Sunday, May 16, 2004

Editorial: Turning the City's Face to the River

The Commercial Appeal
Editorial, Page B4

THE MEMPHIS City Council has many factors to consider in its decision on the fate of the Riverfront Development Corp.'s plan for redevelopment of Front Street's Public Promenade, which could come as early as Tuesday.

The Tennessee Preservation Trust's designation of the four-block-long blufftop strip as one of Tennessee's "most endangered public treasures" should not be one of those factors.

The promenade was a treasure once. Now it's primarily a collection of parking garages and public buildings that wall off access to spectacular river views. Access is forbidden in at least one spot with a "no trespassing sign."

What we still call the "promenade," the west side of Front Street from Union to Adams, is nothing like the area that city founders John Overton, James Winchester and Andrew Jackson set aside for permanent public enjoyment in 1819.

Redevelopment aimed at creating full public access to the promenade would fulfill the original intention of the founders. It would create an inviting atmosphere that would help bring Memphians back to the river. It would give tourists a panoramic view that would make them want to visit Memphis again.

Legitimate concern has been expressed about building heights and other factors. Those are matters that would still be resolved through the consideration of individual site plans. Many more questions would have to be answered before a detailed picture of the redeveloped promenade plan would come into focus.
Specific details of the RDC plan, which would be financed by commercial development of parts of the promenade, in other words, are still negotiable.

The suggestion here is that Memphis should not miss out on a golden opportunity offered by the RDC to create something special in this special place on the bluff.

The concept of tightly controlled commercial development - with an emphasis on broad sidewalks suitable for a promenade, outdoor cafes, perhaps even a sidewalk musician or two - remains the most practical way to make the promenade accessible again.

Existing parking garages would be replaced by underground parking. Residential, office, hotel and retail space would rise overhead. New access to riverfront views would be created, and the existing Confederate Park would be preserved.

Needless to say, a spacious park would be preferable. But local government finances are extremely tight and likely to remain that way for some time because of the heavy demands of public education, public safety, health care and other necessary services.

The RDC's redevelopment plan offers a way to create an exciting new amenity in downtown Memphis without going to local taxpayers for the funds to build it. It would give a boost to downtown revitalization, enhancing its commercial and residential offerings.

The promenade area has been subjected to decades of neglect. Passing on this opportunity to put a redevelopment plan into play would doom the Memphis riverfront to a perpetuation of that fate, possibly for many more decades to come.

Not every idea that planners at the RDC have come up with meets a need as perfectly as the promenade plan, but this one - at least in concept - offers some hope that at this critical point the city would turn its face to the Mississippi River again.

The City Council has scheduled a public hearing on the plan for Tuesday, and a decision could come soon after. If there are problems with the specifics, they can be resolved.

But the momentum for making the promenade an attractive, accessible amenity that everyone can enjoy should not come screeching to an indefinite halt.

Copyright 2004 The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN

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