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.
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.
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