Monday, June 04, 2007

Profile: Watchdog

Lifetime appreciation of open spaces drives Virginia McLean to fight for the riverfront

Memphis (a service of Memphis Business Journal) [link]
By Christopher Sheffield

Virginia McLean laughs at being tagged an activist but gladly accepts the role.

And not because it massages her ego, but because what she's fighting for has such significance and importance for Memphis, says McLean, president of the now 4-year-old citizens' group Friends for Our Riverfront.

"This is the most important land in our city, historically, geographically," she says. "And it is the public's, and it should pass on to future generations."

But McLean and others felt that lineage was threatened in 2003 when the Riverfront Development Corp. unveiled a $50 million plan to commercially develop a four-block section along Front Street for retail shopping and condominiums. The plan has gotten mixed reaction from city leaders.

That strip of land -- home now to a fire station, two garages, a city library and future University of Memphis law school -- was meant to be public space and not handed over to private developers, she says.

"If we build buildings on that land for private condos, it will be gone," says McLean. "There's plenty of more space for private development."

Center City Commission president Jeff Sanford has been supportive of the RDC's plans, but says McLean's leadership through Friends for Our Riverfront has had an impact.

"Clearly, as founder of Friends she has helped to raise the community's consciousness about the riverfront," Sanford says. "She has been nothing if not tenacious."

The face-off with the RDC, and, to a larger extent the city, is noteworthy given McLean's family history.

John Overton Sr., McLean's great-great-great-grandfather, purchased the original 5,000 acres of bluff land on which Memphis was founded in the early 1800s.

A Nashville lawyer, Overton acquired the land in 1794 from North Carolinian John Rice. In 1819, Overton and partners Andrew Jackson and James Winchester hired a land surveyor to draw up plans for Memphis.

"It was wide open Western real estate and they saw it as a great place for a city someday," says McLean, whose husband was distantly related to the McLeans of Memphis but grew up in Greenwood, Miss.

Ironically, John Overton Sr. never lived in Memphis, but multiple generations of Overtons since have, starting with John Overton Jr., who moved here from Nashville in 1967.

The family has produced two of the city's mayors, S. Watkins Overton (1928-1939) and Watkins Overton (1949-1953). The Overton family since has largely been part of the city's quiet upper class.

McLean's father, William Overton, was a vice president and later treasurer for the tobacco company Conwood Corp., one of the city's larger, but reclusive, companies.

McLean grew up in East Memphis on West Cherry Circle between Goodlett and Perkins, an upscale neighborhood today but at the time very rural.

"It was way out in the country," she says. "We had chickens in the back yard."

Her interest in public spaces and historic preservation began as a child, fueled by travels abroad, she says, but it took a little time to figure out how to apply that.

She got a degree in English at Vanderbilt University, with a minor in history, and returned to Memphis and briefly wrote obituaries for The Commercial Appeal.

What she wanted to do was find a way to combine her love of art and architecture so she returned to college and got a master's degree in urban planning from the University of Virginia with the goal of writing about cities.

"I had always been fortunate to travel and I loved great cities and great spaces and I think I have a real sense of curiosity and that's why I came back and looked at Memphis again," she says.

She returned to Memphis in 1976 with a young family.

While Memphis' Downtown was still on a downhill slide, she says it was beginning to turn around and there was hope.

Her book, The Memphis Guide, which she published in 1981, gave her the chance to look at the city through fresh eyes after essentially being gone for nearly a decade.

She served on the board of directors for Memphis Heritage, was president of the Red Acres Neighborhood Association and for the last few years has served on the board for the University Neighborhood Development Corp.

But it's Friends for Our Riverfront that has become a particular passion.

"I would have never labeled myself as an activist," she says. "But now, I guess, I sort of got my tennis shoes on and I really believe in this."

Virginia McLean
President, Friends for Our Riverfront
Age: 61
Education: Bachelor's of art, English, Vanderbilt University; Master's of art, city planning, University of Virginia
Family: Husband, Hite; son, Hite III; daughter, Mathilde
Hobbies: Gardening, travel, reading, Bible study 259-1726

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