Sunday, November 18, 2001

Aim of Reshaping Harbor is New Land, Not Man-Made Lake

Commercial Appeal
By Deborah M. Clubb

Wolf Lake would replace much of Memphis's Wolf River Harbor in the Riverfront Development Corp.'s vision for reshaping the waterfront.

Five grain or cement businesses, the Coast Guard, two marinas and Mud Island River Park would be displaced or relocated at an unknown cost.

But the lake is not the goal, planners say. Money is.

About 50 acres of new land, created by filling in a portion of the harbor to Mud Island River Park, would generate money by being leased to developers for public and private projects.

That income would let the RDC finance projects to reach its real goal: drawing people to the Mississippi River.

Studies of how other cities paid for waterfront projects, from Portland to New York and Cincinnati, showed that controlling land that could be developed was key to having money for parks, greenbelts and other public spaces, said RDC chairman John Stokes.

"We don't think we can accomplish what we're trying to do without the land bridge," Stokes said. "We're trying to give Memphis and this region access to the real river ... but if somebody can give us a better idea, I want to hear it."

The nonprofit RDC, borne from Mayor Willie Herenton's riverfront task force, calls its vision a 30-year or even 50-year plan.

However, boaters and environmentalists are alarmed that years could pass while officials do nothing to upgrade the harbor's water quality.

And beyond the estimated $75 million construction cost of the land bridge, the RDC could face paying cement makers Lone Star Industries and Lafarge Corp., Bunge North America and Cargill Inc. grain terminals, molasses shipper Westway Terminal Co. and the Coast Guard to move off the harbor's east shore.

The land bridge would take seven years to build north from Adams to Poplar. After another three years, it would be stable enough to build on.

Poplar, Jefferson and Adams would continue across the new land toward the Mississippi River. A pedestrian bridge would connect to Mud Island from Union Avenue.

Water south of the land bridge would remain a harbor for tour boats with a marina for private boats.

Water north of it would become a 150-acre lake that might require new pumping technology to regulate depth.

In 1999, the RDC took on the task of managing and developing Memphis's 12-mile waterfront, from the north end of Mud Island to the three bridges south of downtown.
Its massive masterplan would work in phases. The RDC board hopes to take a plan to the City Council for review early next year.

"The purpose of people on the board ... is to create a world-class, wonderful, dynamite riverfront for the city and region and state here in Memphis, Tenn.," Stokes said.

In addition to the land bridge, the masterplan proposes a landing at the foot of Beale Street for large riverboats; preservation of the historic cobblestones; and redevelopment of Mud Island River Park and the blufftop blocks on the west side of Front Street. Consultants are still computing cost estimates.

While the RDC begins "doing projects that work whether there's a land bridge or not," issues of timing and real costs of the land bridge will be further explored, said Benny Lendermon, RDC president.

The city's original riverport, with its historic cobblestone landing, was partially enclosed over time by the river's creation of Mud Island and was shut off at its north end after World War II by the Corps of Engineers.

Development of McKellar Lake Harbor and Presidents Island industrial area south of downtown supplanted the old harbor in the 1950s.

Wolf River Harbor today accounts for less than 10 percent of the river tonnage in Memphis, which is the second largest port on the lower Mississippi, behind St. Louis.

Of 16.61 million tons handled here in 1999 (the latest year for which figures are available), 1.21 million tons came out of the downtown harbor, mostly in grains, cement and soybeans.

The rest moved through McKellar Lake, in the West Memphis Harbor or at Fullen Dock and Warehouse at the mouth of the Wolf River north of downtown.

Phillipe de Laperouse, director of business development for Bunge North America Inc., said the lake plan "would put us out of business at that location."

Farmers from Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi haul their harvest to the Bunge, Cargill and Westway terminals on North Second. Barges are loaded overnight to carry the soybeans, corn, soft red winter wheat and other products to the Gulf of Mexico for export.

"We're leasing from the city, so we're not in a position to say what we would do if we found ourselves forced out," said de Laperouse.

The Coast Guard cutter would require a new Memphis port, said Lt. Cmdr. Michael Lopez, commanding officer of the Lower Mississippi Group. Its crew and the staff in command of them and five other cutters that maintain navigation aids from Cairo, Ill., to Baton Rouge, La., are housed beside the Auction Avenue bridge on land owned by the federal government.

Lopez's superior officer has made clear that if the land bridge is built, "we have to be physically relocated," Lopez said, so the Coast Guard would "explore with the (RDC) here the financial issues to do that."

RDC has had "very little" conversation with harbor businesses and Coast Guard officials because the plan has not been formally adopted and the land bridge construction could be years away, Lendermon said.

"Long-term we think there're better locations for that activity," Lendermon said.
The area is being rezoned in the Uptown Redevelopment Plan for North Memphis because planners for it and the RDC "came to the conclusion that you would never redevelop that area with industrial users remaining," Lendermon said.

"If the community as a whole wants industry to remain in the harbor long term, over the next 30 years, then our efforts to do anything in that area, including Uptown - we ought to stop," Lendermon said.

City officials have talked for more than two years about how to address the stormwater runoff and water quality problems, said public works director Jerry Collins.

It's littered with Styrofoam, plastic and metal each time rain washes street litter through the massive stormwater system that drains below the city and into the harbor.

"We certainly have continual battles to try to raise the consciousness of people so they will not litter," Collins said. The city also has tried to increase street-cleanings.

City engineers have studied automated, self-cleaning bar screen systems for the huge drain pipes that are part of the pumping system to keep the city from flooding.
The harbor would require larger, more expensive screens due to the pumping system. If it is replaced in the transition to a stillwater lake regulated by gravity, less expensive screens could be used. While officials wait to know the RDC's plans, Collins said, funding for the screens is in city budgets "four or five years down the way."

Boaters and environmentalists worry that the uncertainty of the lake plan will delay the screens too much.

"I would like to see a fallback position where we take care of the harbor as it is,'' said kayaker Joe Royer, president of Outdoors Inc. and a member of the Tennessee Environmental Council. "I don't want to wait 30 years for the 'big plan' to take care of our water."

Don Richardson, local chairman of the Sierra Club, said the chemical content of sediment in the harbor also should be examined and considered as the lake is studied.

And if a lake is created, Richardson said, the upper harbor area should remain undeveloped where red fox and cranes can congregate.

"On what other riverfront in America can you see an animal associated with wilderness doing their thing?" Richardson asked. "Open space and land can be extremely valuable ... without having some kind of cell tower or building on it."

Under the Riverfront Development Corp.'s masterplan, the lower riverport for the Coast Guard Group and its cutter the Kankakee would have to relocate. Joshua Feeler cleans the Kankakee's radar device.

Copyright (c) 2001 The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN

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