Friday, February 27, 2004

Riverfront Revamp; Groups meet to review new plans for promenade

Memphis Flyer
By Mary Cashiola

The Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC) and the Friends for Our Riverfront (FfOR) met February 23rd over common ground -- specifically, the area downtown from Adams south to Union between the harbor and Front Street.

Members from the two groups discussed the final draft of the RDC-commissioned Memphis Promenade Land Use Plan. In recent months, FfOR has expressed concern about the RDC's plan and the chance of turning over public land -- created by the city's founders and an easement in 1828 -- to private interests.

"We don't think it's a good idea to abandon the easement," said John Gary, the group's vice president. "The only reason there is still a 10-acre tract of land available downtown is because of the easement."

The promenade plan, which was developed by architects Cooper, Robertson & Partners, consists of an upper and lower promenade. The upper promenade on the Front Street level would include shops and restaurants; the lower would be at Riverside Drive, giving direct access to the river. The two would be connected by "grand civic stairs" with parking tucked under the upper promenade.
Everybody is totally in agreement that what's there now is atrocious," said RDC president Benny Lendermon. "We're in agreement that the post office building has to stay, but there ought to be a better use for the building. We're in agreement that we should save the old remnant of the Cossitt Library; we're in agreement that there ought to be some type of public promenade."

But the two groups differ over how much of the land should remain as park land. The RDC plan would develop 40 percent of the property into commercial and residential uses, and the money from that would go towards other public improvements.

Lendermon said that when the easement was created, there were not as many opportunities to view the river as there are today. "Tom Lee Park didn't exist," he said. "Mud Island didn't exist... Since then we've moved the green space closer to the water where people want to be."

Lendermon said the plan is to put appropriate developments on the land, bring the city closer to the river, and at the same time keep the views and connections open. Gary is not so sure.

"Instead of having a one-and-a-half-story building at the corner of Jefferson and Union, the presented concept has a 40-story building there," said Gary. "They say they aren't going to interfere with sight lines, but I believe that's impossible."

His group's main focus, though, said Gary, is to bring attention to the easement and the chance of abandoning it. "We're trying to keep the 'public' in public promenade," he said. "If we're going to abandon the easement, we should do so in a public forum. It should be up to the citizens."

FfOR is working with local architects to develop an alternative land-use plan, but Gary said they are not out to compete with the RDC.

"If we create a better understanding, everybody will win," said Gary. "Best-case scenario: We all end up with an enhanced riverfront."


Copyright 2004, - Memphis, TN.

Thursday, February 26, 2004

Heirs likely to split on private development

Commercial Appeal
By Tom Charlier

Embarking on a process likely to end in court, the Riverfront Development Corp. board Wednesday resoundingly adopted a land-use plan giving private developers a key role in reshaping Memphis's downtown promenade area.

The blueprint approved in the board's 17-0 vote would transform a four-block area of parking garages and largely neglected and inaccessible facilities into a network of walkways and open spaces lined with shops, restaurants and other developments. The plan now goes to the City Council, which is expected to vote on it in April.

But even as they adopted the measure, RDC officials acknowledged that none of the improvements can be made until legal issues are worked out.

"The legal matter probably gets resolved in court, just to be frank,'' board chairman John W. Stokes said.

The legal uncertainties stem from the fact that founders of Memphis set aside the promenade acreage for public use. Past court rulings held that while the city has an easement, the property is owned by the founders' heirs, who must consent to the plans. With hundreds of heirs, any consensus is unlikely, officials say.

Some heirs have expressed support for letting the city, through the nonprofit RDC, redevelop the promenade. However, others have joined a new group - Friends for Our Riverfront - that contends private development would violate the founders' intent.

The group's vice president on Wednesday criticized the plan approved by the RDC.

"What has been, for all intents and purposes, the property of the citizens will no longer be that. It will be the property of private developers," said John Gary, who is not an heir.

But in a presentation to the RDC board, Randall Morton, a partner with the New York firm of Cooper, Robertson & Partners, said the point of the land-use plan is to enhance public amenities on the promenade. The private development is just the means to pay for it.

"The private land is only there to support your public realm . . ." Morton said. "The plan is really based on establishing your public realm first."

Estimated to cost up to $50 million, the plan for the 12-acre area would relocate parking garages underground and include such features as pedestrian bridges, widened sidewalks and an upper and lower promenade along the historic downtown bluff.

A library and fire station would be relocated. In their stead, private development, including buildings as high as 400 feet, would be allowed in prescribed areas.

Morton and RDC board members said the increased open space envisioned in the plan would improve access to the Mississippi River, while the developments would attract the "critical mass" of people needed for the project's success.

- Tom Charlier: 529-2572

Copyright 2004, - Memphis, TN.

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Guest Editorial: Respect original vision for riverfront

Commercial Appeal
February 3, 2004

Guest columnist James F. Williamson is a partner in Williamson Pounders Architects. He collaborated with Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates of Philadelphia on the 1987 Memphis Center City Development Plan.

In the original 1819 town plan for Memphis, the bluff top and the west side of Front Street north of Union Avenue were reserved in perpetuity for public use.

Founders John Overton, James Winchester and Andrew Jackson set the area aside as "an ample vacant space, reserved as promenade; all of which must contribute very much to the health and comfort of the place as well as to its security and ornament."

The opportunity to re-create this grand civic gesture will be lost if a proposal by the Memphis Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC) to sell or lease the promenade to private developers is approved. The RDC plan calls for construction of a wall of commercial buildings that would destroy existing open space, cut off the unencumbered views of the river from Front Street and irrevocably alter the area's historic character.

Fortunately, the RDC proposal is not the only vision for the use of this valuable land. Another design, contained in the 1987 Center City Development Plan, preserves the existing historic fabric and respects the intent of Memphis's founders to keep the promenade "forever public." This alternative grows out of the need to reconnect downtown to the riverfront, is modest and achievable in comparison with the RDC's proposal, and now merits serious reconsideration.

Among its key points:

Along the west side of Front Street from Union to Adams, the promenade should be re-created, consisting of wide expanses of park-like open space with panoramic views of the river. Of the present structures, only those possessing a civic character should be preserved, including the Post Office and perhaps the surviving fragment of the original Cossitt Library.

The parking garages, fire station and modern addition to the Cossitt Library should be demolished and replaced by a network of new parks. At the bluff edge, handsome stone parapets should be constructed and walkways should make frequent connections to Front Street to encourage pedestrians to meander away from the street to experience the river views and breezes.

Confederate Park should be preserved and redesigned. The formal visual axis already implied by the alignment of Court Square with Court Street (east of Front Street) should be extended through Confederate Park. The statue of Jefferson Davis or another focal point should be located along this axis as a counterpoint to the Court Square fountain, and an overlook point should be created on the bluff top at the west parapet. The park's Civil War theme should be preserved and strengthened as an integral element of the city's past. The decrepit and inappropriate 20th Century artillery pieces should be replaced with 1860s-era cannons such as those employed in the Battle of Memphis, and interpretive signage should be provided to explain the tactics of the battle to visitors.

If additional parking areas are needed in the future, below-grade parking could be developed beneath the new promenade. New parking and the proposed "land bridge" across the Wolf River to Mud Island should not, however, be allowed to destroy the natural bluff face on the west. Vehicular entrances should be limited to east-west streets to help preserve a pedestrian orientation for Front Street.

A new civic use should be found for the Post Office. The maze of forgotten war memorial planters, ramps, steps and vehicular turnouts should be re designed into a simple, dignified fore court in keeping with the building's neoclassical design. The fountain and reflecting pool in front of the Cossitt Library should be kept clean and operating.

A re-created promenade will provide many sites for public art, and local sculptors should be commissioned to fill these spaces with art relating to local history and the river. Streetscape improvements should be made with the civic character of Front Street in mind. Street trees should be planted along the west side only, emphasizing the street's "one-sidedness." Benches, seat-height walls, bus shelters, trash receptacles, lamp standards, bicycle racks and tree grates should be provided to enhance the street's pedestrian quality. When possible, they should evoke a sense of local color, like the "alligator gar" benches in Jefferson Davis Park.

West Court Street between Front Street and Riverside Drive should be preserved and returned to its original cobblestone paving, which may still lie beneath the asphalt topping. The stone wall along its south side should be enlivened with graphic images showing scenes from the days when the street was used to haul cotton from the riverfront up to Front Street.

The redevelopment of this historic area should respect the spirit of the founders' grand civic gesture. The Center City Development Plan, which is available at the Center City Commission offices, offers a proposal in which Front Street can be reconnected to the riverfront with a re-created promenade to remain "forever public" - not cut off by a wall of commercial towers.

Copyright 2004, - Memphis, TN.

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