"The RDC thinks the south end of Mud Island is the best view of the river. I beg to differ; I'm sorry," Memphis Heritage executive director June West told the group standing with her behind the fire station at Front and Union.
The sun was just beginning to set, reflecting golden ripples off the water. Behind her, the southern tip of Mud Island jutted out, lush and green, toward the black scaffolding of the old bridges. Just below her, the bluffs sloped sharply down to the red and white Memphis Queen Line riverboats. Across the way, the Arkansas river banks seemed wild and wooly in comparison.
As part of a campaign to raise local awareness of the Riverfront Development Corporation's (RDC) proposed land-use plan for the Memphis promenade, Friends for Our Riverfront (FfOR) has held a series of walking tours of the area. About 20 people joined West and members of FfOR April 4th, walking past trolleys and carriages, up Union to Front to Confederate Park. Of those walking, not many had ever ventured behind the fire station, past the basketball hoop, and onto the edge of the parking lot to stand on the bluff.
"Until you see it," said West, "until I saw it, I didn't have a grasp" of how much the RDC's plan would affect the promenade. FfOR is opposed to the plan, preferring one drafted in 1987 and then shelved. One of their main concerns is the height of the buildings that would be erected on the bluff and how they would block the view of the river from downtown. Under the RDC plan, high-rises could be as tall as 300 feet -- or roughly three-fourths the height of the NBC tower on Main Street Mall.
As part of the plan, the RDC would develop 40 percent of the promenade property into commercial and residential use. Profits from that development would go toward making other public improvements. However, when the city founders gave the land to the city under an easement in 1828, their gift came with the provision that it would be used for the public good. While its current uses -- the fire station, the Cossitt Library, even the parking garages -- can be seen as serving the public's interests, the proposed private developments would have to go to court.
West said her main goal is to educate citizens about the plan. "Personally, I'm not against development," she said. "I just think this is the wrong development in this area." She thinks there is enough space available downtown to develop elsewhere and that the high-rises will give the bluff a shadowy consistency. "I would love to see Front Street be the front porch of the river," she said.
Recently, FfOR nominated the public promenade for a spot on the Tennessee Preservation Trust's top 10 list of endangered historical sites in the state of Tennessee. The group is hoping that inclusion on the list will bring more attention to their cause.
West doesn't think the RDC is looking at things the right way if they want to bring more people to the river.
"If I live in Cordova, I'll come downtown for the view of the river. I'm not going to come downtown for a coffee shop or shops that I can find anywhere," she said.
The City Council is scheduled to vote on the plan this month.