Thursday, May 29, 2008

Riverfront Rising

RDC soothes new council members at budget hearings.

Posted By on Thu, May 29, 2008 at 4:00 AM

"You will see a constant progression of things getting better."

That's how Benny Lendermon, executive director of the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC), summarized upcoming riverfront improvements for members of the Memphis City Council at budget hearings last week.

The riverfront that thousands of Memphians and visitors saw this month at Memphis In May will look significantly different two years from now, with the expansion of Tom Lee Park, the Beale Street Landing boat dock, an overhaul of the cobblestones, and the construction of the University of Memphis Law School at the old post office on Front Street.

Here's a summary of the changes.

What is Beale Street Landing? Located at the north end of Tom Lee Park, Beale Street Landing will include a boat landing, concrete islands for pedestrians to get close to the river, a parking lot, a restaurant, and a gift shop. Total project cost is about $30 million, including $19.5 million in city funds and $10.5 million in federal and state funds. There is no private funding so far.

Completion date is fall of 2010, but that could change based on weather and funding issues. Lendermon said the project has already come before the council seven or eight times and will doubtless come up several more times.

"That is just what happens on a multi-year, phased project," he said.

About $6 million already has been spent. The landing will take up six acres, including four acres being added to the current 25-acre Tom Lee Park. All permits have been obtained, and a wetlands mitigation plan for the half-acre of wetlands at the tip of the park is included. Lendermon said operating costs of the landing will be paid out of revenues.

What about the cobblestones? As an architect involved in the project says, the good news is Memphis has seven acres of cobblestones. And the bad news is Memphis has seven acres of cobblestones. The cost of repairing them and adding access points is approximately $7.2 million, including $6 million in federal funds. Improvements will include a sidewalk at the lower level, limited handicapped accessibility at Jefferson Davis Park, a retaining wall, new utility service, and walkways. There will be "some opportunity for floating restaurants," Lendermon said.

Will there be daily excursion boats? Yes, but possibly under a different operator. Presently, only two of the boats docked at the cobblestones are in use. Future passenger pick-up and drop-off will be at the new landing, but the RDC wants the excursion-boat operator to do a better job of maintenance. Wharfage fees are now only $1,500 a month. The overnight-cruising riverboat business is in flux, and it is unclear how many of them will use the landing. At one time, the RDC hoped to attract the corporate headquarters of a steamboat company, but that fell through.

What about the law school? The $40 million renovation is scheduled to be completed in the fall of 2009. It will basically turn the back of the building into the front of the building, with landscaping, elimination of parking, a plaza, and a connecting bridge to Confederate Park. The building overlooks the cobblestones.

What about Mud Island River Park? Don't expect any changes this year or next year, but the long-term future is likely to include a hard look at private development. Lendermon said "there is some opportunity" for that, but proposals should be part of a public process and not simply presented in take-it-or-leave-it fashion like the ill-fated theme park.

"No matter what you do, Mud Island is still going to be detached," said Lendermon in response to a question from Councilman Shea Flinn who asked why Beale Street Landing is a higher priority than Mud Island.

Is the City Council on board? Most members seem to be, including holdovers Myron Lowery and Barbara Ware, as well as newcomers Bill Boyd, Flinn, Wanda Halbert, and Jim Strickland. Doubters are confronted with the $6 million already spent, the lure of "free" federal funds, the commitments made by previous councils, and the permits already obtained.

Ware has a special interest in the old post office where she used to work. Strickland expressed doubts about the need for more parking at Tom Lee Park. And Flinn noted that the city could possibly have cut its operating losses at Mud Island by spending "half or less" of the $30 million going to Beale Street Landing. But the overall tone of the hearing was jovial.

Bottom line: All aboard.

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