Monday, June 07, 2004

Memphis riverfront in tug of war; Wanted for park, redevelopment

Associated Press

MEMPHIS, TENN. - In 1819, the founders of Memphis had run off the Chickasaw Indians and were getting down to drawing a design for their city.

They envisioned a town with a long, green park as its front door gracing a high bluff over the Mississippi River. The Promenade, as they called it, was to offer a commanding view of the river and would forever remain "public ground."

But not much of that park is still a park, and the view is far from commanding.


Now the view of the river from the Promenade is blocked by two run-down city parking garages, a firehouse, an old library and a former federal courthouse.

The city's plan for gussying up the riverfront would clear out the old buildings and open four central blocks of the Promenade for developers to put offices, condos, shops and restaurants.

That plan has created two determined camps: a citizens group that wants the Promenade returned to open green space and the Riverfront Development Corp., which wants a splashy commercial waterfront like other cities have built.

Likely in the mix, too, will be hundreds of heirs of the Memphis founders who argue they can claim the land if private developers move in.

"It was meant to be reserved for the use of the people, not for private business," said Charles Crawford, a University of Memphis history professor.

Though the land on which Memphis sits was then occupied by the Chickasaw, North Carolina claimed it in the late 1700s and a speculator named John Rice bought a 5,000-acre chunk.

The founders of the city, John Overton, James Winchester and John McLemore, got the land from Rice's estate after he was killed by Indians. By the 1820s, Memphis had fewer than 100 residents, but it was a center of trade for livestock, cotton, timber and other goods.

The Memphis founders were land developers, but they took the unusual step of setting aside several sites for public parks. The Promenade drew the attention of private business early on.

"People were using it to park their wagons. They would camp there, and if they brought something in to sell, they would pile it up on the riverfront," Crawford said.

In 1828, the founders drew up a written explanation that their easement for the site meant it was to be public land.

Benny Lendermon, president of the current-day Riverfront Development Corp., said the site has since become an eyesore and the only way to transform it is with private money.

"It's been talked about for years, but it's not ever going to happen. It will just keep sitting there like it is," Lendermon said.

His nonprofit corporation is under contract with the city to manage and redevelop the 5-mile-long riverfront.

Memphis, like other cities, has pushed in recent years to make its riverfront more attractive to tourists and local residents alike.

Over the past two decades, the city has made major strides cleaning up downtown -- a revitalized Beale Street entertainment district, the new Peabody Place mall, a new minor-league ballpark and the NBA Grizzlies' FedExForum opening later this year.

The face-lift has convinced more people to move downtown and has sparked commercial development. The Riverfront Development Corp. has plans for more improvements.

Lendermon said clearing out the old buildings plus laying out a park could cost $50 million. Members of the citizens group, Friends of Our Riverfront, predict it would cost considerably less, however, perhaps as little as $7 million.

The development corporation has the city council's OK to move ahead with its plans, but Virginia McLean, president of Friends for Our Riverfront, said her group's fight is far from over.

"The land they're talking about is public land. It belongs to the citizens of Memphis," said McLean, an heir of founder John Overton. "We think it should remain open space for everybody to use."

The Riverfront Development Corp. now must begin talking to the founders' heirs, a diverse group that still owns the land, even though the city has an easement to use it.

Lendermon has said there must be a court decision on how the land can be used, and that might take up to two years to settle.

The Riverfront Development Corp. hopes to find private developers to build two towers up to 150 feet tall for offices and condominiums. The development also would include shops, restaurants and other such businesses.

The riverfront already has more than 250 acres of parks but little else to draw people to the river, Lendermon said.

"If you want to have a view of the river and have dinner at a small bistro or some nicer place, there's no place to go," he said.

Copyright 2004, The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

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