Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Council Backs Plan for Frontage - Battling Blight Trumps Worries

Commercial Appeal
by Blake Fontenay

Memphis City Council members didn't love everything they heard about a plan to develop four blocks of prime downtown riverfront.

But after more than four hours of debate Tuesday night the majority concluded that approving the proposal was better than the alternative.

By a 10-3 vote the council endorsed a plan to blend public walkways and open spaces with commercial development along the four blocks west of Front Street.

Council members admitted to having concerns about the type of private development that would be put on the site.

But they worried even more that nothing would happen on that property if the plan were squelched.

Representatives from the Riverfront Development Corp.(RDC), a nonprofit group that spent 18 months developing the plan, told council members that private investment was the key to revitalizing the blighted and underutilized stretch of waterfront.

John Stokes, the RDC's chairman, said that without a private-public partnership "we're going to be right where we are today many years from now. Nothing will change. Nothing will happen."

That argument seemed to sway council members, along with assurances they would still have power to approve or reject specific development projects when they're brought forward.

Council members conditioned their support on heights of any commercial buildings being capped at 12 stories or 150 feet.

"I think it's a great step forward,'' Councilman Rickey Peete said. "We're not going to allow the RDC or anyone else to denigrate what we have here in our riverfront. . . I think it's important to move forward and not be stuck in the mud."

Benny Lendermon, the RDC's president, said the plan calls for the lower levels of any new commercial buildings to be open to the public, possibly as sidewalk cafes, restaurants or shops.

The development would occur on 12 acres now occupied by Confederate Park, two parking garages, a fire station, the old Custom House and Post Office and Cossitt Library.

Some of the buildings, such as the post office, might be renovated and put to other uses under the plan.

Nothing is likely right away, though.

A judge will first have to decide if the city can use the property for commercial purposes.

The courts have ruled that the heirs of the city's founders own the land, although city government has an easement to use the property for the public's benefit.

Bruce Kramer, an attorney representing Friends for Our Riverfront, predicted the planned commercial uses wouldn't pass muster in a courtroom.

"The RDC proposal, in our opinion, does not constitute public use,'' Kramer said.

More than 200 people showed up for a public hearing that preceded the council's vote.

Council chairman Joe Brown dismayed many in the audience when he decided to hold the public hearing at the end of the council's agenda, forcing citizens to wait more than three hours before the riverfront discussion began.

After Brown allowed 20 minutes for the RDC to introduce the plan he gave 20 minutes to opponents, then another 20 minutes to supporters.

Several of the speakers who identified themselves as the plan's supporters also had ties to the RDC, in effect giving them another chance to make their case.

Opponents, some wearing green ribbons or carrying protest signs, complained that the plan could clear the way for high-rise apartments or condominiums that would block the riverfront view from the east side of Front Street.

Virginia McLean, president of Friends for Our Riverfront, expressed skepticism about Lendermon's claim that the $50 million development could be financed entirely with private money.

"They tell us we don't need to worry about the details,'' McLean said. "That's simply not true.''

Council members Carol Chumney, E. C. Jones and Jack Sammons voted against the plan.

Copyright 2004 The Commercial Appeal

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