Virginia McLean compares the Riverfront Development Corporation's (RDC) proposed plan for the public promenade to her husband coming home one day and telling her he had sold their front yard to pay for a new front walk.
McLean is president of Friends for Our Riverfront (FfOR), a grassroots organization that is protesting the RDC's proposed plan for the area borderd by Adams, Union, Front, and the Mississippi River. The RDC wants to convert 40 percent of the land to commercial and residential use, with profits from those projects funding public improvements, such as 40-foot-wide walkways and pedestrian bridges. But FfOR says the plan, which includes three high-rises, could throw long shadows on Front Street, cut off businesses and residents from other areas of downtown, and create possible environmental concerns.
This week, at a public meeting in Midtown, FfOR shared its own promenade plan based on a 1987 design authorized by the Center City Commission.
"While other cities are buying land to build parks, why would we want to sell ours for development?" asked McLean. FfOR's plan for the same area is for a "truly spectacular park," and the group has mentioned green space, museums, eateries, and music venues.
"People have said we're not pro-development. We are pro-development. We're against the wrong development in the wrong place," McLean told the roughly 80 people at the meeting. She later said, "It's presumptuous of me to stand up here and tell you what should be in this park." Her comment had a point: Some at the meeting were upset about what they saw as a lack of public input into the RDC's plan. Many had gone to the three community meetings about the plan, which did not include high-rises on the bluff.
"I attended all three meetings," said FfOR member Sue Williams. "I didn't hear anybody mention they wanted high-rises. I was shocked to see them." Others were concerned that the RDC is putting private development on land granted to the city only for public use, that historical societies had not been consulted, and that there was the possibility of mudslides if high-rises were built on the bluffs.
Friends for Our Riverfront estimates that an alternative plan stressing parks and public spaces instead of commercial development could cost as little as $7 million. McLean said that estimate includes demolition of some public buildings on the west side of Front Street, landfill, and new pedestrian bridges between Union and Adams.
Dorchelle Spence, communications director for the RDC, said the true cost of even those changes would be much more by the time new parking garages, a fire station, and a library are built somewhere else. In the RDC plan, private developments help pay the cost of public improvements and parking.
"If the buildings cost the same amount, how do you propose to pay for it?" Spence asked. McLean replied that their figures only included returning the land to a park.
Spence also said that FfOR's drawings of the RDC plan made it look as if the high-rises would dwarf the rest of downtown and that wasn't the case. The buildings are slated to be 400 feet, 300 feet, and 150 feet tall.
The RDC plan will go before the City Council April 27th.