The Commercial Appeal: "RDC disregards our heritage"
April 28, 2004

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Commercial Appeal: "RDC proposal would ignore will of public"
April 25, 2004

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If the RDC's Promenade Public Realm Plan moves along to City Council approval, it will set off a chain of events that will cost our citizens millions of dollars to pay for land we have always had, so that the RDC can collect rent for buildings for which there is no documented demand.

While it may be well-intentioned, such a plan is akin to selling your front yard to pay for a new sidewalk.

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

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

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

The Commercial Appeal: "Respect original vision for riverfront"
February 3, 2004

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

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

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

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

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

Among its key points:

  • Along the west side of Front Street from Union to Adams, the promenade should be re-created, consisting of wide expanses of park-like open space with panoramic views of the river. Of the present structures, only those possessing a civic character should be preserved, including the Post Office and perhaps the surviving fragment of the original Cossitt Library.
  • The parking garages, fire station and modern addition to the Cossitt Library should be demolished and replaced by a network of new parks. At the bluff edge, handsome stone parapets should be constructed and walkways should make frequent connections to Front Street to encourage pedestrians to meander away from the street to experience the river views and breezes.
  • Confederate Park should be preserved and redesigned. The formal visual axis already implied by the alignment of Court Square with Court Street (east of Front Street) should be extended through Confederate Park. The statue of Jefferson Davis or another focal point should be located along this axis as a counterpoint to the Court Square fountain, and an overlook point should be created on the bluff top at the west parapet. The park's Civil War theme should be preserved and strengthened as an integral element of the city's past. The decrepit and inappropriate 20th Century artillery pieces should be replaced with 1860s-era cannons such as those employed in the Battle of Memphis, and interpretive signage should be provided to explain the tactics of the battle to visitors.
  • If additional parking areas are needed in the future, below-grade parking could be developed beneath the new promenade. New parking and the proposed "land bridge" across the Wolf River to Mud Island should not, however, be allowed to destroy the natural bluff face on the west. Vehicular entrances should be limited to east-west streets to help preserve a pedestrian orientation for Front Street.
  • A new civic use should be found for the Post Office. The maze of forgotten war memorial planters, ramps, steps and vehicular turnouts should be re designed into a simple, dignified fore court in keeping with the building's neoclassical design. The fountain and reflecting pool in front of the Cossitt Library should be kept clean and operating.
  • A re-created promenade will provide many sites for public art, and local sculptors should be commissioned to fill these spaces with art relating to local history and the river. Streetscape improvements should be made with the civic character of Front Street in mind. Street trees should be planted along the west side only, emphasizing the street's "one-sidedness." Benches, seat-height walls, bus shelters, trash receptacles, lamp standards, bicycle racks and tree grates should be provided to enhance the street's pedestrian quality. When possible, they should evoke a sense of local color, like the "alligator gar" benches in Jefferson Davis Park.
  • West Court Street between Front Street and Riverside Drive should be preserved and returned to its original cobblestone paving, which may still lie beneath the asphalt topping. The stone wall along its south side should be enlivened with graphic images showing scenes from the days when the street was used to haul cotton from the riverfront up to Front Street.

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

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

The Commercial Appeal: "Don't cut public's access to the river"
December 28, 2003

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We believe that:

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

Vibrant cities with expansive, linear downtown parks such as Portland and Chicago would serve as good role models for us.

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

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

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