Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Editorial: A bridge better left uncrossed

Commercial Appeal

WE KNOW THIS MUCH about the Riverfront Development Corp.'s board members: They obviously can read the writing on the wall.

On Monday, the RDC board wisely voted to remove a controversial land bridge from a 50-year master plan for reshaping the Mississippi riverfront.

Assuming the Memphis City Council agrees with the RDC's decision, the $78 million project will be officially scuttled.

So what made the land bridge project so controversial? Well, for starters, there was the cost.

For a city government struggling with its finances, $78 million isn't chump change.

Then there were the engineering challenges of filling in a huge section of the Wolf River Harbor between Mud Island and the rest of Downtown.

Then there were environmental questions about whether it would really be such a good idea to create a slackwater lake out of what would be left of the harbor.

Not to mention the debate about whether Downtown really needed all of that extra land for new offices, condominiums or whatever.

All things considered, scrapping the land bridge was an easy choice. As board member Jeff Sanford put it, the land bridge had become a "lightning rod" for the RDC's critics.

RDC chairman Rick Masson said the land bridge was intended to be a long-range project, perhaps 10 or 20 or 30 years into the future, but "the perception of the public was that it was an immediate action item."

It's encouraging that the RDC listened to public feedback on that issue. The RDC would do well to keep working with citizens as it pursues other parts of the master plan, particularly the so-called Promenade project.

That portion of the plan calls for new commercial or residential development, possibly in high-rise towers, along four blocks west of Front Street between Adams and Union. There has been substantial opposition to the idea of putting high-rises in that location - and for good reason.

One of the RDC's stated goals is to open up the riverfront and make it more accessible to citizens.

Phase one of the Promenade would most likely involve removing two parking garages, a fire station and an old branch library from the site.

However, it doesn't make much sense to tear down those buildings for the purpose of improving access, only to replace them with even larger and more imposing buildings.

A better approach might be to encourage development of shops and restaurants in smaller buildings. That would create a magnet to draw people to the riverfront, while also leaving enough open space to improve accessibility.

At a minimum, more public discussions are needed on the Promenade and other key elements of the riverfront master plan.

RDC board members demonstrated this week that they can be responsive to community input. That type of attitude could serve them well in the future too.

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