Sunday, May 28, 2000

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

Commercial Appeal
Editorial

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.
P
art of that project is expected to get under way soon with the approval of a contractor for the $4.5 million Cobblestone Walkway project, linking Jefferson Davis Park and the Tennessee Welcome Center with Tom Lee Park along the western edge of Riverside Drive, with a plaza at the foot of Union overlooking the harbor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2000, commercialappeal.com - Memphis, TN.

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