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, commercialappeal.com - Memphis, TN.

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