Tuesday, June 17, 2003

Court Fight Looms Over Riverfront Land

Commercial Appeal
By Deborah M. Clubb

The nonprofit agency charged with reshaping the Memphis riverfront is prepared to go to court over the blufftop blocks known as Memphis's Promenade.

The land, also known as the Overton heirs property, overlooks Front Street and originally stretched from Beale to Auction. The city's founders gave it over to public use in 1819.

Riverfront Development Corp. officials expect the founders' heirs to contest RDC plans to change the way the blufftop property is used on the basis that new uses would not be for public purpose, RDC vice president John Conroy told the Memphis Engineers Club Monday. But the development agency believes it has a "legitimate and solid case" that new uses would activate downtown and improve public access to the Mississippi River.

Occupying the land today are three parking garages, a fire station, an underused and dilapidated library and parking lots - far less than the RDC board wants to offer as it pursues a master plan to redevelop and manage the city's waterfront.

The RDC will hire a firm by late July to create a more specific land use plan for the promenade area between Poplar and Adams.

Developers would be offered ground leases, generating funds the RDC and the city would use for further public works improvements downtown.

Engineers Monday questioned the need for, and stability of, a proposed 50-acre land bridge between Poplar and Jefferson that would connect downtown and Mud Island, shorten the harbor to a half-mile and form a 150-acre lake.

Ground lease revenue from the land bridge is important to funding other waterfront projects, Conroy said, but RDC is seeking a planning assistance grant from the Corps of Engineers to study methods and costs of building the land bridge, relocating harbor industries and water quality issues.

Even if the land bridge is not built, Conroy said, RDC would pursue relocating the industries and the Coast Guard facility from the harbor's northern end.

The organization could then improve the harbor edges for public use and residential projects could extend along the east side of the harbor opposite Harbor Town and other recent housing developments.

The question asked first and several times of Conroy was about the need for more parking downtown. Conroy said any parking removed from Front Street would be replaced, perhaps beneath future new development.

Bert Merrill questioned the "throw away effort" in the master plan, as it would eliminate Mud Island River Park, the state Welcome Center, parking garages and other facilities built at public expense in the past 40 years.

"We've got more planning to do," Conroy said.

Copyright 2003 The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN

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