Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Riverfront Plans Promise Debate, Change

RDC prepares for summer start on Beale Street Landing

Daily News
by Andy Meek

Looking out a conference room window on the ninth floor of the Falls Building, Benny Lendermon enjoys an unobstructed panorama of Downtown’s riverfront.

Lendermon, president of the Riverfront Development Corp., has a clear view of the post office building below on Front Street,which could see a new tenant soon if the University of Memphis law school abandons its current dilapidated building and moves Downtown. Below and to the right is Confederate Park, whose war memorials and Civil War cannons make it a shaded oasis of history.

Sweeping plans. Beyond that, Lendermon takes in the sight of Riverside Drive - and the Mississippi itself - a view that as sweeping as the vision of the RDC, which has held jurisdiction over the riverfront since 2000.

And even though the Memphis City Council, in a seven-hour marathon session, approved a budget plan last week that includes a 27-cent property tax hike, eliminates $1.6 million in grants to nonprofits and keeps the historic Mallory-Neely House and Magevney House closed, the RDC is still on schedule to begin construction this summer on Beale Street Landing, a $27.5 million boat landing and plaza designated for the site where Beale Street meets Tom Lee Park and the Cobblestone Landing. The city is chipping in about $20 million in the project.

Promenade development. At the moment, Lendermon said the city attorney’s office is putting together the legal support that will allow work to begin on remaking the four-acre Front Street Promenade - the subject of a long-running debate between the RDC and an opposing group, Friends for Our Riverfront.

That debate will get another airing when representatives of both groups sound off in a public forum at the Central Library July 10. The RDC wants to replace some parking garages and buildings along the promenade with apartments, offices, restaurants, and other commercial uses.

Opposition. But FfOR believes the plan goes against the wishes of the founders of the city of Memphis. They refer to a bequest by John Overton, John McLemore and other proprietors of the land on which Memphis was founded that said the Promenade was always intended for public use.

“And as I see it, this is really a developer’sdream,” said FfOR president Virginia McLean of the RDC plan. “For the life of me, I can’t figure out where the public gets anything out of this.

“They’ve said they’ll build a sidewalk- they’recalling it a grand esplanade - along the edge of the public promenade, but the whole thing’s ours. Why should we settle for some high rises with a sidewalk along the side?”

McLean said FfOR has invited Joseph Riley Jr., mayor of Charleston, S. C., to speak in Memphis this fall at Bridges Inc. about his own city’s handling of riverfront issues. Riley, founder of the Mayor’s Institute of City Design, will discuss his urban design plan that created Waterfront Park in Charleston, give the city permanent public access to its waterfront.

“And basically, what he did is what we’re saying ought to be done in Memphis - not sold off in some short-term development scheme,” said McLean, who has a master’s degree in urban planning from the University of Virginia.

Remaking the riverfront. In his office, Lendermon has several models and renderings of the riverfront project - a well as a bird’s eye view of the real thing - that he calls on to explain the RDC’s vision. Lendermon, a former director of the city’s Public Works division, presides over the group whose board includes prominent Memphians Jerry West, Kristi Jernigan, and Angus McEachran.

Over the next two years, Lendermon said the group will give most of its attention to the Beale Street Landing and Promenade projects.

“And the whole issue on the Promenade is this was the city of Memphis in the 1800s,” Lendermon said, referring to a map of the city. “At that point, Riverside Drive didn’t exist.

The bluff behind the post office would dive into the river. And what’s occurred since then is, one, we built Riverside Drive and we’ve moved the city out to the river.

“Our disagreement with some people on the Promenade is, some people still hang on to the concept that (city founders) in the 1800s thought this ought to be a park outside our window,” Lendermon said, gesturing below. “And all we’re saying is, in the 1800s it should have been a park. But things have changed.”

Other projects. Beale Street Landing and the Promenade aren’t the only jobs on the RDC’s plate. Lendermon said the group took bids last week for a project that would connect Ashburn-Coppock Park and Tom Lee Park with Martyrs Park. Construction will begin in about a month.

He said the group also wants to bring more concerts to Mud Island, work more closely with area developers and further assist the U of M Law School in its possible Downtown move.

The RDC commissioned a master plan for the riverfront that has been endorsed by the City Council - and part of which opponents such as McLean have never stopped fighting.

“We believe that private development is great, but private development belongs on private land,” she said. “And what the RDC plan currently proposes is taking the only remaining public land on the Memphis riverbluff and turning it over to commercial developers. Right now, we’re really just trying to let the public know what’s going on concerning the riverfront, because I know that most people don’t know.”

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