Forced Landing

A recipe for screwing up a $35 million boat dock.

| December 24, 2009

The Riverfront Development Corporation has posted "the truth about Beale Street Landing" on its website.

I have not been a fan of this project since it was conceived. I thought it was grandiose, would take several years to complete, cost more than advertised, and overshadow faster and cheaper riverfront improvements.

Now that it is under way, I hope it is a success. Memphis has the greatest riverfront in America. I have walked it hundreds of times, floated the river in a johnboat and a canoe, whacked flying Asian carp with a paddle on the far side of Loosahatchie Bar, shot doves within sight of the skyline, seen an eagle less than a mile from downtown, and swum at Engineer's Beach. But I think the way the project got to this point has been a recipe for how not to do things. Here are some inconvenient truths not included in the RDC post:

Start with a "master plan" with a price tag of $270 million and an infinite timetable that assures there will be no accountability.

Create a Riverfront Development Corporation staffed by three former Memphis public officials and the wife of the city attorney, inadvertently making RDC stand for Retired Directors Club.

Repackage same as a focused group with more flexibility and brains than the incompetent public sector.

Pay the executive director, Benny Lendermon, more than the mayor of Memphis but give the agency less responsibility than the mayor or even the Memphis Park Commission.

Gut the master plan by removing its centerpiece, the land bridge to Mud Island and the enclosed harbor. Discuss the ramifications of this rather important and far-reaching decision for less than three minutes at a board meeting.

Pack the board with fishing buddies of the executive director, friendly City Council members, and celebrities like Cybill Shepherd, John Calipari, and Jerry West. Find a place on the board for the proudly bellicose (ex) president of the Downtown Neighborhood Association, Tommy Volinchak, but no place on the board for anyone from Friends For Our Riverfront or Joe Royer of Outdoors Inc., the founder of the annual Great Canoe Race and Cyclocross.

Ignore the demonstrated popularity of the minimalist Greenbelt Park across from Harbor Town. Ignore the lessons of Mud Island River Park, an architecture-driven white elephant plagued by delays and cost overruns and now closed half the year, and Chattanooga's popular riverfront, which has $42 million in private donations.

Take bids for a boat dock but ignore the possibility of a recession (check), the disappearance of overnight riverboat companies (check), the difficulty of building anything in the river especially at the mouth of a harbor, and the likelihood of delays, cost increases, high maintenance, and fragile funding from Washington (check, check, and check).

Hire an architect from Argentina.

Use federal funds to leverage at least $20 million in city funds. Remind council members that the project was approved by previous council members, most of whom are no longer serving and who approved the worst administrative outrage in the history of Memphis — the 12-year pension bonanza.

Lowball the cost of the project to the City Council in the face of higher estimates from the city administration, 'fess up seven months later, but accuse critics of being zany naysayers. Ask the council to cough up the "holdback" in federal funds at a time when household budgets and paychecks are being cut.

Be as adversarial as possible with regular users of the river and the boat docks like Royer. Go to war with Friends For Our Riverfront even though they are natural allies, because 90 percent of the rest of Memphis doesn't give a hoot about the riverfront after Memphis in May or worry much about tourism.

Ensure thereby that no improvement will be made to the overrated pile of rocks known as the cobblestones or the much more important Front Street promenade for another decade.

Allow the corner of Beale and Riverside Drive to persist as a fenced-off weed yard that every tourist can see.

Take no blame.

Insist everything will be great.

(John Branston is a Flyer senior editor.)

Comments (3)

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You'll find more at For example:

The boat dock to nowhere.

Questions about the steel contract.

Posted by Mike on 12/24/2009 at 10:20 AM

The group, "Friends For Our Riverfront", needs to be corrected or changed to " Friends For Continued ".

I live downtown and if this is the same group that has been around the last 35-40 yrs or so then why have they allowed the ugly concrete garages that are currently front row on our riverside? I have not seen this group like anything that has been proposed on the riverfront! Do they admire the weeds on the cobblestones or the mold infested concrete garages that THEY allowed to be built?

This group seems to have the mindset that the riverfront is to remain bland with zero imaginative development allowed unless it goes backwards to a "Mark Twain" willow tree and mud embankment situation. Why do other cities like St Louis and New Orleans allow the exact type of development that the RDC desires but Friends of Our Riverfront continue to boycott and hold the developers to a higher standard that they themselves have not be held accountable for?

Posted by Fiorenzo on 12/27/2009 at 1:17 AM

Because its Memphis

Posted by USS_Bataan on 01/01/2010 at 4:25 AM
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