Friday, April 23, 2004

Mixed reviews for promenade riverfront plan

Memphis Business Journal
By Amos Maki

Riverfront Development Corp.'s plan to transform an area of downtown known as the public promenade is getting mixed reviews from business and political leaders.

The plan calls for reshaping the riverfront by using private development to pay for public improvements to the area. The private developments would pay for projects like a proposed two-level promenade and the relocation of parking garages -- from prime real estate with stunning river views atop the bluffs -- underground. The plan also calls for pedestrian bridges that would stretch across Monroe and Court and for improvements to sidewalks on the promenade. Grand staircases would provide access to the upper level of the pedestrian walkways.

The property now contains the old Cossitt Library, a fire station, the old Customs House and Confederate Park. The land is virtually inaccessible to most of the public and offers breathtaking views of the river. The RDC plan calls for increasing the public space by more than 60%, from 3.76 acres today to 6.03 acres.

But some residents and businesses are concerned about the projected height of two of the three buildings proposed in the promenade plan. The plan says the property would be able to sustain a 300-foot residential tower where the fire station and an All-Right parking garage now sit and a 400-foot office tower north of Confederate Park, between Jefferson and Adams.

"I've always felt like our riverfront was underutilized," says Mohamad Hakimian, managing partner of the Madison Hotel. Some views from his hotel will be obscured if the two larger, bookend buildings are constructed at 300 or 400 feet. "So having said that, I'm excited some projects are on the drawing board.

"However, I'm not fond of a couple portions of it. In particular, the high rises. Such high rises at the banks of the Mississippi River are going to block an enormous amount of views from many other buildings."

Hakimian also wonders what effect new, developable property will have on the ongoing efforts to revitalize old developments in the heart of Downtown.

"Those will become the prime locations and will discourage developers from developing many of the beautiful buildings that are Downtown that are vacant," he says.

Henry Turley, principal of Henry Turley Co., says what is there now is unacceptable and that something should be done with the property.

"We don't like the way it is currently developed," Turley says. "We think what is there now serves as a wall, a barrier, between our properties along the east side of Front and their enjoyment of the river."

Turley says he would like to see towers go up Downtown -- as long as the economy drives the development.

"I would like to see our economy and our Downtown so vital it calls for another building," he says. "It's not just something you will into existence or zone into existence. That takes a real dynamic economy."

John Dudas, vice president of Belz Enterprises, says he has some concerns about the towers because of the current availability of space.

"I would conservatively estimate that we have at least 2 million square feet of vacant building space Downtown today," he says. "If another corporate user does not relocate to Downtown Memphis, then the approximate 750,000 square feet of commercial space that is proposed in the subject towers would accomodate all of the average annual demand for office space in Downtown Memphis for a 15-year period."

Plus, Dudas says, additional parking would have to be provided for the buildings.

RDC president Benny Lendermon says the 300- and 400-foot heights are the maximum height of the proposed developments, not the predetermined size of the buildings. Lendermon says he doubts any of the buildings, especially the largest one, would be constructed to the maximum height, if it's ever built at all.

"We don't think that office tower ever gets built," he says. "There is probably a 3% chance of that tower being built."

Lendermon says the economy, not the plan, will determine the size of the developments and emphasized the RDC isn't taking the build-it-and-they-will-come approach.

"A developer will build the building based on the economic reality of what the demand is," Lendermon says. "That demand will determine which buildings go up and when they go up, as well as the height and mass of the buildings."

The promenade plan could cost as much as $50 million. Officials say work on the property would not begin until private developers sign contracts to develop the land.

"There will be signed contracts and everything before the first spade of dirt is turned," Lendermon says. "We don't think you do anything until you are well along the road of executing contracts with developers."

The promenade plan will land in front of the City Council's Public Works Committee April 27; a final vote on the project will be held May 18.

Lendermon says he thinks the RDC has enough votes on the council to win approval for the promenade plan.

City Councilman Ricky Peete, who also serves on the RDC board, agrees with Lendermon and says there is enough support for the plan on the council.

"I think there is enough support for it, but there will be serious debate," he says.
At least one council member, Jack Sammons, would like to hear more about the plan before voting on it.

"This is a generational issue and, frankly, I wouldn't be shocked if the council deferred this for a year," he says. "I'm not ready to vote and if we have to do it in the next few weeks, I'd be inclined to vote against it. I suspect there will be a lot of discussion about this in the next couple of weeks."

Turley, for one, is tired of talk.

"It just seems like a lot of talk and I'd like to see some specific developments proposed and gotten under way," he says.

But legal challenges will delay any work for at least two years. If the council approves the plan, the city must move to take control of the land. Lendermon says that could be done in a number of ways, including the city exercising its right of eminent domain.

The property was donated by the city's founding fathers for use as a public promenade. The heirs of the founders hold title to the land and they are divided on the proposal. Some support the promenade plan while others have joined a group, called Friends for Our Riverfront, that opposes it.

"We're not against development," says Virginia McLean, an Overton heir and president of Friends for Our Riverfront. "We're just against the wrong development at the wrong place at the wrong time."

Her group created an alternative plan that would turn the promenade entirely into park space at a cost of about $7 million.

"That plan would require taxpayers to finance it and the RDC plan would be paid for by development and therin lies the difference," Peete says.

Lendermon says the Friends plan is unrealistic because whether or not the land is developed or turned into park space, the cost of relocating the existing structures will remain about the same.
"You have got to replace the parking because business depends on it and you have to replace the library and fire station," he says. "Maybe the council will make our life easy and come up with this big pot of money and say 'Here's $50 million, make this into a beautiful park.' "
Hakimian hopes there will be an opportunity to tweak the plan and wonders what would happen if the council voted the plan down.

"We all should be careful not to fight it in a way that kills the project forever," he says. "But we need to ask for modifications to it. It looks like this is the only plan on the table.

"This shouldn't be the only option where we either do this or there is no plan."

Peete says he hopes the two sides can find some common ground.

"While I respect everyone's right to have an opinion, I think that too often we are so extreme in our views that we can't see the forest for the trees," he says. "I think we have the ability to compromise to do something great for Memphis. Where there is flexibility to tweak the plan, I think we are of the mind to compromise."

Copyright(c) American City Business Journals Inc.

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