Thursday, May 20, 2004

Approval of land's heirs next step in riverfront redevelopment plan

Commercial Appeal
By Tom Charlier

After winning a key vote of approval from the Memphis City Council, Riverfront Development Corp. officials prepared Wednesday for what could be the most difficult step in their quest to transform the downtown promenade.

The RDC must begin a dialog with the heirs of John Overton and the other Memphis founders who set aside the four-block area west of Front for public use.

The discussions, involving diverse factions of heirs, would delve into their viewpoints on the property and possible terms under which they might accept development, RDC officials said.

Whatever the response, the talks likely will lead to a court decision stipulating how the land can be used, RDC president Benny Lendermon said.

"No matter what happens, . . there has to be some judgmental decree that allows something to happen on the property," he said.

The legal decree is needed because the heirs own the land, while the city has an easement. The RDC said it might be two years before the matter is settled.

The council's approval of the RDC's promenade land-use plan Tuesday opens the way for discussions with the heirs.

The plan entails $50 million worth of improvements and calls for a blend of public areas and commercial development. Amid strong opposition from citizens' groups, the council placed a 150-foot height limit on buildings, down from the 400-foot maximum in the RDC plan.

Once the council's action becomes official with the approval of the meeting minutes next month, RDC officials will meet with the city's legal staff to determine how to approach the heirs, Lendermon said.

The RDC has been contacted by a number of people claiming either to represent heirs or be heirs themselves, he added.

Noting the various factions involved, Lendermon said the RDC might conduct mass meetings with the heirs.

Opponents of the promenade plan, who include some of the heirs, accuse the RDC of communicating mostly with those descendants who support development on the acreage. That group includes several out-of-town Overton heirs, such as Davidson County Circuit Judge Hamilton Gayden.

"They do not represent us," said Virginia McLean, an Overton heir who is president of Friends for Our Riverfront, which fiercely opposes the RDC plan and instead favors development elsewhere downtown.

In addition to Overton heirs, the descendants of founders John C. McLemore and James Winchester also have rights to the promenade land and must be part of negotiations, McLean said.

Copyright 2004, commercialappeal.com - Memphis, TN

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