Riverfront Reality 

Locals, not outside experts, have the insights on future riverfront development.

Since it was created in 2000, the Riverfront Development Corporation has picked most of the low-hanging fruit -- landscaping and maintaining parks, putting a median strip in Riverside Drive, building stairways from the bluff to Tom Lee Park and a walkway above the cobblestones, holding a design competition for a new riverboat landing and observation point, and commissioning a master plan for the riverfront.

Now comes the hard part -- the proposed makeover of the Promenade, including private high-rise developments, demolition and relocation of public buildings and parking garages, a controversial land bridge, and the money to do these things. And what about Mud Island River Park and The Pyramid?

The master plan is scheduled to go before the Memphis City Council on April 27th. The RDC, or Retired Directors Club as some City Council members call it because President Benny Lendermon and Vice President John Conroy are former city division directors, has spent almost $1 million on consultants. First it hired Cooper, Robertson & Partners to do a $750,000 plan. Then it hired the Urban Land Institute to critique it.

There's a lot to be said for the value of fresh eyes when making over a hair-do, wardrobe, kitchen, bedroom, or even a downtown. The qualifications of Lendermon, Conroy, board members John Stokes and Kristi Jernigan, and the consultants speak for themselves.

A rival group, Friends of Our Riverfront, has cast itself as a grassroots alternative opposed to the two high-rise buildings on the west side of Front Street and the land bridge to Mud Island, which are the biggest and most expensive elements of the RDC plan. There's also much to be said for the input of members such as architects Jack Tucker and Jim Williamson, who have worked downtown for 30 years.

These two groups and their spokespersons will try to frame the coming debate. But if I were a member of the City Council, these are some of the other people I'd want to hear from and the questions I'd want to ask.

Every big project needs a bell cow to become a real deal. Peabody Place had Jack Belz. HarborTown had Belz and Turley. The Pyramid had John Tigrett. The FedExForum had Pitt Hyde. AutoZone Park had Dean Jernigan. If Kristi Jernigan, who is moving to London, isn't going to be the bell cow for the RDC, then who is?

With the Ornamental Metal Museum overlook, Martyr's Park, the Bluffwalk, Tom Lee Park, Mud Island, Confederate Park, Jefferson Davis Park, the Cobblestones sidewalk, the Tennessee Welcome Center, Riverfront Trolley, Mud Island Monorail, Ashburn-Coppock Park, three public easements on the bluff, and the Mud Island Greenbelt, are there not more than enough access points, parks, and vistas on the riverfront already?

A panel consisting of commercial real estate agent Earl Blankenship and developer Henry Turley (representing downtown) and developer Russell Bloodworth of Boyle Investment (representing East Memphis and the suburbs) could give an overview of the market. Why does FedEx have no downtown presence larger than a drop box, and what, if any, impact does that have on other corporations? Why is the old Union Planters Bank headquarters on Front Street still vacant after 12 years? What would be the impact of removing 1,000 prime downtown parking spaces, even temporarily? And what are the prospects for a new 400-foot office building, a land bridge, and The Pyramid?

Developer Jackie Welch could explain the dynamics of development in Cordova, Germantown, Whitehaven, and Hickory Hill and the property-tax differential in suburbs inside and outside the Memphis city limits.

Lawyer Charles Newman and historians Charles Crawford and John Harkins could talk about why the Promenade is public.

Mud Island River Park architect Roy Harrover could review why the park looks the way it does, and why it is no simple matter to -- as the Urban Land Institute suggests -- eliminate park admission fees, keep restaurants open year-round, and start a water taxi service when nobody goes there much of the time.

Former Shelby County mayor Bill Morris could remind Memphians that The Pyramid was once the "answer" to downtown's ills and will be a large presence even after it is empty.

These little Q&A sessions would focus the debate and give public officials a good idea whether they should spend more than $250 million as the RDC suggests, or less than $10 million, as Friends suggests to improve the riverfront.

(In last week's cover story on the MATA trolley, I mistakenly wrote that a proposed trail along an abandoned railway right-of-way would run from downtown to Shelby Forest. The correct reference is Shelby Farms.)

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