Friday, September 01, 2000

What on riverfront can fall? Architects ask board

Reaction is 'Very few sacred things'

Commercial Appeal
By Deborah M. Clubb

Rip up Mud Island River Park and start over. Level the bluff-top parking garages. Remove the unused Interstate 40 "ramps to nowhere."

Those ideas came Thursday from a national consulting team that is just starting work on a master plan for future development of Memphis's 5-mile riverfront.

The consultants and the folks who hired them, the Riverfront Development Corp., emphasized that the suggestions are preliminary - an effort to see what limits they face in redesigning Memphis's river face.

In their first meeting with the full RDC board, consultants Brian Shea, Mark Johnson and Candace Damon asked members to react to a "demolish, reconfigure or rebuild" list.

"We want to test and see how aggressive we can be," said Shea with Cooper, Robertson & Partners, New York architects and leaders of the planning team hired by the RDC.

"How far can we go?"

"There are very few sacred things on the riverfront," said RDC vice chairman Kristi Jernigan, co-founder of the Memphis Redbirds. "We should think as big and as broad as we can. As long as we're economically grounded and have good design principles, the sky's the limit."

RDC board secretary Dr. James Hunt, former chancellor of the University of Tennessee, Memphis, said, "The beauty of what we have is there's so little that needs to be torn down."

With no major expressway or industry onsite, little is sacred on the riverfront, Hunt said, "other than the Church of the River."

On Shea's "demolition" list for the nonprofit agency's consideration:
-- The Mud Island Amphitheatre.
-- The Mississippi River Museum on Mud Island.
-- Other Mud Island structures and fixtures.
-- The monorail.
-- All buildings on the Promenade except the U.S. Post Office in the historic Customs House.
-- Jefferson Davis Park.
-- The southern tip of Mud Island.
-- The Lone Star Industries concrete plant.

The board took no formal votes. Board members either reacted as Shea read it - voicing the most agreement when the I-40 ramps and concrete plant were named - or spoke up for ideas later.

Benny Lendermon, RDC president and former city public works director, cautioned the board to remember that these were preliminary observations.

"They're being very candid and open. You wanted to know what their first reactions are. They could come back next month and change."

Planners hope to have a scheme completed by next June. They held the first in a series of public meetings Wednesday and expect to hold several more.

The vast arms of the unused interstate ramps, built to connect to a Midtown expressway that was never built, could be torn down, Johnson explained.

The ramps' redwood-sized columns fill acres of land west of the Memphis Cook Convention Center.

"They're built to a freeway plan that's not going to happen," said Johnson of Civitas Inc., landscape designers from Denver.

"State DOT (Department of Transportation) is still in mourning about that," said City Councilman and RDC board member John Vergos, referring to the years-long battle that stopped the road project.

"Have a funeral," said Shea.

Near the ramps are the dozen silos of Lone Star Industries that ships 400,000 tons of cement to concrete makers annually.

"Move it," said Shea. "It may be the best investment one could do."

"Yes," said several around the room.

Mud Island's five-block-long scale model of the river should be preserved, said deputy director of public works Cindy Buchanan, but its other architecture is like a "bunker."

The 52-acre, $63 million park opened in 1982 and has been consistently controversial for its cost and failure to draw visitors. A radical remake of the park proposed by Pyramid developer Sidney Shlenker a decade ago never materialized.

The planners noted several times how large and unique Memphis's waterfront is. It's really four riverfronts, Johnson said, with distinct areas: west of the Wolf River channel, east of the channel, around Mud Island and along Tom Lee Park and the cobblestones.

Johnson wondered whether the tip of Mud Island could be cut off to widen what is now a narrow harbor channel.

The promenade land, deeded for public use by the men who founded the city in 1819, today reaches from Union Avenue north to Auction. Front Street forms the eastern boundary for most of the promenade's length.

In addition to the Customs House (the only Promenade structure on the National Register of Historic Places), the property holds the Cossitt Library, a 1967 Fire Department headquarters, two parking garages, the garage and monorail terminal for Mud Island and, below the bluff, the Tennessee Welcome Center.

Past court judgments have indicated that the land would revert to ownership of the founders' heirs if a nonpublic use were allowed.

The RDC is working with representatives of the 200 to 300 heirs and with lawyers to consider new ways the property could legally be used.

One current use for a piece of the promenade is Jefferson Davis Park, dedicated in 1930 at the harbor's edge directly below Confederate Park.

While no board member Thursday answered Shea's question about whether the park, beloved by Civil War devotees, could be demolished or rebuilt, Jernigan said, "That's a great piece of real estate."

Later, RDC chairman John Stokes, vice-chairman of Morgan Keegan, said, "We're in the most early stages of all this ... No plans have yet been laid and really won't be without ... all entities talked to."

Copyright 2000 The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN

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