The River's Edge

Bluff walk supporters are standing tall following the latest court ruling, but their fight may continue.

by Jacqueline Marino

On the riverbluff 100 feet above the Mississippi, two butterflies alight on the rotting stump of a tree. Although shattered beer bottles litter the grass and Riverside Drive's afternoon traffic pollutes the peace, it's still a grand view. Patricia Merrill, a spirited senior citizen in tennis shoes, enjoys it from atop an old coal chute her children used to pretend was a Civil War battlement many years ago.

For this view, which has been shared by the riverbluff's indigenous people and every cultural group that followed, Merrill has fought a mayor, a downtown developer, and dozens of affluent bluff-top residents.

For this view, the Chickasaw Bluffs Conservancy, of which Merrill is president, can still muster a vigorous letter-writing campaign, draw supporters to public meetings, and raise money. For this view, the conservancy can still generate headlines.

To Merrill and her associates, this isn't your run-of-the-mill, saving-the-whales sort of cause. This is the riverbluff walk.

The planned walk is a public triumph -- or the biggest waste of taxpayer money in the history of Memphis, depending on whom you talk to. As developers turn the last vacant strip of bluff-top land between Vance Park and Ashburn-Coppock Park into private residential property, the conservancy is closer than ever to ensuring public access to the bluff.

Over the objection of Mayor W.W. Herenton, who stalled construction of the walk last year, an appeals court has ordered the city to build the bluff walk according to the plan the Memphis City Council finally approved in 1995. But the proverbial dirt has not yet flown. And the conservancy is reluctant to rest on its laurels.

"EXPERIENCE," SAYS CONSERVANCY ATTORNEY Reva Kriegel, "has taught us to be exceedingly cautious."

The conservancy claims the bluff walk was planned and enjoyed as an unofficial trail long before "Mr. Downtown" Henry Turley Jr.* developed upscale housing there. Sure enough, Boy Scouts earned patches for hiking along the bluffs until the late 1980s. And various public documents, such as the 1982 Center City and Riverfront Spaces Plan, show a bluff walk in renderings. But it has only been since Turley's development efforts that bluff-walk supporters have aggressively pursued the project.

Contrary to a popular misconception, the land now occupied by the South Bluffs residential complex was owned by Burlington Northern Railroad, not the city, before Turley bought it. Acting as Burlington's agent in 1989, Turley, who also had entered into a partnership with the company, agreed to help pay for a riverbluff walk in exchange for permission to commercially develop a portion of the South Bluffs. Burlington eventually decided not to develop the property and asked Turley to buy it all.

Convinced the property would only work as a residential development, Turley returned to the city council in 1992 to ask for a zoning change that would allow him to build another phase of the South Bluffs development there instead. The controversial plan for setting the bluff walk eight feet below Turley's residential property -- instead of in front of it -- came out of discussions Turley held with bluff-walk supporters and the city.

At the time, Turley felt the compromise would fulfill two public policy goals for the bluff -- to develop homes and provide public access. But he felt his obligation to pay for part of the walk was unfair. Although cities often help private developers pay for their downtown projects, Turley had built the infrastructure of South Bluffs, including streets, curbs, gutters, and utilities, without public assistance. He also paid for the environmental cleanup and the moving of existing utilities.

In a 1992 guest column he wrote for The Commercial Appeal, Turley also assured the public he was a bluff-walk supporter. But he has spent much of the bluff-walk debate as the conservancy's primary target.

"We have gone through so many compromises. We worked closely with Turley one-on-one so he could develop residential property along the bluff," says Ritchie Smith, the bluff-walk designer. "Then a couple of years later he's fighting what we compromised."

Turley, who often remained silent on the issue over the years, says misconceptions have fueled the bluff-walk controversy.

"When I bought it [the South Bluffs property] and proposed to develop it, those who were interested in creating a bluff walk had a villain in the form of someone who was going to take the property," Turley says. "I also created an urgency. If it didn't get done now, it would never get done.

"I wasn't an obstruction. I was one of the causes of the bluff walk. It was their [bluff-walk supporters'] energies that did it, but they couldn't have done it without me. Before the development this was an awful place, lonely and frightening and dirty and dangerous. It's only been since the redevelopment of the area that it will be perceived as safe enough and pleasant enough and civilized enough to have a walkway."

Councilman and bluff-walk supporter John Vergos once accused Turley of using his influence to stall the bluff walk, but his view of the powerful developer has softened in the past year.

"He's a developer and his job is to assemble as much property as possible, as nice as he can, for his developments," Vergos says. "But it's up to government to preserve the public interest. What he's doing isn't unethical or illegal. It's free enterprise."

In 1992, the conservancy was ordered to compromise with Turley by Herenton's then-chief administrative officer Dave Hansen or lose the entire downtown riverbluff part of the walk. The group reluctantly agreed to the plan for the walkway cut into the bluff, but did not agree to completely nullify Turley's obligation to pay for it. The council later approved the compromise, which Councilman Tom Marshall told The Commercial Appeal in 1993 was "a win-win situation. ... It shows that preservation and development can be compatible."

Not everyone thought so, however. As residents moved into the South Bluffs development, they became a new, powerful force with whom the conservancy had to reckon. The spotlight shifted away from Turley and toward the residents, who oppose to this day the notching of a concrete public walkway beneath their property lines.

"It is probably the stupidest use of public money I have seen in my 20 years I have spent working as a city councilman, former chair of the city council budget committee, president of the Downtown Memphis Association, and president of the Memphis Development Foundation," says Orpheum president Pat Halloran. "To accommodate this obsession of conservationists and naturalists, all the beautiful magnolia trees will be cut down and the bluff will begin to erode and no one will use the walk, while hundreds of thousands of people enjoy Tom Lee Park and walk along the river's edge."

Chickasaw Bluffs resident Livingston Rodgers decries the conservancy as "very active, very pushy, very political, and very old."

"Twenty years ago would have been a wonderful time to build the bluff walk when there wasn't anything here," Rodgers says. "Now that the area is gorgeous and gentrified, now they want to junk it up."

Several other well-known bluff-top residents have publicly opposed the walk, including Kevin Kane, president and CEO of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau, and County Commissioner Julian Bolton.

"They're all well-known, powerful people who didn't think it [the bluff walk] would happen because they didn't want it to happen," says Merrill, a former chair of the Memphis City Beautiful Commission and longtime community volunteer. "But it's in the law, in the zoning documents."

Supporters suspect political pressures caused Herenton to halt the city council's plan for the bluff walk in January 1996. The mayor's spokesperson, Carey Hoffman, denies it. She says Herenton objected to the original plan because he didn't want a concrete walkway cut into the face of the bluff. In the mayor's alternative plan, the walk circled behind the residential developments and away from the view of the river.

In April 1996, the group won a lawsuit forcing the city to build the walk as planned. But Herenton appealed the decision. And the plan was stalled for almost a year before the appeals court finally decided in favor of the walk.

ALTHOUGH CONSERVANCY MEMBERS NO LONGER have the mayor pitted against them, it's likely they have a few more obstacles to overcome before construction begins.

First of all, the city council will have to appropriate additional funds to complete the project as planned. Last year, the council could have built the 1.1-mile walk for $1.6 million. Now public works director Benny Lendermon expects it will cost about $2 million. Bids will be taken next month.

The city has $1.1 million in federal Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) funds to apply toward the project, and possibly another $150,000 from the state. But council chairman Jerome Rubin says the council will need to vote on appropriating extra funding in order for the walk to be built as planned.

"I'm beginning to get worn on the issue," Rubin says. "We voted on it several times and there needs to be some finality to it. ... With the enhancement of Tom Lee Park and the enhancement of its walkways, that diminishes the importance of the bluff walk. It's my view council didn't enjoin in the [conservancy's] lawsuit to further the bluff walk's cause, but to use it as a vehicle to get the issue of a pocket veto before a court and to resolve the impasse between council and the mayor."

Several bluff-top residents are also considering filing a lawsuit to keep construction from starting on the walk, says Rodgers. Residents worry about the safety of having a public walkway beneath their homes, as well as its environmental impact on the bluff and structural effects on their homes.

"When you put a Caterpillar [bulldozer] up there, you're going to move the lateral support and the houses will start to move and crack," says Commissioner Bolton, whose own house sits away from the bluff. "Those people don't want their houses endangered. They should do what they can to protect them."

Halloran, whose house is on the bluff, says, "The first crack I see in my house ... you better believe I'll be looking to a few of my friends on city council."

Both sides have been able to find engineers to deliver favorable or unfavorable reviews of the project. John Monroe, chief of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' geotechnical engineering and survey branch, says the walk won't cause extensive damage to the bluff, but the bluff will cause damage to the walk seasonally. Normal erosion that happens during periods of heavy rain will cause soil to fall away underneath the walk, damaging it, and making it expensive for the city to maintain.

Bluff-walk designer Smith says the project has gone through "excruciating" reviews and disputes allegations that the walk will be unattractive, unused, or unsound. He says he hopes there isn't too much more discussion on the project.

"The whole history of the project has been a history of compromise," he says. "One of these days you aren't going to be able to go beyond the compromise and you'll have to scrap the whole project."

BEFORE TURLEY BUILT HOUSES on the grassy bluff, Merrill picnicked and hiked along this stretch of the riverbluff. Now she comes here mostly to see what the construction workers are doing.

The small wooden stakes driven into the ground behind the former coal chute hint at more residential development. In March, Turley received approval from the city council to develop 10 more lots that will extend to an unfinished stretch of Chester Street, for a development called "Butler Square." Property owner Larry Creson will sell the adjoining five lots to be developed as residential property.

The walk will extend along the river side of those houses and through adjacent Butler Park before dipping eight feet down in front of the South Bluffs. When the walk is completed, it will form a two-mile loop with the trail in Tom Lee Park, enabling walkers and bikers to enjoy both a view from the bluff and the river's edge. Several overlooks already provide public access to the bluffs, including at Vance Park, Confederate Park, and Martyrs Park.

The conservancy, a seven-year-old group with 30 dues-paying members, will do everything legally possible to make sure the walk is completed. Remarking on the relentlessness of the group, Rodgers says her husband, Pepper, joked that they would have to "get out the garden hose and give them a ride down the hill," to stop them.

Merrill, who lives in East Memphis, doesn't view the members of her group as extremist, only as protectors of public access to the bluff.

"Because this is the Bluff City, the city should have a bluff and the public should be able to enjoy it," Merrill says. "We never had anything against those nice people who live in those houses. We just want them to share the view."

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