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river of dreams

Is Memphis gilding the lily on its waterfront while the rest of the city withers?

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On Tuesday, Mayor Willie Herenton presented his annual budget to the City Council, including a recommendation of a 54-cent property tax increase to restore some slashed services and continue the city's $86 million contribution to schools.

The visible evidence of reduced services includes the overgrown parks, understaffed golf courses, and weedy boulevards around the city and the reduction of recycled garbage pickup to every two weeks instead of every week.

But one area of Memphis has never looked better and is seemingly immune to budget cuts: the riverfront, which has been under the jurisdiction of the Memphis Riverfront Development Corporation since 2000. From Martyr's Park to the Bluffwalk to the Mud Island Greenbelt, parks are as neatly manicured as a country club golf course. Million-dollar homes line the South Bluffs and the main drive on Mud Island. Construction of new homes and apartments is booming. Riverside Drive has been turned into a boulevard with median strips of flowers, crosswalks, and two new stairways up the bluff.

And despite the budget shortfall that threatens schools, hospitals, and law enforcement, the flow of public money to the riverfront continues as steadily as the flow of the Mississippi River. This summer, construction will begin on Beale Street Landing, a $27.5 million boat landing on Tom Lee Park at the entrance to the harbor. A total of $17 million of that amount is coming from city of Memphis funds, the rest from state and federal governments. The main customers for the boat landing will be two tour-boat companies that bring, at most, about 20,000 out-of-towners to Memphis each year, or about the number of people downtown for a sold-out Grizzlies game. The Delta Steamship Company paddle-wheelers and the long, blue River Barge Excursion Boat now dock in the harbor on the east side of Mud Island, and passengers are transported to or walk to downtown.

On the horizon -- long term or not-so-long term, depending on whom you talk to -- is the granddaddy of all riverfront projects, the development of the Front Street Promenade and the construction of a land bridge to Mud Island. That project could bring the total cost of funding the RDC's master plan to as much as $340 million over several years.

The contrast between the Memphis haves and have-nots illustrates several things about urban politics and pressure groups. The RDC, created with Herenton's blessing during his third term as mayor, has an embarrassment of riches in staffing, funding, and business support. Its board includes former city chief administrative officers Rick Masson and Greg Duckett, Cybill Shepherd, Jerry West, Pat Kerr Tigrett, Kristi Jernigan, John Stokes, Barbara Hyde, and former Commercial Appeal editor Angus McEachran. Its president is Benny Lendermon, director of the city's Division of Public Works for several years. His assistants include former City Engineer John Conroy.

Unlike the Memphis Park Commission, the RDC all-star team and their consultants only have to focus on the front door of Memphis. The Park Commission and Division of Public Works and their bureaucrats can't rely on that kind of clout, but they must maintain hundreds of public facilities, streetscapes, and parks in out-of-the-way places used by Memphians who rarely visit the riverfront.

The result is a cityscape that suggests the homeowner who happily pours money into landscaping his front yard while the trash piles up in the attic and the backyard.

The riverfront improvements under the RDC and, in fairness, the Park Commission and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before it are obvious and have helped create the downtown apartment and condo boom. But agencies and projects tend to take on a life of their own. Beale Street Landing was funded years before Herenton proposed his latest property tax increase. The land bridge has been approved in concept by the City Council but not funded.

The RDC was not invented to keep the grass trimmed. It is all about big deals and grand visions. With an empty Pyramid and an underused Mud Island River Park and monorail staring them in the face, some Memphians are wondering if the RDC is gilding the lily while the garden withers.

"Why spend $360 million [sic] on a really crummy plan," asked Lisa Snowden at a meeting of Friends For Our Riverfront Monday evening at Cafe Francisco, attended by about 30 people. Members of the group generally support less expensive options that would emphasize parks, sidewalks, and greenspace.

Other speakers aimed their fire at the Beale Street Landing and its "floating islands" to provide pedestrians access to the river.

"They're going to start school at 7 a.m. (to save money) but we're going to have the floating islands," said Mimi Waite. "We don't need the floating islands."

John Gary, a founder of the Friends group, noted that the steamboat companies have other options besides Memphis. "We've got competition that we didn't have before," he said. "I think Tunica has some pretty good enticements to lure steamboats away from here."

Gary said the placement of the floating islands and bridges near the mouth of the harbor is "unfortunate" and could interfere with barge traffic. The group passed out a letter from Terry Martin, terminal manager for Lafarge North America, opposing any project that would affect the entrance of the Wolf River.

Lendermon said the RDC is not gilding the lily or building something that will become obsolete or underused. Pending approval of some permits by the Corps of Engineers, the RDC hopes to have contractors begin dredging the entrance to the harbor in July in preparation for "River Outlook," the name given to the boat landing. When it is complete, it will not only give tour boats a place to dock but will also tie the cobblestones to Tom Lee Park, provide a new site for festivals, and give pedestrians a place to walk between the man-made islands and scoop up a handful of river water.

"You still have no place for people to get to the water," Lendermon said. "If you were going to touch the water, where would you go? You have the ability to do that here."

The city, he noted, was going to redo the cobblestones and reshape the northern tip of Tom Lee Park at the entrance to the harbor anyway. The work actually started several years ago but was aborted because the necessary permits had not been obtained.

The RDC annual report calls River Outlook "a grand civic ending." It notes that one heavily traveled thoroughfare to the riverfront, Poplar Avenue, dead-ends at a parking garage while another, Union Avenue, unceremoniously abutted a metal guard rail before the cobblestones project was completed.

Lendermon said riverboats that carry tourists are pressing for the project to be completed.

"The Delta Steamship Company is close to refusing to dock at Mud Island," he said, even as a boat was unloading Monday afternoon across from his Front Street office. Delta Steamship and the River Barge Excursion Boat carry 350-450 passengers each and make 50 stops a year in Memphis, Lendermon said. Tunica, he said, has only gotten one visit from Delta Steamship since its $20 million museum and river park opened last year.

As for the land bridge, Lendermon said Memphis must cross that bridge when it comes to it, but that might not be for quite a while. The RDC and the Corps of Engineers are looking at industry relocations and navigation issues in the harbor, which is also a concern of the developers of the Uptown neighborhood who would like a water connection.

"In 15 years, as downtown starts developing to its fullest, someone's got to sit down and make a decision," he said.

Meanwhile, Gene Carlisle, a veteran downtowner who has seen the highs and lows of the riverfront, might change the picture if he follows through on plans to develop a condominium tower and a hotel on the corner of Beale Street and Riverside Drive, where an old building was just demolished.

Instead of being an American icon, the corner where the street that birthed the blues meets the Mississippi River has instead been the pits for 25 years, the place where busted dreams and struggling restaurants come to die. Tenants have included a shopping mall called the Emporium, Pyramid huckster Sidney Shlenker, and such forgettable restaurants as Armadillo Jack's, Number One Beale, and Wang's. In 2003, the big wind storm did Carlisle a favor and blew away enough of the building that he could tear the rest of it down and start over.

Carlisle, who grew up poor in Mississippi and made his fortune in Wendy's restaurants, was inducted into the Memphis Society of Entrepreneurs last week. In the next few weeks he said he will unveil plans for a condominium tower at least 20 stories tall and, if he can find a partner, a luxury hotel and four-star restaurant in a second building. The combined investment would be over $300 million, making it the biggest downtown project since FedExForum.

Lendermon said Carlisle's project is "something we would support." Carlisle said it is not being driven by construction of Beale Street Landing and might even have some parking issues.

But that's a problem for another day. The rest of Memphis should have such troubles.

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