Sunday, August 17, 2008

Editorial: Time to move on Promenade

If the area isn't properly redeveloped, everyone who cares about the Downtown riverfront will lose

Commercial Appeal [link]
Sunday, August 17, 2008

It's time to do something with the Downtown Promenade. Check that. It's time to do something great with the Downtown Promenade.

The Promenade is made up of four blocks west of Front Street, stretching between Union and Adams avenues.

It's located between the Mississippi River, one of the city's greatest amenities, and Main Street, which the Center City Commission hopes to revitalize as a center for shops and restaurants.

The Promenade property includes the historic Post Office and U.S. Customs House building, which is being converted into a new law school for the University of Memphis.

The Promenade is also a couple of blocks north of the site of Beale Street Landing, a boat dock and public gathering place that's under construction. And it's just a few blocks south of The Pyramid, which may at long last be getting a new anchor tenant soon.

In short, the property is right in the middle of everything. And, best of all, it's legally required to be dedicated for the public's use.

Yet, the law school plans aside, not much has been happening with the Promenade the last few years.

In 2004, the Riverfront Development Corp. suggested putting high-rise office or condominium towers on the property. That was a bad idea, for at least a couple of reasons.

For one, Downtown already seems to have more vacant office space and unsold condominiums than it needs. Also -- and much more important -- tall buildings would put up another barrier that would further discourage people from getting closer to our magnificent river.

On the other hand, Benny Lendermon, the RDC's president, makes a good point when he talks about how some commercial development on the Promenade could help cover the city's expected costs of improving the property.

Friends for Our Riverfront, a citizens group, has done a very effective job of raising questions about various aspects of the RDC's plans for the waterfront.

Yet if anything positive is going to happen on the Promenade, the RDC, Friends and others interested in the riverfront are going to have to recognize the value of compromise. Because in its current state, the Promenade property is badly underutilized.

Citizens' access to the river is blocked by the law school building, two parking garages, a fire station and the Cossitt Branch Library. Only from Confederate Park or the spaces between the buildings can motorists and pedestrians catch fleeting glimpses of the river as they travel along Front.

Preserving the status quo isn't to anyone's benefit. If the RDC and Friends could put aside their history of animosity, they might discover they're really not so far apart in their thinking.

If both sides were willing to give a little ground, the property could support some commercial development -- a restaurant, cafe or outdoor market are all possibilities -- while remaining a true public gathering place.

City Councilman Shea Flinn has expressed interest in trying to bring the two sides together.

For the sake of all who love the river, let's hope that happens. And sooner rather than later.

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Prom-e-not? Plans for Downtown Promenade limping

Property's legal status, slow economy present chicken-and-egg quandary

By Blake Fontenay
Memphis Commercial Appeal [link]
Sunday, August 17, 2008

After years of planning, a groundbreaking ceremony was held last month to mark the start of construction of Beale Street Landing, a $27 million-plus boat dock and public gathering space.

The landing is one of the key components of the Riverfront Development Corporation's master plan to draw more people to the Downtown riverfront.

Meanwhile, though, not much has been happening with another major element of the RDC's plan -- the development of a four-block area between Union and Adams avenues that is known as the Promenade.

In 2004, the Memphis City Council approved a concept that envisioned allowing construction of skyscrapers as tall as 150 feet on the strip of property west of Front Street. That proposal grew out of a report that included input from a consultant and a series of public meetings on the future of the riverfront.

But the council decision drew strong opposition from some in the community, including a citizens group called Friends for Our Riverfront.

The council's decision also touched off a debate about whether the property could legally be used for such major commercial development.

When Memphis was established in the early 1800s, a group of the city's founding settlers granted the city an easement to preserve the Promenade for public use. However, the heirs of those founding families retain ownership of the property.

And their feelings about allowing a massive private development, such as an office building or condominium complex, on the site have been mixed.

"Taking (the land) from the city and giving it to private developers to build something on it -- that's not a public use," said Bruce Kramer, an attorney who has represented Friends for Our Riverfront, a group that includes some of the property's heirs.

Economy stalls plan

The disagreement has led to a virtual stalemate over the future of the Promenade.

But RDC officials and other riverfront advocates generally agree that the property could be put to better use than it is now.

The site currently is home to a city fire station, the Cossitt branch library, the old Post Office and U.S. Customs House building, two parking garages and Confederate Park.

A plan announced in 2006 to renovate the historic granite and Tennessee marble Post Office building into a new home for the University of Memphis law school is under way.

But Benny Lendermon, the RDC's president, said not much can be done with the rest of the property until the city's lawyers clear up any ambiguity about what can and can't be done on the Promenade.

"We're getting the sense that may be happening in the not-too-distant future," Lendermon said. "But there's certainly nothing happening now."

With the dismal state of the economy, Lendermon said, it is unlikely the city would put out a request for redevelopment proposals right now even if the legal issues were resolved.

But, he added, "Now would be a good time to clean up those issues before things turn around."

The property's legal status presents sort of a chicken-and-egg quandary, though:

If city officials want to resolve those issues before a development project can proceed, they might need a case in court testing the legal boundaries for public use of the Promenade.

However, in order to get such a test case before a judge, they might need a developer who is ready to move forward.

And many developers would probably shy away from the idea of investing time and money in a project that might be a nonstarter.

Library site draws interest

Not that there's a shortage of ideas about what could be built on the four-block parcel overlooking the Mississippi River.

Local developer Henry Turley believes the Cossitt library site at Front and Monroe Avenue, next door to the new law school, would make a prime location for a mixed-use development in a building no more than 60 feet tall, to keep the project in scale with the former Post Office and Customs House building.

Turley favors tearing down the current library, which was built in the 1950s, and replacing it with a multistory building that would include a restaurant, coffee bar or other "public house" on the ground floor, along with perhaps a smaller branch library or a bookstore. The upper floors could be used for residential or office space, Turley said.

"That property is unique," Turley said of the library site, once home to a Romanesque red sandstone structure that was Memphis' first public library when it opened in 1893. "It's valuable to us as a city. We've squandered it heretofore."

Andy Kitsinger, the Center City Commission's vice president of planning and development, said several projects are planned for the area east of Front Street that could support whatever happens along the Promenade.

Those projects include a luxury hotel planned for 52 S. Front, former home of the Prince Mongo's Planet nightclub, and apartments with ground-floor shops planned for a building at 67 Madison Avenue, Kitsinger said.

Private projects are key

Even without the legal questions and the opposition to skyline-altering commercial development that has been expressed by Friends for Our Riverfront and others, a high-rise office or condominium complex doesn't seem likely for the Promenade, though.

According to a market study issued by the Center City Commission last month, Downtown already has a relatively high office vacancy rate of 19.3 percent for top quality space.

The same study showed that Downtown condominium sales have been on the decline since a big spike in 2005 and 2006.

Lendermon of the RDC said the riverfront master plan didn't specifically call for skyscrapers on the Promenade. However, Lendermon said the RDC's position was, and still is, that some type of private development is necessary to generate money needed to cover the costs of tearing down the buildings and parking garages on the site.

"We're not locked into what the maximum amount of development should be," Lendermon said. "We're just saying there needs to be some to help pay for the amenities."

There's a big disagreement between the RDC and the Friends for Our Riverfront about what it would actually cost to clear the site.

The RDC estimated the cost three years ago at $30 million to $50 million. Friends counters that the work could be done for $7 million, a figure that assumes part of the Cossitt building would be saved and renovated.

Friends members say they're willing to consider other alternatives besides simply turning the Promenade into a giant grass field.

The group's Web site lists a number of possible amenities, including a drawbridge to connect the property to Mud Island, places for artists to display their work, stands where vendors could sell vegetables, an outdoor movie viewing area and a platform for speakers, musicians and playwrights.

Hite McLean, one of the group's members, said some type of nonintensive commercial development, such as a small restaurant or cafe, might also be considered a permissible public use.

City Councilman Shea Flinn said he's hoping to bring representatives from the RDC and Friends together soon to see if they can reach some areas of common ground regarding the riverfront in general, and the Promenade in particular.

"Both sides just need to talk," Flinn said. "The issue with the Promenade is not going to go away."

Pike Place a model?

In searching for a possible compromise, both sides might do well to study the Pike Place Market, which, according to its Web site, opened in Seattle exactly 101 years ago today.

The market, originally established to combat price-gouging by middlemen selling produce, is a major gathering place overlooking the Puget Sound.

According to the Web site, about 200 businesses, 190 craftspeople and 120 farmers rent table space at Pike Place by day. At night they give way to about 240 street performers and musicians.

The site boasts that 10 million people visit the market each year -- a number that tourists who've been there on a busy weekday can easily believe.

So what does McLean, one of the Friends members, think about using Pike Place as a model for developing the Promenade?

"I think it would be a great thing if they had a farmer's market there," he said.

Blake Fontenay is an editorial writer for The Commercial Appeal. Contact him at 529-2386.

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