Thursday, January 22, 2004

Riverfront Renewal: Heirs of John Overton are divided over a proposal to develop a four-block public promenade

Commercial Appeal
By Tom Charlier

Behind the old Custom House and Post Office on Front Street, striking views of the Memphis waterfront reward anyone intrepid enough to climb a grassy bank and stroll past maintenance trucks and graffiti-scarred garbage containers on a lane posted "no trespassing."

The site lies within a reach of downtown that Memphis founders reserved as a public promenade overlooking the Mighty Mississippi.

But more than anything, it's a setting that suggests the city has turned its back on the river.

Today, a four-block reach of the promenade area is the focus of an intensifying debate that could shape the future of the Memphis riverfront. The one thing all sides in the issue agree upon is that the stretch of blufftop from Union to Adams could stand some changes.

"You can say it any way you want, but it's this blighted area," Benny Lendermon, president of the Riverfront Development Corp., said of the reach that includes two parking garages, a fire station and a decrepit library, as well as the post office and Confederate Park.

But RDC's plans to revitalize the promenade area through a mix of residential and commercial development has galvanized an opposition group. It's also created an apparent rift among descendants of John Overton and other founders who set aside the land for public use.

Friends for Our Riverfront, formed last month, opposes development on the promenade, saying the acreage should be "open and public." The group's board of directors includes some of the founders' heirs who, according to long-standing court rulings, hold title to the promenade land.

Expressing particular alarm about high-rise towers suggested in draft RDC plans, they say any project should respect the history, vistas and character of the Memphis riverfront.

"What I've seen of the RDC plan - one, it doesn't look like an open-space plan and, two, it doesn't look like a plan for all the citizens of Memphis," said Virginia McLean, an Overton heir who is president of the Friends group.

But other heirs, particularly those descended from the branch of the Overtons in Nashville, argue that the promenade acreage is stagnant and needs improvement.

"Memphis needs to develop its riverfront. It would add so much to the city," said Hamilton Gayden, a circuit judge in Davidson County and an Overton heir.

The issue on the bluff remains in the early-going. The RDC board isn't expected to act on a proposed plan for the promenade until late February or March. If the board approves it, City Council action comes next.

And lurking beyond all those deliberations are legal restrictions as to how the promenade, often called the Overton heirs property, can be used. When they gave the city an easement to the land in 1828, the founders wrote into the record that the land should be public ground for "such use only as the word 'promenade' imports."

As a consequence, the city likely would need to work out an agreement with the heirs before any development could occur.

And the opposition of the Friends group suggests that agreement might not come easily.

Lisa Snowden, another Overton heir who is on the group's board, said it makes more sense to focus redevelopment efforts on other decaying parts of downtown.

"There seems to be a lot of empty space down there," she said. "The whole thing (RDC project) could go one block back and you could have the best of both worlds - development and green space," she said.

Other group members fear development could forever scar an area that features "the prettiest view in Memphis," said Hite McLean, Virginia's husband and a local lawyer who is a board member.

"To me, once you set the precedent of allowing development on the public promenade, the whole thing is gone. You lose control of it."

John Gary, the group's vice president, said that while the land could use some change, "We can certainly make the promenade more user-friendly without selling it to private developers."

The Friends group claims to enjoy a growing following. An organizational meeting last week drew 52 people, and the group's Web site, has registered about 1,000 hits in recent weeks, Gary said.

But Gayden said the Friends group has overlooked the views of many heirs who feel that city leaders should be able to decide how to best use the land for the good of Memphis. He said he is surveying descendants on the issue.

So far, "well over 50 percent would submit to whatever the leaders feel would be best for Memphis," Gayden said.

If there is development on the promenade, the heirs "ought to have a right to participate," he adds.

Representatives of RDC, the nonprofit established to manage riverfront projects, contend development is needed and that the Friends group's aversion to it is shortsighted.

They see the promenade as a linchpin to their vision for the entire riverfront.

Drafts prepared by a prestigious New York planning firm envision a new promenade recessed into the bluff along with one above at the Front Street level. Pedestrian bridges would arch over Monroe and Court, and parking would be buried in the bluffs, beneath the new buildings.

The old Custom House and Post Office could be renovated into a new University of Memphis law school.

Towers as high as 400, 300 and 150 feet are suggested on three of the blocks. Planners envision the first floors of the structures having public uses, and they'd prefer that developers lease, not own, space on the promenade.

RDC officials say that by replacing some of the current clutter of buildings with more suitably sized and designed structures, their project actually would increase - by more than 60 percent - the amount of open space in the promenade area. That would improve access to the riverfront and the views of it.

Revenue from the commercial activity would fund the public improvements needed for the projects.

The development will help the riverfront, they say, by making it more attractive, safe and vibrant.

"The goal is to do something on the river that brings people to the river," said John W. Stokes, chairman of the RDC board.

Kristi Jernigan, board vice chairman, said that with facilities like Tom Lee Park, Confederate Park, Ashburn-Coppock Park and Greenbelt Park, there are already enough parks along the Memphis riverfront.

"We have the green space downtown," she said. "But we can't really afford to tear down the best property we have downtown and say, 'Here's another park.' "

RDC officials say that without the commercial activity to attract people, parks and walkways are empty and unappealing.

"That's when downtowns become frightening - when you're all alone in a space that you're not familiar with," Jernigan said.

She contends the project will change the face of downtown.

"I think there will be a huge psychological shift once we turn our face back toward the river."

Copyright 2004, - Memphis, TN. All Rights Reserved

No comments:

NOTICE: Compilation copyright 2005-2010. This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of historical, aesthetic, economic, environmental, and other issues relating to the Memphis Riverfront. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information go to this website. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.