Is the Riverfront Development Foundation (RDC) just tossing out oddball ideas and blowing $750,000 or so in consulting fees?
That's what some downtown veterans were saying after the first round of public hearings in January where a slew of proposals came out. Wary of alarming anyone, the commission's consultants have themselves been models of go-slow diplomacy.
"This session was specifically meant to provoke people," says Brian Shea, who is leading the planning team. "It's not that we're personally pushing any of these crazy notions."
Crazy or not, ideas include housing on Tom Lee Park, a museum and/or dam spanning the Wolf River, commercial and residential development of Mud Island River Park, taking traffic off of Riverside Drive or rerouting it, and making Memphis in May a street festival instead of a Tom Lee Park festival.Ê
The RDC won't do all of it, of course, but it may well do more rather than less and do it sooner rather than later. For one thing, it's been blessed by Mayor Willie Herenton and the Memphis City Council with the powers of the Memphis Park Commission, at least on the riverfront. Competition from Tunica casinos and fast-track suburban development lend a sense of urgency to the effort. And the RDC combines the 24-year government savvy of former Public Works director Benny Lendermon with the energy and confidence of people like AutoZone Park patron Kristi Jernigan and Morgan Keegan vice president John Stokes. None of the riverfront ideas is any "crazier" than building a $72-million downtown baseball stadium in two years without public financing.
What is most likely to change? Here's a look at the big pieces.
o Mud Island River Park: For whatever reason - the name, the limited season, the admission charge, the lack of excitement - the overriding fact is that not many people go there.Ê
"It is a given that Mud Island River Park ought to go through a major transformation," says Lendermon.
Look for a private developer to get involved, or at least something that blurs the lines between public and private. Developer Henry Turley and architect Frank Ricks have toyed with plans for an executive conference center with a nine-hole golf course, ferris wheel, water taxi service, and residential development.
"Private space can also be public space," Turley notes. "Look at the lobby of The Peabody."
Roy Harrover, the architect of the $62 million park, would like to see it stay pretty much the way it is. He acknowledges, however, that the river museum is all but forgotten, the signature River Terrace restaurant has struggled to stay open, and the overall park is "not really what it was in-tended to be," which was a free, open-spaces park such as Overton Park or Audubon Park.....
"I think any developer would love to get his hands on Mud Island," says Harrover. "But I think it is public property and should be retained as such."
In January the RDC took over management of the park for six months. The agreement is a forerunner to long-term changes in this attractive white elephant.
o The Overton Blocks: Also known as The Promenade, the west side of Front Street between Union and Poplar features a fire station, parking garages, a library that often serves as a day shelter for the homeless, a gargantuan post office, Confederate Park, and the entrance to Mud Island River Park. Public use is dictated by the dedication of city founder John Overton.
This issue sharply divides planners and the Old Guard. Developer Robert Snowden warns that current residents and tenants on Front Street "are going to raise holy hell if you block their view of the river." And Harrover, who has seen several ambitious master plans for downtown over the last 40 years wind up on the shelf, says the Overton Blocks are probably untouchable.
"The two parking garages can probably be cleaned up but I seriously doubt that the federal government is going to give up the Post Office," Harrover says.
Is that sufficient reason to accept such a motley assortment of public uses?
"As it stands now, the Overton heirs get nothing, the city gets nothing, and the public gets nothing," says Turley, who would like to see the property pieced out for development proposals if an agreement can be reached with the heirs of the founding families.
Bottom line: a potential legal quagmire, but money talks.
o Riverside Drive: Was there ever an urban planning consultant who didn't demonize the automobile and praise the virtues of trolleys, trains, and buses? Never mind that we like our cars, we like driving them, and - except in big cities - just about anyone who can afford one prefers it to public transportation.
The RDC's planning team talks about knocking down expressway ramps to Riverside Drive, putting more traffic on Second and Third Streets, and turning the trolley from a "tourist toy" into a real transportation system. Others want to reduce traffic on Riverside Drive from four lanes to two or somehow slow drivers to a pedestrian-friendly 35 miles an hour or so.
"The problem with the riverfront is too many barriers and not enough attractions," says Turley. "Right now Riverside Drive functions pretty much as an expressway."
For every Memphian lucky enough to have a river view at home or work there are thousands more who enjoy the river through the windshield of their cars. Riverside Drive is our little river fix, the most scenic drive in Memphis, with a show that changes daily. It's also a vital and convenient access to The Pyramid and Peabody Place.
"Diverting traffic from Riverside Drive is an awful proposal which needs to be pro-tested," says Peabody Place developer (and Turley's partner) Jack Belz. "It will undoubtedly cause a traffic disaster because Second and Third streets are already limited in width and traffic will increase enormously when we open our retail and entertainment complex."
A possible compromise: lower speed limits, and construct a boulevard or traffic islands.
o Tom Lee Park: It was expanded by several acres 10 years ago, courtesy of the U.S. Corps of Engineers. Then the city choked and built a passive park starkly devoid of shade, fun, and imagination. Memphis in May claims it for two months and turns the grass brown or worse for at least one more before the heat gets serious. In recent years, the parking lot has become a favorite weekend cruising site for cars and motorcycles, to the dismay of some Blufftop residents.
"We're totally convinced Tom Lee can't stay the way it is," says Lendermon. "If it re-mains a park then we have to go in there and add amenities and appropriate vegetation. Maybe we tried a little too hard to accommodate Memphis in May. For the other 11 months of the year we have to end up with something that is of more benefit to the citizens of Memphis."
Planner Catherine Damon says developing Tom Lee residentially could provide money to do other things, but realistically "you can't take a park without giving a park somewhere else." In a way, however, the city has done just that. Greenbelt Park on the north end of Mud Island across from Harbor Town has a nearly two-mile sidewalk and acres of vacant land. Sometimes it floods in the spring, but more often it's a place where you can actually walk right down to the cottonwood trees and throw a rock into the river.
o Wolf River Harbor. Options include leaving it alone, closing it off at the foot of Beale Street, or closing it off closer to Harbor Town to create a lake. There is a grand gulf between proponents and opponents and laymen and experts on this one.
Some people who have seriously studied the proposal say it makes little sense. Landscape architect Ritchie Smith, who designed the Bluffwalk, says a dam at the entrance to the Wolf River would have to be so high that it would spoil the view of the river looking north.
Harrover calls the idea of a lake "absurd in any of its forms." The two marinas inside the harbor (which use floating docks because of the 40-foot rise and fall of the river) need river access either at the mouth of the harbor or via a new channel cut at the north end, and, in his opinion, that pretty much rules out a slack water lake.
Belz, however, likes the idea of an enclosure from Beale Street to Mud Island.
"The amount of water impounded would be about 40 acres," he says. "I think that would give us a stillwater lake comparable to the Baltimore Inner Harbor. It would create a tremendous amount more usage of Mud Island and allow that island to literally be an extension of our main part of downtown."
He scoffs at suggestions that it can't be done.
"Those revetments on the west side of the river were built by the Corps of Engineers, not by God," he says. "That's the same kind of thing that could come straight out here and create the closure we're talking about. You have to open another access to the Wolf River Harbor to serve industrial companies and the marinas. The dirt that comes out of that could be well used in raising the level of the island."
o Cost factors: The RDC wants business leases to support the construction of public infrastructure.
"We're not going to the taxpayers to say we want $100 million to transform our riverfront and then have to increase taxes," Lendermon says. "So basically the three opportunities to generate private dollars are parts of the public property on Mud Island, the Overton Blocks, or Tom Lee Park."
The next round of public hearings in February will focus more on feasibility, cost, and level of public support. For now, anything's still possible.
"If you ask each person on our executive committee where they think this is going to end up," Lendermon says, "you probably wouldn't get the same answer twice."
[This story originally appeared in the February issue of Memphis