Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Visions battle on River bluff

Commercial Appeal
By Tom Charlier

On a four-block strip of the Memphis bluff long coveted for its high ground, no one can find much common ground these days.

The downtown promenade area is the focus of starkly contrasting visions and dreams that likely will frame a fractious debate before the City Council this week.

The council has slated a public hearing for 3:30 p.m. Tuesday to receive comments on a Riverfront Development Corp. land-use plan that provides for mixed-use commercial development as a means of attract ing people and generating revenues on the promenade.

The RDC plan has mobilized critics who believe the private development and possible high-rise buildings envisioned in it would violate a public treasure. They favor expanded parkland and open space in the area.

Some council members say they're torn over the issue.

"I really don't like the RDC plan, and I don't like the plan the opposing group has come up with, either," said Carol Chumney, who'd like to see the promenade included in a more comprehensive downtown plan.

The issue remains far from resolution. Even if the council approves the proposal, RDC still would have to launch legal action to gain control of the acreage, as well as conduct more detailed planning and search for developers.

"This process is not nearly as far along as the public discussion would suggest it is," said RDC president Benny Lendermon.

The promenade encompasses acreage west of Front Street that was set aside for public use by Memphis's founders. Court rulings have held that the property is owned by heirs of the founders, with the city having an easement.

The four-block area is home to parking garages, a deteriorating library, a fire station, Confederate Park and the old Custom House and Post Office.

About the only matter on which there is widespread agreement is the current state of the promenade, which the RDC plan calls an "inactive barrier between the city and its river."

"I think everyone agrees that the current state of our promenade is unacceptable," said John Gary, vice president of the group Friends for Our Riverfront, which opposes the RDC's plans.

The agreement ends where planning for the promenade begins.

RDC's proposal, drawn up by the New York firm of Cooper, Robertson & Partners after a series of public meetings last year, would put the parking garages underground and remove most of the other structures. The Custom House and Post Office could be refurbished for other uses, such as the University of Memphis law school.

The RDC proposal includes a two-level promenade, or walk way, along the bluff edge and pedestrian bridges across east-west streets.

Commercial development, which would be needed to fund the $50 million cost of improvements, would be sought at specified locations. They likely include sidewalk cafes and apartment buildings towering as high as 400 feet, with the lobbies of the structures open to the public.

Mindful of the criticism over the prospect of high-rises, Lendermon said whatever kind of development occurs will be market-driven.

"We are totally, totally convinced that without some kind of mixed-use development on the promenade, it's going to sit just like it is for another 50 years," he said.

"The issue isn't how tall the buildings are. It's that you have that kind of activity at that place."
The Friends group and other critics, however, say the RDC plan violates the founders' intent for the promenade and gives developers too much control of a public asset.

Gary says that in setting aside the land, founders in effect placed a conservation easement on the promenade.

"We're not against buildings on the property," he said. "Public uses for the property are acceptable."

The vision favored by the Friends group is based on a plan for the promenade first drafted in the 1980s. It features mostly park space, sidewalks where buildings now stand and pedestrian bridges.

Gary said the group's plan is cheap and can be accomplished without the legal battle facing the RDC proposal.

"It could basically be done for what the city would pay in legal fees," he said.

In recent weeks, the RDC plan has drawn criticism from groups other than Friends.

The Memphis chapter of the American Institute of Architects adopted a resolution favoring "largely unobstructed, open civic space" on the promenade.

Downtown developers Jack Belz, Ron Belz and John Dudas also sent the council a letter opposing high-rise structures on the promenade and questioning other aspects of the RDC plan.
But Lendermon said critics typically make more noise than supporters. He said "a huge number" of developers and other citizens support the RDC plan.

"The problem is having these people step forward," Lendermon said.

Copyright 2004, commercialappeal.com - Memphis, TN.

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