Sunday, April 25, 2004

Editorial: A practical plan for the riverfront

Commercial Appeal
April 25, 2004

DEVELOPMENT OF the Memphis riverfront in a way that enhances its accessibility and esthetics is a long-time dream of generations of Memphians.

While we've dreamed, waterfront areas in other old river towns have sprung to life, in many cases through the efforts of public-private partnerships that leverage scarce public funds with private dollars.

The approach attracts critics because it uses a valuable public asset -- the public's property -- to generate profits for private developers. That is a legitimate concern.

But at the same time it accomplishes important public goals such as making the riverfront more attractive, accessible and exciting, creating jobs, luring tourists and helping to revitalize an area that needs a shot in the arm. In some cases, greenspace is increased.

It's a compromise that Memphis should make in an important phase of the overall plan for redevelopment of the Memphis riverfront - the promenade between Front Street and the river.

As Viewpoint guest columnist Randy Morton, a partner in the urban design consulting firm of Cooper, Robertson & Partners, points out in today's editions, the Riverfront Development Corp. plan "balances the need for a lasting, accessible and vibrant riverfront destination with the immediate reality of funding constraints. It seeks private development as a tool to realize the city's goal, and the site's historic intent, of creating a first-rate promenade for Memphians."

The historic intent for the site, a strip of land from Union to Adams overlooking the Wolf River harbor and Mud Island, was established by city founders John Overton, James Winchester and Andrew Jackson in 1819 when they set aside choice parcels from their newly purchased Fourth Chickasaw Bluff to be reserved in perpetuity as a public promenade.

That intent has not been carried out. Instead, the area has become covered primarily with buildings and parking garages that form a wall blocking access to the river, and severely limiting waterfront views, from Front Street.

The RDC's plan to devote some of that space to new, strictly regulated commercial development that guarantees public access would, finally, fulfill the wishes of the city's founders, create new reasons to visit the river and enhance pride in the community.

The founders' heirs are split over the idea, and opponents of the plan, including some heirs, will make their views known to the Memphis City Council this week as it begins deliberations, as the council's public works committee, on a resolution approving the promenade plan.

City Council approval, which could occur as early as May 18, would set in motion the RDC's efforts to secure clear title to the property -- a process that would involve talks with the so-called "Overton heirs."

Ownership would permit the nonprofit quasi-governmental organization to begin seeking proposals for private development -- most likely on a block-by-block basis -- to create spacious sidewalks, staircases, underground parking and what the Urban Land Institute's Wayne Ratkovich describes in another Viewpoint guest column as "a great gathering place, a civic 'family room' filled with specialty shops, cafes, coffee houses, bars and restaurants."

After partnerships are formed with private entities, the RDC expects to spend some $50 million on demolition and public improvements that would be recovered through private development of part of the property and long-term leases. The U.S. Customs House and possibly a section of the Cossitt Library would be preserved. Confederate Park would be improved. Concrete would be laid for broad sidewalks on two separate levels.

Opponents of the RDC proposal also have developed an attractive alternative for the promenade. The organization Friends for Our Riverfront proposes converting much of the tract into strictly public parkland connected by a pedestrian walk along the bluff.

The RDC proposal offers practical advantages for Memphis taxpayers that seem to give it an overall edge. But a full City Council discussion of both alternatives should prove useful.

By whatever means possible, ultimately the longtime dream of concerned Memphians -- to correct past mistakes that have hidden the wondrous and powerful Mississippi River behind a curtain of concrete - must be turned into reality.

Copyright 2004, commercialappeal.com - Memphis, TN.

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