If improving the riverfront promenade isn't a justifiable public expense, then what is?
And why do both sides continue to insist that the job can be done for nothing or next to nothing in the way of public funds? The Riverfront Development Corporation says private development will pay for most of it. Friends for Our Riverfront says its alternative plan will cost $7 million.
Seven million dollars will buy a starting player and a backup on the Memphis Grizzlies for one season, or a waterfront lot on the Gulf of Mexico and a big house in Destin or Gulf Shores. So how can you bury two parking lots, tear down and relocate a fire station, move a public library, put the University of Memphis Law School in the Customs House, and build a big park and some sidewalks for $7 million?
Private investors can take their pick from a downtown garage sale of empty or half-empty buildings with river views, some of them on Front Street. The headquarters of National Commerce Financial may be added to the list now that the bank has agreed to be acquired by SunTrust. How can you pay for the promenade makeover by building 150-foot office buildings on the west side of Front? And who wants them?
Taxpayers already are paying for parking garages for Beale Street, Peabody Place, FedExForum, and Mud Island. Using public money to pay for downtown parking garages is well established. A promenade plan that doesn't account for public parking is no plan at all. What happens during any disruption? And if new public garages are built, who gets to use them and when?
"Whether the RDC plan is implemented or not, we need the estimated 1,000 parking spaces that are in the two garages on Front and Monroe and Front and Jefferson," said Jeff Sanford, executive director of the Center City Commission. "There is already demand for more public parking than exists."
Public funds should pay for other components of the promenade. The Cossitt Library could be moved to another building. But the fire station could cost $15 million to replace, according to a speaker at last week's City Council meeting. The University of Memphis, a public institution, would expect some public help to move its law school downtown. Parks have to be maintained. There is no $7 million solution.
So now that the City Council has voted to advance the RDC's plan to the next first-down marker, it's time for some ballpark figures. The RDC should put an estimated price on economy-to-luxury options A, B, and C. It should spell out how private investment would pay for public improvements. Property taxes already pay for public improvements. Is there a developer or corporate CEO out there secretly longing to move to Front Street? And will they come only if they can deal with the RDC instead of the City Council? And would whatever payments they make for "public" improvements be limited to Front Street instead of the rest of the more than 300 square miles of Memphis?
Both the RDC and Friends better be careful about overplaying their hand. All that media coverage notwithstanding, the promenade is not a big deal to the majority of Memphians. The proponents and opponents of the RDC plan are more alike than different -- white, affluent, and vested in downtown. There were only a handful of black faces in the packed City Council chamber last week. This is no FedExForum, with a construction bonanza and a future Saturday- night sellout against the Lakers. The dream of the promenade crowd seems to be drinking a cappuccino in a sidewalk cafe. Don't think City Council chairman Joe Brown, who is black and represents working-class North Memphis, didn't figure this out when he made them wait all evening. The RDC is to some members of the City Council what optional schools are to the Memphis Board of Education.
Sanford, a former City Council member who has been a close follower of downtown's progress for 30 years, doesn't expect to see a tree planted or a building erected for several years. But the word is that Bruce Kramer, attorney for Friends, is out looking for common ground with the RDC. The do-nothing option, always a potent force in Memphis, was criticized by nearly everyone, including City Council members.
If it takes creating a slush fund for the heirs to fight over, so be it. Maybe that's the cost of doing business here. It's not like it doesn't happen in class-action lawsuits all the time.
And if it takes public money to dress up Front Street, so be it. But it's time to be up front about it. Give Memphians and their elected officials more specifics. Except for the annual desecration of Tom Lee Park in the name of Memphis in May, the RDC has made the riverfront a cleaner, prettier, more interesting place. I'm glad they won round one. n