says. "We think what is there now serves as a wall, a barrier, between our properties along the east side of Front and their enjoyment of the river."

Turley says he would like to see towers go up Downtown -- as long as the economy drives the development.

"I would like to see our economy and our Downtown so vital it calls for another building," he says. "It's not just something you will into existence or zone into existence. That takes a real dynamic economy."

John Dudas, vice president of Belz Enterprises, says he has some concerns about the towers because of the current availability of space.

"I would conservatively estimate that we have at least 2 million square feet of vacant building space Downtown today," he says. "If another corporate user does not relocate to Downtown Memphis, then the approximate 750,000 square feet of commercial space that is proposed in the subject towers would accomodate all of the average annual demand for office space in Downtown Memphis for a 15-year period."

Plus, Dudas says, additional parking would have to be provided for the buildings.

RDC president Benny Lendermon says the 300- and 400-foot heights are the maximum height of the proposed developments, not the predetermined size of the buildings. Lendermon says he doubts any of the buildings, especially the largest one, would be constructed to the maximum height, if it's ever built at all.

"We don't think that office tower ever gets built," he says. "There is probably a 3% chance of that tower being built."

Lendermon says the economy, not the plan, will determine the size of the developments and emphasized the RDC isn't taking the build-it-and-they-will-come approach.

"A developer will build the building based on the economic reality of what the demand is," Lendermon says. "That demand will determine which buildings go up and when they go up, as well as the height and mass of the buildings."

The promenade plan could cost as much as $50 million. Officials say work on the property would not begin until private developers sign contracts to develop the land.

"There will be signed contracts and everything before the first spade of dirt is turned," Lendermon says. "We don't think you do anything until you are well along the road of executing contracts with developers."

The promenade plan will land in front of the City Council's Public Works Committee April 27; a final vote on the project will be held May 18.

Lendermon says he thinks the RDC has enough votes on the council to win approval for the promenade plan.

City Councilman Ricky Peete, who also serves on the RDC board, agrees with Lendermon and says there is enough support for the plan on the council.

"I think there is enough support for it, but there will be serious debate," he says.

At least one council member, Jack Sammons, would like to hear more about the plan before voting on it.

"This is a generational issue and, frankly, I wouldn't be shocked if the council deferred this for a year," he says. "I'm not ready to vote and if we have to do it in the next few weeks, I'd be inclined to vote against it. I suspect there will be a lot of discussion about this in the next couple of weeks."

Turley, for one, is tired of talk.

"It just seems like a lot of talk and I'd like to see some specific developments proposed and gotten under way," he says.

But legal challenges will delay any work for at least two years. If the council approves the plan, the city must move to take control of the land. Lendermon says that could be done in a number of ways, including the city exercising its right of eminent domain.

The property was donated by the city's founding fathers for use as a public promenade. The heirs of the founders hold title to the land and they are divided on the proposal. Some support the promenade plan while others have joined a group, called Friends for Our Riverfront, that opposes it.

"We're not against development," says Virginia McLean, an Overton heir and president of Friends for Our Riverfront. "We're just against the wrong development at the wrong place at the wrong time."

Her group created an alternative plan that would turn the promenade entirely into park space at a cost of about $7 million.

"That plan would require taxpayers to finance it and the RDC plan would be paid for by development and therin lies the difference," Peete says.

Lendermon says the Friends plan is unrealistic because whether or not the land is developed or turned into park space, the cost of relocating the existing structures will remain about the same.

"You have got to replace the parking because business depends on it and you have to replace the library and fire station," he says. "Maybe the council will make our life easy and come up with this big pot of money and say 'Here's $50 million, make this into a beautiful park.' "

Hakimian hopes there will be an opportunity to tweak the plan and wonders what would happen if the council voted the plan down.

"We all should be careful not to fight it in a way that kills the project forever," he says. "But we need to ask for modifications to it. It looks like this is the only plan on the table.

"This shouldn't be the only option where we either do this or there is no plan."

Peete says he hopes the two sides can find some common ground.

"While I respect everyone's right to have an opinion, I think that too often we are so extreme in our views that we can't see the forest for the trees," he says. "I think we have the ability to compromise to do something great for Memphis. Where there is flexibility to tweak the plan, I think we are of the mind to compromise."

Copyright(c) American City Business Journals Inc. All rights reserved.

The Commercial Appeal: "CCC gets look at group's riverfront plan; Opposition, legal issues remain to be resolved for RDC"

March 27, 2004

By Linda A. Moore

Center City Commission board members saw and heard a private presentation Friday of plans for redeveloping the Memphis riverfront, a series of projects likely to involve the CCC at some point.

"Overall, the board's position is to look at ways we can beautify and make downtown a more inviting place," said Virginia Wilson, a CCC board member and risk management analyst in the law division of the City of Memphis.

Riverfront Development Corp. president Benny Lendermon and communications director Dorchelle Spence gave a history of the riverfront master plan and projections for the project.

The nonprofit RDC paid $750,000 for the master plan, which was completed in January 2002 after 18 months of study, public meetings and consultants' analysis. The plan envisions multiple projects along the riverfront that would cost more than $292 million in public and private funds and spur $1.3 billion in private real estate investment downtown.

The projects include a $20 million park-like landing at the foot of Beale Street and other beautification projects. But a key component of the plan has recently attracted opposition.

That part of the plan would allow private development of riverfront land owned by the city and donated by the founding fathers in 1828 for use as a public "promenade." That land now contains the remnants of the old Cossitt Library, a fire station, the old Customs House and post office and Confederate Park.

The heirs of the founders who donated the promenade land hold title to it and are divided on the proposal.

The development cannot move forward until the legal issues are settled, Lendermon told the CCC board. Once those are resolved, it would take two years for any work to begin, he said.

If the city gains full title to the property and the project proceeds, it would retain ownership the land through ground leases and would require that the bottom floors of all development be for public uses.

Although the Memphis City Council ultimately will decide the fate of the projects contained in the master plan, CCC board members appreciated the presentation of issues that will involve them as well.

In other action Friday, the CCC board:

  • Approved Omega General Contractors for $613,000 in renovations at the Court Square gazebo. The Downtown Rotary Club has given the CCC a $160,000 toward gazebo renovations.
  • Voted to hire Cushman & Wakefield for a $55,000, nine-week downtown market study to look at the residential, office and employment, retail and tourism aspects to determine what the community needs.

The last such study was conducted five years ago. The information will be used to provide more information to developers, retailers and real estate professionals interested in downtown.

- Linda A. Moore: 529-2702

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

The Memphis Flyer: "What the Proprietors Saw: How a document written in 1828 shapes the future of downtown today."

March 26, 2004

By John Branston

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[ Note: The full text of the 1828 document can also be viewed here. ]

The Commercial Appeal: "Cybill condemns promenade plan"

March 5, 2004

By Tom Charlier

When the Riverfront Development Corp. board approved a land-use plan for the Memphis promenade without dissent last week, its most famous member wasn't present.

But that doesn't mean Cybill Shepherd endorsed the action.

The actress and native Memphian on Thursday condemned the plan - which envisions some private development and perhaps high-rise buildings - as "historically and aesthetically inappropriate" for the four-block site atop the downtown bluff.

"What I didn't like about that was that it (the promenade) has never been used by private investors. It's always belonged to Memphians," Shepherd saidfrom her Los Angeles home.

Allowing structures as tall as 400 feet on the promenade represents "the worst idea I've ever heard," she added. "We might as well be Atlanta."

Her comments came eight days after fellow members of the RDC board voted 17-0 to adopt the plan, which would transform an area of parking garages and largely inaccessible and neglected structures into a network of walkways and open spaces lined with shops, restaurants and other developments.

The private developments would fund such projects as a two-level promenade and the relocation of parking underground. In all, the improvements could cost up to $50 million, officials say.

Shepherd, who also opposes RDC proposals for a lake and land bridge on the riverfront, said she now will focus her efforts on the City Council, which is expected to vote on the promenade plan in April.

But even if the measure passes, legal questions hover over the promenade area because the city's founders set it aside for public use.

Informed of Shepherd's concerns, RDC president Benny Lendermon noted that there are 21 voting board members. "We think every board member certainly is entitled to their opinion," he said.

Lendermon said Shepherd and other critics have had plenty of opportunity to air their concerns. The promenade plan has been the focus of recent board meetings and three public sessions since November that were attended by some 300 people.

Although she returns to Memphis five times a year and has a bluff-top home, Shepherd acknowledges she has not been able to make it to any RDC meetings in the approximately two years she's been a board member. But she has kept in contact with Lendermon and other officials.

"I guess I just kept thinking this plan would go away," Shepherd said. "I think I'm to blame - I wish I could've been more active."

- Tom Charlier: 529-2572

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

The Memphis Flyer: "Riverfront Revamp; Groups meet to review new plans for promenade."

February 27, 2004

By Mary Cashiola

The Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC) and the Friends for Our Riverfront (FfOR) met February 23rd over common ground -- specifically, the area downtown from Adams south to Union between the harbor and Front Street.

Members from the two groups discussed the final draft of the RDC-commissioned Memphis Promenade Land Use Plan. In recent months, FfOR has expressed concern about the RDC's plan and the chance of turning over public land -- created by the city's founders and an easement in 1828 -- to private interests.

"We don't think it's a good idea to abandon the easement," said John Gary, the group's vice president. "The only reason there is still a 10-acre tract of land available downtown is because of the easement."

The promenade plan, which was developed by architects Cooper, Robertson & Partners, consists of an upper and lower promenade. The upper promenade on the Front Street level would include shops and restaurants; the lower would be at Riverside Drive, giving direct access to the river. The two would be connected by "grand civic stairs" with parking tucked under the upper promenade.

"Everybody is totally in agreement that what's there now is atrocious," said RDC president Benny Lendermon. "We're in agreement that the post office building has to stay, but there ought to be a better use for the building. We're in agreement that we should save the old remnant of the Cossitt Library; we're in agreement that there ought to be some type of public promenade."

But the two groups differ over how much of the land should remain as park land. The RDC plan would develop 40 percent of the property into commercial and residential uses, and the money from that would go towards other public improvements.

Lendermon said that when the easement was created, there were not as many opportunities to view the river as there are today. "Tom Lee Park didn't exist," he said. "Mud Island didn't exist... Since then we've moved the green space closer to the water where people want to be."

Lendermon said the plan is to put appropriate developments on the land, bring the city closer to the river, and at the same time keep the views and connections open. Gary is not so sure.

"Instead of having a one-and-a-half-story building at the corner of Jefferson and Union, the presented concept has a 40-story building there," said Gary. "They say they aren't going to interfere with sight lines, but I believe that's impossible."

His group's main focus, though, said Gary, is to bring attention to the easement and the chance of abandoning it. "We're trying to keep the 'public' in public promenade," he said. "If we're going to abandon the easement, we should do so in a public forum. It should be up to the citizens."

FfOR is working with local architects to develop an alternative land-use plan, but Gary said they are not out to compete with the RDC.

"If we create a better understanding, everybody will win," said Gary. "Best-case scenario: We all end up with an enhanced riverfront."


Copyright 2004, - Memphis, TN. All Rights Reserved

The Commercial Appeal: "Heirs likely to split on private development"

February 26, 2004

By Tom Charlier

Embarking on a process likely to end in court, the Riverfront Development Corp. board Wednesday resoundingly adopted a land-use plan giving private developers a key role in reshaping Memphis's downtown promenade area.

The blueprint approved in the board's 17-0 vote would transform a four-block area of parking garages and largely neglected and inaccessible facilities into a network of walkways and open spaces lined with shops, restaurants and other developments. The plan now goes to the City Council, which is expected to vote on it in April.

But even as they adopted the measure, RDC officials acknowledged that none of the improvements can be made until legal issues are worked out.

"The legal matter probably gets resolved in court, just to be frank,'' board chairman John W. Stokes said.

The legal uncertainties stem from the fact that founders of Memphis set aside the promenade acreage for public use. Past court rulings held that while the city has an easement, the property is owned by the founders' heirs, who must consent to the plans. With hundreds of heirs, any consensus is unlikely, officials say.

Some heirs have expressed support for letting the city, through the nonprofit RDC, redevelop the promenade. However, others have joined a new group - Friends for Our Riverfront - that contends private development would violate the founders' intent.

The group's vice president on Wednesday criticized the plan approved by the RDC.

"What has been, for all intents and purposes, the property of the citizens will no longer be that. It will be the property of private developers," said John Gary, who is not an heir.

But in a presentation to the RDC board, Randall Morton, a partner with the New York firm of Cooper, Robertson & Partners, said the point of the land-use plan is to enhance public amenities on the promenade. The private development is just the means to pay for it.

"The private land is only there to support your public realm . . ." Morton said. "The plan is really based on establishing your public realm first."

Estimated to cost up to $50 million, the plan for the 12-acre area would relocate parking garages underground and include such features as pedestrian bridges, widened sidewalks and an upper and lower promenade along the historic downtown bluff.

A library and fire station would be relocated. In their stead, private development, including buildings as high as 400 feet, would be allowed in prescribed areas.

Morton and RDC board members said the increased open space envisioned in the plan would improve access to the Mississippi River, while the developments would attract the "critical mass" of people needed for the project's success.

- Tom Charlier: 529-2572

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

The Commercial Appeal: "Public promenades by river; Walkers urge sensitivity in developing riverfront"

January 25, 2004

By Sherri Drake

Some Memphis residents with an interest in downtown preservation are ready to battle city officials and developers to save a riverfront that, they say, belongs to the people of Memphis.

So when it started to rain Saturday, they got out their umbrellas and kept walking.

The League of Women Voters sponsored a public walk of the downtown promenade Saturday.

About two dozen people gathered to discuss what would happen if the Riverfront Development Corp. carries out a plan to turn a big chunk of the bluffs into residential and commercial property.

The part of the promenade up for development stretches from Union Avenue to Adams Avenue between Riverside Drive and Front Street.

John Overton and other founders of Memphis set the land aside in 1819 for public use.

"It's like they have no sensitivity for the space," said Virginia McLean, an Overton heir and president of Friends for Our Riverfront. "This is land that belongs to the people of Memphis for all time."

Representatives of RDC, the nonprofit established to manage riverfront projects, contend development is needed to draw more people downtown.

Those opposed to the plan fear that new 30-floor buildings, apartments and shops, will block the view of the riverfront and deplete the city's park space.

Sarah Flowers remembers taking her children to Ashburn Coppock Park, laying out a picnic spread and watching riverboats float by.

"I want to be able to bring my grandchildren, too," she said.

Some on Saturday suggested restoring old buildings downtown rather than building new ones. But restoring old buildings is often more costly.

RDC released drafts, prepared by a prestigious New York planning firm, that show a new promenade recessed into the bluff along with one above at the Front Street level. Pedestrian bridges would arch over Monroe and Court, and parking would be buried in the bluffs, beneath the new buildings.

Towers as high as 400, 300 and 150 feet are suggested on three of the blocks. Planners envision the first floors of the structures having public uses, and they'd prefer that developers lease, not own, space on the promenade.

June West, executive director of Memphis Heritage, said not enough evaluation has gone into the plan.

RDC officials say that by replacing some current buildings with more suitably sized and designed structures, their project actually would increase - by more than 60 percent - the amount of open space in the promenade area. That would improve access to the riverfront and the views of it.

Saturday, many people said they agree that the riverfront could use some changes, but that they think Memphians don't have enough say in the plans.

"We are not against development, we are just against wrong development," West said.

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

The Commercial Appeal: "Riverfront Renewal: Heirs of John Overton are divided over a proposal to develop a four-block public promenade"

January 22, 2004

By Tom Charlier

Behind the old Custom House and Post Office on Front Street, striking views of the Memphis waterfront reward anyone intrepid enough to climb a grassy bank and stroll past maintenance trucks and graffiti-scarred garbage containers on a lane posted "no trespassing."

The site lies within a reach of downtown that Memphis founders reserved as a public promenade overlooking the Mighty Mississippi.

But more than anything, it's a setting that suggests the city has turned its back on the river.

Today, a four-block reach of the promenade area is the focus of an intensifying debate that could shape the future of the Memphis riverfront. The one thing all sides in the issue agree upon is that the stretch of blufftop from Union to Adams could stand some changes.

"You can say it any way you want, but it's this blighted area," Benny Lendermon, president of the Riverfront Development Corp., said of the reach that includes two parking garages, a fire station and a decrepit library, as well as the post office and Confederate Park.

But RDC's plans to revitalize the promenade area through a mix of residential and commercial development has galvanized an opposition group. It's also created an apparent rift among descendants of John Overton and other founders who set aside the land for public use.

Friends for Our Riverfront, formed last month, opposes development on the promenade, saying the acreage should be "open and public." The group's board of directors includes some of the founders' heirs who, according to long-standing court rulings, hold title to the promenade land.

Expressing particular alarm about high-rise towers suggested in draft RDC plans, they say any project should respect the history, vistas and character of the Memphis riverfront.

"What I've seen of the RDC plan - one, it doesn't look like an open-space plan and, two, it doesn't look like a plan for all the citizens of Memphis," said Virginia McLean, an Overton heir who is president of the Friends group.

But other heirs, particularly those descended from the branch of the Overtons in Nashville, argue that the promenade acreage is stagnant and needs improvement.

"Memphis needs to develop its riverfront. It would add so much to the city," said Hamilton Gayden, a circuit judge in Davidson County and an Overton heir.

The issue on the bluff remains in the early-going. The RDC board isn't expected to act on a proposed plan for the promenade until late February or March. If the board approves it, City Council action comes next.

And lurking beyond all those deliberations are legal restrictions as to how the promenade, often called the Overton heirs property, can be used. When they gave the city an easement to the land in 1828, the founders wrote into the record that the land should be public ground for "such use only as the word 'promenade' imports."

As a consequence, the city likely would need to work out an agreement with the heirs before any development could occur.

And the opposition of the Friends group suggests that agreement might not come easily.

Lisa Snowden, another Overton heir who is on the group's board, said it makes more sense to focus redevelopment efforts on other decaying parts of downtown.

"There seems to be a lot of empty space down there," she said. "The whole thing (RDC project) could go one block back and you could have the best of both worlds - development and green space," she said.

Other group members fear development could forever scar an area that features "the prettiest view in Memphis," said Hite McLean, Virginia's husband and a local lawyer who is a board member.

"To me, once you set the precedent of allowing development on the public promenade, the whole thing is gone. You lose control of it."

John Gary, the group's vice president, said that while the land could use some change, "We can certainly make the promenade more user-friendly without selling it to private developers."

The Friends group claims to enjoy a growing following. An organizational meeting last week drew 52 people, and the group's Web site, has registered about 1,000 hits in recent weeks, Gary said.

But Gayden said the Friends group has overlooked the views of many heirs who feel that city leaders should be able to decide how to best use the land for the good of Memphis. He said he is surveying descendants on the issue.

So far, "well over 50 percent would submit to whatever the leaders feel would be best for Memphis," Gayden said.

If there is development on the promenade, the heirs "ought to have a right to participate," he adds.

Representatives of RDC, the nonprofit established to manage riverfront projects, contend development is needed and that the Friends group's aversion to it is shortsighted.

They see the promenade as a linchpin to their vision for the entire riverfront.

Drafts prepared by a prestigious New York planning firm envision a new promenade recessed into the bluff along with one above at the Front Street level. Pedestrian bridges would arch over Monroe and Court, and parking would be buried in the bluffs, beneath the new buildings.

The old Custom House and Post Office could be renovated into a new University of Memphis law school.

Towers as high as 400, 300 and 150 feet are suggested on three of the blocks. Planners envision the first floors of the structures having public uses, and they'd prefer that developers lease, not own, space on the promenade.

RDC officials say that by replacing some of the current clutter of buildings with more suitably sized and designed structures, their project actually would increase - by more than 60 percent - the amount of open space in the promenade area. That would improve access to the riverfront and the views of it.

Revenue from the commercial activity would fund the public improvements needed for the projects.

The development will help the riverfront, they say, by making it more attractive, safe and vibrant.

"The goal is to do something on the river that brings people to the river," said John W. Stokes, chairman of the RDC board.

Kristi Jernigan, board vice chairman, said that with facilities like Tom Lee Park, Confederate Park, Ashburn-Coppock Park and Greenbelt Park, there are already enough parks along the Memphis riverfront.

"We have the green space downtown," she said. "But we can't really afford to tear down the best property we have downtown and say, 'Here's another park.' "

RDC officials say that without the commercial activity to attract people, parks and walkways are empty and unappealing.

"That's when downtowns become frightening - when you're all alone in a space that you're not familiar with," Jernigan said.

She contends the project will change the face of downtown.

"I think there will be a huge psychological shift once we turn our face back toward the river."

- Tom Charlier: 529-2572

Copyright 2004, - Memphis, TN. All Rights Reserved

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