THE COMMERCIAL APPEAL
DEVELOPMENT OF the Memphis riverfront in a way that enhances its accessibility and esthetics is a long-time dream of generations of Memphians.
While we've dreamed, waterfront areas in other old river towns have sprung to life, in many cases through the efforts of public-private partnerships that leverage scarce public funds with private dollars.
The approach attracts critics because it uses a valuable public asset -- the public's property -- to generate profits for private developers. That is a legitimate concern.
But at the same time it accomplishes important public goals such as making the riverfront more attractive, accessible and exciting, creating jobs, luring tourists and helping to revitalize an area that needs a shot in the arm. In some cases, greenspace is increased.
It's a compromise that Memphis should make in an important phase of the overall plan for redevelopment of the Memphis riverfront - the promenade between Front Street and the river.
As Viewpoint guest columnist Randy Morton, a partner in the urban design consulting firm of Cooper, Robertson & Partners, points out in today's editions, the Riverfront Development Corp. plan "balances the need for a lasting, accessible and vibrant riverfront destination with the immediate reality of funding constraints. It seeks private development as a tool to realize the city's goal, and the site's historic intent, of creating a first-rate promenade for Memphians."
The historic intent for the site, a strip of land from Union to Adams overlooking the Wolf River harbor and Mud Island, was established by city founders John Overton, James Winchester and Andrew Jackson in 1819 when they set aside choice parcels from their newly purchased Fourth Chickasaw Bluff to be reserved in perpetuity as a public promenade.
That intent has not been carried out. Instead, the area has become covered primarily with buildings and parking garages that form a wall blocking access to the river, and severely limiting waterfront views, from Front Street.
The RDC's plan to devote some of that space to new, strictly regulated commercial development that guarantees public access would, finally, fulfill the wishes of the city's founders, create new reasons to visit the river and enhance pride in the community.
The founders' heirs are split over the idea, and opponents of the plan, including some heirs, will make their views known to the Memphis City Council this week as it begins deliberations, as the council's public works committee, on a resolution approving the promenade plan.
City Council approval, which could occur as early as May 18, would set in motion the RDC's efforts to secure clear title to the property -- a process that would involve talks with the so-called "Overton heirs."
Ownership would permit the nonprofit quasi-governmental organization to begin seeking proposals for private development -- most likely on a block-by-block basis -- to create spacious sidewalks, staircases, underground parking and what the Urban Land Institute's Wayne Ratkovich describes in another Viewpoint guest column as "a great gathering place, a civic 'family room' filled with specialty shops, cafes, coffee houses, bars and restaurants."
After partnerships are formed with private entities, the RDC expects to spend some $50 million on demolition and public improvements that would be recovered through private development of part of the property and long-term leases. The U.S. Customs House and possibly a section of the Cossitt Library would be preserved. Confederate Park would be improved. Concrete would be laid for broad sidewalks on two separate levels.
Opponents of the RDC proposal also have developed an attractive alternative for the promenade. The organization Friends for Our Riverfront proposes converting much of the tract into strictly public parkland connected by a pedestrian walk along the bluff.
The RDC proposal offers practical advantages for Memphis taxpayers that seem to give it an overall edge. But a full City Council discussion of both alternatives should prove useful.
By whatever means possible, ultimately the longtime dream of concerned Memphians -- to correct past mistakes that have hidden the wondrous and powerful Mississippi River behind a curtain of concrete - must be turned into reality.
THE COMMERCIAL APPEAL
RHYME IT with lemonade if you like, in the parlance of square dancing. Or say prom-en-AAD if you'd prefer. It can be noun or verb. Whichever one chooses, the word evokes a nostalgic, somewhat formal sense of pleasurable walking, in no great hurry so as to take full visual advantage of the scenery, human as well as natural.
It is physically and esthetically the focus of the latest effort to realize the vision of Memphis's trio of founders when they laid out the city in 1819, labeling the land west of Front from Union north to Jackson a "public promenade," relinquishing all claim to the land "now and forever" as long as public use continued.
For the most part, that arrangement still prevails, although the Memphis waterfront lacks the drawing power of, say, St. Louis or Chicago. It has great potential, though, and the recently incorporated Riverfront Development Corp. should come up with some splendid ideas.
One idea it must begin with is to keep intact a commitment described by founder John Overton, by making public access to the riverfront a non-negotiable requirement in any development plans.
No development in the area should hamper public access because the Promenade, which has through the years shrunk to about half its original size, is the public's land and the river is the public's river.
Its access should never be bartered away to lure private development into the historic area. What is essentially Memphis, from the historic cobblestone river landing to -- bless its heart -- the unprofitable but one-of-a-kind Mud Island River Park, must be preserved.
And there can't be any backing away from the commitment to finish uncompleted sections of the riverwalk and bluffwalk with unimpeded views of the Mississippi.
Part of that project is expected to get under way soon with the approval of a contractor for the $4.5 million Cobblestone Walkway project, linking Jefferson Davis Park and the Tennessee Welcome Center with Tom Lee Park along the western edge of Riverside Drive, with a plaza at the foot of Union overlooking the harbor.
A planned $3.3 million redesign of Riverside Drive aimed at slowing traffic should help further the aims of the RDC by enabling pedestrians to reach the river more safely.
An important step toward riverfront development was taken last week when the RDC selected a team headed by a New York architectural firm to develop a master plan for the five-mile riverfront project.
The firm has previous experience with New York, St. Louis, Columbus, Boston and Chicago waterfront projects. It will hold public meetings to gather input from the community. The plan is expected to cost $500,000 to $750,000.
Another significant event in the development plan was Memphis real estate developer Robert Snowden's acceptance of the unenviable task of attempting to represent an estimated 200 to 300 heirs to the Memphis founders, one of whom is Snowden himself.
Known collectively as the Overton heirs - no offense intended to the descendants of James Winchester and Andrew Jackson who are also in the group - the heirs would have to approve any non-public use of the Promenade.
Public budgets being as tight as they are, the kind of development that would draw people to the riverfront and put it on a par with St. Louis or New Orleans would most likely require a sizable private investment smack dab in the historic Promenade. This is where the so-called Overton heirs, reportedly divided into five distinct family-oriented factions from coast to coast, would have to be brought in on the deal.
The project is fraught with legal complications, and there are numerous parties that will have to be brought together with the common goal in mind of fulfilling the founders' long-delayed dream.
But some of the city's brightest, most ambitious and civic-minded people, including Benny Lendermon, Kristi Jernigan and John Stokes, are on the case. Everybody grab your partner and promenade.
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