Thursday, September 19, 2002

Cadillac Plan

Will Memphis get its money's worth from a $750,000 riverfront consulting contract?

Posted By on Thu, Sep 19, 2002 at 4:00 AM

Memphis has lots of company among waterfront cities that have hired consultants to draw up a grand plan for future development.

Detroit, Boston, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Alexandria/Arlington, Virginia, are a few of the other major urban areas in various stages of overhauling the blighted or underused sections of their waterfront property.

But Memphis apparently has one of the grandest plans of all, at least when it comes to price. The $750,000 tab for the services of Cooper Robertson & Partners is at the high end of the range of what other cities are paying their consultants.

Detroit and Baltimore both announced this year that they hired Cooper Robertson & Partners. Detroit's bill is $250,000 for a master plan for a three-mile stretch along the Detroit River, while Baltimore's tab is $200,000 for an updated plan for its Inner Harbor. Cooper Robertson, based in New York City, also did a 1998 master plan for the Boston Seaport District for $85,000.

Memphis appears to be in the same ballpark as Pittsburgh, which hired another consulting firm, Chan Krieger & Associates, for its riverfront plan for an area known as Three Rivers Park. Lisa Schroeder, executive director of the Riverlife Task Force, said Chan Krieger and five other consultants were paid slightly less than $800,000 for nearly two years' work. Cooper Robertson also bid on that job.

Benny Lendermon, president of the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC), says Memphis is getting more for its money than the other cities are. The Cooper Robertson team, which includes other consultants, is working with Memphis for 18 months. The Detroit job announced earlier this month is for three months, according to Detroit newspapers. Baltimore's contract, announced in April, is for approximately one year. If those jobs get bigger, the bills could go up, Lendermon notes.

While the plans may be as different as a Cadillac and a Chevy, they're also alike in many respects.

Each city's waterfront is described as "world class" on its Web site and in media reports.

The planning process includes public presentations and input, and the plans are supposed to guide development for 20 years or more.

Each city has an agency similar to the RDC empowered to see that something gets done and the plan doesn't sit on the shelf. In Pittsburgh, it's the Riverlife Task Force. Detroit has the East Riverfront Study Group, and Baltimore has the Baltimore Development Corporation.

The groups all have corporate and foundation heavy-hitters on their boards and funding from private and public sources.

The Memphis City Council approved the creation of the RDC and the $750,000 contract with Cooper Robertson. Major funding for RDC operations comes from the Hyde Foundation and the Plough Foundation, each of which is contributing $750,000 over a period of years. Lendermon, a former city director of the Division of Public Works, has a staff that includes former city engineer John Conroy.

But there have been some unexpected changes downtown since the RDC was created in the surge of downtown enthusiasm that followed the opening of AutoZone Park.

The RDC's driving force, Redbirds co-founder Kristi Jernigan, has moved to Europe with her family for at least a year. She was the prime mover for AutoZone Park as Pat Tigrett was to the bridge lighting, John Tigrett was to The Pyramid, Henry Turley and Jack Belz were to HarborTown, and the Chickasaw Bluffs Conservancy was to the Bluffwalk.

The city and county approved construction of the new NBA arena. If the University of Memphis men's basketball team joins the Memphis Grizzlies there, The Pyramid will have no major tenant.

And a Mud Island development in which the RDC is supposed to be a partner became a public embarrassment when a mountain of fill dirt collapsed and closed Wolf River Harbor for two weeks. Its future is as uncertain as the stability of the land. Some developers, it seems, will ignore plans and guidelines as easily as "No Dumping" signs.

The central piece -- and the most costly and controversial one -- in Cooper Robertson's Memphis plan is the land bridge to Mud Island. Another big piece is the remaking of the so-called Overton Blocks of public promenade along Front Street that have vexed would-be developers for decades. Either one would substantially increase the amount of office space in a downtown where "space for lease" signs from Front Street to Danny Thomas Boulevard are as common as pigeons.

From the Mud Island Greenbelt to Tom Lee Park to the top of Riverside Drive, the riverfront itself has never looked better. The new lighted sidewalk above the re-arranged cobblestones is a nice RDC-inspired addition. The median and landscaping on Riverside Drive should be another one when the work is done.

But Memphis didn't create the RDC and pay consultants $750,000 for a Cadillac plan to play landscaper. Apart from the corporate co-financing, there was an underlying assumption that the Memphis Park Commission, the city council, and city employees were simply not up to the job of remaking the riverfront. The RDC and Cooper Robertson must prove that they can do it better and are worth the money invested in them.

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