Friday, May 21, 2004

Editorial: An Opportunity on Front Street

Commercial Appeal

MANY MORE hurdles remain to be crossed, but the Memphis City Council has established the most viable course for eventual transformation of the promenade on Front Street into an attractive downtown amenity.

The council's approval of a redevelopment concept for the four-block blufftop tract from Union to Adams - using private funds for public improvements - came after four hours of debate.

The vote was a recognition of the reality that private investment is probably the only practical way to revitalize that stretch of the waterfront.

Now cluttered with buildings that block access to river views, the 12-acre promenade, if the Riverfront Development Corp. plan continues to advance, could be cleared for the most part to make way for broad sidewalks, walkways to the river and new buildings with the kinds of ground-floor businesses that would draw people to the riverfront for shopping, dining and socializing.

The council's decision is hardly the last word on the fate of the promenade. City government has an easement to use the property for the public's benefit, but the situation is complicated: It is owned by heirs of the city's founders, a large and diverse group with widely varied opinions on the matter.

Beyond the legal challenge lies the selling job. Investors must be persuaded to put millions of dollars into building projects that will have to conform to the objectives of the RDC plan, with restrictions on such factors as building heights, appearance and usage.

As soon as City Council minutes are approved, the RDC will attempt to start talks with the heirs of the Memphis founders who set aside the area for public use, persuading skeptical members of the group, it is hoped, that commercial investment is the most viable option for restoring the promenade to its intended use.

As difficult as those tasks may be, at least the area now has a chance to recover from decades of neglect. The promenade could become the cornerstone of a world-class riverfront in which future generations of Memphians can take pride.

Unfortunately, City Council's decision to launch the promenade redevelopment plan was marred by Chairman Joe Brown's delay - without explanation - of a public hearing on the issue.

More than 200 people showed up for a 3:30 p.m. public hearing, only to be forced to wait for more than three hours while the council ambled through its agenda. And then opponents of the redevelopment plan were given only 20 minutes to make their case.

If the chairman's intent was to spare those with unrelated council business from having to sit through the public hearing, that should have been clearly explained to the audience.

Forcing people to wait for hours to state their positions on controversial issues is an unfortunate tactic used occasionally by City Council chairmen in what the public perceives as an effort to wear down opponents of proposals favored by council majorities.

Instead of discouraging people from participating in the process, the council should use every opportunity to show that the public's views are being taken seriously.

This matter was handled in a way that reinforced the notion that the promenade plan was being shoved down the throats of an unwilling and skeptical public. Not a very good way to win people over to your point of view.

Copyright 2004 The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN

Thursday, May 20, 2004

TV: Riverfront Belongs to Public And Heirs

Channel 3 News
By Stephanie Scurlock

It's the city's most prized piece of land: the riverfront promenade. It overlooks the Mississippi River and is considered prime property by developers. City council members are hearing arguments about how it should be developed and how much green space should be left. But in the end, it's not totally their decision. It's a decision the relatives of three founding fathers will help make.

Virginia McLean is from the Overton family. She leads the grass roots group Friends For Our Riverfront. She wants improvements to the riverfront, like the removal of unsightly parking garages and vacant buildings. But she doesn't believe apartments and businesses belong there.

McLean and other descendents of John Overton, John McLemore and James Winchester are heirs to the riverfront property. In 1828, the three founding fathers of the city of Memphis set aside a portion of their land, called the Promenade, to give to the city. The one stipulation is it can only used as public land. Descendants are in a dispute on what constitutes public land.

Descendants like Happy Snowden Jones back the Riverfront Development Corporation's proposal. She says it's for the good of the city, not her bank account. She says there are far too many heirs to gain anything substantial financially. Jones prefers a mix of residential and activities on the riverfront. She doesn't believe, as McLean does, that a park alone will attract people downtown.

If the descendents can't reach common ground about what constitutes public use, they'll have to let someone else, like a judge, make the decision.

Copyright 2004, WREG Channel 3 - Memphis, TN. All Rights Reserved.

Approval of land's heirs next step in riverfront redevelopment plan

Commercial Appeal
By Tom Charlier

After winning a key vote of approval from the Memphis City Council, Riverfront Development Corp. officials prepared Wednesday for what could be the most difficult step in their quest to transform the downtown promenade.

The RDC must begin a dialog with the heirs of John Overton and the other Memphis founders who set aside the four-block area west of Front for public use.

The discussions, involving diverse factions of heirs, would delve into their viewpoints on the property and possible terms under which they might accept development, RDC officials said.

Whatever the response, the talks likely will lead to a court decision stipulating how the land can be used, RDC president Benny Lendermon said.

"No matter what happens, . . there has to be some judgmental decree that allows something to happen on the property," he said.

The legal decree is needed because the heirs own the land, while the city has an easement. The RDC said it might be two years before the matter is settled.

The council's approval of the RDC's promenade land-use plan Tuesday opens the way for discussions with the heirs.

The plan entails $50 million worth of improvements and calls for a blend of public areas and commercial development. Amid strong opposition from citizens' groups, the council placed a 150-foot height limit on buildings, down from the 400-foot maximum in the RDC plan.

Once the council's action becomes official with the approval of the meeting minutes next month, RDC officials will meet with the city's legal staff to determine how to approach the heirs, Lendermon said.

The RDC has been contacted by a number of people claiming either to represent heirs or be heirs themselves, he added.

Noting the various factions involved, Lendermon said the RDC might conduct mass meetings with the heirs.

Opponents of the promenade plan, who include some of the heirs, accuse the RDC of communicating mostly with those descendants who support development on the acreage. That group includes several out-of-town Overton heirs, such as Davidson County Circuit Judge Hamilton Gayden.

"They do not represent us," said Virginia McLean, an Overton heir who is president of Friends for Our Riverfront, which fiercely opposes the RDC plan and instead favors development elsewhere downtown.

In addition to Overton heirs, the descendants of founders John C. McLemore and James Winchester also have rights to the promenade land and must be part of negotiations, McLean said.

Copyright 2004, commercialappeal.com - Memphis, TN

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

TV: Council approves riverfront development plan

Action News 5
By Darrell Phillips

Memphis City Council members voted overwhelmingly in favor of an issue so controversial it filled council chambers. But -- as it turns out -- all the debate couldn't derail the plan.

Despite an unprecedented showing of opposition Memphis City Councilmembers chose something new over something familiar, supporting a plan to let private developers build on public land. To turn the Memphis river bluff into a place planners describe as a thriving social promenade.

"I don't think anyone wants to go there in its current state," said Kevin Kane of the Memphis CVB. "We gotta change and we gotta do it now."

It wasn't easy. Hundreds filled the room. They brought signs. They wore ribbons. They were angry.

"An inadequate consideration for the historic fabric of downtown and the uniqueness of the bluffs," said Rebecca Conrad in opposition.

Both sides put up their dukes and came in swinging.

"I'm saying to myself, my god, doesn't anybody have any vision for what this city could look like?" asked Grizzlies Boss Jerry West.

Opponents argued the new plan isn't what city ancestors wanted. Fears of high rises dotting riverfront landscape brought council members to compromise, offering an amendment to limit new buildings to 150 feet. 12 stories high.

Still opponents said it was impossible that the plan wouldn't cost taxpayers, despite planner's promises.

"I've asked Mr. Lendermon. I've asked Ms. Jernigan. I've asked another board member if we could see the financial feasibility study. I've been told by three different board members that there is not one," said Bayard Snowden.

In the end, it wasn't much of a contest for the Council. And now City planners face even higher hurdles. Both sides acknowledged this will likely end up in a courtroom next. A judge will have to determine whether the city even has the legal right to move forward. It could take months. It could even take years.

Copyright 2004, WMC Channel 5 - Memphis, TN. All Rights Reserved.

TV: Revamping the riverfront

Action News 5
By Darrell Phillips

"I've been around a long time and I've heard the adage no public money's going to be required many times and it never seems to happen," says Memphis City Councilmember Jack Sammons.

Sammons is one of three who voted against the massive plan to revamp the riverfront.

Planners say it will pay for itself. "Private money generated to pay for public improvements," says riverfront planner Benny Lendermon. HeƊsays Companies will pay the City to lease the property. Costs are absorbed by the developers and not the taxpayers.

Sammons doesn't buy it.

"I think we need to be straight with our customers," he says. "Customers are the taxpayers. We need to look 'em in the eye and say ultimately this is going to cost you some money."

Others worry how that money might add up.

"The finances don't work," said an opponent Tuesday night.

Councilmember Carol Chumney said, "We hear that no money's going in but yet we're looking at approving eight million dollars in bonds this year for the Riverfront Development Corporation."

Memphis developer Jack Belz weighed in in writing. His letter to the Council warns, "it is misleading to imply that there will be no cost to the community..."

He writes that moving big business to the promenade will hurt businesses in areas already developed.

"We will in fact be sacrificing the area east of Front for a new town west of Front," writes Belz.

The downtown fire station will have to go too. That will cost someone.

"It'll cost 20 million dollars to move that fire station," says Sammons. "That's the headquarters of the Memphis Fire Department. Not something you can just put in a little building somewhere."

And what about infrastructure costs, sewers, drainage, landscaping, lighting?

Benny Lendermon tells me it's all part of the plan. That private development will cover those costs. But he's clear, nothing will happen without lengthy discussions. He also says it is possible that the downtown fire station will be a problem taxpayers might have to pay for.

Copyright 2004, WMC Channel 5 - Memphis, TN. All Rights Reserved.

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

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

City Council Public Session to debate and approve the Promenade Land Use Plan (audio)

At the links below, in MP3 audio format, are recordings of the entire debate in City Council public session with respect to "item 30" on the agenda the afternoon of May 18, 2004. "Item 30" was a resolution approving the RDC's Promenade Land Use Plan.

The plan was controversial, to say the least. The large public Council chamber was packed. Because Item 30 came at the end of the Council's other business, debate began late in the afternoon, after a break, and ran into the evening.

Council Chairman Joe Brown began by saying he that would allow both sides -- the RDC and the plan opponents -- 15 minutes each to present their cases. What he in fact did was allow the RDC 15 minutes to present and argue for the plan, the opponents 15 minurtes to argue against, and then the RDC and its supporters another 15 minutes to argue for.

Following that, the City Council members themselves made speeches. Meanwhile, a motion was made to delay a vote on the plan for another two weeks to allow the Council more time to study it. That motion was defeated and the Promenade Plan was finally approved (Chumney, Jones, and Sammons voting against).

The entire debate runs three hours and eight minutes. It is divided into seven parts below, corresponding to the tapes used.Click to listen or download:

Letter: Support of RDC proposal not in best interest of city

Commercial Appeal
Letters to the Editor

The Commercial Appeal has again come out against what is good for the city. Instead of supporting what is good, it is supporting what the Riverfront Development Corp.'s monied interests want.

You first opposed, before coming around to support, the Bluffwalk, which is a great addition to our city. Now you support the RDC plan to "sell off" our public riverfront land (promenade) to provide income for the RDC.

Leasing the promenade for a 40-, a 30- and a 15-story tower is contrary to the 1828 deed that gave the land to the citizens of Memphis for public use. The founders of our city had a far better vision of our city than you have. Shame on you.

Bergen Merrill
Memphis

Copyright 2004, commercialappeal.com - Memphis, TN

Letter: Promenade development would deny preservation

Commercial Appeal
Letters to the Editor

It is very apparent that the writers of a May 15 letter to the editor and your May 16 editorial ("Turning the city's face to the river") have both missed the point of the Public Promenade being placed on the list of Tennessee's 10 most endangered historic sites.

The promenade's nomination and its selection to this very important listing are based on the fact that the blufftop area along the west side of Front Street called the Public Promenade was given to the citizens of Memphis as a public open area to be used and visited by all. This listing by the Tennessee Preservation Trust serves to make clear the fact that for over the last 50-plus years Memphis has not been a good steward of the promenade and now is the time to correct the years of inappropriate development, not to add to it.

If the newest development plan by the Riverfront Development Corp. is approved by the City Council as early as today there will simply be no more public bluff/promenade. It will become a squared-off concrete structure with no appearance of the natural green bluff that once stood as a historical part of Memphis history.

June W. West
Memphis

Copyright 2004, commercialappeal.com - Memphis, TN

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.

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

Letters: RDC not listening to public input

The Commercial Appeal
Letters to the Editor

I was one of approximately 70 people who attended the Promenade walk conducted by the planner for Cooper-Robertson. That walk was the only public meeting the RDC held in which the public was actually asked for input.

If you review the summary of the walk's input on the RDC Web site, it's clear the RDC disregarded the public comment it received about its plan and tried to avoid any negative input on its presentation.

The RDC plan was presented at the third public meeting, and the audience was asked: ''What do you like about this plan?" Participants weren't informed of the Founders' vision until this final meeting, when the attorney who had filed the case to block hotel development, leading to the 1965 Supreme Court case, disclosed that the land was held as an easement for public use.

The RDC claims its plan increases public space by 60 percent. While it calculates the space added by wider sidewalks, it fails to calculate all of the ''public space" space created by existing sidewalks and other areas. There is no minimum amount of walking space dedicated to the public in its proposal. It labels ''public areas" as green in its plan, when they won't contain grass, but rather add to the concrete and brick that already dominate downtown.

Thankfully, citizens have the right to have another vision. The City Council should have the wisdom to pursue the original alternative.

Sue A. Williams
Memphis


Why do I feel I am not part of the "public" as described by our city's leaders? I am a Memphian. My family lives within the city limits. I love downtown. My family plays, worships and entertains there. So why we are denied access to the sidewalks and egress that my tax dollars built for ''public use"?

Is it Henry Turley who did not want my family to access public use areas because it would disturb him for one month out of 12? Was it Kevin Kane who did not want my family to use the public sidewalks in front of his home? Did Mayor Willie Herenton order the closing of the stairs to Tom Lee Park?

Surely it was not the participants in Memphis in May. They would not have asked to walk to the far ends of the park to gain access. They bring visitors, income and a positive image to a city that desperately needs anything positive. Who locked these gates?

Is this what we are to expect if the city gives away the land that has been set aside for "public use" for 185 years? How far will we have to walk to get a view of the river then?

Memphis has done a fabulous job renewing downtown without losing sight of the history and feel of a Southern river city. Please do not spoil the efforts that have gone into these improvements. Do not try to pass off the renovation of the bluffs as a "public" service.

William McBride
Memphis


Don't ruin the best bluff view in Memphis with bank and office buildings and condo penthouses for the few elite who can afford them. The Founders meant the Promenade to be green space, ample and open to the people, forever. The RDC should sit down with concerned citizen groups and find out what the people want on their land.

Humans who live and work in cities need large green spaces, not little strips at the edges of concrete walks. Maybe even a space as large as three Confederate Parks stitched together, in the heart of downtown, where they can see it from their offices and apartments and get to it easily for a bite of lunch. When you have only 30 minutes, you don't have time to go to Tom Lee Park or Mud Island, but you can be on the Promenade in an instant.

Through legal machinations, the RDC would have Memphians pay for this land even though it already belongs to them. The RDC plan is up for approval by the City Council, although no ecological or environmental study has been done to determine the impact the plan might have on the Wolf River or the Chickasaw Bluffs.
The fate of this land has been decided, in 1828 by the Founders, in 1867 and 1965 by the highest court in Tennessee. The Promenade belongs to the people of Memphis, not to the highest bidder.

Mimi Harris Waite
Memphis

Copyright 2004, commercialappeal.com - Memphis, TN

Friday, May 14, 2004

Public promenade vote looms amid growing dissension

Memphis Business Journal
By Amos Maki

The plan for transforming a four-block area Downtown known as the public promenade is in a crucial phase. A public hearing before the City Council is scheduled for May 18.

Critics and supporters of the $50 million redevelopment plan that would be paid for by private development are gearing up for what could be a bitter fight.

"We feel like we are presenting the appropriate plan for the city of Memphis and hope our elected officials will endorse it," says RDC president Benny Lendermon. "It is providing access to a property that is inaccessible now and it's providing an experience that doesn't exist in

Memphis that exists in cities all over the world on their waterfronts."

Some local developers instrumental in the rebirth of Downtown are as far apart on the plan as the banks of the Mississippi River at Memphis.

In a memo obtained by Memphis Business Journal that was sent April 26 to Lendermon, Belz Enterprises chairman and CEO Jack Belz, along with company vice presidents Ron Belz and John Dudas, express deep concern about the plan.

"Our community has only one front door and that is Downtown," the memo says. "Our Downtown only has one riverfront.

"The public promenade set aside by our founding fathers is the only publicly owned property on our city's high bluff that will ever exist. We must not let short term pressures override the long term best interest of our community."

Private developments, including three proposed new buildings, would pay for projects like a two-level promenade and the relocation of parking garages underground. The buildings would be mixed-use, with restaurants and shops lining the bottom floors. Ground leases would keep the property under the control of the city. The plan also calls for pedestrian bridges that would stretch across Monroe and Court and for improvements to sidewalks on the promenade. Grand staircases would provide access to the upper level of the pedestrian walkways.

The property now contains the old Cossitt Library, a fire station, the old Custom House and Confederate Park. The land is virtually inaccessible to most of the public and offers prime views of the river.

But there is some skepticism about the projected height of two of the three buildings proposed in the promenade plan. The plan says the property would be able to sustain a 300-foot residential tower where the fire station and an All-Right parking garage now sit and a 400-foot office tower north of Confederate Park, between Jefferson and Adams. Those are maximum heights the buildings could reach.

The Belz memo also states that it is "misleading" for the RDC to imply there will be no cost to the public for the plan and that private developers would be able to foot the bill for the $50 million price tag.

"A $50 million bond issue would require approximately $4 million per year of revenue to amortize the debt service on the bond issue," the memo states. "It is unlikely that private interests could justify paying $4 million per year in land costs for the limited amount of property available on the promenade."

The memo says the plan does not protect taxpayers and could harm restorative efforts under way in the rest of Downtown.

"In other words, this action could retard the revitalization of the currently developed portions of Downtown and turn over a large portion of the public space overlooking the waterfront to private interests in order to raise a relatively small amount of funds for these improvements," it states. "The financing assumptions need re-evaluation before the city adopts a plan based on this thesis."

Belz Enterprises owns Peabody Place, the 2 million-plus-square-foot retail and entertainment center near Beale Street, and the company has been a primary influence in revitalizing Downtown.

In his reply, Lendermon says an alternate plan calling for the promenade to be turned into a park proposed by a group called Friends For Our Riverfront "generates no revenue and the RDC Plan generates significant revenues that reduce the burden on the taxpayer." Plus, the removal of what is currently there, "no matter what you put back is very costly -- $50 million." The memo goes on to say "the cost of putting a park on the site, public open space around mixed used developments as we suggest, or even converting it to a soybean field are all in the $50 million cost range due to the previously mentioned cost of removing existing infrastructure."

FFOR officials claim their plan will cost only $7 million.

Other important members of the development community, while not endorsing the RDC promenade plan outright, have been far less critical and generally supportive.

"I think we have an opportunity, and in fact an obligation, to get right on it and improve that area," says Henry Turley, principal of Henry Turley Co. "I would be embarrassed if I finished my career and the riverfront looks as shabby as it does now, with parking garages and abandoned libraries and neglected parks. So, I'm for doing things and not leaving things alone. I, by the way, own as much property as anyone on the east side of Front Street. "

Turley previously has expressed some reservations about the heights of the buildings, saying he doesn't believe the economy is dynamic enough to support them. But other concerns voiced by critics, particularly about blocked views, were acceptable to Turley.

"If I had to give up 20 degrees of my view by way of a new and taller building that gives vitality and a more continuous link to the river, I would gladly give it up," he says.

Jay Buckley, vice president and asset manager for Parkway Properties, the company that owns Morgan Keegan Tower and the Falls Building on Front Street, says his company favors the plan, although the proposed office tower would restrict some views of the river.

"We value the views we have as much as anybody on Front Street and we know that it means a lot to our customers," he says. "But it would be a fairly small price to pay to lose a sliver of a river view and gain what is likely to result from the promenade development."

City Councilman and RDC board member Rickey Peete will vote in favor of the redevelopment, saying the plan is viable and that it could do great things for the city.

"I think it can be profitable and improve public access to the promenade," he says. "And it will give the city an opportunity to improve its skyline."

Peete says he understands that some people have concerns about the plan.

"We try to do what is best for the city and sometimes you can't make everybody happy," he says. "I just think this is the best thing for the city of Memphis."

City councilman Carol Chumney says that if she had to vote up or down on the plan Tuesday, she would vote no.

"I can't vote for it the way it is," she says. "There are parts of the plan I can support and there are parts that I cannot support."

Chumney would like to see some cooperation between the RDC and FFOR. She says the council could delay action on the plan and ask the two sides to work out a compromise.

"It is too important an issue to say you've got to do this or forget it," Chumney says. "Whatever happens on the riverfront, we are all going to have to live with it for the next 50 years."

Jeff Sanford, president of the Center City Commission, says it is difficult to judge exactly how the proposed promenade developments would affect redevelopment in other parts of Downtown. Sanford is an ex-officio member of the RDC board.

"Redevelopment of Downtown is far too complex to conclude categorically that development in one area will hinder development in another area," he says. "In some sense, redeveloping the riverfront into an attractive, bustling area could actually enhance our ability to attract redevelopment in other areas of Downtown."

Sanford says the market, not the RDC or FFOR, will determine what gets built Downtown.

Some members of the CCC's affiliated boards met with officials from the RDC and FFOR May 6 to review each plan. The FFOR presentation seemed to hit a snag when members of the group were unable to say how they could fund their plan or how they would replace parking spaces that would be lost. Commissioners, however, asked tough questions of each group and seemed to favor a middle ground.

But Rick Masson, RDC board member and former longtime member of Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton's administration, was emphatic in his opinion that it is now or never for the promenade area.

"I honestly don't feel anything will be done" if the RDC plan is not approved by the council, Masson says. "It is going to stay the same way. I guarantee you."

Masson says a park would be an "impediment instead of an enticement" to getting people Downtown and he says that "in terms of making the river part of our lives, there is nothing" in the FFOR plan. Plus, he says, there is plenty of park space Downtown now.

According to the CCC, there are at least 300 acres of parkland in Downtown Memphis.
John Stokes, RDC board chairman, agrees with Masson and says this is do or die time for the promenade.

"I think if they don't adopt some form or fashion of our plan, I am firmly convinced it will sit dormant," he says. "That has been the history of the property for 50 years."

Lendermon says he knew there would be some opposition to the plan, citing previous debates over bringing the Grizzlies to town and building a new arena, the bluffwalk and the location for AutoZone Park.

"We always anticipated opposition," he says. "We knew there would be a lot of debate over this very important piece of property."

Plus, legal challenges will delay any work for at least two years. If the council approves the plan, the city must move to take control of the land.

The property was donated by the city's founding fathers for use as a public promenade. The heirs of the founders hold title to the land and they are somewhat divided on the proposal, although a large majority of the Overton heirs support the RDC proposal. The city would have to take control of the land, possibly through eminent domain.

In his memo to the Belzes and Dudas, Lendermon sums up his thoughts on the promenade's future.

"The truth is that absent a private vehicle to fund a significant portion of these costs," he says, "the existing condition of these promenade blocks will remain just as they have over the last 50 years."


© 2004 American City Business Journals Inc.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Promenade makes state list, called endangered; supporters applaud

The Commercial Appeal
By Richard Locker

Memphis's riverfront Public Promenade made the Top 10 list of Tennessee's "most endangered public treasures" issued Monday by the Tennessee Preservation Trust because of plans to lease it for private development.

The green space stretching atop the downtown bluff was laid out as permanent public space in the original plan for Memphis by the city's founders, including future president Andrew Jackson. But the City Council is considering a plan by the Riverfront Development Corp. to lease part of the Promenade for private development, including high-rise office towers.

The plan has prompted an outcry from preservationists and others. The City Council has scheduled a public hearing May 18 and will likely vote afterward.

The inclusion on the Trust's "Ten in Tennessee" list offers the space no legal protection but does call statewide attention to the issue. TPT is a statewide nonprofit historic preservation education and advocacy group and is the state partner of the prestigious National Trust for Historic Preservation. The annual list is compiled by a committee of historians and preservationists, from nominations submitted by the public.

"This year's list addresses a wide range of places that help give our state its unique identity," TPT Executive Director Patrick McIntyre said during a ceremony in the state Capitol's Old Supreme Court Chamber. "We have found that lack of awareness is the single biggest hindrance to the preservation of historic places, and the list serves as a means to generate awareness of the most critically threatened."

The Promenade is the only Memphis site on this year's list. Two other sites in West Tennessee are included: the Alex Haley House in Henning, and the Sons and Daughters of Charity Hall in Bolivar.

The 2004 list is the third issued by the Trust. Memphis sites on previous lists are the Chisca Hotel in the South Main Historic District, in 2002, and Chucalissa Indian Village and Melrose School, both in 2001.

The Riverfront Development Corp. is a nonprofit organization that contracts with the city to manage public properties along the riverfront. Asked to comment on the Promenade's inclusion on the list, RDC President Benny Lendermon said, "I wish everyone would come and see it today. I don't think anybody wants it to stay the way it is.

"There's a fire station, a falling-down library and two parking garages on it, that block the view and prevent public access. It's a wall of inactivity between the riverfront and downtown Memphis," he said.

Virginia McLean, president of Friends For Our Riverfront, which opposes the RDC's plan, said she "is thrilled" with the Promenade's inclusion on the list and hopes it helps save it. "I think people in Memphis feel passionately about our river. That land's been our parkland for 185 years, and basically this RDC plan is going to plop down 400-, 300- and 150-foot high-rises on it."

Copyright 2004, commercialappeal.com - Memphis, TN.

Sunday, May 02, 2004

Letters: ULI's Vision Excludes Many in Memphis 'Family'

The Commercial Appeal
Letters to the Editor

In his April 25 Viewpoint guest column, "'Family room' could bring city together," Wayne Ratkovich fails to extend the invitation to everyone in this city's family. In his endorsement of the Riverfront Development Corp.'s plans for the promenade, Ratkovich cites the Urban Land Institute's vision for a civic "family room" that would include high-dollar restaurant and retail establishments that many economically marginalized Memphians would never be able to visit.

It is understandable that Ratkovich, an outsider, might not be familiar with the whole Memphis family. He may not have had time to visit the failing schools or lunch with the homeless population at one of our soup kitchens.

Chances are he does not understand the broken government systems that funnel huge sums of city and county money into economic development projects that cater to those with substantial means, leaving large tracts of chronic poverty thriving in need.

It is understandable that Ratkovich may have missed the immense needs here, but it is inexcusable that our governments and quasi-governmental entities would make the same mistake time and again. Surely they see the many social issues looming over our collective heads.

We are seeing the failure of economic stimulus to correct our broken neighborhoods and schools. Maybe our city's stewards will redirect the plans for a "family room" on the riverfront, and focus our resources on correcting the issues that cripple our educational and social systems. Maybe they will create a longer-term plan for economic growth by ensuring that all citizens have access to the education and services needed to exploit economic opportunities.

J. Marc Cunningham
Cordova


Memphis's founders saw a different vision

The headline on an April 25 Viewpoint guest column praising the RDC's scheme for the riverfront, "Vision of founders will come to life," is misleading, at best.

John Overton, one of Memphis's founders, clearly defined their vision of the promenade: "between the front lots (east of Front Street) and the river is an ample vacant space, reserved as a promenade, all of which must contribute very much to the health and comfort of the place, as well as to its security and ornament."

Note the phrases "ample vacant space" and "all of which." Obviously, the intention is a walkway through an open space park.

Since then, this "ample vacant space" has picked up a customs house/post office, a library, a fire station and two parking garages - all of which, even though they were needed public uses, wronged both the citizens of Memphis and the Overton heirs.

Now the RDC proposes that the library, the fire station, and both parking garages be replaced with a wall of medium- and high-rise buildings along Front Street, with "promenade" walkway balconies on the west. This is not public use, and again deprives Memphians of the park and promenade the founders envisioned.

It's a shame that we are considering leasing to developers the use of this property, which is a birthright of all Memphians.

Roy Harrover
Memphis


I live in downtown Memphis. I am passionate about it.

When called to vote on the RDC's plan, the City Council must balance what is good for the few against what is good for the many.

Friends for Our Riverfront is lobbying to retain the area as a public park and promenade. The RDC would like to erect a couple of high-rise buildings, of 23 to 30 stories each, and lease them to private developers.

Does the RDC plan mean that when driving west on Union Avenue we will be in a shadow cast by a 400-foot wall lining the bluff and blocking our sunlight and view? How much will the project cost and who will pay for it?

It's nice to have someone looking out for us. How fortunate we are to have citizens who pay attention to issues that will forever affect all of us and generations to come. Thank you, FfOR.
Relying on our politicians and corporate leaders to keep us informed is neither wise nor tradition here. What height precedents will the City Council be setting if it decides in favor of the RDC? What will that mean to future developments on our river?

If you favor the RDC's plan, you are in the company of some very powerful politicians and prominent people. If you favor the FfOR plan, now is the time to get involved.

Leigh L. Davis
Memphis


I don't have Grizzlies tickets, political influence nor the money to make significant campaign contributions. I do have, however, one vote and a sincere concern for the future of our riverfront.

I ask the City Council to carefully scrutinize the RDC's proposal to allow the development of 300- to 400-foot high-rise towers on public property.

Bill Tillner
Memphis


Local architects offered consulting help, AIA says

In response to your April 28 article "Architects urge open space on riverfront," I want to go on record to say that RDC president Benny Lendermon's statement that officials "worked a great deal" with the Memphis chapter of the American Institute of Architects in the planning process is false.

True, we have asked the RDC to consider consulting with AIA Memphis in the planning process and to use us as a resource, but to date this has not happened.

Our AIA chapter adopted a resolution asking the RDC and the City Council to "explore a broader range of alternatives" than the RDC's plan.

I want to reiterate that the resolution, which was formed after presentations from both the RDC and Friends for Our Riverfront, was challenged before being supported by our board and then sent out to the membership for their vote. Eighty-two percent of our polled membership agreed with the resolution.

I also believe that we went out of our way to communicate our position to the RDC before making the resolution public.

I have since been made aware that we are not alone in our position and have the support of a stronger majority than those who originally responded to the poll, as well as the support of many outside our organization. I resent Lendermon's comments.

Rebecca Conrad
President, AIA Memphis
Memphis


Stifling ideas for growth gets Memphis nowhere

The great cities of the world became great because they had bold ideas for growth. Tour the outer drive in Chicago, and I dare anyone not to be inspired.

If these cities had listened to the objections cited by the writer of your April 25 letter to the editor, "Honor city's heritage, not costly 'urban fantasy' ," they would still be floundering around in political folderol - as Memphis is.

Let us all be a little tolerant in viewing plans for growth for our city. As a Chicago transplant, I look forward to the future here.

Memphis will never be a great city if we continue to stifle ideas for growth.

Don Meyers
Cordova



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