Saturday, March 27, 2004

CCC gets look at group's riverfront plan; Opposition, legal issues remain to be resolved for RDC

The Commercial Appeal
By Linda A. Moore

Center City Commission board members saw and heard a private presentation Friday of plans for redeveloping the Memphis riverfront, a series of projects likely to involve the CCC at some point.

"Overall, the board's position is to look at ways we can beautify and make downtown a more inviting place," said Virginia Wilson, a CCC board member and risk management analyst in the law division of the City of Memphis.

Riverfront Development Corp. president Benny Lendermon and communications director Dorchelle Spence gave a history of the riverfront master plan and projections for the project.

The nonprofit RDC paid $750,000 for the master plan, which was completed in January 2002 after 18 months of study, public meetings and consultants' analysis. The plan envisions multiple projects along the riverfront that would cost more than $292 million in public and private funds and spur $1.3 billion in private real estate investment downtown.

The projects include a $20 million park-like landing at the foot of Beale Street and other beautification projects. But a key component of the plan has recently attracted opposition.

That part of the plan would allow private development of riverfront land owned by the city and donated by the founding fathers in 1828 for use as a public "promenade." That land now contains the remnants of the old Cossitt Library, a fire station, the old Customs House and post office and Confederate Park.

The heirs of the founders who donated the promenade land hold title to it and are divided on the proposal.

The development cannot move forward until the legal issues are settled, Lendermon told the CCC board. Once those are resolved, it would take two years for any work to begin, he said.
If the city gains full title to the property and the project proceeds, it would retain ownership the land through ground leases and would require that the bottom floors of all development be for public uses.

Although the Memphis City Council ultimately will decide the fate of the projects contained in the master plan, CCC board members appreciated the presentation of issues that will involve them as well.

In other action Friday, the CCC board:

  • Approved Omega General Contractors for $613,000 in renovations at the Court Square gazebo. The Downtown Rotary Club has given the CCC a $160,000 toward gazebo renovations.
  • Voted to hire Cushman & Wakefield for a $55,000, nine-week downtown market study to look at the residential, office and employment, retail and tourism aspects to determine what the community needs.

The last such study was conducted five years ago. The information will be used to provide more information to developers, retailers and real estate professionals interested in downtown.

Copyright 2004, - Memphis, TN.

Friday, March 26, 2004

What the Proprietors Saw: How a document written in 1828 shapes the future of downtown today

The Memphis Flyer
By John Branston

With the convention center, trolley, and now the FedEx Forum almost finished, how strange that the next big proposed downtown project hinges on interpretation of a document written in 1828, when wild bears and Indians roamed the town.

The Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC) wants to remake downtown's front door or promenade by replacing some public buildings and parking garages with an apartment building and an office building up to 40 stories tall. Over half of the promenade would remain public park, sidewalks, or open space. A group called Friends of the Riverfront opposes the plan.

In 20 years of writing about downtown, I have heard numerous references to the city founders and "the heirs" and the founders' bequest that created the promenade between Front Street and the Mud Island parking garage. But until last week I had never looked at the original document itself or a copy of it. It was long past time to check the original sources.

So I visited the Shelby County Archives, where archivist John Dougan dug into the Shelby County Register's Office deed book of 1828 and produced a handwritten copy. The problem was that some of the writing was hard to decipher and some was illegible. A trip to the Memphis Room at the Central Library, however, turned up a transcription in J.M. Keating's History of the City of Memphis and Shelby County, published in 1888.

Memphis was founded in 1819 -- a date that splits the difference between the appointment of commissioners for the Chickasaw Treaty in 1818 and the opening of a land office on the bluff in 1820. The names to remember are Overton, McLemore, and Winchester. John Overton was a judge. Marcus Winchester was the first mayor. And John McLemore was, according to historians, one of the most influential and enlightened men of his day. Together they were known as "the proprietors" of the land on which Memphis was founded.

What happened between 1819 and 1828 is relevant and instructive to what is happening today with the RDC and the riverfront.

Charles Crawford, professor of history at the University of Memphis, says the proprietors were "hardheaded, realistic businessmen." But they did a remarkable thing. They dedicated a web of squares, alleys, streets, and the promenade to public use while keeping the rights to operate a ferry or two at the waterfront.

Crawford agrees with Keating's judgment that "Up to that time (1820) no scheme, plan, or plat had ever been made for an American city on so generous a scale. Every emergency in the life of a leading commercial point was provided for."

So, did the early citizens of Memphis rise up in gratitude and call them blessed? No.

"The people of Memphis were opposed to the proprietors and did everything they could to hinder and hamper them," wrote Keating in 1888. One sore point was the promenade and access to the river. Someone cut a road through it to the river, then another, dividing the promenade into three parts.

In 1828, Judge Overton wrote a letter to William Lawrence and Winchester expressing his concern about the division of the promenade. He complained about the "great want of appreciation of the liberality of the proprietors in laying out the town" and suggested his critics were "stupid." Imagine a public official talking that way.

The proprietors, "having been informed that doubts have arisen in relation to their original intention," decided to restate their vision and file it in the record books. The language is a little cumbersome but worth quoting since it is likely to come up in public meetings, City Council sessions, and maybe even another court case:

"In relation to the piece of ground laid off and called the 'Promenade,' said proprietors say that it was their original intention, is now, and forever will be, that the same should be public ground for such use only as the word imports, to which heretofore, by their acts, for that purpose, it was conceived all right was relinquished for themselves, their heirs, etc., and it is hereby expressly declared, in conformity with such intention, that we for ourselves, heirs and assigns, forever relinquish all claims to the same piece of ground called the 'Promenade,' for the purpose above mentioned." (The entire document can be seen here.)

It was 1828. No one contemplated that bridges would some day be built across the river, much less the arenas and condominiums that followed.

Today, one thing Memphis arguably lacks is a skyline and Front Street worthy of its blufftop location. For better or worse, the vision of the proprietors is responsible for that.


Copyright 2004, - Memphis, TN. All Rights Reserved.

Friday, March 05, 2004

Cybill condemns promenade plan

The Commercial Appeal
By Tom Charlier

When the Riverfront Development Corp. board approved a land-use plan for the Memphis promenade without dissent last week, its most famous member wasn't present.

But that doesn't mean Cybill Shepherd endorsed the action.

The actress and native Memphian on Thursday condemned the plan - which envisions some private development and perhaps high-rise buildings - as "historically and aesthetically inappropriate" for the four-block site atop the downtown bluff.

"What I didn't like about that was that it (the promenade) has never been used by private investors. It's always belonged to Memphians," Shepherd saidfrom her Los Angeles home.

Allowing structures as tall as 400 feet on the promenade represents "the worst idea I've ever heard," she added. "We might as well be Atlanta."

Her comments came eight days after fellow members of the RDC board voted 17-0 to adopt the plan, which would transform an area of parking garages and largely inaccessible and neglected structures into a network of walkways and open spaces lined with shops, restaurants and other developments.

The private developments would fund such projects as a two-level promenade and the relocation of parking underground. In all, the improvements could cost up to $50 million, officials say.

Shepherd, who also opposes RDC proposals for a lake and land bridge on the riverfront, said she now will focus her efforts on the City Council, which is expected to vote on the promenade plan in April.

But even if the measure passes, legal questions hover over the promenade area because the city's founders set it aside for public use.

Informed of Shepherd's concerns, RDC president Benny Lendermon noted that there are 21 voting board members. "We think every board member certainly is entitled to their opinion," he said.

Lendermon said Shepherd and other critics have had plenty of opportunity to air their concerns. The promenade plan has been the focus of recent board meetings and three public sessions since November that were attended by some 300 people.

Although she returns to Memphis five times a year and has a bluff-top home, Shepherd acknowledges she has not been able to make it to any RDC meetings in the approximately two years she's been a board member. But she has kept in contact with Lendermon and other officials.

"I guess I just kept thinking this plan would go away," Shepherd said. "I think I'm to blame - I wish I could've been more active."

Copyright 2004, - Memphis, TN.

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