Monday, August 14, 2006

Editorial: High stakes for high-rise project

The Commercial Appeal

It would be tempting, but inaccurate, to cast a dispute over building heights for Number One Beale as a clash between the rich and the richer. In reality, the stakes are far broader than that.

Number One Beale, not to be confused with the old restaurant of the same name, has the potential to change the skyline of Downtown Memphis in a big way. The proposed $175 million project would include a luxury hotel, upscale condominiums, offices, restaurants and retail space where Beale Street meets Riverside Drive.

The new development could provide another economic boost to the community, creating new jobs and generating more tax revenues.

However, the project hit a snag last week when representatives from Waterford Plaza, an upscale condo high-rise just north of the site, expressed concerns about how Number One Beale's twin towers might obstruct their residents' views of the Mississippi River.

The Land Use Control Board decided to wait at least 30 days before considering an exception to the building height limits needed for construction of Number One Beale to proceed. Ultimately, the building height issue will probably end up before the Memphis City Council.

If and when it does, council members could take a very narrow approach to this case, weighing only the economic benefits of this particular project against the concerns of the Waterford residents.

But we're hoping council members won't stop there.

This case offers a great opportunity for a broader discussion about public access to the riverfront.

Number One Beale isn't the first high-rise project proposed along the riverfront and it probably won't be the last. There has also been discussion in recent years about building high-rises along a stretch of public land known as the Promenade.

Council members should consider ways to balance the public's rights to see and walk along the river against pressure from developers to allow ever newer and taller buildings.

Chance Carlisle, Number One Beale's project manager, said his company's proposed development would provide access to the public. A pedestrian walkway would connect Front Street with the river. Also, the hotel lobby would be open, much like The Peabody's, so residents and tourists could go inside to have a drink or two, eat at one of the restaurants or pay a visit to the spa.

That's fine. But there's a bigger picture question here.

Rickey Peete, chairman of the council's planning and zoning committee, said he would support dedicating some portion of the riverfront for public access. That would, theoretically, provide Memphians with some assurances that the riverfront won't be gradually walled off from sight completely by rows and rows of skyscrapers.

Dedicated public access to a portion of the riverfront is a concept worth pursuing, although the details could certainly be troublesome. Would that involve having the city buy more valuable riverfront property, taking it off the tax rolls? Would that mean establishing a policy that requires riverfront developers to keep some portion of their properties open to the public?

The answers to those types of questions aren't easy. But unless the council is expecting Number One Beale to be the last high-rise proposed along the riverfront, then it seems like a good time to start looking for them.

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