Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Mud Island-Downtown land bridge is falling down

Riverfront planners want to refocus, deflect critics

Commercial Appeal
by Tom Charlier

Yielding to what they called political and economic realities, Riverfront Development Corp. officials Monday scuttled plans to build an ambitious, development-studded land bridge connecting Mud Island with Downtown Memphis.

If followed up by the City Council next month, the action could kill a project described as "the single most important defining element" in a 50-year, $300 million master plan for reshaping the waterfront along the Mississippi River.

The land bridge, planned for the area between Court and Poplar, was intended to leave Mud Island "seamlessly integrated" with Downtown. It would have created land for development and transformed much of what is now Wolf River Harbor into a lake.

The RDC board of directors cited several reasons for the vote, including the need to redevelop other areas of Downtown first and the financial challenges facing Memphis.

Board members also said that while the land bridge had not been slated for construction for at least 15 years, the frequent criticism of it was a distraction. RDC is busy trying to build the $27.3 million Beale Street Landing for riverboats and redevelop the Promenade acreage.

"We've got a lot on our plate," said board member Kevin Kane. "...We've got to focus on what we can control in the next five or 10 years."

Jeff Sanford was among several members who said groups were seizing on the land bridge proposal in their efforts to block any redevelopment along the riverfront.

"The land bridge has become a lightning rod," he said.

The board's action, which follows a study of the land bridge by a subcommittee, drops the proposal from the RDC strategic plan. It also asks the City Council to remove it from the riverfront master plan that was approved in 2002.

Board member Rickey Peete, a City Councilman, said the matter probably will be put on the agenda of the council's Nov. 1 meeting.

The RDC action comes as the Corps of Engineers is completing a study of issues involved with the land bridge. Corps project manager Greg Grugett said the study does not make recommendation as to whether the project should be built.

RDC had pegged the cost of the land bridge and related construction at $78 million, by far the most expensive item in its $292 million slate of outlined improvements. Although public capital funds would pay for the projects, RDC's master plan says a "significant portion" of the costs would be recouped through private development activity.

Critics, however, called the land bridge a costly boondoggle that would unloose major environmental and drainage problems and harm recreation.

Virginia McLean, president of Friends for Our Riverfront, a group critical of RDC's proposals, said she was "thrilled" by the vote Monday, which she said indicates the board has begun listening to public opinion.

"The public has been saying all along that we don't want a fake lake down there. We want a green riverfront," she said.

McLean and group vice president John Gary said RDC officials now should re-evaluate other parts of the master plan, especially those dealing with the Promenade.

"I'm kind of skeptical as to whether the master plan is worth pursuing," Gary said.

Despite the vote, RDC members said the land bridge concept could be revived sometime in the future.

"Plans are basically a work in progress," Peete said.

But for now, "the political reality is that it (the land bridge) has got to go."



Remaking the riverfront

The board of directors of the Riverfront Development Corp., the nonprofit group overseeing efforts to enhance Memphis's ties to the Mississippi River, voted Monday to drop plans for a land bridge between Downtown and Mud Island. The action is the latest in the group's five-year effort to revitalize the riverfront:

July 2000: RDC begins work on a master plan of improvements for a five-mile stretch of the riverfront.

January 2002: The RDC board approves a master plan developed by New York architects Cooper, Robertson & Partners. Its central feature was a 50-acre land bridge, which would transform most of the Wolf River Harbor into a lake. The plan also includes a riverboat facility known as Beale Street Landing and the redevelopment of the Promenade area of Downtown.

May 2002: The master plan is approved by City Council.

May 2004: Despite opposition from a citizens' group, the City Council approves RDC's land-use plan for the Promenade, which calls for mixed-use development on the area west of Front between Auction and Beale.

September 2005: State and federal regulators approve environmental permits for RDC's planned Beale Street Landing project, a $27.3 million facility featuring a floating dock and other amenities to accommodate commercial excursion vessels. Initial dredging for the project could begin this fall.

October 2005: RDC board, citing political and economic obstacles, votes to eliminate the land bridge from the RDC strategic plan and ask the City Council to strike it from the master plan.

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