Friday, October 21, 2005

A Dam Shame

The dam was damned from the start. So how did it survive so long?

The Memphis Flyer
By John Branston
Link to original

On Monday, the Riverfront Development Corporation unanimously voted to remove the land bridge or dam between downtown and Mud Island from its strategic and implementation plans. Not a single member expressed support for what can fairly be called a $100 million turkey, although the exact dollars are anyone's guess.

Members of the illustrious RDC board agreed that the dam was unnecessary, unfeasible, and so unpopular that it was a general hindrance to the RDC, the five-year-old nonprofit agency responsible for developing and maintaining the public riverfront.

Better late than never. But the history of the land bridge is an instructive lesson in public process in Memphis.

One of the first people to propose it was E.H. Crump, the political boss of Memphis, who made the suggestion to a newspaper reporter in 1953, 25 years before work began on Mud Island River Park. But the latest 38-acre brainstorm was the product of a group of consultants -- Cooper, Robertson & Partners -- who were hired in 2000 and paid $750,000 for a 50-year master plan whose relevance is suddenly nil.

Nice work if you can get it.

High-priced consultants don't materialize out of thin air. Mayor Willie Herenton hosted public forums on the riverfront in 1999 and supported the creation of the RDC, which supplanted the Memphis Park Commission, in 2000. A former city division director, Benny Lendermon, was hired to run it. The board was packed with influential downtowners and celebrities such as Cybill Shepherd and Jerry West.

Cooper, Robertson & Partners conducted a series of community meetings on the riverfront. After 18 months, they issued a Memphis Riverfront Master Plan. Its centerpiece, literally, was the land bridge or dam between Court Avenue and Poplar Avenue. Whence it came, no one really knows. Community forums, like reporters' interviews, are a small and subjective sampling of public opinion. It is usually a stretch to generalize from them, but consultants and reporters do it all the time.

My guess is that high-priced consulting is a self-fulfilling prophecy. For $750,000, Cooper, Robertson & Partners couldn't very well stop with such common-sense recommendations as a better boat landing, well-manicured parks with additional activities, an improved Promenade, and a nicely lighted sidewalk from Tom Lee Park to The Pyramid. For a big price, there had to be a big deal.

The land bridge was always couched in uncertainty: It might not be built for several years, it might or might not have high-rise buildings on it, it might or might not screw up the Wolf River harbor, it might or might not be paid for by private development. But it was too big to ignore. It was right there in the models and renderings. Of course people were going to react to it, and react they did. A second group of consultants, the Urban Land Institute, which was paid $110,000, threw up a bunch of red flags in 2003 but stopped short of recommending that the land bridge not be built.

For a while, Lendermon and the RDC tried to downplay the land bridge by pushing back the timetable. But everything else in the master plan was contingent upon it in some way. The death blow probably came last month when Jack Belz, developer of Peabody Place and the Peabody hotel, ripped it in a speech to a civic group.

Once the dam was broken, the flood broke through. RDC board members led by Dan Turley, Angus McEachran, Rickey Peete, and Kevin Kane, said kill it and kill it good. "It's not going to go away if we are vague," McEachran said. Board member Jim Hunt noted that nearly half the board members were absent and that the decision would reverse years of planning. Heads nodded in agreement.

By my watch, the RDC "debate" lasted five minutes. The land bridge was a dead duck, and the RDC's new signature project is the $27.5 million Beale Street Landing, which has its own critics but looks like a relative bargain and will probably get built.

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Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Editorial: A bridge better left uncrossed

Commercial Appeal

WE KNOW THIS MUCH about the Riverfront Development Corp.'s board members: They obviously can read the writing on the wall.

On Monday, the RDC board wisely voted to remove a controversial land bridge from a 50-year master plan for reshaping the Mississippi riverfront.

Assuming the Memphis City Council agrees with the RDC's decision, the $78 million project will be officially scuttled.

So what made the land bridge project so controversial? Well, for starters, there was the cost.

For a city government struggling with its finances, $78 million isn't chump change.

Then there were the engineering challenges of filling in a huge section of the Wolf River Harbor between Mud Island and the rest of Downtown.

Then there were environmental questions about whether it would really be such a good idea to create a slackwater lake out of what would be left of the harbor.

Not to mention the debate about whether Downtown really needed all of that extra land for new offices, condominiums or whatever.

All things considered, scrapping the land bridge was an easy choice. As board member Jeff Sanford put it, the land bridge had become a "lightning rod" for the RDC's critics.

RDC chairman Rick Masson said the land bridge was intended to be a long-range project, perhaps 10 or 20 or 30 years into the future, but "the perception of the public was that it was an immediate action item."

It's encouraging that the RDC listened to public feedback on that issue. The RDC would do well to keep working with citizens as it pursues other parts of the master plan, particularly the so-called Promenade project.

That portion of the plan calls for new commercial or residential development, possibly in high-rise towers, along four blocks west of Front Street between Adams and Union. There has been substantial opposition to the idea of putting high-rises in that location - and for good reason.

One of the RDC's stated goals is to open up the riverfront and make it more accessible to citizens.

Phase one of the Promenade would most likely involve removing two parking garages, a fire station and an old branch library from the site.

However, it doesn't make much sense to tear down those buildings for the purpose of improving access, only to replace them with even larger and more imposing buildings.

A better approach might be to encourage development of shops and restaurants in smaller buildings. That would create a magnet to draw people to the riverfront, while also leaving enough open space to improve accessibility.

At a minimum, more public discussions are needed on the Promenade and other key elements of the riverfront master plan.

RDC board members demonstrated this week that they can be responsive to community input. That type of attitude could serve them well in the future too.

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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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