Friday, September 24, 2004

A Riverfront

Memphis Magazine

Confused about the debate over our riverfront? You're not alone. Maybe we can help sort things out.

Has Mother Nature taken sides in the debate over the Memphis riverfront promenade?

It looked that way after a Memorial Day storm seemingly took dead aim at the downtown bluff and knocked down several trees in Confederate Park across from the Morgan Keegan Tower. It was the second time in 10 months that a storm had littered the park with toppled trees, suggesting, perhaps, that if the heirs of the city founders can't decide what to do then the airs of the west wind will simply destroy the promenade piece by piece.

The promenade is the centerpiece of the riverfront, the west side of the blocks between Union and Poplar. The pro-development Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC) has picked the low-hanging fruit by putting a median in Riverside Drive, building a sidewalk above the cobblestones and stairwells on the bluff, landscaping riverfront parks, and holding a design competition for a boat landing at the foot of Tom Lee Park.

But what about downtown's front yard, which now includes a fire station, library, and parking garages? That's where the RDC and a group called Friends for Our Riverfront are far apart. Here's a look at some of the issues that divide them.
What was the founders' vision and why does it matter?

Memphis was founded in 1819, a date which splits the difference between the appointment of commissioners for the Chickasaw Treaty in 1818 and the opening of a land office on the bluff in 1820. The "proprietors" of the land were John Overton, John McLemore, and Marcus Winchester, later the first mayor. Charles Crawford, professor of history at the University of Memphis, says they were "hardheaded, realistic businessmen" with unusual foresight. They dedicated a web of squares, alleys, streets, and the promenade to public use while keeping the rights to operate a ferry at the waterfront.

By 1828, doubts had already arisen about the proprietors' intentions.

"The people of Memphis were opposed to the proprietors and did everything they could to hinder and hamper them," wrote J.M. Keating in his 1888 History of the City of Memphis and Shelby County .

So the proprietors decided to restate their vision and file it in the record books, which can still be seen in the deed book in the Shelby County Archives. This is what it says:

"The proprietors say that it was their original intention, is now, and forever will be, that the promenade should be public ground for such use only as the word imports, to which heretofore, by their acts, for that purpose, it was conceived all right was relinquished for themselves, their heirs, etc."

Are the heirs united?

No. Some of them are leaders and supporters of Friends for Our Riverfront. Others are willing to support parts of the RDC plan with a major qualification. Hamilton Gayden Jr., a judge in Nashville and an Overton heir, helped organize a survey of "165 Overton first-in-line heirs," 140 of whom answered the survey. According to Gayden, 133 Overton heirs favor development of the promenade for private use "provided the development ensures adequate green space and protects the public's access to and views of the river, and provided the revenues from private uses are shared in an equitable fashion between the city and the heirs."

Gayden's group says the McLemore descendants favor the RDC proposal, but that appears to be hearsay evidence at this point. As for the Winchester heirs, suffice it to say that founders James and William Winchester each had nine children, one of whom was Marcus Winchester, who also had nine children. Do the math.

Finally, even if a majority of the heirs could be found and surveyed, their sentiments might not matter.

"So what?!" states a Friends handout. "The descendants have no right to change the conditions of the initial grant of this land."

What powers does the RDC have?

The RDC was created in 2000 as a not-for-profit, public/private partnership. Under contract with the city of Memphis, it is charged with promoting, planning, and coordinating whatever enhances the attractiveness, accessibility, and economic value of the waterfront. It took over all of the downtown riverfront parks from the Memphis Park Commission. Memphis City Council members sometimes call it the Retired Directors Club because its staff includes former city division directors Benny Lendermon and John Conroy.

In 2002, the RDC completed an 18-month master planning process, which culminated in the Memphis Riverfront Master Plan (which can be viewed online at The plan cannot be implemented without the approval of the Memphis City Council at a number of stages, including public funding if and when it comes to that.

"Finding a way to pay for improvements is essential," says Lendermon. "The RDC plans call for mixed-use developments on 40 percent of the promenade land, which will generate money needed to build the walkways, bury parking, and add trees. Without those revenues, this plan would likely end up where most plans are, collecting dust on the shelf."

What does Friends for Our Riverfront want?

To see the four blocks of the promenade from Union to Adams returned to a more or less continuous park and greenspace with new walkways and without the library, fire station, and parking garages. Those buildings go away, and their replacement cost is not part of the $7 million estimate Friends puts on demolition, new landscaping, and pedestrian bridges. (The group's Web site is

What happened to the lake and land bridge?

The most obvious new feature in the RDC Master Plan is a proposed 38-acre, five-square-block area of new land connecting the city to Mud Island. It would create two new bodies of water -- a smaller downtown commercial harbor and a new lake -- and provide land for new development. The RDC says it could take 10 to 20 years or more for all elements of the plan to be implemented. Lendermon, a veteran of many years at City Hall, and the board of the RDC have elected to fight one battle at a time.

Jack Tucker, an architect and downtown pioneer with an office on Front Street, says one of the RDC consultants told him that the land bridge was mandated by the RDC and did not come from the planners. Downtown developer Henry Turley says it is so massive and expensive that he fears it could cause more doable parts of the plan to be scuttled. The Urban Land Institute, a group of consultants hired by the RDC, seems conflicted about the land bridge in its 2003 report.

"Do not let the land bridge be a barrier to progress and action in other areas," the report says. It lists five "challenges" posed by this "expensive way to create a new development opportunity" including redirecting investment away from other parts of downtown. "Despite these challenges the panel does not believe that the land bridge should not be built," the report says.

Nothing like the old double-negative endorsement.

What about parking?

Friends says there are alternatives to Front Street parking lots such as trolley links to parking lots at the north and south ends of downtown. But the RDC and Center City Commission say that any promenade parking that is demolished must be replaced with new parking facilities, possibly underground.

"Whether the RDC plan is implemented or not, we need the estimated 1,000 parking spaces that are in the two garages on Front and Monroe and Front and Jefferson," said Jeff Sanford, executive director of the Center City Commission. "There is already demand for more public parking than exists."

Where did those 400-foot office towers come from?

The RDC says office towers up to 400 feet tall have always been part of its plans that were presented in three public hearings. At the same time, however, Lendermon says there is only a slight chance of such towers being built.

Where do the mayor and City Council stand?

Mayor Herenton is pro-RDC. In May, the City Council voted 10-3 to let the RDC plan move forward but modified it by knocking the office buildings down to a maximum height of 150 feet. The presentation and public comment on the plan came at the end of a seven-hour meeting and left some people on both sides feeling snubbed by City Council Chairman Joe Brown. Brown's North Memphis constituency includes many poor and working-class Memphians who are more concerned about crime and schools than the RDC plan. But Brown voted with the majority.
Both sides could overplay their hand, or they could wind up simply mortally wounding each other. Jack Sammons, who represents affluent East Memphians, said his "nay" was a cautionary one to let the RDC know that he will also be raising lots of questions down the road. Carol Chumney and E.C. Jones were the other "no" votes. The architect of the 150-foot compromise was Council-man Tom Marshall, but he has an independent streak as well.

Who's winning?

It would seem that the RDC won the first round by virtue of being on the long end of a 10-3 vote, which kept the plan alive without authorizing any public appropriations or construction contracts. With many more battles ahead, however, an early win may not mean much. On its Web site, Friends vows to "stop the RDC's land grab." And Bruce Kramer, an attorney who represents Friends, had this reply to one plan supporter:

"Since you are glad the RDC won round one, I wonder if you are interested in buying or leasing the Brooklyn Bridge?"

Is it going to court?

Probably so, in the opinion of the Urban Land Institute and others. If it does, the court battle could be long and expensive -- and a long time coming. A decision could be appealed. The dispute over running Inter-state 40 through Overton Park went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1971, then it was nearly 20 more years before new houses were built in the old expressway corridor.

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