Thursday, October 25, 2007

Tennessee preservation group wants educational kiosks on Beale Street Landing

Commercial Appeal [link]
by Tom Charlier

State historic-preservation officials might drop some of their objections to Beale Street Landing if educational kiosks and other interpretive features are added to the project, an official said Wednesday.

Tennessee Historical Commission executive director Patrick McIntyre said the kiosks could explain to tourists and newcomers the past importance of the cobblestone landing to the Memphis riverfront.

The comments by McIntyre came at a meeting in which local and state officials and interested groups discussed ways to reduce the project's effects on the cobblestones, which lie within the Cotton Row Historic District.

Earlier this fall, McIntyre's office ruled that the landing "as currently proposed will adversely affect the historic property through the introduction of out-of-character elements into its setting."

The decision effectively blocked this month's planned start of construction on the $29 million project by the Riverfront Development Corp. (RDC)

Linking Tom Lee Park and the cobblestones, the landing would serve as a riverboat docking facility and an amenity providing terraced access to the water's edge on the Mississippi. Critics have described it as a costly, impractical and unnecessary.

After the meeting, RDC president Benny Lendermon said interpretive features will be included in the landing.

On Wednesday, McIntyre elaborated on the state's objections to the project. He said the "uplifted" landing is out of character with the downward sloping cobblestones, and the construction would occur on areas once part of the cobblestones.

Some of the concerns voiced by citizens in attendance included the need to restore the cobblestones, which have deteriorated and now cover less area because of work done by the city more than 15 years ago.

Lendermon said the RDC has secured $6 million from Congress for the cobblestone-restoration work. But that project also must win approval from historic-preservation officials, and they won't take action on it until issues with the landing are resolved.

"We're ready to move forward," Lendermon said.

Some critics of the project also said it should be relocated, while others argued for a more distinct separation between the landing and cobblestones.

Lendermon said the RDC will work with preservation officials and review the concerns expressed at the meeting before submitting proposed project modifications to the Tennessee Department of Transportation, which is overseeing the process.

Kickin' Around the Cobblestones -- in Downtown Memphis

Rocks On Our Mind And In Our Heads
Memphis Flyer [link]
by John Branston

On a day when most Memphians concerned themselves with such mundane matters as rain, work, school, crime, foreclosures, and the fights and shootings that broke out at four city schools, 40 of us met at City Hall Wednesday to hear a two-hour discussion of rocks.
The rest of you can be excused for wondering if we have rocks in our heads.

The rocks in question are the cobblestones at the foot of downtown. The rock hounds included two reporters, representatives of the Tennessee Department of Transportation and various state and local historic preservation groups, and supporters and foes of the proposed Beale Street Landing.

The rocks are next to the landing. To a handful of people, the rocks are a historic treasure comparable to Beale Street or the Mississippi River itself. The $29 million landing might have "an adverse impact" on the rocks, which are slated for additional millions. Hence Wednesday's meeting.

"The current design reflects a primarily recreational use of boarding and disembarking pleasure boat and cruise ship passengers," says the state report. "In doing so, the design overwhelms any sense of the historic commercial use of the riverfront."

This is the problem with projects like Beale Street Landing and the proposed new stadium at the Fairgrounds. They absurdly inflate the importance of something that matters little if at all to most people and prevent progress on smaller and easier projects with potentially far greater benefits.

For decades, the cobblestones were so treasured that downtown workers and visitors used them as a bumpy and treacherous parking lot. Now they might be "adversely impacted" by the "verticality" of Beale Street Landing. As Benny Lendermon, the head of the Riverfront Development Corporation, noted, the elevation of the river fluctuates 57 feet. In high water, most of the cobblestones are submerged. In low water, big touring riverboats canĂ¢€™t get in the harbor.

Hence the proposed landing at the north end of Tom Lee Park. It will be used by recreational boats, small day-tour boats, and big, fancy, cruising boats like the Delta Queen. That is, if the Delta Queen doesn't go out of business in 2008 because the government has deemed it a fire hazard, as The New York Times reported Thursday.

The design of the docking part of the landing is unique. After some sharp discussion Wednesday, it was determined that "unique" means nothing like it has ever been built before. RDC engineer John Conroy said its structural soundness has been certified.

The people from state government who hosted Wednesday's meeting are not "big-picture" deciders. They are, as one of them explained, a "pass-through" agency. They will go back to Nashville and weigh the historic considerations and announce, sooner or later, if and how the project can proceed.

Beale Street Landing, whose cost may now fluctuate like the river elevation, is to be funded by a combination of local, state, and federal funds. Some of the federal funds come from the Department of Homeland Security, because there are ferry-boats involved.

And you thought Homeland Security was just to protect us from terrorism.

Smart City and Friends

How a blog and a citizen activist are shaping the riverfront debate
Memphis Flyer [link]
by John Branston

Tom Jones and Virginia McLean are making the Riverfront Development Corporation irrelevant.

Jones is the cofounder and main writer for the Smart City Memphis blog (smartcitymemphis.blogspot.com). McLean is the founder and chief activist of the nonprofit Friends for our Riverfront (friendsforourriverfront.org).

They are often on opposite sides of riverfront issues, including the proposed $29 million Beale Street Landing. Jones has emerged as its most articulate and well-informed defender. McLean, equally hip to the latest ideas and trends in parks and cities, is the RDC's most passionate and dogged critic.


Both of them run on shoestring budgets and receive no money from local government or the RDC. Jones, a former newspaper reporter, was a spokesman and policy-maker for Shelby County government for some 25 years. McLean is an heir to the Overton family that was one of the founders of Memphis.

Their websites are timely and frequently updated, and they have become bulletin boards for unusually thoughtful comments, speaker listings, and even occasional news items. When a state official weighed in on Beale Street Landing this month and delayed the project, Jones and McLean were ahead of most if not all of the news pack spreading the word and collecting different points of view.

The RDC, in contrast, often seems muscle-bound. Created six years ago to focus public and private resources and cut red tape, it has a staff of former city division directors and City Hall cronies making six-figure salaries. It also has a blue-chip board of directors including public officials and downtown bigwigs. And it is consistently outhustled, outsmarted, and outmaneuvered by Jones and McLean and their helpers.

While Jones and McLean embrace the Internet and rough-and-tumble debate in real time, the RDC's website is outdated and trite. "Steal away to a day's vacation in the city's front yard," says the home page. "Nowhere else can you feel the rush of the Mighty Mississippi as its breeze flows through your hair and its sunsets warm your soul." The most recent "news" is a June 12th press release and a year-old item about the Tom Lee Park memorial. The description of the master plan still includes the aborted land bridge to Mud Island and pegs the total public cost at a staggering $292 million, which "will spur $1.3 billion in private investment in real estate alone" and bring "a minimum" of 21,000 new jobs and 3,400 new residential units to downtown.

Meanwhile, Jones and McLean are slugging away about the latest delays to Beale Street Landing and the next meeting of the Shelby County Commission. Within the last year, each of them helped bring national experts to Memphis for well-attended discussions of parks and citizen activism. The RDC, meanwhile, made a by-the-numbers Power Point presentation to the Memphis City Council aimed at justifying its own existence as much as informing public officials.

The RDC is not without is success stories. Its park maintenance is exemplary. Its concert series and improvements at Mud Island have made the park more attractive. Its structure involves business leaders and nonprofits in a way that government cannot, although the group's standard claim that it saves money is difficult to prove.

But the riverfront — Tom Lee Park in particular — often seems antiseptic and sterile, like a set-piece instead of a true park. On Sunday afternoon, for example, hundreds of people came to Overton Park in Midtown to beat on drums, whack golf balls, ride bikes, pick up trash, have picnics, toss balls, exercise dogs, visit art galleries, stroll babies, and do whatever. Midtown has no development authority, but funky Overton Park is surrounded by neighborhoods that feel invested in it.

Beale Street Landing looks more and more like a bet-the-company deal for the RDC. Without a big project — the land bridge (aborted), the promenade (still stalled), the relocation of the University of Memphis law school (coming soon) — why not turn its duties back over to a reenergized park commission and city administration? The Memphis riverfront, from The Pyramid to Mud Island to the trolley to proposed Beale Street Landing, doesn't lack for big investments. It lacks vitality, a decent public boat launch, walkable cobblestones, a skate park or something fun to watch, a working fountain next to the Cossitt Library, and enough shade and sprinklers to give tourists a fighting chance against the heat.

If those things happen, it will be because of citizens like Jones and McLean and their readers as much as the RDC.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Beale Street Landing Consultation Meeting

Updated: The minutes are now posted (click below for full article).

The Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) - Environmental Division today sponsored a Consulting Parties meeting for the proposed Beale Street Landing Project. The TN State Historical Preservation Office (TN-SHPO), also known as the Tennessee Historical Commission, has commented that the current design would have an "adverse effect pursuant to 36 CFR 800.5."

Thursday, October 18, 2007

'Memphis Fast Forward' political ties, accountability questioned

Commercial Appeal [link]
By Alex Doniach (Contact)

A debate among County Commissioners erupted Wednesday about whether to put $1 million in county funds toward an economic development campaign that has pledged to produce thousands of new jobs and millions in new tax revenue.

The development plan, one piece of the economic growth strategy "Memphis Fast Forward," will attempt to create 49,395 jobs by 2011.

The Memphis Fast Forward initiative is spearheaded by Memphis Tomorrow, Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton and the Memphis Chamber of Commerce.

But on Wednesday, some commissioners said they weren't confident how the funds would be spent.

They also expressed concerns about using taxpayer dollars for a plan that would give money to MPACT Memphis, a nonprofit that Commissioner Henri Brooks said has direct ties to New Path, a separate organization that endorses political candidates.

Brooks said New Path co-founder Darrell Cobbins is a former president of MPACT Memphis. He currently sits on the board of advisers.

"MPACT has a direct relationship with New Path; New Path endorses candidates," Brooks said. "We are not going to give money to political organizations."

Commissioner Sidney Chism agreed that the commission should stay clear of any efforts connected to New Path.

"All I want to do is make sure that we keep politics out of a funding effort that we've got something to do with," Chism said.

The economic development plan is broken down into 15 strategies that rely on the participation of local organizations, such as the Mid-South Minority Business Council, the Memphis Regional Chamber and MPACT Memphis, to create jobs and attract people to Memphis.

The City Council and state government have already pledged $1.5 million each. The private sector has given about $5 million.

Memphis Tomorrow president Blair Taylor reassured commissioners Wednesday that MPACT Memphis is a nonprofit that, by federal law, is not allowed to endorse political candidates.

She also said the commission's funds could be left out of MPACT Memphis' piece of the project.

And Commissioner Mike Carpenter reminded the commission that New Path is a separate organization that is not listed on the plan.

"Let's not get into, in this process, a lot of cherry-picking about what things get funded and what things don't," Carpenter said. "We've got to move this community forward and we've got to move it in a big way and in a fast way."

But there were other concerns about the plan. Commissioner Steve Mulroy found little support in a motion to keep county dollars away from the controversial Beale Street Landing project, which is included in the plan.

Brooks and Commissioner Wyatt Bunker said they were still unclear about how the county's $1 million would be used.

In light of the concerns, Chairman David Lillard delayed the vote until the full commission meets Monday.

Editor's note: The following extract was taken from page 22 of MEMPHISED: Memphis Area Economic Development Plan, prepared by Market Street Services on behalf of the Memphis Fast Forward. This is the program that Shelby County is being asked to help fund. Click to see the entire page.



Click here to download our scan of the entire, 40-page Memphis Area Redevelopment Plan. Warning: 6 MB PDF file, requires Adobe Reader version 6 or later. (7 MB copy for Reader version 5 here.)

Friday, October 12, 2007

MBJ: Beale Landing hits roadblock

Project delayed by historic concerns
Memphis Business Journal
by Andy Ashby

The Riverfront Development Corp. would like to be seeking construction bids right now for its 29.4 milliom Beale Street Landing Project, but a state historical preservation office's ruling could delay the process up to six months.

MBJ article page 1 [PDF, 50KB]
MBJ article page 2 [PDF, 126KB]

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Editorial: Another look at the Landing

Commercial Appeal [link]
October 9, 2007

Beale Street landing suffered another setback last week when state officials questioned whether the $29 million boat dock and riverfront park would be a good fit with the surrounding neighborhood.

Patrick McIntyre, executive director of the Tennessee Historical Commission, wrote that changes to the Landing's design are needed because the project "as currently proposed will adversely affect the historic property through the introduction of out-of-character elements into its setting."

The Riverfront Development Corp., a quasi-governmental organization that had been spearheading the project, got word about the state's concerns just as some of the work was about to go out for bid.

Benny Lendermon, the RDC's president, said state officials will schedule a meeting, probably later this year, to discuss possible changes to the design. Groups that expressed concerns about the project to the commission will have an opportunity to attend and provide input.

While this delay won't make life easier for Lendermon and his staff, the commission's decision could be a blessing in disguise if it eventually leads to greater public acceptance for the project.

June West, executive director of Memphis Heritage, said her group has a number of concerns with the project as proposed. Chief among them is that the Landing would incorporate a modernistic design located next to the Cotton Row Historic District's riverfront cobblestones.

"It's not an ageless design," West said. "It may be bright and shiny for a number of years. Over the years, I'm not sure it'll wear well. I think that as it ages, it's going to be hard to maintain and keep it looking shiny."

The design was chosen from among 171 entries in an international architectural design contest in 2003.

While the winning design would certainly be distinctive-looking -- with a chain of islets shaped like guitar picks and linked by bridges -- it doesn't have the sort of retro feel that would blend into the district.

West said Memphis Heritage is also concerned about the technology that would be used to raise and lower the boat dock as the water level on the Mississippi River rises and falls. And that the project will require taking some land from adjacent Tom Lee Park. And that the RDC isn't doing enough to properly maintain the cobblestones.

It remains to be seen whether those issues and any others raised during the meeting can be resolved.

But let's hope so. The Memphis riverfront is an underutilized asset -- and it's in the whole community's interest to see it reach its full potential. A successful project at the foot of Beale Street could provide a key link to the entertainment district and the rest of Downtown.

However, that project needs to have widespread community acceptance if it's going to succeed. The state's meeting could be an important step in that direction.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Ruling delays plans for Beale Street Landing

Historic group cites threat to cobblestones
Commercial Appeal [link]
by Tom Charlier

Construction of Beale Street Landing, which had been scheduled to go out for bids as early as this week, will be delayed by a new state ruling that the project threatens the historic cobblestones on Memphis' riverfront.

The decision by the Tennessee Historical Commission means the city's Riverfront Development Corp. must meet with all groups interested in the project and explore alternative designs.

Changes are needed because the project "as currently proposed will adversely affect the historic property through the introduction of out-of-character elements into its setting," commission executive director and State Historic Preservation Officer Patrick McIntyre said in a letter.

Situated between Tom Lee Park and the cobblestones, the $29 million Beale Street Landing would serve as a riverboat docking facility and an amenity providing terraced access to the water's edge on the Mississippi. Critics have described it as a costly, impractical and unnecessary.

RDC president Benny Lendermon said that he's disappointed in the ruling but still confident the project can proceed.

"It's a little disheartening but part of the process," he said. "We were ready to go out for bids this week if we got approval."

The head of a group opposing the RDC plan praised the state decision, saying it could lead to more public scrutiny.

"I think the ruling is pretty wise," said Virginia McLean, president of Friends for Our Riverfront.

The cobblestones, part of the city's historic landing on the Mississippi, lie within the Cotton Row Historic District.

The approval of historic-preservation officials is needed as part of a more encompassing permit required of any project receiving federal funds.

Roughly $7 million of the cost of Beale Street Landing would come from federal sources. Another $3 million or so would come from the state, with the city responsible for the rest.

Although the specific part of the project to be bid first won't involve federal funds, Lendermon said RDC officials don't want to start construction without the permit.

"We don't want to spend any significant dollars on the project until all the hurdles are cleared," he said.

Lendermon pledged to meet with interested groups and review alternatives.



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