Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Editorial: Try to negotiate riverfront plans

Commercial Appeal

THERE'S STILL TIME to refine plans for developing the Downtown riverfront in ways that could significantly reduce public opposition.

That was perhaps the most promising bit of information that came out of a two-hour debate Sunday afternoon between representatives from the Riverfront Development Corp. and the Friends for Our Riverfront citizens group.

Oh, it wouldn't be easy. On some issues, the gap between the groups' positions is as wide as the Mississippi River itself.

Yet near the end of Sunday's forum at the Central Library, both sides said they were willing to talk about potential areas of compromise. It would be in everyone's best interests for those discussions to take place.

The most likely source of common ground might be on the so-called Promenade project, a four-block area of Front Street between Union and Adams.

The RDC, a nonprofit organization created by city government to manage riverfront property, envisions a high-rise development of some sort -- condominiums, offices or whatever -- that would provide limited public access along outdoor promenade decks facing the river.

Friends for Our Riverfront would prefer to see the area converted into parkland.

Sunday's forum exposed some weaknesses in each of those approaches.

For example, a high-rise development, no matter whether it's residential or commercial, would require a lot of parking. The RDC's plans call for two existing parking garages within the four-block area to be rebuilt as underground structures.

That might take care of the current needs for parking spaces. But a high-rise development would logically seem to require much more parking than the area currently has. And given the property's proximity to the river, there are limits on how far underground it's practical to put a garage.

RDC officials didn't make a clear and compelling case for the demand for new residential or office space, either. They say market conditions will determine what's best for the site. But if RDC officials are focused strictly on some type of high-rise, they're likely to overlook other possibilities that could be more practical and acceptable to the public.

On the other hand, RDC officials raised some very valid concerns about the idea of converting those four blocks into parkland. Rick Masson, an RDC board member, noted that Confederate Park and the Mud Island River Park are seldom used by citizens. That being the case, simply adding more unimproved park space doesn't seem like a good solution.

Virginia McLean, president of Friends, countered that parks don't have to be just empty patches of grass. She cited Overton Park as an example with multiple civic uses.

McLean said Friends wouldn't be opposed to some development on the Promenade, such as restaurants, sidewalk cafes and the like. It seems like there's still an opportunity to redesign the Promenade, perhaps using the same basic design with less-intensive retail uses.

That might prevent a court fight over use of the land. And it could produce one of those "win-win" situations that would make everybody feel better about the finished product.

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