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Kickin' Around the Cobblestones -- in Downtown Memphis

Rocks On Our Mind And In Our Heads

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On a day when most Memphians concerned themselves with such mundane matters as rain, work, school, crime, foreclosures, and the fights and shootings that broke out at four city schools, 40 of us met at City Hall Wednesday to hear a two-hour discussion of rocks.

The rest of you can be excused for wondering if we have rocks in our heads.

The rocks in question are the cobblestones at the foot of downtown. The rock hounds included two reporters, representatives of the Tennessee Department of Transportation and various state and local historic preservation groups, and supporters and foes of the proposed Beale Street Landing.

The rocks are next to the landing. To a handful of people, the rocks are a historic treasure comparable to Beale Street or the Mississippi River itself. The $29 million landing might have "an adverse impact" on the rocks, which are slated for additional millions. Hence Wednesday's meeting.

"The current design reflects a primarily recreational use of boarding and disembarking pleasure boat and cruise ship passengers," says the state report. "In doing so, the design overwhelms any sense of the historic commercial use of the riverfront."

This is the problem with projects like Beale Street Landing and the proposed new stadium at the Fairgrounds. They absurdly inflate the importance of something that matters little if at all to most people and prevent progress on smaller and easier projects with potentially far greater benefits.

For decades, the cobblestones were so treasured that downtown workers and visitors used them as a bumpy and treacherous parking lot. Now they might be "adversely impacted" by the "verticality" of Beale Street Landing. As Benny Lendermon, the head of the Riverfront Development Corporation, noted, the elevation of the river fluctuates 57 feet. In high water, most of the cobblestones are submerged. In low water, big touring riverboats can’t get in the harbor.

Hence the proposed landing at the north end of Tom Lee Park. It will be used by recreational boats, small day-tour boats, and big, fancy, cruising boats like the Delta Queen. That is, if the Delta Queen doesn't go out of business in 2008 because the government has deemed it a fire hazard, as The New York Times reported Thursday.

The design of the docking part of the landing is unique. After some sharp discussion Wednesday, it was determined that "unique" means nothing like it has ever been built before. RDC engineer John Conroy said its structural soundness has been certified.

The people from state government who hosted Wednesday's meeting are not "big-picture" deciders. They are, as one of them explained, a "pass-through" agency. They will go back to Nashville and weigh the historic considerations and announce, sooner or later, if and how the project can proceed.

Beale Street Landing, whose cost may now fluctuate like the river elevation, is to be funded by a combination of local, state, and federal funds. Some of the federal funds come from the Department of Homeland Security, because there are ferry-boats involved.

And you thought Homeland Security was just to protect us from terrorism.

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